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Laurance Wieder

Fire Consuming Fire

Poems for Yom Kippur.

The art historian Meyer Schapiro once told a young poet that the greatest thing about poetry was that it was "written for God." The joke is not just about the marketplace, it's also about the audience, about who cares and who pays attention.

Even the great masters of English religious poetry, William Blake and John Milton, command less attention than a rerun rock concert. Except for verse dramas, poetry is read and experienced one-on-one, and has no authentic social occasion or unembarrassed public moment.

Piyyut, Jewish liturgical poetry, is different. And among the genres of this poetry of worship are Avodah, poems written for the Yom Kippur service. Avodah are first of all versified renditions of the talmudic Mishnah Yoma, the section of the "oral law" devoted to Yom Kippur. They assume an audience of more or less learned Jews gathered on the tenth day of Tishrei to participate in the ritual that atones for all the sins of Israel, personal and public.

That rite is performed against the backdrop of historic loss and a hope for redemption that very well may be as effective as the Levitical scapegoat bearing the collective guilt released to wander the wilderness. Only the Day itself corresponds to the requirements of Torah. How can the Temple sacrifice be performed when there is no Temple? The modern state of Israel is not the Two Kingdoms united under David and divided after Solomon, and its Jerusalem is not a happy home.

Prophecy ceased in Israel with the fall of the First Temple. Rabbinic Sages, the heroes of the Talmud, through ongoing discussion and disputation rather than inspiration, became the illuminators of the word darkened by time. Their legends and methods brought forward the meaning of Torah in the language and experience of the present.

During the Bar Kokhba rebellion in the years following the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, an entire generation of Sages was martyred. Rabbi Akiva, an equal of Moses in the tradition, was flayed alive as he recited ...

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