Hymn of Glory (Imagining the Divine in Old Ashkenaz)

A D'var T'filah for Malchut sheb'Hod 5778


אַנְעִים זְמִירוֹת וְשִׁירִים אֶאֱרוֹג, כִּי אֵלֶיךָ נַפְשִׁי תַעֲרוֹג.

Sweet hymns shall be my chant and woven songs,
For Thou art all for which my spirit longs.

Those words we just sang, An'im Z'mirot, are the opening of a 31-line medieval piyyut, or prayer-poem, called Shir Hakavod. It was written by Yehudah HaChasid – Rabbi Judah the Pious – who was born in 1150 in Speyer –– Speyer, one of three towns on the Rhine that made up a kind of little Jerusalem, a center of Jewish learning and creativity and mysticism, that our ancestors fancifully named Ashkenaz, after a long-forgotten biblical location.

Shir Hakavod is not a piyyut that I knew well, at least not until recently, although undoubtedly I've mumbled along in traditional synagogues, where it is chanted in its entirety on Shabbat morning. I really had no idea it existed, even though I have since discovered, through much clever sleuthing, that it lives on p. 452 of our Siddur.

But I came to know Shir Hakavod better because of my trip in November to southwestern Germany, to the town the Kellers came from, a half hour by car outside of Speyer, Rabbi Judah's birthplace.

I had wanted to carry something with me, something talismanic, on this vist to Old Ashkenaz, the recent land of my ancestors, and the distant land of many of our ancestors. Then one of my teachers pointed me to this poem, and that was it. It was these words that I brought, back to their place of origin.

I brought this poem with me in a prayerbook. I recited it in the Rashi Synagogue of Worms, an ancient and cozy building that has been restored over and over. It is square shaped, with a high pitched ceiling, and a women's gallery that is perpendicular to the men's section rather than behind it, forming a kind of one-armed transept. The synagogue's acoustics were sublime and I, not knowing any melody for this poem, stood in front of the ark, alone in the synagogue but for my friend Lisa and the guard, and I improvised, letting the rhyme and meter carry me:

מִדֵּי דַבְּרִי בִּכְבוֹדֶךָ, הוֹמֶה לִבִּי אֶל דּוֹדֶיךָ.
עַל כֵּן אֲדַבֵּר בְּךָ נִכְבָּדוֹת, וְשִׁמְךָ אֲכַבֵּד בְּשִׁירֵי יְדִידוֹת.

The while Thy glory is upon my tongue,
My inmost heart with love of thee is wrung,
So though Thy mighty marvels I proclaim,
'Tis songs of love wherewith I greet Thy name.
[tr: Israel Zangwill]

I sang softly, yet it filled the room, these opening lines from a poet in love with God, full of longing for the Beloved. But in the fifth line, Rabbi Judah the Pious points out a problem:

אֲסַפְּרָה כְבוֹדְךָ וְלֹא רְאִיתִיךָ,

I have not seen Thee, yet I tell Thy praise...

The poet, like all of us, has never seen God. How can I tell of you, how can I sing to you, when I've never seen you? And then without losing a beat, he continues in the same line:

אֲדַמְּךָ אֲכַנְּךָ וְלֹא יְדַעְתִּיךָ.

Nor known Thee, yet I image forth Thy ways.

I image forth Thy ways. Fancy English for  Hebrew that means, more simply, “I imagine you.” The poet, Rabbi Judah, claims his right to imagine the Divine, even though he doesn't know what, if anything, the Divine actually looks like. Adamecha, “I imagine you.”

The problem of describing God, of finding God language that is true, was as current in Rabbi Judah's day as it is in ours. As he sat working out the rhyme scheme of this poem, 2000 miles to the southwest, Maimonides was writing the Guide for the Perplexed, in which he informs Jews that every anthropomorphic image of God in Torah is false: the mighty hand, the outstretched arm, the face of God, the back of God, the throne of God. All of it. And God's non-physical attributes too: God's anger, God's patience, God's love. According to Maimonides, those images, those descriptions, were in Torah in order to evoke something in us; to be taken seriously but not literally.

And meanwhile back in Germany, Rabbi Judah was puzzling over how to compose a love song to God. What attributes could he point to that would neither misrepresent nor trivialize the Divine? How do you sing praise to the Unknowable?

We get caught in this bind also. We tiptoe around imagery; we make sure in these four walls to refer to God in more abstract ways. We leave out pronouns because our gender metaphors are so disproportionately powerful. We avoid characteristics altogether. We say "The Divine" more than we say "God" because the word "God" has hardened into very concrete and often troublesome ideas. So we lean toward abstraction.

But it's hard to love an abstraction. It's hard to feel cared for by an abstraction. And you don't call out to an abstraction when fleeing danger.

Rabbi Judah and his peers had a solution, a kind of compromise – ingenious and perhaps slightly disingenuous. A compromise that fills the rest of this poem.

You see Rabbi Judah was part of a scene called Chasidei Ashkenaz. The German Pietists – a movement of mystics and ascetics. Their mysticism was different from the kabbalah that we have inherited and that we like to study here. But there are many similarities. The Chasidei Ashkenaz built on some of the ideas of the Babylonian sage Saadia Gaon two centuries earlier, and concluded that while God is essentially unknowable, God created a kind of projection, a manifestation, for us to see in our moments of prophecy. This Divine presence is called the Kavod, or “Glory” – the Glory of God. It is not the essence of the infinite, unknowable God. But it is something we, with our limitations, can experience. In fact, its only purpose is to be seen by us. When the prophets of the Bible describe God's face or body or chariot; when King Solomon writes about God as the curly-haired lover in Song of Songs – this is the Kavod, the Glory, that they are describing, an image created for our benefit, to see in visions, to incite in us feelings of excitement or awe or love.

And so for most of the rest of the poem, Rabbi Judah sings not about “God” in the abstract, but about the Kavod – God as witnessed, or imagined, by prophets and authors of the bible. A laundry list of God images, all contradictory. God is a black-haired warrior, a crowned king, a silver-haired judge, a beautiful young lover. You almost feel the poet's laughter, his delight, in announcing in passing that he cannot describe God, but following that statement with description after description after description. Rabbi Judah is having his cake and eating it too. He denies God's knowability. And then he lets his imagination run wild.


And there's still more chutzpah. Because as he's imagining the Kavod so elaborately, he insists on reciprocity. In line 21 of the poem he says:

פְּאֵרוֹ עָלַי וּפְאֵרִי עָלָיו

His splendor is upon me, and my splendor is upon Him...

“His splendor is upon me, and my splendor is upon Him.” A remarkable phrase! Maybe Rabbi Judah is asserting that we ourselves are part of the Kavod. That is, we are also the manifestation of God in the world. And as such, we are also a splendid vision, and God must pause and catch God's Divine breath and take notice.

Chutzpah! Not just chutzpah but flirtation. And as if to prove it, Rabbi Judah continues the line with a demand for intimacy:

וְקָרוֹב אֵלַי בְּקָרְאִי אֵלָיו.

He is close to me when I call to Him.

I.e. “When I call You, I expect You to answer.”

For the Jews of Ashkenaz, who had suffered much, including being mowed down by Crusaders as target practice on the way to the Holy Land, how radical was it to demand that God recognize our splendor and that God come when called?

Besides the synagogue of Worms, and at the rainy 19th Century prayerhouse of my great-great grandparents in the village of Ehrstädt, I chanted Shir Hakavod once more in Germany – in Speyer, Rabbi Judah's birthplace. I stood in the roofless ruin of the medieval synagogue. Now, Talmud strongly discourages praying in a ruin. (BT Berachot 3a.) But I didn't know that at the time. I had visited the old underground mikveh of this synagogue that Rabbi Judah would have attended in his childhood. Then I climbed back up to stand in what was once a stone sanctuary where the Jews of Ashkenaz had celebrated and prayed and lamented and taken refuge. I faced east, where an aron kodesh had undoubtedly stood, and I thought of Rabbi Judah letting his imagination run wild, having a flash of prophecy; staring down the Kavod, and the Kavod staring back. Each one appreciating the other's splendid beauty.

I opened my book, and began to sing.

אַנְעִים זְמִירוֹת וְשִׁירִים אֶאֱרוֹג, כִּי אֵלֶיךָ נַפְשִׁי תַעֲרוֹג.

Sweet hymns shall be my chant and woven songs,
For Thou art all for which my spirit longs.



Thank you to Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg who insisted I study this poem; and to Rabbi Leila Gal Berner who ignited my interest in Germany and Old Ashkenaz.