S.Y. Agnon and the Orthodox Reader

This review appeared in the Fall issue of Jewish Action Magazine

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 The Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, authored works of modern Hebrew literature that are steeped in the language of the Torah and hundreds of years of Eastern European Jewish history and tradition. His stories, set in his Galician hometown of Buczacz, transport the reader into the vibrant world of Polish Jewry before World War II. There are probably few readers outside of the Orthodox Jewish community who have the cultural literacy necessary to recognize many of the Jewish allusions in Agnon’s stories. Yet Agnon’s works have not made the deep inroads into the Orthodox world that one might imagine they would.

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Harnessing the Spiritual Power of Irony: Rav Shagar, S.Y. Agnon and Yom Kippur

In the discussion of Yom Kippur that appears in The Human and the Infinite, a compendium of translated essays by the late Rav Shagar (Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg z”l), Rav Shagar describes the difficulty of truly feeling awe during the Days of Awe. A serious attempt to grasp the Absolute during this time-period will, according to Rav Shagar, invariably lead to a kind of anxiety. This anxiety, which may at times be confused with piety, is not actually religiously productive. It can even cause deep despair: “there is an essential paradox in the attempt to understand the Holy with the limited faculties at our command – words, deeds, etc… This paradox, then, fuels despair in the believer.”

The solution to this despair, for Rav Shagar, is a healthy dose of irony. Irony, he reminds us, should not be confused with cynicism: “Cynicism ridicules its subject, presenting it as pathetic. Irony, on the other hand, is a delicate instrument able to grasp two different sides of an issue at once. It can understand the true gravity of a subject, while at the same time showing up its limitations.” Rav Shagar explains that “[i]rony emphasizes new and different possibilities – even for those subjects that are seemingly absolute. The reflectivity of irony can breathe a new spiritual life into the stolid…. The ironic stance adds a lighter side to the religious act and so enlivens it. The religious can no longer stay fixed and see itself, as it were, as its own absolute. The ironic allows the religious to become what it should be.”

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