In 1880 Matthew Arnold published an essay - The Study of Poetry - in which he wrote: ‘Most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry...’
Although in one way I find this statement rather absurd – with its grandiose assumption that the traditional truths incarnated in religious and philosophical ways of thinking would somehow fade away to be replaced by newly-revealed truths born of the human imagination in play with language – I nevertheless find Arnold’s thought quite seductive. It chimes with my own gradual religious and spiritual evolution from someone interested in the truth-claims of religion - the objectivity of religious ideas about God and goodness and sin and redemption and so on – into someone who is now far less interested in doctrines and dogmas and so-called ‘religious identity’ , and far more interested in the subjective nature of spirituality and personal religious experience.
This week we celebrate the fleeting early-summer festival of Shavuot – the day in the Jewish calendar when we recall the revelation of Torah to the assembled Israelites at Sinai. I admire and enjoy the narrative power of the Exodus texts which describe this ‘event’ – even though I don’t think of it as an ‘event’. For me this is not about history, not about facts. It is about the mythic dimensions of saga, a way of speaking about certain abiding truths understood by a particular people over time.
I appreciate the symbolic resonances, images and metaphors of a story that describes Moses separating himself from everyone, ascending a mountain and receiving new understanding, new ways of thinking about how to live and act, individually and collectively: how to be in the world. He receives ‘Torah’ – teaching, direction – ‘min Ha’shamayim’ – from out of the “heavens”, out of the ether, from that eternal Voice that reveals what is to be revealed.
And I have always cherished those teachings from later in the Jewish tradition that move us away from literalism about this ‘event’ towards an existential appreciation that revelation is always available, if we are prepared to listen (Shema, Yisrael...’listen, pay attention people!’). Martin Buber offers us the Hasidic thought : ‘Everyone of Israel is told to think of themselves as standing at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. For us there are past and future events, but not so for God: day in, day out, God gives the Torah’ (from Ten Rungs: Hasidic Sayings). In other words: revelation is ongoing and always happening now.
And part of the way in which I believe we can listen into revelation now is - back to Arnold - through poetry. As the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney has said: ‘Poetry...is a ratification of the impulse towards transcendence’. My heart sings to hear that – how often as a congregant in a service I find my thoughts moving away from the traditional language of devotion and towards the anthologised material (and particularly the poetry) that we are so fortunate to have in our various books of Reform liturgy, for Shabbat and Festivals and High Holy Days.
What a good poem does, for me, is offer a space to explore ideas, to play, to wrestle with the fullness and plasticity of words, a place to discover new ways of thinking, new forms of truth-telling. As the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has put it: ‘A poem...is a place where language is most truthful. In the poem, more than any other literary form, you can’t lie.’ And we know that in the Rabbinic tradition one of God’s many names is Emet – Truth.
So, as I reflect on revelation, on where in the world truth is to be found, discovered, fashioned, re-fashioned – where on earth, or in heaven, we are now to listen in to the revelation of what is and can be – I find myself turning to a poet I have only recently discovered, Samuel Menashe, born in New York in 1925 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, and still mining a rich seam of spiritual ore/awe.
He offers us miniature poems, polished diamonds to treasure and handle and turn over in our minds. ‘Turn it and turn it’ - as the Rabbis once said of the Torah – ‘for everything is within it’:
Reeds Rise From Water
rippling under my eyes
Bulrushes tuft the shore
At every instant I expect
what is hidden everywhere