This course will survey the interplay between poetry and prayer in Jewish tradition from Tanakh to the modern era. Using classical meforshim, we will examine the style and significance of biblical prayers and poetry to understand the important power Jewish tradition places on poetry and song as forms of personal and national religious expression. The centerpiece of our course will be Sefer Tehillim whose many lyrical and timeless psalms were recited as part of the Temple service and became the foundation and inspiration for the formalized liturgy of the Siddur. Group and self-study assignments will examine psalms traditionally utilized by Jews to express their joy or distress throughout the long exile. Building on our study of the relationship between Psalms and the liturgy, we will look at the literary genre of piyyut (liturgical poetry) beginning in the Land of Israel in Talmudic times. The impetus, impact, and inclusion of piyyut throughout the Jewish world as well as opposition to piyyutim by some Geonim and Rishonim will be examined. In our discussion of piyyut, important kinnot (poetic laments), composed to commemorate the destruction of the Temple and other national tragedies, especially in medieval Ashkenaz, will be considered, as well as the way Jews in the Middle Ages experimented with structure, meter, rhyme, and rhetoric to compose original works that expressed gratitude, love, longing, displacement, and grief in the Golden Age of Spain. Our survey will continue in the early modern period with the liturgical additions of the Kabbalists of Safed, such as Lekhah Dodi, and the heartfelt Yiddish prayers composed for and by Jewish women known as tehinnes. While these tehinnes continued to be recited by Jewish women daily, or at poignant moments in their lives into the 20th century, they have been all but forgotten with the widespread loss of Yiddish fluency. Indeed, poetry continues to be an important form of religious self-expression as will become apparent in our study of poetry and lamentations composed after the Holocaust and the more recent faith-filled poems and prayers composed by Jews living in the modern State of Israel facing an uncertain future.
In accordance with the Straus center mission, in addition to tracing the impact of the poetry of Tanakh on the religious expression of Jews in varied lands and times in Jewish history, we will note their impact on secular Renaissance writers. It may surprise students that toward the end of his life, Italian humanist and poet laureate Francisco Petrarch (credited with the birth of the sonnet), selected King David over Virgil as the “poet” of his soul. Indeed, the Psalms were translated, paraphrased, and alluded to by virtually every author of the period, including but not limited to Sidney, bacon, Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne, and Milton. These acts of literary adaptation and appropriation infused Renaissance and Reformation England with the lyricism and wisdom of ancient Israel that has profoundly shaped Western literature and culture to this day. Lectures on the impact of Psalms on Western literature will be presented by Dr. Shaina Trapedo.
• Students will gain an understanding of the unique features of biblical poetry, as well as fluency in reading and analyzing particular Psalms and prayers.
• Students will gain the tools to analyze a chapter of Psalms on their own and convey their analysis in writing.
• Students will gain an appreciation of the import of Psalms and its role in formalized and spontaneous religious self-expression throughout different periods of Jewish history.
• Students will gain awareness of the need for a uniform liturgical formulations and additional forms of self-expression, as well as the reception and controversies surrounding liturgical additions in different times periods in Jewish history.
• Students will gain an appreciation of larger influence of Psalms on Western literature.||en_US