Each time an Israeli reads the Bible, its heroes, who speak Hebrew and live in the ancient Land of Israel, come alive and reinforce the assumption of Israeli culture that the Bible has been revived in Israel. In the poem by contemporary Israeli poet and writer Moshe Dor[1] "Does David Still Play Before You?"[2] the speaker questions this underlying cultural assumption by wondering whether the characters of David, Solomon, Elijah and Ezekiel are truly alive in any sense for the contemporary Israeli:

Does David still Play before You?

Does David still play before you
on the golden harp?
And Solomon
does he still invent, in your hearing,
his fox fables.

And from which field does Elijah take off
in a chariot of fire and with horses of fire?

And Ezekiel
what being hammers him, with what creature
does he struggle in the stormy, shining substance?

In these first two stanzas the speaker focuses on creations of the human imagination in the Bible - David's music[3] and Solomon's fables[4] — and on interactions between humanity and the divine — Elijah's ascent to heaven[5] and Ezekiel's heavenly vision.[6] In raising the question of whether these experiences still exist the speaker suggests that they may not, and that any attempt to bring them alive today by rereading the Bible may fail, for the reality of the Bible is too far removed from our own.

In the third stanza the speaker raises questions about the viability of the New Testament image of Jesus' crucifixion:

Among curls of incense,
does still to forgive and love
plead the face, paler than a cloud,
of Jesus, with the Yellow Star?

Wearing the yellow star of the Holocaust, Jesus represents the six million Jewish victims of the Nazis. In the New Testament and subsequent Church traditions Jesus' suffering was given theological and moral meaning. In particular, Jesus' willingness to forgive his enemies has been seen by Christian tradition as a model for humanity to follow. Because it is unusual for Jesus to appear in an Israeli poem, the image of him reacting to his suffering in such an extreme manner of forgiveness and love sharpens the question of whether there is any moral meaning to be discerned in the deaths of the victims of the Holocaust.

detail from Rembrandt's
"Saul and David"
View enlargement

The questions raised by the viability of Jesus' response to his suffering also represent questions directed at the Hebrew Bible and subsequent Jewish tradition that sought to find theological and moral meaning in the suffering of the Jews. The speaker connects these questions with the Bible by using terms such as qetoret (incense) and timmoret (here translated as "cloud" but actually more literally "pillar," suggesting the the expression timrot 'ashan, "pillar of smoke," Joel 3:3).

Both terms ironically connect the smoke of the crematoria in the death camps to biblical images of God interacting meaningfully with humanity: the incense of the sacrificial cult of the Temple and the columns of smoke of the prophet Joel's vision of God's wonders at the time of the final redemption of Israel. The juxtaposition of Holocaust and biblical images of God interacting meaningfully with the people of Israel is an ironic one; it is clear that for the speaker, the deaths of Holocaust victims are far removed from religiously meaningful acts of sacrifice and that the Holocaust mocks traditional faith in the ultimate redemption by the hand of God.

At this point in the poem the speaker's rhetorical questions reveal that he seriously doubts the Bible's relevance for the modern Israeli; he questions whether a meaningful cultural context for aesthetic expressions and for interaction with the divine can be revived. Furthermore, he finds that the Holocaust, more than anything else, challenges traditional faith and the viability of the Bible. This speaker, however, is driven to "rewrite" the Bible in a way more radical and shocking than in other Israeli poems, where an attempt is made to "confuse" or "filter" the Bible:

And from out which savage Bible
of erupting, extinguished suns
do your hands, hardened
in the arteries, grope regretfully to tear
up disappointed promises?

Jews in the post-Holocaust world have a very different relationship with God than did the writers of the Bible. Having let the Jews down by not protecting them in the Holocaust, God can no longer expect either the creative outpouring of human beings before Him or the intense interaction between people and Himself that characterized the biblical era. Furthermore, God must realize that humanity's disappointment with Him discourages people from living by the divine principles of love and forgiveness. In the post-Holocaust world, the Bible [becomes] a "savage Bible" (tanakh parua'), with images of decline and meaningless violence, represented by "erupting, extinguished suns." The only viable human response, the speaker suggests, is to complete the transformation of the biblical text by removing from it all references to God's promises that are no longer trustworthy.

Dor's repeated use of the question words ha'od ("does [he] still") and 'ezeh ("which") in "Ha'od David menagen lefanekha" emphasize the need for a rereading or a rewriting of the Bible for contemporary Israeli discourse and culture.

[1] for more about Moshe Dor, see: http://home.luna.nl/~poetry/part/27/ [back]
[2] Moshe Dor, Sirpad Umatekhet (Ramat Gan: Massada, 1965). The translation by Denis Johnson is from Moshe Dor, Crossing the River:Selected Poems (Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1989). [back]
[3] I Samuel 16:23 [back]
[4] I Kings 5:12 [back]
[5] II Kings 2:11 [back]
[6] Ezekiel 1 [back]
From: Does David Still Play Before You? Israeli Poetry and the Bible, David C. Jacobson. © Wayne State University Press, 1997.
Reprinted by permission of WSUP.

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