by Alan Mintz
Copyright (c) 2012
from the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University.
All rights reserved. With the permission of Stanford University Press, www.sup.org
Chapter Two: The Apotheosis of Hebrew
Some connecting words from the previous section (the preface): … the turn toward America represented two achievements that came to be one: a genuine engagement with the new world in which Hebrew had planted itself and a rescue of the Hebrew American poet from the toils of his own inwardness.
What compelled these poets to persist in singing their Hebrew song in a strange land? Around World War I, to be sure, all the circumstances were in place to encourage visions of a creative center for Hebrew culture in America. The centers in Russia and Palestine had been shut down by revolution and war; romantic Zionism transfixed the imaginations of a new generation; and the waves of new immigrants contained sufficient numbers of young people with the learning and idealism to champion the cause of Hebrew. But then the gates of immigration were shut, and the recent arrivals devoted themselves to mastering English and becoming Americans. The displaced Hebrew writers and publishers who had spent the war years in the United States or Western Europe regrouped in Tel Aviv and made the Yishuv into the world center of Hebrew literature. Although Hebrew educators continued to make expansive strides in America, it was acknowledged early on that the ambitious visions for a Hebrew literature on these shores would never be realized. Yet the American Hebrew poets persisted in producing a rich and substantial body of verse well into the middle of the twentieth century; even as they were ignored by the center in Palestine and their readership evaporated at home.
A portion of this perseverance can of course be understood as an outgrowth of a fervent commitment to advancing the Jewish national cause. All of the American Hebrew poets believed that the flowering of Hebrew culture was the key to the revival of the Jewish people, and nearly all of them worked in educational institutions established by the movement based on this idea. There were those, as we have noted, who were not willing to reconcile themselves to a dwindling readership and a community in which they enjoyed no standing; they found their way to Palestine/Israel, usually after several attempts. Those who stayed on, when encountered later in life by younger people such as myself, often seemed to have a fanatical glint in their eyes and an unapologetic dismissal of American Jewish life for its boorishness, materialism, and abandonment of Hebrew.
Yet indignation and ideological commitment are not sufficient to explain the phenomenon this study documents. Instead, I propose we understand Hebrew in the lives of the poets as an essentially religious and sensual experience that flooded their daily lives and provided them with direct access to the object of their desire. This may seem like a perverse claim given their professed secularism and the Puritanism of much of their verse; but this is only because we underestimate the wealth of personal meaning they derived from their private relationship to the Hebrew language. Yes, they were marginalized, ignored, and provoked. Yet rather than being long-suffering martyrs, the American Hebrew poets possessed creative lives marked by a kind of linguistic jouissance that came from the intimate daily experience of kneading the language, reshaping it, and being enriched by it in return. The dimension of sensual pleasure was matched by the unofficial but tangible gratifications of a kind of religious experience. It is easy to see the transcendental authority provided by participation in and service to the Jewish nation and its historical tongue. Less evident are the benefits that accrued from the devoted daily praxis of the Hebraist, who lived within the rules and conventions of Hebrew even as he picked and chose from the language's vast resources to fashion his individual path. It is not an exaggeration to say that next to the world of the true ish hahalakhah, the practitioner of Jewish law, the Hebraist's practice of Hebrew was a key variety of Jewish identity that was genuinely transportable into the Diaspora in modern times, specifically because of the daily tangible discipline it provided.
This profound religious-libidinal attachment to Hebrew is the secret spring of American Hebraism precisely because it played such a small role in the public rhetoric of the movement. It was a passion that could not speak its name, and this not because it was an embarrassing admission but simply because it was knowledge that was unconscious and entirely alien to the discourse of Hebraist circles. Yet without predicating this motor of desire, it would be difficult indeed to understand the pertinacity and profusion of American Hebrew poetry. Were it not for the existence of an extraordinary exception to the general lack of self-awareness on this score, it would be presumptuous to "psychoanalyze" a cultural phenomenon and claim to point to a hidden motivation unseen by all but an astute observer who speaks well after the facts. But the exception is very much there, and its existence places a privileged hermeneutical key in our hands.
The exception in question is Regelson's epic hymn to the Hebrew language, titled "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" [Engraved are thy Letters], which appeared in 1946. Regelson (1896-1981) was a poet, journalist, and writer on philosophy and literature. He was born in the town of Hlusk near Minsk and brought to America with his family at the age of nine. Regelson, who was the uncle of the American Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick, began publishing Hebrew poetry in the early 1920s and lived in Tel Aviv between 1933 and 1936 before returning to New York, where, after a prolonged period of unemployment, he eked out a living for his large family as a journalist for the Morgen Freiheit. He settled permanently in Israel in 1949. (More information about Regelson's life is supplied in the chapter devoted to him in this study).
Regelson's hymn to Hebrew is a dazzling work that is unlike any other poem in the corpus of modern Hebrew literature. It is an extravagant ode to a language offered by a lover in thrall to the object of his desire, which is figured as a beautiful woman. It is a classic anatomy, a literary form that exhaustively inventories the categories and components of its subject. It is a theological treatise on the divinity of Hebrew that advances an argument for linguistic pantheism. Written at the great hinge of the twentieth century, it is a historiosophical work that uses Hebrew as a marker for both the murder of European Jewry and the struggle for Jewish statehood. It is a polemic about the course of the revival of Hebrew and an attack on the purported guardians of its purity. It is an apologia for the life of a poet who, at the time of the writing, was stranded far from Zion. Above all else, the poem is a performance of virtuosity that, in its maximalist poetics, seeks to conjure up and demonstrate the full plastic and arcane resources of the Hebrew language.
Not only is "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" and extraordinary work on its own, but its explanatory power is crucial for an understanding of the project of American Hebraism as a whole. For that reason, the discussion of the poem is positioned between the historical introduction and the essays about individual poets, of whom Regelson is one. Regelson's hymn to Hebrew provides us a way into the inner spiritual and psychological world of American Hebrew poetry.
*The opening two lines of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" provide a good introduction to the spirit of Regelson's hymn to Hebrew.
חֲקוּקוֹת אוֹתִיּוֹתַיִךְ בְּתַבְנִית עוֹלַמִי, רְחִימָה בַּלְּשוֹנוֹת!
חַרְצָן בְּזַג, עִנְבָּל בְּזוֹג, רָזֵךְ רָחַשְׁתִּי, הוֹ עִבְרִית.
Engraved are thy letters in the structure of my world, beloved among languages!
The seed in the grape, the clapper in the bell, thy secret I have expressed, O Hebrew.
It is immediately apparent from this opening that the poem is written in the mode of an ode that is addressed to an inanimate object, the Hebrew language. The object of address is not only feminized but also, as quickly becomes evident as the poem proceeds, thoroughly eroticized. The fact that the name of the language [Ivrit] and the nouns for tongue and language [lashon, safah] are feminine in gender is merely an enabling condition in the systematic construction of the Hebrew language as a woman exalted and installed in the role of goddess, mistress, and lover. Her distinction and authority are beyond compare, for she the most beloved among tongues; this is a superlative exceptionality that is wholly taken for granted and requires no demonstration. Because the male speaker of the poem is so in thrall to his object of desire, an ode is indeed the poetic form best suited to his situation. By definition, the ode is a non-dialogical utterance; it is speech that flows in one direction only, from the speaker to the object of address. Because there is no expectation of response, moreover, the ode provides safe cover for the speaker to indulge himself in expressing the fullness, and indeed the fulsomeness, of his extravagant feelings of adoration and devotion. With its hoary lineage, the ode authorizes the high pathos that Regelson brings to his grand subject.
Beyond its rhetorical function as a gesture of obeisance, the first line lays bare the fateful impress of Hebrew upon the speaker's life: the very letters of Hebrew have been carved into him. The root of Haquqot connotes the act of incising letters on stone, a kind of writing that is as difficult as it is permanent. The same root in its pi'el form means to make law [hoq], to legislate. This act of forceful and norm-setting writing is inscribed not on the speaker's soul or flesh in some kind of romantic or martyrological stigma but rather on the deep structure of his world [tavnit olami]. It is not just world in the sense of a total worldview but the form or pattern [tavnit] that structures that world and undergirds it. This act of inscription, then, resembles the imprinting of a circuit onto a silicon chip or the encoding of a genetic sequence within an organism. Let it be clear, however, that the world that is thus inscribed is individual and personal: "olami", my world. This is not the ideological sphere of Zionist discourse that supposes that every "I" speaks for the collective. The "I" of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" is not allegorical or representative as in the manner of Haskalah odes to Hebrew but the distinct voice of a poet-speaker whose passionate affair with the Hebrew language is experienced as an exclusive encounter, even if he may know that his devotions are not the only ones being laid at the feet of his beloved. Finally, it should be noted that the agents of the act of inscription are letters and not words. Although Regelson's poem is obsessed with words, its most fervent veneration is reserved for the letters of the Hebrew alphabet because they are the tangible and tactile atomic units out of which all meaning is constructed. Regelson's belief in the world-shaping power of the Hebrew letters is a lineal descendent of Abulafia's Sprachmystik and the vivid combinatorial imagination of the kabbalists, whose work he knew well.
In the second line, the seed in the grape and the clapper in the bell are presented as instances of the "secret" of Hebrew that the speaker undertakes to express. (The verb r.h.sh. can mean both to articulate and to feel.) Yet the relevance of these examples is hardly apparent, and their homeliness represents a deflation of the exalted tone of the opening. Sudden shifts from the grand to the humble and back again, to begin with, are constant features of the poem, and they illustrate the simultaneous immanence and transcendence Regelson accords to Hebrew. A proposed identity between microcosm and macrocosm would seem to motivate the choice of the grape and its pip. The zag is specifically the skin of the grape, the thin membrane that encloses the flesh, which in turn contains at its center the hartsan, the seed, which then possesses the potential to recreate and replenish the life of the plant. From its seemingly arbitrary specificity, the figure of the grape makes a gesture toward the totality of living things and the mystery of how forms of life can possess a discreet existence while at the same time containing within themselves the seeds of their own regeneration. Although the figure of the bell and the clapper is taken from the realm of man-made artifacts, it is a different aspect of the same mystery of the interdependent relationship between inside and outside; for neither the bell nor the clapper can produce sound on its own. The notion of secrets that lie inside is taken in a deliberately erotic direction by Regelson himself in comments he made about the poem some sixteen years after its publication. In parsing this line, he says that the poet "is discovering the mysteries of the woman, like the discovery of the seed in the fruit and the clapper in the bell, for the womb [referred to by the adjective rehimah in the first line] is the woman's most secret place".
Why are these two figures, among so many other possible choices, chosen to convey this sense of wonder? The fact that zag [grape skin] and zog [the outside of the bell] are words that sound almost the same is not inconsequential, and it is of a piece with the language play that pervades Regelson's poem. But Regelson's pairing of the two is motivated by something more concrete: the appearance of the two figures together in a classical source. The terms zagim and hartsanim first appear in Numbers 5:4 as parts of the grape used in the wine-making process; the Torah takes pains to indicate that even these are strictly forbidden to the nazarite. For the Rabbis at a later remove in time, however, the meaning of these technical terms was not entirely clear. The Mishnah (Nazir 6:2) records a disagreement between two tannaim; R. Yossi states that the hartsanim are the seeds and the zagim are the skin – this has become the conventionally accepted meaning – whereas R. Yehudah states that the terms mean exactly the opposite. As a way of remembering which is which, R. Yossi recommends thinking about the bell worn by domesticated animals when they go out to pasture, in which the external shell is called the zog (thus resembling the zag, the skin) and the clapper, the Inbal. However, would Regelson's readers have been likely to grasp this connection? Although some may have had the necessary erudition to do so – the Mishnah is far from a recondite source – there is so much going on in these lines, so many big effects, that catching the allusion and thereby rationalizing the yoking of grape and bell were not essential to the dizzying and intoxicating impact of the poem. Nevertheless, knowing that a motivated link is present encourages us to trust Regelson and extend credit to the many, many times when our learning comes up short.
The grape and the bell are also emblems for wine and music, the venerated and customary accompaniments to poetry everywhere and always, and nowhere more so than in the Hebrew poetry of the Golden Age Spanish Hebrew that echoes so frequently in the lines of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh". It is no wonder, then, that at the outset of his great hymn to Hebrew, Regelson should evoke, however obliquely, these two handmaidens of grand poetry. Yet the celebratory mood is leavened by the reference to the ascetic rigors of the nazarite, who is forbidden wine or any product of the vine for the duration of his oath. The scriptural and tannaitic passages delineating these strictures remain the one, unavoidable semantic anchor for all the Hebrew terms in use here. The connection with the nazarite therefore focuses our attention on the following. At the same time as the poet allies himself with the grand tradition at the outset of his epic poem, he signals his willingness to accept the renunciations and privations necessary to pursue his high purpose. The role and standing of the poet – is he an unacknowledged national laureate or a humble pioneer worker? – are questions that preoccupy the closing sections of the poem.
Before finally being let go, our grape and bell can testify to one more essential feature of Regelson's poem: its semantic difficulty. "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" is full to the brim with Hebrew words that are rare, obscure, and archaic. Instead of the disputed zag for grape, the common term 'einav','anavim', would have served; instead of the rare zog for bell, the universally recognized pa'amon would have enabled the reader to grasp the intended meaning. Rehima for beloved, in the first line, is an Aramicism; although its use does abet Regelson's theme of knowing the innermost secrets of the woman – rehem means womb – it also tweaks the nose of the uninitiated reader, who is likely to mistake the word for the more common rahamim/rahum, "mercy/merciful", It is not, after all, as if Hebrew did not easily possess a dozen recognizable terms for beloved, some of great elegance and sensuality. Regelson also delights in the use of what linguists call domain-specific lexicons, that is, lists of technical terms that belong to a circumscribed field of study. For example, the remainder of the poem's first section, following the lines quoted above, contains a list of the principal heavenly constellations followed by catalogues of field grasses and trees. To be sure, the inclusion of these catalogues is eminently justifiable on thematic grounds. Regelson is seeking to establish nothing less than an identity between the cosmos and Hebrew as Logos, as well to demonstrate the linguistic immanence of Hebrew from the most supernal realms to the lowliest shrubs in the meadow. Yet in pursuit of these exalted goals, Regelson lays down a raft of nouns that would be transparently comprehensible only to a Semitic philologist or a specialist in biblical and Talmudic flora.
The issue is not intelligibility per se. Regelson's obscurities are not difficult in the sense that the term is used in literary theory to describe works of art in which surface gaps of meaning and coherence generate stubborn challenges to interpretation, such as The Cantos of Ezra Pound. With a good dictionary and a concordance in hand, intrepid readers can solve most problems that come their way and be assured of revealing the patterns of coherence beneath the apparent occlusion. Indeed, there is a crossword puzzle kind of ingenuity that is piqued by the poem. Alternatively, readers can adopt the less rigorous – and arguably more pleasurable – course of allowing the meaning of unfamiliar words to be inferred from their voluminous context. In any event, reading strategies can be found to surmount the poem's challenges. But the question still remains why Regelson places them there to begin with. What is gained by creating semantic obstacles that can be removed with some lexical diligence, however tiresome?
The maximalist semantics of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" can best be understood in relationship to our experience of the poem as a performance of language. At the center of the aesthetic experience of the poem are several related concepts: virtuosity, plasticity, sensuousness, and playfulness. The two closing lines of the poem's first section provide an illustration.
בַּכֹּל אֲגַשְּׁשֵׁךְ אוֹר מִתְגַּשֵּׁם,
בַּכֹּל אַשִּיגֵךְ שֵׂכֶל מִתְנוֹצֵץ.
In all things I will seek you, light that becomes embodied,
In all things I will grasp you, sparkling reason.
These lines bring the epic sweep of the first section to a conclusion. After embracing the antipodes of Creation, from the galaxies to the grasses, and after demonstrating how Hebrew both names and embodies this totality, the poet returns to his own position and mission. He consecrates himself to searching out the light of Hebrew and showing how it sparkles in all things. Now, while the sense of these lines is clear enough, the true drama resides in the performance of their meaning as language. Notice first that the two lines are presented as a couplet with syntactical and grammatical symmetry that is nearly exact: baqol + a future verb in the first person singular with a dative suffix in the second person singular + an epithet for Hebrew using a present-tense reflexive verb [hitpa'el]. This doubling is underscored by the fact that a single Hebrew consonant dominates both lines: the shin/sin. This is the paradoxical twenty-first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which is pronounced as sh when the dot is on the right side (shin yemanit) and as s when the dot is on the left (sin semo-lit). To stage a mirror-image symmetry in which left and right reverse their sidedness, Regelson makes the first line a riff on the shin and the second a riff on the sin. To both lines he adds a sprinkling of repeating gimel, mem, and khaf sounds. The result is a carnival of assonance that encourages the proliferation of other words based on the permutation of these letters, as Regelson himself proposes in his commentary: sig vesiah [business exchange], sagseg [to thrive], siah [shrubbery], sihah [conversation], and tsemihah [growth].
These antic possibilities cloak an errand that is fraught with devotion yet uncertain of success. The verb indicating the central action in the first line (agashesheikh) is based on a word used only one time in the Hebrew Bible, in Isaiah 59:10, where it describes the behavior of unrepentant sinners who grope – literally, feeling their way – like blind men along a wall searching for the light that has deserted them. In the second line, the precariousness of this quest is turned into a triumph – at least a triumph imagined in the future – when the precious object is finally acquired. The duality of that object is nicely conveyed by the verb in the second line, asigeikh, which means both to obtain hold of something or acquire it in a physical sense, as well as – in a meaning added by medieval Jewish philosophers – to succeed in the act of intellection, the grasping of an abstract or metaphysical truth. Indeed, throughout "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh," Hebrew is construed as being two things at once: a material object in the graphic impress of its letters and the words kneaded in the mouths of its speakers like their daily bread and a transcendent Idea, a spiritual essence existing above and behind all phenomena. One is not privileged over the other, and each is in a constant process of turning back into the other. This metamorphosis is represented in the chiastic presentation of the epithets for Hebrew in these two lines. In the first, Hebrew is called or mitgashem, light that is in the process of becoming material. (Surely Regelson knew the definition of light in modern physics as particles without mass.) In the second, Hebrew is called sekhel mitnotsets, an idea that is in the process of dematerializing into sparks of light. Whether coming or going, this way or that, Hebrew is bakol, in all things.
This small example provides a glimpse into the crucial performative axis of the poem. To say that all good poems enact their meaning through their language is to state the obvious. Yet there are some in which the theatrical demonstration of the poet's uncanny abilities in manipulating language creates a powerful performance effect. Regelson's poem, whose grand subject is language itself, is surely one of these. Is Regelson merely showing off? Is he indulging in poetic grandiosity? I think not, although these are fair questions that must be reckoned with. This issue can best be approached by first observing that there are two dimensions to the performativity let loose in "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh.“ The more evident of the two is the performance of the poet's virtuosity: his encyclopedic mastery of the historical lexicon of the Hebrew language, his erudition in classical sources, and, most of all, his ability to take the language not just as given but rather to invent and proliferate provocative new words and dazzling new constructions by using and extending the existing templates for Hebrew word formation. The less evident dimension of performativity resides in the inherent resources of Hebrew that Regelson sets about to exploit. Regelson could not stage his pyrotechnics if the language had not already in its long history been witness in many periods to the grafting of new forms onto old. The very fact that Hebrew is built upon tri-consonantal roots or word stems means that the system of verb paradigms called binyanim (explained below) and noun paradigms called mishqalim can potentially generate hundreds of possible permutations for each root. Although only a fraction of these are alive in the language at any one time, the latent possibilities are huge, and they are there awaiting activation.
This is Hebrew's famous plasticity, and it is the quality that Regelson prizes above all others. It is also the quality that authorizes and even encourages his own demonstration of mastery over the language. "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" is the site for a creative synergy between the plasticity of Hebrew and the virtuosity of the individual talent. In its historical development, Hebrew has already demonstrated dramatic metamorphoses and extraordinary adaptations to new cultural climates. Regelson takes upon himself to advertise the creative malleability of Hebrew that is already part of the historical record by performing his own improvised-for-the-moment high jinks. His is a virtuosity that is undertaken, as he sees it, in the service of the honor of Hebrew. The word virtuoso, it is worth considering, comes to us via Italian and Late Latin from the Latin virtus, virtuous. In Hebrew's plasticity, Regelson finds license for his linguistic cartwheels. He is indeed – or at the very least, in his own eyes – performing for the greater glory.
He is also a poet at play in the fields of the Lord. The virtuosity on display on every page of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" is only occasionally of the striving and over-strenuous kind. In the main, Regelson's catalogues, word plays, neologisms, and all manner of linguistic entertainments seem like the natural expression of a Hebrew homo ludens, a grown-up for whom play is a creative – one might say, seriously creative – endeavor that can accomplish goals unreachable by other means. In addition to being a sacred trust and the venerated beloved, Hebrew for Regelson is also a game-like reservoir of nearly inexhaustible linguistic permutations, a treasure chest of moves opened for the delectation of the energetic poet-gymnast.
Finally, this first sampling of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" should confirm an inevitable consequence of the poem's genius: its untranslatability. This is a statement made with no triumphalism, because it is also an admission of defeat. If Regelson's poem were a true classic, it would possess a dimension of universal import that transcended its linguistic integuments. That dimension could be captured in a translation that provided both pleasure and sense, despite the many necessary losses and renunciations. I suspect that this cannot be done, although I know of no one who has tried. Yet the untranslatability of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" is less a diminishment of the work's value than a testament to Regelson's swashbuckling Hebraism. The intended readers for this poem were other passionate and highly initiated Hebraists – already an elite within an elite – and when it came to others, well, there was little purpose or hope.
Illuminating the passion for Hebrew that consumed Regelson and other American Hebraists is one of the poem's chief achievements. "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh", we have seen, is cast as an ode, a genre that had had great currency in an Enlightenment age when poets sought to express their devotion to Liberty or Truth or other capitalized abstractions. The hypostasized value or ideal could be addressed with ardor as if it were God or a sovereign or a beloved to whom fealty could be pledged. These are the same conventions that Regelson is making use of, to be sure, but there is nothing abstractly allegorical about the object of his address. The Hebrew language, to which every utterance in the poem is directed, is represented in a variety of guises that range from goddess to Great Mother to mistress; and in all of these cases, rather than being a trope or figuration, Hebrew is embodied, and the body Hebrew is given is unmistakably that of a woman. Hebrew is incarnated, feminized, and eroticized, in addition to being elevated and deified. It is only by understanding Hebrew as an eroticized object of desire that we can make sense out of the intoxicated tone in which the whole of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" is composed.
Of the many reasons why Hebrew should be addressed as a sexualized woman, the most fundamental is the most obvious. The fact that all Hebrew nouns are either masculine or feminine means that gender is inescapable. This fact of life about Hebrew can be taken in two ways. One approach, a functionalist linguistic view, is to see gender as an arbitrary marker that is dictated by the morphology of words and the sounds they end with and not by any inherent characteristics. Thus, the word for a woman's breast, shad, is masculine simply because it ends in a hard closed consonant. The other approach, which is based on romantic nationalist and Whorfian views of language, would see the particular features of a given language as expressive of a unique view of the world; the presence of gender as a grammatical phenomenon would therefore be indicative of sexual difference as a real rather than constructed or arbitrary feature of the speech community of that language. It is to this latter party that Regelson belongs; he experiences Hebrew as a language that is continually dividing the world into male and female components and making these assignments of gender in conformance to deep and essential truths about existence. Rather than working against gender and its bifurcation of the world in the name of human freedom, Regelson takes the opposite course. He gives himself up wholly to gender, renouncing his individual liberty and gratefully taking his place as a masculine subject under the dominion of Hebrew.
So, it indeed makes a great deal of difference that it is a male poet who is composing a hymn to the Hebrew language. It is of a piece with American Hebrew poetry specifically, which, with few exceptions, was a wholly male undertaking. It was also the case with modern Hebrew poetry generally before voices like that of Rahel (Blaustein) began to be heard in the 1920s. The case of Rahel's poetry provides an instructive analogy. As a woman among male pioneers in Palestine, Rahel wrote several poems that were addressed to the Land of Israel in which the relationship of the speaker to the addressee is that of a daughter, rather than a son, to a (step-) mother(land). Qualities of humility, compassion, and empathy are among those brought into play in the pioneer-land relationship enacted in the poems in ways quite different from the practice of male poets. The analogy is significant because the Land of Israel and the Hebrew language were the two closely joined axes of the Zionist revolution; one was the adopted motherland and the other was the adopted mother tongue. For partisans of this national awakening who lived in America, it was only the language axis that could be fully appropriated, known in all its particulars, and creatively manipulated. Yet in America there was no true counterpart to Rahel in Palestine, a female poet who might have configured the relationship between the Hebrew poet and the Hebrew language otherwise: as a relationship between a daughter and a mother or between two women or, turning the nationalist gender code around, between the female poet and the Hebrew language pictured as a stronghold of masculine culture.
The premise of the poem remains unshakably rooted in the reality of gender difference writ large. The poet is a suitor, a perennial troubadour, who is forever extolling the virtues of his beloved even as he basks in the aura of her graces. The main challenge faced by the poet is, therefore, how to offer right and proper praise. Praise performs two functions. It registers the awestruck experience of the Hebrew user-speaker before and in the midst of the wonders of the language, and it also renders the tribute due to an object of veneration by its worshiper. The strategy for meeting this challenge lies in the chief organizing principle of the poem that was mentioned at the outset: the anatomy as a literary form. The beloved is praised by systematically cataloguing her qualities. Indeed, the core of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" (sections 4-15, out of twenty altogether) is taken up with discharging this task. The poet lays out in turn each of the key features of the Hebrew language, luxuriating all the while in an abundance of clever and delightful examples.
But offering right and proper praise, it turns out, is no simple matter. Before the poem launches into its grand catalogue, it pauses to meditate on the high errand the poet has assumed. Section 3, which serves as a prologue to the great undertaking, considers the Scylla and Charybdis that lie in the waters ahead. It opens thus:
כְּאוֹהֵב, מוֹנֶה שִׁבְחֵי גְבִרְתּוֹ, וּבִטּוּיוֹ קָצֵר מֵרִגְשׁוֹ,
כֵּן דַּחַף-לִי לֶאֱרוֹשׁ מַעֲלוֹתַיִךְ, וְאִם אֲמַסְכְּנֵךְ בִּתְהִלָּתִי.
Like a lover who lists the praises of his lady only to discover that
the power of his expression pales before the power of his
so am I constrained to utter your merits even
if I diminish you by virtue of my praise.
The poet, who explicitly compares himself to a troubadour or chevalier in thrall to his lady [gevirto], finds himself thrown onto the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, he is so smitten in his thralldom and so obligated in his obeisance that he is incapable of not offering fulsome praise of his beloved. On the other, he has taken on a mission that is by definition not only impossible to achieve but also likely to give offense. His winking, paradoxical solution to the problem is a kind of transparent discretion.
הֵן הַבּוֹלְטוֹת וְהַשִּׁלְדִּיּוֹת בְּגֵוֵךְ אֲרַמֵּז,
וְאֶדֹּם מִן הַקִּמְטִיּוֹת וְהַבֵּין-פִּרְקִיּוֹת,
הַדָּם וְהַלֵּחַ וְהַמֵּחַ עַל תַּעֲלוֹת-זְרִימוֹתֵיהֶם.
Therefore I will allude only to the protruding and skeletal qualities
Of your body,
and I will remain silent about those in the creases and between the
joints, the blood, the marrow, and the rich tissue in all their
The awkwardness of these lines, as pronounced in Hebrew as in English paraphrase, signals the wriggling discomfiture of a man faced with an impossible task. Rather than praise improperly, either by saying too much or too little, the poet commits himself to a path of knowing and coy discretion. He will foreswear full frontal description of his beloved and instead only hint at the features grossly visible when she is turned around. All of the irksomely cumbersome adjectives in these two lines (boltot, shildiyot, qimtiyot, bein-pirqiyot) are feminine plural and refer back to the same ma'alot, the fine merits and attributes of the beloved (in the second line above) that he could not desist from listing. What kind of praise is this? Tortured and tortuous, the poet's language writhes in its fetters and acts out against its constraints by undercutting them: he ends up exposing the most intimate parts of the beloved, the vital fluids that flow in her innermost folds, under the guise of delineating the secrets that as a matter of principle he would never reveal.
The dilemma of telling or not telling is familiar to us from another realm of Jewish discourse: medieval theology. Maimonides famously argued that open discussion of the positive attributes of God compromised the integrity of God's bodiless infinity. His opponents, the Kabbalists, encouraged the proliferating of metaphoric imaginings of the sacred drama that takes place within the godhead. Although it may at first seem farfetched to posit a linkage between the poet's praise of his Hebrew beloved and the philosopher's description of the Divine, "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" in fact encourages the connection. Hebrew as Logos, as I discuss below, shares many of the same characteristics that God possesses, especially when it comes to the mystery of the coexistence of transcendence and immanence. It is sufficient at this stage to point out that although the poet makes noises like a rationalist who dares do nothing more than hint at the secrets of his beloved, he behaves like a mystic who is happy to make use of the indulgence to imagine, vividly and exhaustively, the manifold glories of the object of his adoration.
These manifold glories are nothing more than Hebrew grammar and morphology, and it is the dizzying achievement of Regelson's poem – generations of students can testify to the true enormity of the accomplishment! – to make grammar sexy. The remainder of section 3 is a sensuous, even humid, savoring of sentences, styles, letters, vowels, and the ta'amim [cantillation marks]. Regelson's essential strategy for eroticizing Hebrew is to materialize the language as a body. Sometimes it is the oceanic body of Hebrew as the great mother; at other times, the hewn limbs of the Hebrew goddess; and still others, the tangled appurtenances of a coy mistress. This is not the same method as the conceit, the figure used by the English metaphysical poets for a witty systematic analogy, as, for example, when Donne compares the Church to a cow in which the teats, the tail, and head all correspond to recognizable offices and institutions. In "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh", although there is no lack of wit, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the parts of the body and the parts of speech. The endless formations and features of Hebrew that are catalogued in the next twelve sections of the poem are marvelously non-metaphorical; they are, simply and concretely, the disjecta membra that, sorted out and put together, comprise the body of Hebrew.
Regelson's depiction of Hebrew as a woman is informed by two important medieval models. The first is Yehudah Alharizi's Sefer tahkemoni, the masterpiece of Hebrew maqama [rhymed prose interspersed with verse] from the turn of the thirteenth century in Spain. Before proceeding to relate the picaresque adventure of the work's protagonist and narrator, Hever the Kenite, in his introduction, Alharizi describes the prophetic experience that, quite literally, gave birth to the work. Dejected by the downtrodden fate of Hebrew amid the triumphalism of Arabic, the poet determines to raise the fortunes of the Holy Tongue. In return for his consecration to this mission, he is vouchsafed a visitation from none other than the Hebrew language herself, who appears to him as a beautiful maiden. "Before I could speak, her lips were on mine and I tasted wondrous wine. Drink deep my thoughts, she whispered – ah, her touch was silk! – seek 'neath my tongue my honey and my milk.'" Pressed to tell her story, she reveals that although she is of royal birth she has been reviled and defiled. She turns to the poet to reveal her true self: "I am your Mistress, the Holy Tongue: if I find favor in your sight, I will be your heart's delight – only be zealous for God's name: sanctify me, who am put to shame. Be you my redeemer from every slanderer, renegade, blasphemer." The poet loses no time betrothing the maiden, and "Straightway I lay with the prophetess and from this union sprang one who godly sang."
The offspring can be parsed as either the composition itself, Sefer tahkemoni, or Hever the Kenite, its protagonist-narrator.
Although Sefer tahkemoni furnishes precedent and license for an eroticized image of Hebrew, the differences between Alharizi's and Regelson's poems are especially instructive. In Sefer tahkemoni, the betrothal of Hebrew is only the introductory premise of the work, which then proceeds at considerable length to delight us with its stories about tricksters and mistaken identities. To be sure, the whole work is, in a sense, a compendious defense and demonstration of the honor of Hebrew in the face of Arabic virtuosity, but that theme is consciously invoked only at the outset. In contrast, "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" is about nothing other than the attributes of Hebrew from beginning to end. Yet when it comes to the relations between the poet and his fair mistress Hebrew, the medieval poet is far more precipitous and forward than his belated descendant. The persona of the poet-author in Sefer tahkemoni would seem to have more business than pleasure on his mind in his encounters with Hebrew; he meets, kisses, betroths, and sleeps with his beloved in very short order, and he does so for the purpose of giving birth to his book and providing it with a pedigree beyond reproach. When it comes to the poet-speaker of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh," however, one could never imagine his presuming so much. On the one hand, his whole delight is to touch and handle all of the polymorphous manifestations of Hebrew all the time. Yet on the other, he is a supplicant and a servant whose boundless adoration for Hebrew would never allow him to imagine perpetrating the ultimate intimacy. This is not because he is self-effacing or servile but because it is not mastery or ownership that he seeks. What he seeks instead is to dwell in the illuminating and fertile presence of the beloved and to admire, explore, stroke, handle, and play with all of her variegated charms. This is the jouissance of perpetual, tactile intimacy rather than the satisfaction of conquest and consummation.
One of the other medieval voices heard in this section of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" is that of Halevi in his great ode to Zion, "Tsiyyon, halo tish'ali." Halevi's ode was one of the best known medieval poems not only because it was integral to the morning liturgy on the summer fast day of the Ninth of Av but also because in modern times, it became a key text in the grafting of Zionist aspirations onto traditional religious sentiments. Like Regelson's ode to Hebrew, Halevi's ode to Zion is a sustained and fervent address to an exalted female object in which the unremitting use of feminine pronominal and verbal suffixes makes the presence of gender inescapable. Moreover, both poems anatomize their subjects, with Halevi's taking the form of an imaginary travelogue in which the poet visits the holy sites of biblical repute. His longing to be given the ability to make the journey is expressed in lines that will be echoed by Regelson.
מִי יִתְּנֵנִי מְשׁוֹטֵט בַּמְּקוֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר
נִגְלוּ אֱלֹהִים לְחוֹזַיִךְ וְצִירָיִךְ !
מִי יַעֲשֶׂה לִי כְנָפַיִם וְאַרְחִיק נְדוֹד,
אָנִיד לְבִתְרֵי לְבָבִי בֵּין בְּתָרָיִך!
Would I were a-wandering in the places where
God had been revealed unto thy seers and messengers.
Would I had wings that I might fly afar
And move the breakage of heart over thy mountain-breaks.
On the verge of embarking upon his own extensive travelogue, Regelson's speaker poses a series of similar questions in the concluding lines to Section 3.
וּמִי יְשַׁחֵר סִתְרֵי תְמוּנַת אוֹתִיּוֹתַיִךְ, חִטּוּב-צַלְעוֹתֵיהֶן
וּמִי יִסַּק אֶל גֹּבַהּ תְּנוּעוֹתַיִךְ, מַזָּלוֹת מַנְהִיגִים לָאוֹתִיּוֹת,
וְכַמַּזָּלוֹת בָּרָקִיעַ זָעֲרוּ לָעַיִן, גַּם כִּי עָצְמוּ בִּמְאֹד-מְאֹד?
וּמִי יִרְגֹּל עַד חֶבְיוֹן טְעָמַיִךְ,
וְהֵם נְשָמוֹת לַתְּנוּעוֹת, מַנְגִּינוֹת לַכּוֹכָבִים?
Who will gain admittance to the secrets of the forms of your
letters, their well-hewn planes and their well-crafted
Who will soar to the heights of your vowels, the signs [mazzalot]
that guide the letters,
Which, like the constellations [mazzalot] in the heavens, appear
minuscule to eye but are colossal in fact?
Who will spy out the hiding places of your te'amim,
For they are the souls of the vowels, the melody of the stars?
The differences between these two sets of questions tell us something essential about the nature of these two projects. Halevi's questions are formulated in the optative mood; they express a wish and a desire that cannot be fulfilled. Although his heart is in the East, he is stuck in the West, and the only kind of wings upon which he can tour the Holy Land are the wing of poesy. Regelson's questions, by contrast, are mock-rhetorical in tone and express a paradoxical amalgam of humility and boastfulness. It is only the true lover and devotee of Hebrew who will be permitted to tour the language's precious secrets. The implied good news, however, is that the poet is just such a worthy person and that the grand tour is exactly what he is about to embark upon. This is the fateful difference between the Holy Land and the Holy Tongue, and for American Hebraists it was a saving difference indeed. In Halevi's time, access to the Land was nearly impossible, and the poet perished in a perilous attempt to reach it. In Regelson's time, even though the dream of return to Zion had begun to be realized, world war and conflict with the British and the Arabs also made approach difficult – "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" appeared in 1946 – and Regelson himself was stuck in America. Yet if one could not inhabit the Land, or could do so only through the imagination, the Tongue, in its infinite and perfect portability, presented no such obstacle. Nothing prevents the Diaspora-stranded poet from caressing the planes and hollows of the Hebrew letters and hearing the music of the spheres in its vowels and musical notations.
The great catalogue, which begins in Section 4 and occupies the central twelve sections of the poem, is at once a recitation and a demonstration of the features of the Hebrew language. This anatomy is not presented as a general disquisition; rather, in line with the rhetorical premise of the composition as a whole, the anatomy is declaimed as a communication from the speaker of the poem, the lover, to Hebrew, his beloved. The purpose of the utterance is both to pay tribute to the beloved and to make manifest to others, we the readers who are "over-hearing" this declaration, the richness and sweep of her attributes. The topics according to their numbers are as follows: (4) the binyanim, (5) tenses of the verb; (6) the conjugation of verbs with weak stem letters; (7) the gezarot [paradigms for noun formation]; (8) verbs with four-letter stems; (9) words with paradoxical or contradictory meanings; (10) the interlocking economy of the language; (11) conjunctions and prepositions; (12) the vagaries of gender assignments; (13) proper names; (14) metaphors taken from nature; and (15) Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, and Yiddish elements in Hebrew.
Regelson takes upon himself a considerable challenge in this core of the poem. As a literary tactic, the catalogue-anatomy enables an author to conduct a systematic inventory of an abundance of detailed information. The corresponding danger, however, is tedium and predictability. In satiric forms, where this tactic most commonly appears, the hazard is neutralized by comic effects that grow in hilarity as more features of the satiric analogy are enumerated, for example, the parts of the cow corresponding to the parts of the Church in the previous example from Donne. Derisive humor is obviously not the response Regelson is seeking to elicit in his litany of praise for Hebrew, although humor of a different kind, in the form of wit, is hardly lacking. Regelson counteracts the cumbersome weight of the catalogue-anatomy in two ways. Each new item in the inventory is intended to provoke a redoubled sense of amazement at the polymorphous plasticity of the language, as well as the poet's dazzling resourcefulness in bringing this to life on the page. The other way is rooted in the gendered rhetorical premise of the poem. Each new item on the list is presented by the poet to his beloved as an example of yet another kind of pleasure that he receives from her. Each of the dozen sections is introduced by a synonym for "I desired," in the sense of, "I have found pleasure" in the particular attribute discussed in that section: ratsiti, hashaqti, hitrapaqti 'al, shafru 'alai, hanoti, sha'ashu'ai, sha'afti, yafyafit li, aviti, naftu li, 'idanti. There are many more additional synonyms for the same concept scattered within the body of the various sections. (Section 10, interestingly, lacks this introductory term.) In his intoxicated, dithyrambic mood, the poet discovers yet another reason to praise Hebrew and be enchanted by her, and it is this perennially renewed amazement that carries his project aloft and enables it to resist the force of gravity exerted by the catalogue form.
There is a great deal going on in each of these twelve sections. For the reader, the experience is something akin to watching a three-ring circus in which one's attention is riveted for a time on the action in one ring while remaining peripherally aware of what is going on in the other two, until the configuration shifts and another ring becomes the main focus. In these core sections of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh," there are three main axes of meaning. The most evident is the thematic axis, which bears the expository burden of setting out and demonstrating the main features of Hebrew (as listed above), some of which are common to most languages and some of which are peculiar to Hebrew. The second is the axis of performativity and virtuosity. The manifold ways of forming words by applying various templates to the verb stem, what we have called the plasticity of Hebrew, constitute a potentiality that is intrinsic to the language; this is the main subject of the thematic exposition. (This is also the quality that moves the poet to shout out in amazement in the last line of Section 7: "O the creative geometry of your spaces!") The realization of the potentiality in the hands of the poet is the arena of individual virtuosity. The plasticity resides in the deep structures of the language; its actualization takes place along the axis of performativity in the poem. Regelson takes on the challenge of instantiating the heterogeneous riches of Hebrew and making each line a bravura performance. He marshals obscure words and coins new ones, he contorts the language to show its elasticity, and he composes whole sentences that are variations of two or three letters. In short, he makes the language jump through hoops and sets off linguistic firecrackers. Although he does all this to demonstrate the greater glory of his beloved Hebrew, it is to the brilliance of his own performance that his high jinks inevitably draw us.
This focus diverts us from the presence of a third axis of meaning in the poem, which is a serious drama taking place in an adjacent ring of the circus. In this drama, Hebrew is identified with the soul of the Jewish people, which has long been downtrodden and is now being healed and revitalized by the flowering of its national language. This narrative relies heavily on a secularized and nationalized interpretation of the drama of cosmic exile in Lurianic Kabbalah, especially as it is echoed in the Sabbath hymn to the Shekhinah, Lekha dodi, with its abundance of feminine word endings. Because of this reach toward mystical transfigurations, I call this the anagogic axis. In each of the sections in the catalogue core of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh," the movement is toward redemption. The purpose of this praise, so lovingly addressed to Hebrew, is to restore her own sense of her dignity and high calling and to move her toward a kind of unio mystic – transposed into earthy nationalist terms – with the Jewish people. But unlike redemption in classical Jewish theology, which is deferred and patiently awaited, the redemption embodied by a revived Hebrew is a present fact; it has happened and it is happening, and it is experienced every time we write, speak, read, or hear the language. This is yet another dimension of the cleavage between territory and language in the Zionist vision that we have noted all along. This helps to explain the ecstatic tone of the poem, which should be understood not as the result of delusional inebriation or nationalistic zeal but as a warranted response to something extraordinary that has indeed taken place in the world.
A good example of how these three levels of meaning function together is the first section in the sequence, Section 4, whose subject is the Hebrew binyanim.
קַלֵּךְ הָעוֹשֶׂה בְּפַשְׁטוּת, לוֹקֶה בְחֶטְאוֹ וְקָם בְּצִדְקוֹ,
וְהוּא בָּן וְכוֹתֵב מַה פָּעַל אֵל;
נִפְעֲלֵךְ הַנִּכְנָע לַסֵּבֶל, וְנִשְׁבָּר, וְנִשְׁאָר בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ, וְסוֹפוֹ – נוֹשָׁע;
פִּעֲלֵךְ הַמְחַזֵּק יָדַיִם, הַמְעַשֶּׂה לְּמִצְווֹת וַחֲסָדִים,
יְסַקְּלֵךְ מִנְּגָפִים וִימַלְּאֵךְ טוּבִים;
פֻּעֲלֵךּ הַמְלֻמָּד, מְקֻטָּר, וּמְעֻטָּר בְּיוֹם יְדֻבַּר בּוֹ, וּבִכְרָמָיו יְרֻנַּן וִירֹעָע
הִפְעִילֵךְ הַמַּשְׂכִּיל וְהַמֵּיטִיב,
אֵין כָּמוֹהוּ מַנְעִיל יָחֵף וּמַלְבִּישׁ עֵרוֹם וּמַאֲכִיל רָעֵב,
וְהוּא מַרְנִין בִּגְוָנָיו:
עָלָיו מוֹרִיקִים, נִצָּנָיו מַלְבִּינִים וּמַוְרִידִים, וּפֵרוֹתָיו מַאֲדִימִים;
הָפְעֲלֵךְ, מָשְׁזָר בַּמּוּחָשׁ וּבַמּוּכָח, וּבוֹ הַמָּחֳלָט יֻבָּע;
הִתְפַּעֲלֵךְ – מַה-מְּאֹד אֶשְׁתּוֹמֵם עָלָיו, כִּי רֶכֶב וְשֶׁכֶב בּוֹ הִתְאַחָדוּ,
בְּצוּרוֹ יִדַּבֵּק וְעוֹלָמִית לֹא יִטַּמֵּא, בֵּין תְּמִימִים יִתַּמָּם,
בּוֹ יִכּוֹנֵן מִקְדָּשׁ, וּבְמִקְרָאָיו, נְשָמָה,
הִזְדַּכְּכִי, הִסְתַּכְּלִי לְאַחֲרִיתֵךְ, הִצְטַעֲרִי עַל זְדוֹנוֹתַיִךְ וְהִשְׁתַּלְּמִי בַזְּכֻיּוֹת,
הֵן רַק פָּעֳלֵךְ תִּשְׂתַּכָּרִי.
I have desired your binyanim, your qal, which acts with simplicity,
is punished for its sin and rises in its justice, and it perceives
and records what God has wrought;
Your nif'al, which has submitted to suffering and been humbled
but remained faithful and in the end redeemed;
Your pi'el, which fortifies the hands and enables fulfillment of
the commandments and acts of kindness, may it rid you of
obstacles and fill you with good things;
Your pu'al, erudite, fragrant with incense, and crowned as on a day
of betrothal, will be sung and serenaded in its vineyards;
Your hif'il, so enlightened and benevolent, there is none like it
for shodding the barefoot, clothing the naked, and feeding
the hungry, and it joyfully sings in its colors: its leaves turn
green, its buds turn white and then pink, and its fruits
Your huf'al, in which are intertwined both the concrete and
cerebral and the absolute is expressed;
Regarding your hitpa'el, how amazed am I for it unites the upper
and lower millstones, for to its Rock will it cleave and never
become impure; among the innocent it will be most perfect,
in it the Sanctuary will be established, and in its sacred
O Soul, become purified, look to your End, regret your sins, and
perfect yourself in your merits, and then you shall surely
come to your proper reward.
This topic is eminently appropriate as a starting point for the core exposition of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" because the binyanim are the most fundamental and recognizable feature of Hebrew grammar and the frontline obstacle with which all students of the language must contend. A binyan (singular) literally means a construction; it is a pattern or form that "constructs" the Hebrew verb by imposing various configurations upon the three-letter root. There are seven binyanim; three are active (qal, pi'el, hph'il), three are passive (nif'al, pu'al, huf'al), and one is reflexive (hitpa'el). The names of the binyanim are taken from the third-person masculine singular in the past tense of the verb stem p.'.l., a verb that means, appropriately, "to do or act.” This terminology was borrowed from Arab scholars by Jewish grammarians in ninth-century Spain, and this provenance is useful in reminding us of the status of grammar as an empirical science. As an idealized set of norms that govern the use of language, grammar is constructed by inductive observation; in the case of Hebrew, grammarians examined the language of the Hebrew Bible In order to abstract patterns and rules that explain the regularized use of nouns and verbs. As a form of human knowledge, then, grammar is a theorized model rather than a formulation of properties organically inherent in language.
The constructed nature of grammar provides a margin of creative freedom that Regelson fully exploits. The vast corpus of Hebrew literature, from the Bible to Bialik, includes only a fraction of the possible inventory of words that could be generated by applying the rules of the binyanim to a verb stem. So, while a root like b.t.h. exists in the qal binyan in the Bible in the sense of "to trust in" [batah], it is no obstacle for the Rabbis to actualize the root in the hif'il binyan to mean "to promise" [hivtiah] or for twentieth-century shapers of the language to use the pi'el form to mean "to insure, to underwrite" [biteah], and so on. It is precisely the "and so on" that is the point, for this is a process, which once set in motion, can potentially keep on propagating riotously. Should the production of new words on this model take place conservatively, based on textual attestation and authorized usage? Or should this propagation remain uncontrolled so that the individual poetic genius can actualize all the potential forms of the language necessary for the expression of the imagination? The issue has been in the contention throughout the long history of Hebrew poetry. Yose b. Yose, Yannai, and the Qalir, the great masters of synagogue poetry from the classic period of the piyyut in seventh- and eighth-century Palestine, were radical practitioners of free innovation. The dialectic swung the other way when it came to poets of the Spanish Golden Age, who saw the text of the Hebrew Bible as enrobed in a sacred purity that should not be lightly tampered with. The most casual glance at Regelson's hymn to Hebrew will leave no doubt as to with which party he stands. Like the ancient synagogue poets, Regelson delights in the paradox of a language that is highly regulated and rule driven and at the very same time opens the door to nearly endless artistic virtuosity.
The thematic axis of Section 4, then, could not be clearer. The subject is the binyanim, which are given pride of place among the chief topics of Hebrew grammar and laid out in their traditional order. However, the manner in which this orderly duty is performed – its actualization along the performative axis – provides an occasion for the display of wit and virtuosity. The trick Regelson pulls off is this: Each of the seven binyanim is presented using verbs inflected exclusively in that binyan. In each of these instances, which range from one to five lines, the poet describes the essential "personality" of the binyan – the simplicity of qal, the submissiveness of nif'al, the activism of hif'il, and so on – all the while working within the constraints of the binyan. It is a gross effect that can be appreciated by anyone with a modicum of familiarity with Hebrew grammar. For the connoisseur, there are an abundance of clever and amusing subtleties that are often variations on the theme of exceptions to the rule. Qal is an active binyan, but Regelson delights in adducing loqeh in line 2, which is a verb in the qal form that has a passive meaning [to be punished]. Ban [understands], also in line 2, is the rare qal form of the root b.y.n. that is in common usage in the hif'il form [hevin], which means the same thing.
When it comes to hif'il proper, Regelson devotes a whole line (II) to one of the great anomalies in Hebrew grammar. All verbs that denote turning a color (turning red, turning green, etc.) are conjugated in the hif'Il binyan despite the fact that they possess none of the active and transitive meanings that mark nearly all verbs in that binyan. Morphology proves Regelson's playground in the final line of the section when he focuses on the reflexive binyan hitpa'el. Normally, the letter tav, which is the hallmark of this binyan, is followed by the first letter of the verb stem. But in a case when the first letter is a samekh, shin, sin, or zayin, it changes place with the tav to make it easier for the mouth to pronounce a combination containing a dental consonant. When the first letter is a tsadi, it causes the tav not only to change places but to change itself entirely into another letter, a tet.
Suffice it to say that at the close of this section, Regelson marshals an example of each of these exceptions.
There is a profound game that Regelson is playing here and in other, similar sections. (The fifth, e.g., refers to verbs in the future tense using that tense and to the imperative using only the imperative; in the sixth, the irregular verb stems, the gizrot hashoresh, are similarly discussed using instantiations of these paradigms.) In their important study of the poem, Gideon Katz and Gideon Nevo have made the case, based on the structural poetics of Girard Genette, that in these sections Regelson is deploying a particularly acute form of the rhetorical figure called metalepsis. A sign usually refers to something in the world, its referent. We understand words not as things in themselves as much as signs that represent objects and ideas. In Regelson's poem, however, "in front of our very eyes," Katz and Nevo argue, "the sign turns into a referent, and that which represents turns into the represented." So, for example, when a verb that refers to the binyan of pi'el as a subject is itself set in the pi'el, then it makes itself into the thing represented. Although this crossing of the boundary between a sign and its referent can be used to subversive effect in some works of literature, in Regelson's poem it works mainly to "thicken and materialize" the sign and make us feel that the words of the Hebrew language are tangible and animate objects in themselves. In their apt and piquant formulation, Katz and Nevo present "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" as "the supreme example of this semiotic trickery, and Regelson is revealed in it as the maestro of this rhetorical tool, the Yasha Heifetz of the grammatical-semiotic metalepsis. He utilizes it with incomparable panache and inventiveness. The sign reacts like a tame bear – when the wand is raised it dances a dance that is not its own, cajoled into doing that which it is not meant to do."
With Hebrew being made to turn cartwheels and jump through hoops, it is only natural that our attention is not drawn to what is taking place simultaneously in the other rings of Regelson's circus. What is taking place there is less brilliant but more ambitious. We can grab hold of that story line by looking to translation. One can argue that for obvious reasons "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" is an untranslatable text; yet paradoxically, any translation, even the prose translation of the section I offer above, performs an important service. For the very fact that translation cannot hope to convey the language games Regelson is playing, it effectively squashes the performative axis and exposes a plainer narrative armature that has been there all along. This narrative, however, is not easily transparent because it speaks of higher things. To gain our bearings, let us first observe the rhetorical arrangements. When the speaker opens by declaring, "I have desired your binyanim [binyanayikh],"he is addressing the Hebrew language and referring to the binyanim as her possessions. So throughout, as each binyan is taken up in turn, it is not referred to as "the nif'al," for example, as it would be in ordinary discussions of grammar, but as nif'aleikh, your nif'al. The binyanim here, like all the features of the language throughout the poem, are presented as appurtenances, appendages, aspects, or emanations of Hebrew conceived of as a great female Thou.
It is thus the behavior of her binyanim that form the action of Section 4. This is a "story" that begins modestly with each binyan simply acting out its own inscribed character but soon reaches for greater heights. As the binyan of simple, direct action, qal sins and repents and records God's actions. Although nif'al is subjected to suffering and brought low, it remains faithful and in the end is redeemed. As the enabling binyan, pi'el strengthens the hands of the doers of good deeds and clears away obstacles. Pu'al is presented as the binyan of perfection and ennoblement, and it is here for the first time that the wedding theme is sounded with allusion to Song of Songs (8:8): "What shall we do for our sister when she is spoken for?" Hif'il puts into practice the good deeds mentioned earlier by shodding the barefoot, clothing the naked, and feeding the hungry, a process that thereby triggers the blooming of spring in its hues of green, pink, and red. Hof'al puts in a brief appearance as the medium in which the concrete and the abstract are integrated. The greatest attention, finally, is lavished on the hitpa'el, the reflexive binyan, because it is through this binyan that the marriage metaphor can be brought to its final realization. The English term "conjugation" cannot be far from Regelson's mind when he imagines the hitpa'el as a consummation of inner male and female principles. Rekhev and shekhev [literally, the rider and the ridden] (line 13) are the terms for the upper and lower millstones, and the unification that is brought about by their interlocked grinding is unmistakably sexual. Although the sexual act is concrete in its earthiness, this most heroic and redemptive of the binyanim remains unsullied and faithful and moves toward a consummation that is of cosmic import. Employing the language used by the biblical prophets to exhort Israel, the poet in conclusion turns toward the soul and urges her to remain pure in anticipation of her final reward.
The binyanim are animated and personified and pressed into service as representations of the Jewish people. Because the binyanim are verbal paradigms, each is a different mode of acting in the world, and altogether they enact a collective narrative. Through the agency of the binyanim, then, the Jewish people is presented as striving to do God's will, falling into sin, climbing back onto the right path, enduring persecution and remaining faithful, doing good works, and moving toward the fulfillment of the Covenant, which returns Israel to the bosom of God. This unification, in turn, prepares the ground for the Redemption that is to come. This movement toward redemption, which is so clearly evident in Section 4, is in fact the anagogic pattern that is repeated with variations in each of the core sections of the poem. The intoxicated spirit of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" is not simply the reflection of an idiosyncratic obsession but the assertion of a mystical theological truth about the present moment in the millennial fortunes of the Jewish people. The metaphysical and eschatological import of the revival of the Hebrew language in the poet's own lifetime cannot be underestimated.
For a poem by a secular Hebrew poet, "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" contains an extraordinary amount of God talk, and it is rarely easy to make out when it is the God of Israel that is being referred to or when it is the Hebrew language. Katz and Nevo have made a signal contribution to understanding the philosophical-theological frameworks Regelson is deploying. Using Regelson's own philosophical and literary essays as guideposts, they identify the two main positions that underlie the poem. The first is pantheism, the idea that God is not distinct from Creation but entirely identified with it. This is an idea that Regelson attributed to American literature in his essay, "The God of Nature in American Poetry":
This pantheistic thought – recognition of the divinity of every inanimate object, everything growing and living, and each and every human being – permeates the corpus of American poetry wherever it took off its Old World coverings and became independent.
Whereas Halkin, Regelson's close contemporary American Hebrew poet, draws on Habad Hasidism to reach a similar conclusion, Regelson prefers to stand on native ground. The other idea is that language becomes "that which reflects the deep order of the universe and therefore becomes the main key with which to unlock the mysteries of the universe." Basing himself on Heraclitus's identification of cosmic truth with the Logos and on Ernst Cassirer's analysis of the historical development of language, Regelson pushes the function of language far beyond communication and representation into the sphere of ultimate being. Rather than being a creation of human culture, language as Logos precedes Creation and resides behind it and guarantees its meaning.
In his hymn to Hebrew, Regelson fuses these two ideas. In pantheism, God is the universe; in Heraclitus's Logos, the language is God. It follows then, that within the context of the Jewish people and its history, God is Hebrew. For Regelson, however, this is not a logical syllogism or rhetorical trope or an allegorical type; rather, it is a deeply experienced truth about the ground of being. Indeed, this pantheistic conception of Hebrew as divinity helps us to make sense of many passages in "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh." In the opening section of the poem, for example, the poet first lists the heavenly constellations and exclaims that You are in every one of them and then turns to the lowly grasses and bushes and declares the same truth. In both cases, high and low, the drama is lodged not simply in the act of bearing witness to the omnipresence of the divine in nature but also in the act of naming, specifically, giving Hebrew names, in all of their exotic, obscure, and recherché glory, to the astral bodies and the terrestrial flora. It is as if it is through their Hebrew names that the divinity in these entities is unlocked and revealed. What is true in space is true in time. Section 2 of the poem delineates the stations of the sacred history of Israel from the Creation through Revelation and on to the future Redemption. At each stage, the refrain is: "with You" I went down to Egypt, "with You" I fashioned the tablets of the Law, and so on. Hebrew is presented as the medium through which Jewish historical time is enacted.
The theological radicalism of Regelson's poem can easily be missed amid the barrage of bravura linguistic effects. The elevation of Hebrew might seem like the profligate enthusiasm of a besotted Hebraist who should be viewed indulgently as writing poetry "under the influence." Katz and Nevo's work saves us from this mistake. They demonstrate that Regelson is proceeding along considered philosophical lines when he collapses God into Hebrew as Logos and that he fully intends to go as far as he goes. The considerable implications of such a national linguistic theology are considered below.
But Regelson goes farther still. His greatest provocation concerns the matter of gender, although he would certainly never have characterized it as such. In the various anagogic schemes in Jewish thought, the ultimate cosmic principle is always male, whether this is the God of Israel in relation to the people of Israel as bride in the Bible, or the Holy One Blessed Be He in relationship to kneset yisra'el in rabbinic discourse, God in relation to the soul in Maimonides, or the Ein-Sof in relationship to the Shekhinah in Kabbalah. Yet the ultimate divine principle created by Regelson's fusing of God and Hebrew is flagrantly and unremittingly female. There can be no other major poem in the Hebrew language, Halevi's ode to Zion notwithstanding, that is so thoroughly suffused with feminine grammatical forms, especially the second-person feminine imperative and the feminine possessive suffixes of nouns and adjectives. This "poetry of grammar,” in Roman Jakobson's phrase, is inescapably present in every single line of the poem. It is perhaps because of the very fact of this omnipresence that we may not see how extraordinary this practice is. Or, again, we are distracted by the virtuoso high jinks taking place at the same time. Or, knowing the poem is an ode addressed to an entity that happens to be grammatically feminine, we assume that this is a practice that simply goes with the territory. To Hebraist ears, moreover, encomia for Hebrew are easily assimilated into the Haskalah genre of allegorical figurations of the language as a fair maiden representing clarity of expression and purity of linguistic lineage.
Regelson's poem constructs a far more primordial and transgressive divinity: the Hebrew goddess, who is who She is. I use this fraught term with some care. As a term used by such writers as Raphael Patai and Tikva Frymer-Kensky, the Hebrew goddess connotes traces of the survival of Canaanite female deities within the faith of ancient Israel. These were Hebrew goddesses only in the sense that they were figures in pagan myths that were appropriated in altered and weakened form by the Hebrews in their own language. By using the term in connection with "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh," my intent is to underscore the way in which the Hebrew language itself has been elevated into a deified female form. This apotheosis of language is surely an outgrowth of nineteenth-century romantic nationalism on the Herderian model, which identified a true nation by its possession of its historical tongue. Seized by adherents of cultural Zionism who had no easy access to the historic national territory, Hebrew was the principle of national existence that could be made into a ground of ultimate being.
Now, while Regelson's deification of Hebrew owes its main motivation to the currents of modern nationalism, it acquires its unique force and coloration from the vital residuum of paganism. Hebrew is manifest in "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" as both the Great Mother and the Great Beloved. As Great Mother, her beneficences wash over the Jewish people and fertilize them with the gracious and life-bestowing gift of language. In its omnipresence, this gift of language resembles the theological position that later philosophers demythologize and call pantheism. As Great Beloved, Hebrew is the object of the worshiper-poet's undying love and longing. On the one hand, she is transcendent in her majesty, and, throughout the poem, the poet can address her only in an exaltation of wonder and yearning but never with the hope of being addressed by her in return. On the other hand, her bounty is immediately present and available. Not just the poet but any speaker and writer of Hebrew can touch the language, caress it, play with it, and manipulate it. This easy availability of the numinous, the ability to find the sensuous embrace of the divine "upon every high hill and under every green tree,” is precisely what the classical prophets of the Hebrew Bible inveighed against. And this is precisely what, in the form of language, Regelson sees as resorted to the Jewish people with the revival of Hebrew. Revival or, in truth, renaissance? The very idea of death and rebirth, it is well to recall, belongs only to the realm of the gods. Tchernichovsky and Berdichevsky were hardly shy, after all, in seeking to recover for the nation the primordial energies forced underground as the edifice of official Judaism that was built brick by brick.
It is not my intention to make Regelson into a neo-pagan as much as it is to use his example to illuminate an important truth about the Hebraist temper in general. The American Hebraists were by and large secular men who had broken with the intensive religious educations they were given as children. The break was not the traumatic ordeal experienced by earlier European Hebrew writers but rather an evolution into a world of Hebrew letters that was part of the broader cultural Zionist milieu. The Americans were not shrilly anti-religious; they were followers of Ahad Ha'am and shared his sympathy for the role of religion in the preservation of Jewish culture. Moreover, many of them worked within educational institutions of the Jewish community that needed to find modes of accommodation with synagogues and rabbis in order to survive. But when it came to the construction of their personal worlds, halakhic practice and Orthodox belief were very distant from most of them.
One of the great underreported truths about the Zionist revolution is that the need for religious experience as a human constant did not disappear because the well of Orthodox Judaism had been poisoned. The ways in which traditional belief were displaced within Zionist culture and the ways in which Hebrew writers grappled with religious experience that had nothing whatever to do with Judaism are threads in a story we are just beginning to understand. Within this account, the case of the American Hebraists should play an important role. Living in America cut off from the national homeland was, as it were, a mixed curse. The wrenching turmoil over acquiring Jewish space and creating a Jewish state was far more embroiled than the revival of the Hebrew language, which was well under way long before the institutions of Hebrew culture moved to Palestine. The Americans had the privilege of seizing the term in the Zionist formula (land + language) that could be cultivated without external political resistance. As is the case with passionate ideological commitments of many sorts, the embrace of Hebrew served needs that had been fulfilled by the religious regime it had replaced: an ordering and orienting of existence, an ultimate value that elicited faithful allegiance, and a validating community, even if it was invisible and its members scattered. But the case of Hebrew, as revealed by the pagan substratum in Regelson's poem, goes beyond the function of religion as a substitute. For the Hebraist, the intimate engagement with Hebrew brought together the numinous with the erotic. Close at hand in his daily life and despite his vast distance from the national center and despite his deep isolation from other communicants, the Hebraist had a source of pleasure that went far beyond consolation for his losses: the ability to sport with and caress the tangled limbs of the Hebrew goddess.
It is perhaps inevitable that a poem so lavishly focused on an exalted object of worship should at some point double back to reflect on the role of worshiper. In "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh," that point comes in Section 16 after the core sequence of the twelve sections (sections 4-15) enumerating the grammatical and semantic glories of the Hebrew language. Section 16 is a paean to the light Hebrew shone on the experience of the Jewish people from its beginnings until its return to its homeland. (In true Regelsonian fashion, the poem is a tour de force of ingenuity in adducing dozens of synonyms for illumination.) This section functions as a hinge between the main body of the composition, whose subject is the glories of Hebrew, and the concluding four sections (17-20), which turn toward the fate of Hebrew in the present moment and the vocation of the Hebrew poet. This is a shift in more than subject matter. Hebrew is portrayed in the core sections as a perfect and magnificent cosmic force whose effulgence permeates all existence while remaining pristine. In the concluding sections, in contrast, Hebrew becomes embroiled in history and exposed to the depredations of external and internal enemies. Without minimizing this shift, Katz and Nevo argue that Regelson's pantheism can sustain this redirection of focus. For if Hebrew is coequal with the coming-into-being of the Jewish people, then surely it fortunes are dependent on the fate of the nation in the maelstrom of the twentieth century. I would add a less philosophical component to this explanation: the anxiety of self. The merging of the poem with the present exerts pressure on the fit between the poet's own situation and the grand conception of the vocation of the Hebrew poet that he himself proposes.
As the poem enters the historical arena, it is worth recalling the circumstances of its creator. Regelson was fifty years old, living in New York, and making a subsistence salary as a Yiddish-language journalist at the time "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" was published in 1946. He had settled in Palestine with his growing family in 1933, but the family came back to America three years later because of an infant's death and major illnesses. Thirteen years later he managed to return to what was by then the State of Israel and live there until his death in 1981. But that return was far off and uncertain when he was writing "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" at the end of World War II. Exile from the Land and exile from Hebrew (in the form of servitude to Yiddish for the purposes of economic survival) are the twin sources of shame that define Regelson's subject position in the final sections of the poem.
Regelson's intoxicated hymn to Hebrew was likely being composed while the Final Solution was being carried out. The relationship between these two facts cannot be easily interrogated. When Regelson steers his vast poem in the direction of the signal events of his century – Holocaust and Homeland – he approaches them obliquely. He ponders the impact of these events on the fate of Hebrew; or, conversely, he uses Hebrew as a metonymy for the fate of the Jewish people. Section 17 is a deeply affecting evocation of the Jewish school-children of Europe whose sweet breath will no longer discover the shapes of the letters of the alef-bet and pronounce the "Four Questions" on Passover.
The delightful mouths that were born to chirp your vowels were
contorted in death throes,
Strangled were the slender throats that had sung your melodies.
With their death perished future generations of Hebrew writers ("The Mendeles of the future, the Ahad Ha-Ams of tomorrow"), together with masses of speakers and readers. In keeping with the conventions of the ode, the poet alludes to theses calamities as part of his address to Hebrew:
Indeed, it is your own image that has been diminished, a breach
has been opened.
But if it is the language that has sustained a catastrophic blow, it is also the language that harbors within it the resources to promote national recovery. As the poet exhorts Hebrew to provide comfort to the broken and support for reconstruction, he offers none other than himself as a partner in this endeavor. Hebrew will redouble her constructive energies, he proposes, and he, the poet, will recommit himself to his mission to "enumerate the traces of your beauty and give witness to your righteousness."
With these, the concluding words of Section 17, the subject of the poem shifts wholly to the vocation of the Hebrew poet, or more precisely, to an apologia for Regelson's own mission as Hebrew poet. The contours of that mission turn out to be a surprising mixture of grandiosity and humility. The grandiosity comes from Regelson's presenting himself as the true acolyte of Hebrew, whose loyalty and erudition empower him to participate in Hebrew's redemptive self-unfolding. The humility comes from his willingness to demystify the office of Hebrew poet by moving it downward away from the high prerogatives of the prophet-priest in the direction of the pioneer worker.
Whether humble or grandiose, Regelson admittedly brings the poem around to himself, and this noticeable shift in the tenor of the poem has been the object of both criticism and justification. While admiring the poem as a whole, Epstein, the greatest critic of American Hebrew literature, took Regelson to task for compromising the elevation of his grand theme by introducing self-interested polemical concerns and using the poem to settle scores and defend his reputation. Katz and Nevo defend the shift by arguing that it is part and parcel of the embeddedness of Hebrew in contemporary history. Regelson could not not confront the fragile contingency of Hebrew and its dependence on human agency while remaining in the majestic precincts of Hebrew as Eternal Language. As an actor in the drama of Hebrew's coming-into-being, then, the poet is justified in reflecting on his visions and ambitions.
There is merit in both these positions. The reader who has been caught up in the celebratory, dithyrambic mood of the poem certainly senses the loss of brilliancy and sparkle as the subject veers toward the questions of the day and the poet's place in them. Moreover, even if taking on this challenge means an inevitable loss of majesty, the polemical texture of these sections remains problematic. In Section 19, which is perhaps the least satisfying chapter in the poem from the point of view of organization and economy, the poet cites three different groups of "enemies" of Hebrew's continued evolution in a winking manner that assumes we know of whom he speaks. Yet it is likely that the shift was more wrenching for contemporary readers at the midpoint of the twentieth century than it is for us today. Regelson's very willingness to introduce a personal, confessional voice and expose his anguish over his exile from Hebrew and from the Yishuv gives the poem an existential mooring that encourages us, the poem's belated readers, to trust its declarations all the more. And the matter of trust is crucial here. We can take the delineation of the ideal qualities of the Hebrew poet (section 18) and the perfidies of his enemies (section 19) as an attempt to construct an exemplary picture frame in which Regelson will place his own portrait. Or, we can take the poet's efforts as deployed on behalf of the grandeur of Hebrew rather than on behalf of his own grandiosity. What is at stake is nothing less than the future of the Hebrew language and the future of Hebrew poetry and in the pursuit of their defense, he assigns himself a role that is true but modest.
It is little wonder then that when Regelson sets about to describe the ideal exemplar of Hebrew in Section 18, it is a prayerful psalm that serves as his vehicle. The section is explicitly modeled on the famous processional coronation Psalm 24, which begins, "The earth is the Lord's and fullness thereof," and continues with the question, "Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?" to which the answer is, "He who has clean hands and pure heart." In Regelson's version, it is the majesty of the Hebrew language that is the holy precincts to which admittance must be gained. The successful supplicant will have to meet three high standards: ethical conduct, Judaic erudition, and an adventurous spirit. For the true aspirant, "the hurt of humankind is his hurt, and he delights in the blossoming of the human image and marches through darkness and thorns to the light of the torch of freedom." The national language has not only been the Holy Tongue but also the tribune of the downtrodden: "Indeed from antiquity, Hebrew, you have been the voice and shield of humanity torn from the earth."
This passion for justice must be matched by the hard work of acquiring an intimate knowledge of the progress of Hebraic learning through the successive periods of Jewish civilization: Bible, Mishnah, midrash, Rashi, and Maimonides on through to Nachman Krochmal and Isaac Hirsh Weiss (author of Dor dor vedorshav) in the nineteenth century. Hebrew does not divulge her hidden treasures easily, states the poet, as he goes about employing terms from both military campaigning and mountaineering to describe the assault on classic Hebraic sources that must be undertaken by the Hebrew writer who aspires to enjoy some of those treasures. Over and above the cultural ballast of the past, finally, the aspirant must be equipped with an adventurous yet discriminating taste for the new. He must be open to the new and native linguistic produce that appears in the marketplace stalls of the new society, and he must know how to select among them those that not only taste good but provide sustenance for the nation. In sum, turning toward Hebrew at the conclusion of his secular psalm, the poet avers that it is only he who is graced with all three of these disparate endowments who "will repose in your bosom, selah."
From the worshipful tones of Psalms, Regelson turns in Section 19 to the excoriating rhetoric of biblical prophecy to condemn Hebrew's three antagonists. In the first category are the fakers and exploiters who use tired clichés and sensational language to appeal to the masses. The second includes those who would freeze the dynamism of Hebrew by arguing that the language has already reached its full measure of development. In the third group are those who falsely believe they are preserving the purity and sanctity of Hebrew when they protect her from the rough-and-tumble vulgarity of real everyday life. Although as readers we may be intrigued by the whiff of controversy that wafts through these lines, we also feel we are belatedly joining a conversation whose polemical contours have faded with time. From this distance, it is only the second censured group, the freezers of Hebrew, which provides an occasion for Regelson to dramatize fully his arguments rather than merely state them. This passion is evident in the disproportionate division of the section's fifty-one lines. The fakers of the first group are covered in six lines and the false protectors of the third in twelve lines, whereas the freezers of Hebrew get twenty-three. This bulge in the middle is the result of the peculiar refutation Regelson puts forward against this position. Rather than offering reasons and arguments, the poet summons as a witness the "candelabrum of existence" [menorat hayequm 'al qol peraqeha]. This turns out to be a miniature anatomy-catalogue full of exotic Hebrew nouns in the spirit of the earlier sections of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh"; it begins with the tiniest ocean creatures and proceeds through the fauna of the dry land and the air before reaching to the stars, the meteors, and the farthest swirling galaxies. This vast swell of language concludes with a crescendo reminiscent of God's answer to Job out of the whirlwind:
?אִם יֵשׁ קִצְבָה לְהַדְרַת אֱלֹהֵינוּ
!גַּם לְהַדְרַת לְשׁוֹנֵנוּ יְהוּ קִצְבָה וּגְבוּל
Can there be any limit to God's majesty?
So to our language can there be limit or bound!
The identification of the wonder of the cosmos with God and the identification of God with the Hebrew language – and therefore the cosmos – are the familiar postulates upon which the edifice of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" rests. The reprise of this argument so late in the poem indicates how little taste Regelson has for true polemic. To make the case for the unfettered continued evolution of Hebrew, he can more successfully point us to the infinite starry heavens than give us reasons.
Having told us what the poet exemplar of Hebrew should and should not be, we might expect Regelson to install himself on that throne. But in the stirring last section of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh," this is precisely what he declines to do. To be sure, the spotlight remains trained on himself, but the burden he undertakes is to reconceptualize his own role as Hebrew poet in a manner that moves it away from preening and grandiosity. Regelson opens Section 20 with a bold and contrarian assertion of his status:
וַאֲנִי, חָרָשׁ בְּמָכוֹן, סַתַּת חֲזוֹנִים וְנַגַּר דִּמְיוֹנוֹת,
As for me, an artisan of foundations, a quarryman of visions
and a carpenter of imaginings,
He is not the writer as magus or a Jewish version of Stephen Daedalus's priest of the imagination turning bread into wine. He does not aspire to the sacred song or the prophetic office of Ibn Gabirol and Bialik, the two Hebrew poets mentioned later in the section. And he certainly claims no portion in the holy megalomania of Uri Zvi Greenberg, the great and wrathful poet-prophet of the twentieth century. Commenting on this section of the poem in a 1956 newspaper article, Regelson declares that in his lineage there are no rabbis, merchants, or scholars. "I regard myself as a worker-writer who does not approach the rank of Bialik, who saw himself as a 'cutter of lumber in the forests of antiquity.' I am the son of a carpenter, and it is sufficient for me to take already-cut planks, plane them and make a nice table or a book case, or in rare instances, an ark [aron qodesh]."
What at first looks like a simple gesture of humility quickly turns into a searing confession. As an artisan who has renounced pretensions to greatness, the poet might be expected to be allowed quietly to pursue his craft. But not even this is given him. He has been cast out of the Land and made into a "dray horse, a galley slave" that labors in other languages (Yiddish and English) and, as a result, has betrayed his "high mission" to uncover the majesty of Divinity through Hebrew. But even though this fate has been thrust upon him by circumstance, the poet takes great pains to protest before his beloved Hebrew that he has never forgotten her, that he has used every surreptitious opportunity to disseminate her glories in the languages in which he has been forced to write, and that whatever of value he has found in the cultures of England and America he has been sure to transplant and naturalize for the greater enrichment of Hebrew. Turning from confession to supplication, the final lines of the section, which conclude the poem as a whole, return to the theme of the artist as worker, but with a difference. Whereas earlier the poet presented himself as an artisan of celestial spheres; here at the end, the tone of desperation has intensified, and the acceptable "occupational spectrum" has considerably widened. If he would only be allowed to return to the Land and to the Language – "for you and your land are one!" –he would be perfectly contented to be inscribed alongside "drillers of wells, layers of pipes, . . . the tillers and the sowers" and all the other pioneering occupations embedded in the rhetoric of the settlement period decades earlier.
When he finally was able to settle in Israel and gain employment as a journalist for a Hebrew daily, Regelson wrote an article on the tenth anniversary of the appearance of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh," recalling his motives for writing it. It opens thus:
Out of forced banishment, out of the need to write in a language other than Hebrew in order to eke out a living, and out of feelings of guilt for having left the Hebrew Land, the poem "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" was born. It was because of that same distance that the Hebrew language could reveal itself to me in its allure [behemdatah] as a complete phenomenon in a way that allowed me to see what could be seen by no one who lives within it and feels as if he swims in the blood of its veins.
Regelson's belated reflection tells us a great deal about the moral balance of his poem. The "secret" of the shame and guilt that served as the spring for the poem is placed at the beginning of his article but at the end of his long poem. For it is only after he has discharged the monumental task of describing and praising the Hebrew language and defending her from enemies that the poet allows himself to mention his own situation. He does so not to uncover the motives for composing the poem but to garner sympathy for his abjection in exile, to defend the constancy of his loyalty to Hebrew in the depths of his ordeal, and, on the strength of this faithfulness, to pray for his being taken back into the bosom of Hebrew in the land of Hebrew. In the last analysis, the real spring of "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" is disclosed in the second sentence of Regelson's reflection. The poem is not about shame and guilt but rather about adoration and celebration. But it was paradoxically only by virtue of being banished from the lifeblood of Hebrew that the poet could be vouchsafed a vision of Hebrew as an erotically charged totality and the poem could come into being.
The final lines of Regelson's hymn to Hebrew, which register the worker-poet's plea to be allowed to take his place among all the other pioneer laborers, point the poem at its conclusion toward the great mystery of materialization and embodiment. "Through which," here at the beginning of the line, refers to paths to heaven that are being paved by all the laborers on the Land.
[בָּהֶן] אֱלֹהַּ מִתְגַּלֵּם-מִתְעַלֵּם וְעוֹלָם מִתְעַלֶּה-מִתְאַלֵּהַּ.
[Through which] God is embodied and en-worlds himself and
the world is elevated and turns into divinity.
For Regelson, reality is ultimately a series of simultaneous reciprocal processes whereby God is being turned into the world and the world is being turned into God. Because the God is Logos, everyone who uses the Hebrew language, however mundanely, becomes an active participant in this mystery. Each of the verbs in the line is in the hitpa'el, the reflexive binyan, upon which the poem had earlier lavished so much attention. Making the name of God into a reflexive verb is an instance of seriously playful provocation that is a fitting conclusion to his masterwork.
In this introductory study of American Hebrew poetry, "Haquqot Otiyyotayikh" is the only individual text to be given extended treatment because it is the only major work that makes the enterprise of Hebrew its theme. Although the poem is marked by many distinctively Regelsonian practices, some of them maddeningly idiosyncratic, this ambitious and passionate attempt to seize the great subject of Hebrew contains within it many of the ideas and assumptions that underlay the Hebraist activity in America generally. Some of these ideas and assumptions are articulated within the poetry that will be discussed in the body of this study; yet many lie beneath the surface of the texts themselves, and it is only by making them explicit can we understand the mentalité that made the creation of these works possible.
First, Hebrew is the deep structure of Jewish civilization from its very beginnings and the truest and most authentic expression of the spirit of the nation. In the many shifts in Jewish religious belief and historical experience over the ages, Hebrew has not only been the carrier of those changes, but it has also provided the deep-flowing continuity among them. Second, Hebrew is a miraculously beautiful language that is gorgeous, rich, precise, supple, and dazzling in its resourcefulness. Anyone who knows Hebrew cannot help being smitten by its charms and venerating it. Third, the way words are formed based on a verb stem makes Hebrew into a flexible, open system. The language's rules of grammar and its lexical reservoir guarantee order and the preservation of wisdom while at the same time inviting the creativity of the individual talent. Fourth, Hebrew supersedes and absorbs "religion" narrowly understood as Orthodox belief and halakhic practice, and in so doing, Hebrew itself becomes a ground for religious experience and fulfillment. Through Hebrew, Creation becomes language; Hebrew names the world. It follows then that Hebrew leads to a radical amazement at the wonder of the world. Fifth, although the life of the Hebraist in America often entailed loneliness and isolation, the pleasure provided by the connection with Hebrew should not be underestimated. By becoming an active "practitioner" of Hebrew, the Hebraist tapped into an unstinting and nurturing source of quasi-erotic stimulation and enjoyment. Sixth, although virtually all American Hebraists were Zionists and some eventually settled in Israel, they regarded Hebrew language and culture as a "portable homeland" that could be colonized without access to concrete territory. Seventh, the Americans regarded themselves as citizens of a catholic republic of Hebrew letters, and their location in America gave them the privileged position, as well as the duty, to take the best of English-language culture and import it into Hebrew. Finally, a true appreciation and understanding of Hebrew as a totality could be reached, ironically, only by those, like the American Hebraists, who lived outside the daily "bloodstream" of Hebrew in Palestine/Israel.