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Thursday, October 8, 2015

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Exploring the midrashic style of S.Y. Agnon

Rabbi Jeffrey Saks

Rabbi Jeffrey Saks is the founding director of the Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions (ATID) and its program, which he describes as “a fully-interactive online Jewish studies portal using a very sophisticated video conferencing system,” that boasts about 7,500 registered students.

Rabbi Saks, who made aliyah from New Jersey 20 years ago after receiving his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University in New York, is also the series editor of the Toby Press’ S.Y. Agnon Library and lectures regularly at the Agnon House in Jerusalem, a museum dedicated to the life and work of Agnon. A prolific writer, Agnon was the first and only Hebrew author to win the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1966.

Rabbi Saks, 45, was invited by Shaarei Shomayim Congregation’s Rabbi Chaim Strauchler to be a scholar in residence on Feb. 21-22, and he spoke with The CJN by phone from Israel about his fascination with the literary legend and what makes Agnon relevant 44 years after his death.


How long have you been studying Agnon?

I grew up in a very Americanized home. All of my grandparents, most of my great- grandparents were born in America, but in high school, when I became interested in deepening my Jewish connection, one of my grandmothers bought me a copy of a collection of Agnon stories and translations. She was the most culturally engaged Jewish person in my family, and it wouldn’t have been lost on her that a Hebrew writer had been awarded the Nobel Prize.

Part of what [Agnon] is doing is weaving together the whole world of traditional Jewish literature, Jewish learning from the Bible, through rabbinic writings, midrash, etc., and he’s kind of weaving it together and distilling it down into modern literature. I thought that was really interesting, and it engaged me.

 What was it specifically about his writing that fascinated you?

It was the attempt in the distilling the entire corpus of thousands of years of Jewish literature into a new modern storytelling, at a time when the modern Hebrew language was first finding itself. He had that added challenge of being a pioneer of writing in a language that was being created – modern Hebrew, that is – as it was coming out of his pen.

The question of the viability of tradition in the modern world and the tension between the world that was and the world that is, and also the tension between the Jewish world in Europe, specifically in eastern Europe and what was trying to be built here in the Land of Israel, these were things that were very interesting to me.

How does his work resonate with you?

I wrote a new preface to the book [A Simple Story]. I kind of described there what it was like reading this particular novel in my 20s, and then again in my 30s and then again in my 40s… I think part of what’s so engaging about his writing, particularly to those of us who are used to reading midrashic text or rabbinic text, is that it does require that kind of intensive, repeated, interpretive inquiry.

In a certain sense, Agnon’s writing almost reads in that same kind of midrashic style that requires a reading and re-reading, and re-analysis and re-interpretation…

[A Simple Story] is about a young man who falls in love… It’s a star-crossed love. He’s married off, as was the fashion in the beginning of the 20th century, to a girl who his parents think is a more suitable match. I read the book in my 20s, after a terrible adolescent heartbreak and I read it one way, and then you come back to it 10 years later and you see it differently, and then you come back to it 10 years later and you see it differently still. So that’s part of the richness of this particular author.

Is there a newfound interest in the works of Agnon?

I think there is… In his lifetime he was the most important author in Israel, and he was even the most famous man of letters in Israel, and he certainly cast a giant shadow over all the authors that came afterwards and all of them talk about trying to write under the influence of Agnon – consciously or subconsciously – trying to resist it, or trying to walk in his footsteps. Authors like Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua and [Aharon] Appelfeld.

In the 1970s and even ’80s, there was a kind of turn-away from the writing about the old world, and Israeli authors were trying to find a new voice and document the sabra experience, the Israeli experience of life here after the establishment of the state.

Agnon’s stories… they’re written in the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s, but they’re set much earlier on. There was a kind of lack of interest [in Agnon in the 1970s and ’80s], and you can chart the interest in Agnon based upon what role he plays in the high school curriculum. There has been a kind of resurgence, partially because there has been a resurgence amongst the general Israeli population in Jewish learning, not just amongst the Orthodox.

It’s been nearly 45 years since he passed away in 1970 – how does his work apply to modern-day Orthodoxy, and is it still relevant?

The question of how we relate to Israel, whether we live here or abroad, and our relationship to Hebrew, was something that was obviously very close to his heart. He was not a native Hebrew speaker. He grew up speaking Yiddish in his home in Europe. He made aliyah around the age of 20. He was born in Galicia in what is today Ukraine.

Obviously his connection to Hebrew and the interaction between Jewish learning and Jewish culture, these three things were central to his work, in addition to the larger theme I mentioned earlier about the viability of tradition in the modern world, the viability of faith in the modern world, the tensions between modernity and faith.

Those issues were very central to his work, and those are the things that the Jewish world needs to be engaged in, particularly the Jewish world that lives in Canada, America and Europe. The connection to Israel, our relationship to the Hebrew language, was once a defining mark of an engaged Jew, whether he was Orthodox or secular. An engaged Jew, certainly a Jew who identified as a Zionist living abroad had some kind of connection to the Hebrew language. That is no longer the case, unfortunately, for very many people. These are all things that I think still have relevance.

He was also something of a paradox himself. He spent a period of time in his life where he abandoned traditional observance. He grew up in a completely traditional Orthodox home… When he came on aliyah in 1908, he took off his yarmulke, which was not uncommon during what was called the Second Aliyah… he lived in Jaffa and he lived the life of a secular Jew.

He continued to write some of his most profoundly, deeply, religiously charged work in that period.

He spent a few years in Germany… and when he returned 12 years later [to Israel], the big, black yarmulke, which had come off in his youth, now mysteriously returned. He never gave an explicit explanation, but there are a few hints in his writings, and he lived the rest of his life as a fully observant Orthodox Jew…

He’s someone who straddled different worlds. That is something that we don’t encounter so much any more. We all tend to live in our own little box, and it’s important to know that there were people like that and to whatever degree that comes through in the writings, it’s important for us to encounter.

Rabbi Saks will be delivering a lecture about Agnon at York University on Feb. 24. For more information, email

For recorded lectures on Agnon, visit

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