Desert Island TextsThis week, Robin Moss, national officer for Liberal Judaism, selects a cycle of poems by Yehuda Amichai

My text is from a cycle of poems by Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), Israel’s greatest modern poet, called Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain. It is the third poem. Here it is (English translation by Karen Alkalay-Gut):

“I say with perfect faith

that prayers precede God.

Prayers created God.

God created man,

And man creates prayers that create God who creates man.”

Stunning, isn’t it? In just six short lines, it seems to me to sum up so much about the glorious ambiguity and complexity of Jewish life, Jewish belief, Jewish practice and Jewish identity. I self-define as a profoundly religious secular atheist Jew. In almost any other ethnic, religious or national group, those words would be contradictory. But in Judaism, it isn’t so clear cut. We are a people with a deep and rich heritage, a collective memory and a diversity of expression that gives the Jewish world colour and vibrancy.

And we are a contrary bunch. Amichai’s writing is neat, tidy and almost playful. He subverts the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith – troubling as the idea that Jewish peoplehood or Jewish solidarity rests on unshakeable dogmas is – without detailed theology, but elegant poetry. (Plato, in The Republic, talks of “the old quarrel between poetry and philosophy”.

I don’t think he had Amichai and Maimonides in mind, but it is apt!) The poem is pre-modern, modern and post-modern – all at once. It is like a Möbius strip, looping endlessly back on itself. I taught the poem to a bunch of twelve-year-olds at Limmud Conference last year. They were engaged, enchanted and entranced by it. I hope you will be too.