No contemporary writer known to me has written as searchingly and complicatedly about God and the ghost of God, and with such rich mixtures of feeling, such brazen anguish and play. Like Jerusalem (but more so), God provokes Amichai to describe and re-describe, shatters his language into splintered approximations.
When Amichai is angry, he reaches for savage inversions: as we once hid from God in the Garden of Eden, now God hides from us (“And That Is Your Glory”). The age of sacrificing animals to God has passed, and instead it is we who sacrifice ourselves to God (“Those Were Days of Grace”). God may be “full of mercy” (liturgical words from the prayer for the dead), but he hogs all the available mercy for himself, and “Were God not full of mercy / there would be mercy in the world, and not just in Him” (“God Full of Mercy”). If, Amichai says, I believed in God, I wouldn’t tell him about the wars I have fought in, “as one doesn’t tell a child about the grown-ups’ horrors” (“What I Learned in the Wars”). God is like a rich, spoiled “only God,” akin to an only child (a fabulously ironic identity for the God who invented monotheism).
These fruitful negations are the fated language of a man for whom God, like time, is always present and always gone. And these gestures and quarrels are more than the merely familiar struggle of the atheist who constantly invokes a God he does not believe in. Amichai does not believe in God, and does not want him back—but what has belief got to do with it, if (in the Feuerbachian sense) we invented him anyway? How to uninvent him? How to purge him from our grammar? Gods change, but prayers are here to stay, as the title of one of Amichai’s poems slyly has it.
Besides, the God of the Jews—the “only God” of an only people—is a national possession, not just a theological one. If God disappears, do the Jews disappear? Perhaps the threat also exists the other way round? In several poems, Amichai gives expression to a fear that the Jews and their God might go down together, united in oblivion. Perhaps he will “forget not his own,” but perhaps it’s too late: “the Jewish people is gone.” What does a father do, Amichai asks, in “Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay,” when “his children are orphans and he / is still alive?” And what will a father do when his children are all dead and he becomes “a bereaved father for all eternity?”
James Wood, “Like A Prayer”, The New Yorker (4 January 2016), 77.