Review of Laura Lieber's Yannai on Genesis

There's a glowing review at H-Judaic of a new book on Jewish prayer by Laura S. Lieber.Yannai on Genesis: An Invitation to Piyyut. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press. The review is by Debra Blank (Brandeis University). Published on H-Judaic (April, 2011).

In praising this book in many ways, Blank includes this specific assessment, “The volume’s raison d’être is the k’dushta’ot (poetic versions of the Amidah’s first three sections) that Yannai, one of the greatest early medieval Palestinian paytanim, wrote for Genesis. Given his time and place, one can begin to grasp why a study of his poetic and exegetical elaborations on that biblical book would have rich potential for scholars of Byzantine culture and religion, as well as for areas like midrash, biblical commentary, liturgical history, and theology. Lieber describes Byzantine Judaism as an “exegetical culture” and situates Yannai within its vitality, using these piyyutim as an example of that world’s cultural richness (e.g., pp. 39, 145). Because she focuses on context, the dense integration of non-Jewish symbols (zodiac), priestly concerns, and aggadic material that one finds in these poems finally makes sense, no longer an over-stylized hodgepodge.” Here is what the publisher says about this book:
Piyyutim are Hebrew or Aramaic poems composed for use in the Jewish liturgical context, either in place of or as adornments to the statutory prayers. Laura S. Lieber’s seminal study uses the piyyutim of a single poet, Yannai (ca. sixth century CE), to introduce readers to this important but largely unfamiliar body of writings. Yannai, the first Hebrew poet to sign his name to his works (by means of an acrostic), influenced Hebrew sacred poetry for centuries beyond his lifespan. Lieber demonstrates how Yannai’s poetic presentations in a liturgical context transformed common ideas into powerful experiences. With Yannai as creative guide and narrator, worshippers became active participants in still-unfolding biblical events.

Lieber points out that Yannai’s time and place situate him at a critical moment in Jewish cultural history: despite Roman oppression, important rabbinic sources were crystallizing; the synagogue was thriving; the liturgy was taking definitive shape. His works, with their dynamic mixture of messianism, defiance, and restraint, reflect this society in flux and show him to be a poet of transformative importance in a period when Judaism and Western culture itself were both coalescing and becoming something new. The book is divided into two parts. In part 1, Lieber examines Yannai’s poetic language and structures, considers broader questions of his exegetical, cultural, and societal importance, then explores intriguing motifs in Yannai’s worldview—mysticism, holiness, God, the Covenant of the Land, Jewish-Christian relations, and the roles and importance of women in his piyyutim. Part 2 presents the texts of the Yannai’s 31 extant piyyutim embellishing the Book of Genesis along with Lieber’s translation, annotations, and analyses. Lieber’s groundbreaking study is an invitation to scholars to approach these beautiful and neglected texts using all the tools of their own disciplines. It encourages those in diverse cognate areas—such as liturgical studies, rabbinic literature and targum studies, the early synagogue and its art, Byzantine Christian culture and society, and the history of biblical interpretation—to engage with the piyyutim and include them in larger intellectual conversations.
And here is an article published in RRJ that may be drawn from the book. Hat tip to Jim at PaleoJudaica for the link to the review.

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