New approaches to the Psalms

A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature
Rabbi Benjamin Segal
Gefen Publishing House
Joy, Despair and Hope: Reading Psalms
Rabbi Edward Feld
Cascade Books

For believers, prayer may be the most basic religious activity. Moses Maimonides once described an initiative that would be doomed to failure by saying that it would be as difficult as trying to tell religious people that they are not allowed to pray. No one, he suggested, would listen.

Prayer in Judaism, goes back even to the days when animal sacrifices were offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. The biblical book of Psalms is the oldest collection of Jewish prayers, containing some that are almost 3,000 years old. Even today, much of the Jewish prayer book consists of excerpts from Psalms.

 While the Torah (the five books of Moses) consists of God’s communication to human beings, Psalms consists of human communication to God. No wonder Jews over the centuries turned to the book of Psalms for inspiration in times of joy or trouble. Finding the right words for addressing God is not easy, but using the hallowed words of the Psalmist helps.

Many people, including some who live observant lives, have difficulty with prayer. The whole idea of talking to God, whether using our own words or traditional ones, and expecting God to hear (much less respond) is foreign to the modern mindset.

Two new books try to make the book of Psalms more accessible: A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature, by Rabbi Benjamin Segal, and Joy, Despair and Hope: Reading Psalms, by Rabbi Edward Feld. Both authors are Conservative rabbis. They take different approaches, but both strive to make Psalms more relevant to contemporary readers.

Rabbi Segal’s book is more complete. Just short of 700 pages, it provides the Hebrew text and an English translation for each one of the 150 chapters of Psalms, explaining the text in literary terms. He draws heavily on the scholarship of Jewish and Christian writers but fits them into a Jewish framework.

Rabbi Feld’s much slimmer volume (151 pages) is harder to categorize. He discusses only 14 psalms at any length. And while he does deal with literary issues, the focus of his book is on making the psalms relevant to people who have difficulty with prayer and whose belief itself may be somewhat shaky. He writes very openly about his own struggles of faith. “The forgiving God is not close at hand to me. I know the judgmental universe but not the forgiving one.” But he takes solace from the book of Psalms: “It is the knowledge that even the biblical poet waits – longs for and hopes – that allows my sense of God’s absence to have religious legitimacy.”

Despite the traditional claim that I mentioned above – that the Torah constitutes God talking to us, while in Psalms we talk to God – both authors emphasize that the distinction may be overstated.

The voice of God often appears in Psalms. For example, in Psalm 91, the speaker appears to be in need of protection from “the terror of the night, the flight of an arrow by daylight, the plague stalking in the dark, the scourge that may ravage at noon.” The psalm finishes with a change of voice, when God, without being introduced, starts to speak: “Because he desired Me, I will rescue him/ I will raise him up for he knows My Name/ When he calls on Me, I will answer him/ I will be with him in distress.” In other words, the book of Psalms can also “speak” to those who are uncomfortable with addressing God, since many psalms, like this one, climax in God addressing us.

Curiously, the two authors have very different readings of the last line of that psalm. Rabbi Segal translates it as “With length of days I will sate him and cause him to see My salvation,” explaining that God is requesting patience from and trying to reduce the expectations of the supplicant who wanted to be protected. God is accordingly saying that salvation will be seen only in the fullness of time. Rabbi Segal writes that “Psalm 91 suggests a more nuanced faith… a critique of naiveté,” a critique of the belief that we can expect God’s protection from immediate danger.

Rabbi Feld, on the other hand, senses a more positive turn in the last verse of Psalm 91, which he translates as, “I will sate him with a full life and show him My salvation.” In this understanding, God is promising even more than what was requested. The prayer was just for protection, but “God promises something that had not been mentioned or even alluded to earlier: the fullness of days, time. It is the fullness of time that is the ultimate reward… Only God’s voice is able to assure the positive: length of days, peacefulness and bounty… The voice of God takes us to a place only God can reassure us about – the future… In imagining that future, the Psalmist offers the ultimate reassurance of prayer: the future contains hope, blessing will come.”

Those who have no problems pouring out their voices in sincere prayer will presumably not need these books. But more skeptical Jews would find something of benefit in each of these thoughtful books.