In the novitiate Scripture Classes we’ve begun studying the psalms. Yes, we consider data like when they were composed, characteristics of ancient Hebrew poetry, the language and vocabulary of the psalms, the world-view of their authors and so forth. But the most important part of the classes is that each of us finds or re-discovers or reshapes his personal access to the psalms; that the psalms become an open door to our relationship with God. Of course this is not achieved in one or thirty class sessions. The class periods can give hints, can share experience, but can only be a start. Each of us has to take on that responsibility. I suppose I’ve been seriously praying through the psalms for some forty years or more and I can safely say that at each stage of my life I have to rediscover the psalms anew.
An important part of this website–and an important part of our community’s connection with our friends and guests and visitors–is through the liturgy and the psalms are an evident part of the liturgy’s language. In that spirit, I’d like to begin to suggest some books that might help approaching the psalms. On this post, I’ll begin with a few Jewish authors. That’s logical, isn’t it? The psalms are Jewish prayers, Jewish songs. For nearly three thousand years these prayers have been chanted by Jews and shared with other peoples and religions. Some days I’m awed that these same words and feelings bind me to people of a very different culture so far back in human history. And all this time, the Jewish people have been preserving, enlivening these prayers; surely they have unique insights and understanding to offer about their own prayers.
Rabbi Daniel F. Polish has written two books about praying the psalms for Jewish Lights Publishing (Woodstock, Vermont). The mission of Jewish Lights is to offer books about Judaism “for people of all faiths, all backgrounds.” If I say that these books are easy reading, I’m not saying that they don’t require meditation, slow reading and careful assimilation; most of all, they require connecting with our personal, in-depth experience. As such, they are well suited to a prayerful reading for busy people. Polish’s Bringing the Psalms to Life, might be describes as a “first-person singular” essay, in this sense: I can read it through my own questions : “Who are my real enemies?” “What about my anger when I pray?” “Can I really pray when I feel let down?” ” What about when I feel sick and too weak to bother?” “Do I bother with gratitude when things are going well?” This book is only 162 pages in seven chapters.
Another book by Rabbi Polish is Keeping Faith with the Psalms. I might call it a more liturgical approach focusing on our communal, universal relationship to God. Where do we meet God? Rabbi Polish identifies the Psalms as describing God in Nature, in Torah, in the on-going historical experience of the Jewish people, in the problem of evil, our own mortality and so forth. The book is 285 pages in eight chapters.
A more academic approach is offered by Nahum M. Sarna in On the Book of Psalms: Exploring the Prayers of Ancient Israel, published by Schocken Books, New York. Shocken has been the great publishing house of serious Jewish thought since World War II. Sarna was one of the original translators of the ground-breaking Jewish Publication Society’s Bible; one of his colleagues was the biblical scholar and novelist, Rabbi Chaim Potok (My Name Is Asher Lev; The Chosen; The Book of Lights). Sarna only considers ten psalms but in illuminating detail. This isn’t a light read but it’s well worth the concentration.
Also notable is Robert Alter’s 2007 translation of the Psalms from Hebrew. The Book of Psalms is published W. W. Norton and Company (New York and London). His translation is clear and as down-to-earth as the original Hebrew and his notes and comments are always illuminating.
The final suggestion is for those who really like a challenge, a new translation of Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption. Rosensweig was a very assimilated German Jew (1886-1929) who, after completing his doctoral thesis on Hegel, rediscovered Judaism. Bit by bit he became an observant Jew and found in the religion of his ancestors what he could never find in idealist philosophy. The Star of Redemption is not a book about the Psalms but about how God and the world, as creation, interact, interconnect. His long Introduction to the Third Part, “On the Possibility of Obtaining the Kingdom by Prayer” is a wonderful foundation for praying the Psalms. This new translation, running 447 pages, by the Rosensweig scholar, Barbara Galli, is published by the university of Wisconsin Press. The Forward and Introduction are helpful entrances into Rosensweig’s complex thought.