Reflections on Psalms

(Photo: Unsplash/Morgan Winston)

Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on the Psalms and the publication of the much-acclaimed new book, "Duets on Psalms: Drawing New Meaning From Ancient Words, by Jack Riemer and Elie Spitz".

It all started during Covid. Around the festival of Shavuot, at the end of May 2020, Chief Rabbis and Jewish scholars from around the world got together and zoomed out to us at 30 minute intervals.

Through this extraordinarily comforting marathon learning session, contact was made with a rabbi in Israel whose classes in Jerusalem I had attended 40 years ago, and then he was zoom-hosted in September, around Rosh Hashana, by a rabbi in Detroit. And after that, contacts with Israel and North America multiplied.

One such contact was with a Jewish study centre in Orange County California. In early 2021, this study centre was hosting the assistant to the famous Holocaust survivor, writer and thinker, Elie Wiesel (1928-2016). I had introduced the work of Elie Wiesel to Liverpool University, where, for 11 years, I taught Hebrew and Jewish Studies. But then, I was invited by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to meet with Elie Wiesel in person at the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Celebrations in Oslo.

Elie's mantra, as he repeated to me over and over again, was that the worst thing to do in order to promote Judaism was to construct castles in the air, whether physical or spiritual. By 'physical' Elie meant Holocaust museums and memorials, many of which have been vandalized in the last few years, and even more so since the onset of the latest Hamas terrorist attacks. And by 'spiritual', Elie meant that by not paying attention to our enemies, we allow the forces of evil to take over.

Naturally, exactly 30 years after this encounter, I asked if I could attend this zoom meeting on Elie Wiesel by his former assistant in Boston.

At the end of this session in California, the Chair introduced his own rabbi, Elie Spitz. Elie announced that he was holding zoom Psalms sessions three times a week during Covid, and invited us all to join in.

I wrote and asked if I might be included in, and was told that I could.

So that is how it all began. In Elie Spitz, I met the most welcoming rabbi and congregation possible. And the rabbi himself had links with my friend, Professor Moshe Idel, of the Hebrew University, who had told me at a fortuitous meeting in Jerusalem in 1989 that the first Jewish Spanish biblical commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164), was in need of a translator and interpreter, and wondered if I could take on the mantle! The link was Romania – home to Elie Wiesel, Moshe Idel and the family of Rabbi Elie Spitz.

So three times a week at around 5pm UK time (9am in California), we were able to listen to and participate in the most wonderful teaching sessions on every single Psalm. So hooked was I on both the subject matter and teaching methods that, even in a Lancashire hamlet in the middle of nowhere, straight after receiving my second Covid jab, while sitting out the compulsory 15-minute recovery session, I managed to listen live on my smartphone to a guest speaker holding forth on Psalm 104, one of my favourites, while the British army, medical personnel and other patients, mostly not Jewish, went about their normal business of giving and receiving life-saving inoculations.

Rabbi Elie also gave a guest talk to our Broughton Park Dialogue Group as part of our series on contemporary American thought and practice, getting up at around 5am in the morning his time, in order to join us in the afternoon in the UK. What devotion!

So, it was with great joy that a few days ago I received a Chanukah gift of Elie's latest book, written with his teacher, Rabbi Jack Riemer (aged 94 and a half), who had himself, incidentally, been secretary to the great Rabbi Abraham Joseph Heschel, and quotes him liberally in their joint book on Psalms: Duets On Psalms: Drawing New Meaning from Ancient Words

In a video presentation to promote their new book, Rabbi Riemer discussed the sad state of affairs in the US, describing a TV programme called 'Jeopardy', probably similar to our 'Countdown' (or maybe University Challenge?), except that panelists answer questions for large amounts of money. Rabbi Riemer stated that on a recent occasion, none of the erudite and learned contestants was able to answer a question about a quote from the most famous psalm of all, the 23rd Psalm, 'The Lord is my Shephard: I shall not want'. His conclusion was that America must really be 'in jeopardy' if no-one seems able to recognize the 23rd Psalm any more.

One of the advance words of praise featured in this book on Psalms comes from Rabbi David Wolpe, formerly of Los Angeles, and apparently 'the most influential rabbi' in the US. He says: "This marvelous dialogue combines poetry and wisdom to make a book that gives both learning and life guidance to any seeking soul."

More recently, Rabbi Wolpe has hit the headlines in this country as a result of his recent resignation from Harvard University's Antisemitism Advisory Group. According to the Sunday Times on December 10, "In an emotional statement on Twitter/X, Wolpe blamed an 'evil' ideology that grips far too many ... students and faculty ... and places Jews as oppressors."

Apart from Wolpe, there are others, more famous in this country, who have also welcomed the book. Professor Daniel Matt, renowned translator of the many-volume English-language version of Zohar, the most famous mystical work in Jewish history, has stated that:

'Two deeply spiritual rabbis explore the Book of Psalms – one of the holiest and most heartfelt books ever composed – and they make it come alive for us today. They draw on the most recent biblical scholarship, but, also on their own wisdom, gained from decades in the pulpit and from counseling thousands of struggling human beings.'

And for the readership of Christian Today, the most well-known admirer of the book must be Christian Pastor Rick Warren, also of Orange Country, who states:

"Not just rabbis and pastors, but everyone who loves the Psalms should own this wonderful book. Rabbi Jack and Rabbi Elie have not only learned the Psalms all their lives, they have lived the Psalms through decades of ministry to people in every possible phase and crisis of life. This book oozes with authentic wisdom that only comes from investing a lifetime in both G-d's Word and G-d's world."

Here, at least, is one Christian voice, and a famous one at that, speaking out for the Jewish people from which, after all, Jesus came!

So, according to all these admirers of the book, and in the spirit of the best American tradition, these Psalms are not simply there to be studied, admired and cited, but, above all, lived out in our daily lives.

The Psalms were the very first biblical book I taught many years ago at Liverpool University. More recently, during Covid, I also taught the Psalms by Zoom to trainee clergy of the state church, the Church of England. But, my goodness, the experience was challenging, to say the least. It appears that for many in the Church of England, including the current Archbishop of Canterbury, the Psalms were written by Jesus for the Church of England (oy veh), and are nothing to do with Jews at all. David doesn't even get a mention in the eyes of many contemporary Christians for whom 'Jew' is a dirty word!

For example Psalm 22, cited in the book, is a case in point. The Jewish community attribute this psalm to Queen Esther, known as 'ayalat ha-shachar' 'the doe of the dawn', or 'the first rays of the dawn', who is crying out during her many afflictions suffered at the hands of the the wicked Haman in Persia, while trying to save her people from utter destruction. Strangely, I have encountered some Christians who do not seem to accept that this Psalm was written before the advent of Jesus! Or concede that Jewish communities still recite this Psalm regularly, with reference to Esther.

But to return to the book, which was completed before October 7, Psalm 35 may be of particular interest. According to the authors, this psalm may have been recited when the Children of Israel set off to war. It is part of a covenant of the Jewish people with G-d. It appears that in 1774, at the American Continental Congress, there was some discussion about which prayer should be chosen to open the proceedings. Because both Christians and Jews were present, they decided on Psalm 35 (verses 1 and 3): "Plead my cause, Oh Lord, against those that strive with me. Fight against those that fight against me. Say unto my soul: 'I am Thy salvation."

That evening, John Adams (later, the second American President from 1797-1801) wrote to his wife that "I have never seen a greater effect on an audience than I saw on this day! I cannot begin to describe to you the outpouring of emotion with which the delegates – myself included – turned to Heaven and asked for divine aid. It felt as if Heaven had prepared this psalm centuries ago just so that it could be read today."

According to Catholic theologian, Michael Novak: "It was precisely the sharp denominational divisions among the colonial Americans that made the Hebrew Bible the unifying force that it was on that day and that it has been ever since. It was the biblical sense of a providential and covenantal mission that has enabled Americans, past and present, to overcome their differences and to unite their individual agendas into a common desire."

This is exactly what members of the IDF, the Israeli Defence Force, are doing at present. They recite the prayer 'Ani Ma'amin' 'I believe', before they enter Gaza. The early Americans and contemporary Israelis share the view that, at the end of the day, everything is in G-d's hands, and we are simply His vessels. And also, by the way, that values are more important than rights.

If we now turn to a very different psalm, Psalm 36 is cited with reference to the Hasidic rabbi and psychiatrist, friend of Rabbi Elie, Rabbi Abraham Twerski (1930-2021). Rabbi Twerski was much loved as a healer and dispenser of wisdom in Orthodox Jewish circles. He advocated the methods of Alcoholics Anonymous to cure addictions, stating that 'the honest sharing of vulnerabilities and the capacity to trust in a Higher Power uplifted him.' Verse 10 of Psalm 36 is "an appropriate affirmation of a trusted Higher Power: 'For in You is the fountain of life; in Your light do we see light.'"

Rabbi Elie does not say this, but these very lines were used by the greatest medieval Spanish Jewish poet, Shlomo ibn Gabirol (1021-1058/70), as the title of his poem 'Mekor-Haim', translated into Latin as 'Fons Vitae', which I have translated. Because of its popularity with people for whom Latin was their language of communication, i.e. Catholics, ibn Gabirol was for many centuries not regarded as Jewish at all, but as either Muslim or Christian. It appears that commentators up until the 19th century were either unaware of, or overlooked, the fact that ibn Gabirol was steeped in the Hebrew Bible, and so was most likely to be the Jewish genius who he was. Incidentally, ibn Gabirol was himself prone to self-doubt and depression, and no doubt found great comfort in Psalm 36.

Much is also made in the book of Psalm 137, "By rivers of Babylon, there we sat and surely wept when we remembered Zion..... How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil? If I should forget you, O Jerusalem, let me forget my right hand."

When the authors describe how the Babylonian captors of the Jewish people humiliated the exiles by demanding to hear the songs from the old country, this reminds me of what so many Holocaust survivors had to go through in Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, and what the current hostages are going through in Gaza at present, even on the one occasion when some were released – paraded and mocked by their Palestinian captors as worthless!

Verses 2 and 3: 'Upon the willows in its midst, we hung our lyres. For there, our captors demanded of us words of song and our tormentors – joyfully – 'Sing for us the songs of Zion.'

In Hebrew, the word for 'hang' is 't-l-h' and for 'tormentors' is 't-l-l'. These words are related. In addition, 't-l-l' sounds like 'sh-l-l', 'plunderers', or 'lihala', 'causing weeping.' The nearest example we have to this image at present is Hamas. The Nazis deliberately cut off the beards of venerable Orthodox Jews. Their contemporary version, Hamas, have deliberately forced Muslim-styled beards onto their very elderly male Jewish captives, as we saw in photos released by Hamas this week. If ever a religion were nothing more than brutal political coercion masquerading as sickening piety, we are at present witnessing this before our own eyes, as Hamas continue to taunt the Jewish people with their obscene photos.

The book ends with Psalm 148, known as the 'Halleluyah prayer'. This is a subtle psalm, pointing out gently that nature is yet another creation, and therefore obliged to praise G-d for creating it, just as people praise G-d for creating them. So, in this prayer, worship of worship is pointedly rejected, and nature itself is rendered subservient to the One Creator, in line with all other creatures of the Creator. Given our modern propensity to idolize the environment, this Psalm, which completes the book, is a timely reminder of where we stand, and where the entire creation stands. We don't understand as much as we think we do. On the other hand, we have the G-d given gift to cooperate both with one another and with the world of creation. Human beings are all equal; we are responsible for the care and protection (but not worship of) nature; and that is why in this Psalm, all G-d's creatures, humans and non-humans, praise G-d together.

There is much food for thought in this wonderful book, penned as a duets between a revered teacher and his student – both much-loved rabbis and fellow human beings. It is yet another contribution of the great American Jewish spirit, of the great diaspora community from whom much is expected and by whom much is given.