The centrality that the Book of Psalms holds in Jewish culture -- for believers and nonbelievers alike -- is what has motivated the great scholar Robert Alter to rethink and refashion these splendid works of liturgical art, just as he has done in the recent past for the Five Books of Moses and the story of David. His new translation of The Book of Psalms, published recently by W.W. Norton, is a major endeavor, and comes just in time to be of real use and solace to readers during the High Holiday period.
As Alter makes clear in his introduction to this new translation, which is matched by a copious running commentary, the reach and influence of the Psalms may, in fact, be greater than most people have ever realized. "The inner world of major Western writers," notes the scholar, "from Augustine, Judah Halevi, and George Herbert to Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan was inflected by the reading of the Psalms."
But no matter how many modern readers have turned to these resonant texts, Alter reminds his readers that they have their origins in an an ancient Near Eastern world that dates to the late Bronze Age (1600-1200 BCE), which, in certain of its aspects, is alien to the major tenets of modernity.
The language that fills the Bible may have drawn for its techniques from many of the surrounding literatures and cultures, and such influences have been copiously catalogued by any number of renowned scholars; yet Alter states that the prose works that fill the Hebrew text are strikingly innovative in how they create their effects. He goes so far as to say that these works may account for the most original literary creations of the biblical writers.
As for psalms, they -- "or psalm-like cultic hymns and celebrations of the gods" -- were common features of Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures, as well as in Syro-Canaanite literature. "We know this literature," writes Alter, "chiefly through the trove of texts found at the site of Ugarit, on the Mediterranean coast of present-day Syria, dating roughly from 1400 to 1200 BCE -- several centuries earlier than the main body of biblical writings. As previously unknown texts in the various ancient Near Eastern languages have been unearthed and deciphered over the past century, it has become clear that the psalmists not only adopted the formal system of poetry ... from the antecedent literature of the region but also tapped their predecessors for verbal formulas, imagery, elements of mythology, and even entire sequences of lines of poetry."
Some scholars, Alter argues, have even claimed that a few of the psalms are Hebrew translations of pagan poems, though he insists that a comparison with any of the purported originals would suggest that what the psalmists did was "adapt, briefly cite, or even polemically transform the polytheistic poems" -- not unlike the bulk of poets in every generation -- "both building on them and emphatically making something new out of them."
A Compassionate Force
The link to the pagan tradition is no doubt strong, writes the translator, and may have come as a shock to some overly pious readers of the canonical text throughout the centuries. Though God is often pictured in Psalms as a mender of broken hearts, a compassionate force, Alter notes that there are times when God resembles nothing more than the Canaanite warrior god Baal, "riding through the skies with clouds as his chariot, brandishing lightening bolts as his weapons." But despite what literary antecedents these verses drew upon, they were fashioned to be of use by the Israelites and so, states Alter, only "loosely parallel" the "polytheistic texts that served as poetic precedents."
According to the translator, psalms were likely composed on a particularly regular basis over many centuries. "The Davidic authorship enshrined in Jewish and Christian tradition," he writes, "has no credible historical grounding. It was a regular practice in the later biblical period to ascribe new texts to famous figures of the past." Some scholars, he adds, doubt David's "historicity" altogether.
"In any case," Alter continues, "a few of the psalms might be as early as the Solomonic court, or even pre-monarchic period. Many of these poems appear to have been written at some indeterminate point during the four centuries of the First Commonwealth (approximately 996 to 586 BCE). Many others offer evidence in their themes and language of composition in the period of the Return to Zion (that is, after 457 BCE). One famous instance, Psalm 137, which begins with the words 'By Babylon's streams,' was clearly written when the pain of exile was fresh, not long after the national trauma of 586 BCE. There is no way to date what may be the latest psalms, and the texts found at Qumran indicate that some sort of psalm writing was still a literary activity in the last two centuries before the Christian era. But the extravagant scholarly hypothesis that many of the psalms were composed in the Hasmonean period in the second century BCE is now generally rejected -- among other reasons because the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible completed during the third century BCE, already has virtually the same contents (with the exception of one additional psalm) as the canonical Hebrew collection passed down to us. These poems, then, were produced by many different poets over more than half a millennium, probably beginning during or even before the 10th century BCE. By the late first century CE, the Book of Psalms was considered such a cornerstone of the scriptural canon that in Luke 24:44 it is mentioned together with the Torah and the Prophets as one of the three primary categories of the sacred writings."
This is just a sampling of the erudition that runs through Alter's introduction and the abundant notes that he's affixed to his renderings of the psalms; and, of course, this spirit and intelligence also inform his straightforward, unfussy but always resonant versions of these great liturgical pieces.
One example will have to suffice, the opening passages of the famous Psalm 27, repeated often during this time of the year:
- The Lord is my light and my rescue,
- Whom should I fear?
- The Lord is my life's stronghold.
- Of whom should I be afraid?
- When evildoers draw near me to eat my flesh --
- my foes and my enemies are they --they trip and they fall.
- Though a camp is marshaled against me,
- my heart shall not fear.
- Though battle is roused against me,
- nonetheless do I trust.
- One thing do I ask of the Lord,
- it is this that I seek --
- that I dwell in the house of the Lord
- all the days of my life,
- to behold the Lord's sweetness
- and to gaze on His palace. ...
Also of considerable utility right now is Celebrating The Jewish Year, The Fall Holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot by Paul Steinberg, edited by Janet Greenstein Potter. It has just been released by the Jewish Publication Society, which has begun a long-term project of refashioning its guides to the holiday cycle.
This first in the series has been packaged in bright colors and has been reimagined for a contemporary audience. Anyone with minimal knowledge of Jewish customs who's looking for a clear introduction could hardly go wrong with this crisply written volume. An added benefit is that those with some larger sense of the High Holidays can use the work as an anthology of wonderful writings drawn from the works of classic and contemporary writers and thinkers, among them Erich Fromm, Shlomo Carlebach, Arthur Green and Rav Kook.