Astir With Gracious Words: The Psalms’ Resurgence

By Brian Mono

Published December 26, 2003, issue of December 26, 2003.
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Rabbi Paul Plotkin’s faith in God was confirmed by a single line from the Psalms, but for years nobody seemed to want to hear his story.

Devastated by a painful divorce in 1994, the Conservative rabbi turned to his morning prayers for consolation; he found it in a verse from Psalm 30, “At night one goes to sleep crying; in the morning there is the ringing cry of joy.”

The verse became his mantra, and soon he discovered other worshippers who were similarly moved by passages from the biblical poetry that Jewish tradition attributes to King David and other lyricists inspired by his example.

Plotkin, the senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Margate, Fla., spent his 1999 sabbatical writing a book that would use contemporary stories to help convey to the general public the message of the Psalmists, who wrote their hymns during the First and Second Temple periods (1006 BCE to 70 C.E.). He sent his manuscript to a bunch of publishers, but he got frustrated as the rejections piled up, and he set the book aside for a couple years.

Then came the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“I sent [the editor at Sunbelt Eakin Press] two chapters in October 2001,” Plotkin recalled. “He sends me back a note that says, ‘It sounds like something we could really use in these troubled times. Send me the rest of the manuscript.’”

Two weeks later Plotkin had a signed contract on his desk.

Sunbelt Eakin is not the only publisher offering the Book of Psalms as an antidote to what ails the American spirit today. In some bookstores, Plotkin’s book, “The Lord Is My Shepherd: Why Do I Still Want?” (2003), finds itself on the shelf next to no fewer than five other recent translations and commentaries. Among them are “Our Haven and Our Strength: The Book of Psalms” by Rabbi Martin Samuel Cohen (Aviv, 2003); “Healing Psalms” by Rabbi Joshua O. Haberman (Wiley, 2003); “The Lord Is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the 23rd Psalm” by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner (Knopf, 2003); “The Bible: Psalms with the Jerusalem Commentary” translated by Rabbi Israel Berman (Mosad Harav Kook, 2003), and “Keeping Faith with the Psalms” by Rabbi Daniel E. Polish (Jewish Lights, 2004). In addition, David Van Biema, a religion reporter for Time magazine, has a contract with Houghton Mifflin to write a book about contemporary usage of the Psalms within Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Although the September 11 attacks may be partly responsible for this recent spate of publications, the popularity of the Book of Psalms is not an entirely new phenomenon. In Bologna in 1477, Sefer Tehillim, the Hebrew name for the Book of Psalms, became the first book of the Bible to be printed in Hebrew.

“The Psalms were simpler to produce,” explained Seth Jerchower, a librarian at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. “There was a demand for it [for liturgical purposes] and for the commentary” by Rabbi David Kinche, a medieval biblical commentator.

Early printers would produce 17 more editions of the Book of Psalms before the end of the 15th century, whether as a stand-alone volume, as an addendum for a prayer book or as part of the publication of the entire Hebrew Bible. In the 20th century, a new edition, translation or commentary about the Psalms came out almost every year, Jerchower said.

Today’s authors offer many practical reasons for their contemporary interest in the Book of Psalms, including the variety of attitudes the Psalmists expressed regarding God and the challenging world he created; the poetry’s prominent place in traditional Jewish liturgy and ritual, and the growing popularity of Tehillim groups in the Jewish world.

“It is the only book [of the Bible] that God didn’t write,” said Kushner, whose new book was partly prompted by the September 11 attacks. “The Book of Psalms represent[s] our words to God rather than God’s words to us. As such, it records the range of human response to good times and bad times.”

The power of the poetry is not limited to the Jewish community, said Kushner, who has a diverse audience due to his best seller “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

“At a certain level of human experience,” Kushner said, “these labels fall away, and Christians respond to tragedy, to doubt and to fear pretty much as Jews do.”

Most historians believe the Psalms first played a significant religious role in the sacrificial service performed in the First and Second Temple periods. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the recitation of specific Psalms became one of the cornerstones of Jewish — and Christian — prayer services, as well as other ritual events.

“One of the places Jews encountered Psalms was in services, but that was not the only place,” said Polish, who pointed to family celebrations and lifecycle events as other times when Psalms are read. “There are also resources that tell people to read certain Psalms under certain circumstances,” he said, such as during an illness or before taking a journey.

Some authors have noticed a recent resurgence in Jewish circles of Tehillim groups as a communal response to tragic events.

“I think that in certain Jewish communities saying Tehillim has become extremely popular,” said Time’s Van Biema.

Van Biema said he first noticed the trend after the September 11 attacks, when he learned about a group of Orthodox Jews who were reciting Psalms at Ground Zero as they performed shemira, a form of guard duty, for the remains of those who died in the collapse of the Twin Towers. Later, the reporter found earlier examples of Tehillim groups among victims of breast cancer in Long Island and supporters of Israel around the world.

“These people, when faced with difficult communal situations, immediately, atavistically reach out to the Psalms,” he observed. “The reasons change, but the Psalms continue to be said.”

Brain Mono is a writer living in Philadelphia.

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