How We Struggle to Translate the Hebrew of the Psalms

Songs Ascending may be the high point in Richard Levy’s career—a career filled with high points. Whether in his more Olympian organizational roles  (CCAR President), or on a lofty project like the Reform platform,  or the more intense restoration of a prayer, Richard Levy has been leading us for more than five decades.  Countless of his projects in Los Angeles lack his name and contain no reference to their provenance. There are Levy contributions in our prayerbooks where his identity is buried on some back page, and complete Machzorim and Siddurim with his name more boldly attached.  The sun never sets on Richard Levy’s projects; and now it has arisen on Songs Ascending—a new translation of the Book of Psalms.

But this is more than translation, as work with Psalms most often is.  We must be intrigued by the recent quantity of work on Psalms from people like Arnold and Deborah Band and Robert Alter, and the enduring work of folks like Marcia Falk, Sheldon Marder, and Lawrence Hoffman.  And then there are acts of public performance, as in Lincoln Center’s offerings of new musical settings for Psalms. Now, we also have Richard Levy’s meeting of spirit with literature, molded by enormous respect for language and inspired by his deep personal attachment to these ancient tropes.

Read these Psalms, he seems to be saying, for the expressions of how humans feel when confronting fright, or when imagining how another’s imagination has sought the divine (all right, that is shared by all editors and translators of Psalms).  But here is a guide (in the postscript of every chapter) for how YOU might use Psalms in your lives.  Understanding the core problem with gendered language in today’s day and age, Rabbi Levy has provided acceptable translations of problematic Hebrew words; and because he realizes that some are lulled into lack of attention by familiarity with passages that open our daily prayers or close our meals, he shocks us with imaginative translations of those familiar words.  Sometimes he abandons cohortatives like “let us…” and favors such common phrases as “Let’s… .”He has founded metaphors with which not all readers will agree, but which—we all must agree—make us think of what a Psalm line is getting at, and (perhaps most importantly) why this Psalm found its way into our liturgy. 

How we struggle to translate the Hebrew of the Psalms and sometimes even to care about them —even though they fill our liturgy, and occupy stage center when someone dies!  Many of us struggle simply to READ the Psalms, too identified with archaic pieties, holding back when we think of all the darkly dressed Jewish people getting through the turbulence of a flight across America.  Will reading t’hillim really help us get over the Rockies?  Or, if I read them with enough serenity, might they rock me to sleep?  There is more than meets the eye when our eye meets a reader immersed in these vivid lines.  It’s such a large collection of ancient poems, that most of us think only of its “greatest hits” – The Hallelujahs, the psalms of longing, the songs where a shelter is promised to the fragile, the cry of those who feel surrounded.  As with opera arias, we don’t need to struggle when the lyrics are familiar, but that familiarity often works against intensity.  And then those Psalms which many of us don’t think about at all, like the Asaph Psalms (#s 73ff) which elude us entirely.

Richard Levy struggled for us—reading and translating, and transmitting—with a boldness that belies his modest countenance, and a sureness that warns us not to be too casual in our familiarity.

Yes, he has in this volume made some bold choices—choices which might not please everyone.  In efforts to capture rhythm and alliterations, he has come up with clever collocations like: Chamber of Cheaters” when a roomful of scoffers is called for, and where “moshav letzim” approaches becoming a Yiddish witticism.  But even where Rabbi Levy is more imaginative than accurate, his similes and metaphors pressure us into asking “how is THIS like THAT?”  And, in almost every instance, he sheds new light—Levy light and ascending light on this ancient text.  A compliment is due, here, to David Stein, an extraordinary linguistic editor whose task it has been to pass Rabbi Levy’s imagination through a scholarly filter.

So let us examine one of his Songs of Ascent. Psalm 130 begins with the familiar phrase: “Out of the depths I called to Adonai, listen to my voice, (mimaamakim…) and may your ear incline towards the sound of my plea.” Different translators have found different renderings, and Oscar Wilde’s plea was Latinized into “de profundus.”  Richard Levy is not satisfied with what has become the most standard translation of the next line:  “listen to my voice.”  The opportunity exists to create a picture, so he seizes it, suggesting: “From places deepest down have I called you, Adonai./ Adonai, listen as my voice ascends.”   Rabbi Levy offers a note that explains his departure as an effort to help the reader-worshipper visualize the contrast between high and low:  “I am down in the depths, but I am sending my voice upward.”  Like it or not, you will know where Rabbi Levy stands, as my 20-something son said a generation ago.  And he will grant you the privilege of linguistic accuracy by sharing his thinking in the rich notes in these volumes.  Those notes, by the way, are a compass to any serious reader who wants to understand the difference between the various superscriptions: leDavid, Asaph, Korach(!) and more.

The most recent complete effort at translating the Psalms comes, as I hinted above, from another scholar whose work also has not primarily been related to biblical philology:  Robert Alter.  But Alter adheres more to the compass of the linguistic past—and not always to the benefit of the result.  I believe one line in Alter’s introduction to his brilliant work illuminates an important distinction between his work and Levy’s:  Many of the Psalms…derive some of their poetic force from the literary antecedents on which they draw (p. xv in the introduction to Alter’s translations).

For Richard Levy, and here I make no judgment, the force of the Psalms comes from their spiritual intentions; and he re-enforces this priority with rich commentary and postscripts that help the reader actually USE the Psalms in some meaningful way.

So different motives drive different renderings of this amazing collection of old words.  There are more than liturgical or devotional motives and drivers as well, as witness Debra Band’s (with her father in law, Arnold) remarkable aesthetic achievement, I Will Wake the Dawn. And sometimes one finds a  kind of utility for teaching, as in the simple elegance of expression and structural patterns to which Sheldon Marder exposes the residents of the San Francisco Home for the Aging.

And one area in which I was quite involved: the use of specific Psalms in our new Rabbis’ Manual—especially popular and well known Psalms like #23, in which a mourner seems to be sitting on the edge of her seat, waiting to hear the familiar words.   Try as one might to offer a new liturgical reading, a congregation of mourners might be inclined to “take it away” from any authoritarian translator. Richard Levy knows that his Psalms versions will serve another purpose, and he pursues that purpose with goodness, mercy, and determination.  Songs Ascending is an opportunity to take people inside into the depths towards the reaching, with pictures that make one feel almost as if he or she were lying in that grass:  “Adonai, my shepherd:  I lack for nothing.  In meadows thick with grass you lay me down, Across streams serene you guide me…Leading me serenely in well worn paths of justice… .”

Rabbi Levy points out, through his elegant rendering here, that there are paths we ought to walk in and that those paths have a similitude to the moral paths we should walk.  I will leave it to the reader to decide the proportion between the psalmist’s intention and Rabbi Levy’s promptings. Richard Levy’s “promptings” dot this work with tilei-t’hillim (mounds) of suggestive ideas and even an occasional challenge to our theologies.

The Psalms we sing at Seders, the morning hymns we chant when we pray, niggunim for our post-Shabbat meal table songs, are all enriched beyond their routine familiarity with the intense meanings that arise from modern poetic renderings that force us to hear the words.  Yehuda Amichai wrote whimsically that the Valley of the Shadow of Death is a good place from which to pray, and that is why, he continues poetically, we say:  “I cry out to god from the depths.”  Yes, the depths refer to my personal experience, but a topographical (metaphor?) metonymy won’t hurt!  Who thinks of the REAL meaning of these psalms without the help of the modern poet, the hospital chaplain, the artist, or the contemporary scientific scholar:  those who read Richard Levy’s versions will become well versed and have a shot at owning this amazing ancient material which calls out to us with headings reminding us that David played the harp, Korach was once a leader, that someone must have played a stringed instrument, and superscriptions reminding us of a relatively obscure ritual leader named “Asaph” whose name in Hebrew means “a gathering.”  Gathering, indeed!

Welcome to this new gathering of poems for a gathering of ancient people, who don’t gather often enough.

Rabbi William Cutter is Emeritus professor of Hebrew Literature and Human Relations at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles, where he taught for over 50 years. 

 Songs Ascending: The Book of Psalms, A New Translation with Textual and Spiritual Commentary is now available for order from CCAR Press. 

One reply on “How We Struggle to Translate the Hebrew of the Psalms”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.