Singing God's Praises: Psalms and Authenticity

Josh Feigelson


Psalms in a translation for praying:
A work in progress

By Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
Boulder, CO: Naropa University, 2003. Unpublished.

Opening to You:
Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms

By Norman Fischer
New York: Penguin Compass, 2002.

The recently-deceased historian and former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin was known for his broad range of interests, and his ability to make historical narratives relevant to modern lives. In one of his best books, The Discoverers, Boorstin makes the following observation about the study of botany in medieval Europe: "[The] sources of medieval botany, the herbals, were the legacy of Dioscorides, the ancient Greek surgeon who had traveled about the Mediterranean with the armies of the emperor Nero." Dioscorides, Boorstin explains, had engaged the substance of nature, writing his observations of plants he found around the Mediterranean. But after him, the acquisition of knowledge about botany slowed to a halt for 1500 years. Why? "Dioscorides had studied Nature, but Dioscorides' disciples studied Dioscorides… Like other classic authors, he produced few disciples and many exegetes. These treasured his words but forgot his example. He ceased to be a teacher as he became a text."

Boorstin takes an esoteric example to demonstrate a tension that endures in any act of writing. Taking pen to paper always risks creating a new orthodoxy. Which is fine if you want to create an orthodoxy, if you want people to study your text in a rarified, objectified way. But if a writer wants his text to be the subject, and not the object of study-that's a much trickier task. Boorstin prompts some significant questions: How do we learn not only from the words on the page, but the process by which they got there? How do we keep text fresh and alive, able to be interpreted and reinterpreted? How do we behave as disciples of the writer, and not simply exegetes of his or her text?

These questions are particularly pointed for religious texts. Religious texts stand astride competing claims of authenticity: in one corner, age and the repetition of generations; in the other, the experiential truth of the individual reciting or studying the text. These forms of authenticity are diametrically opposed to one another. For many traditional Jews, authenticity is something achieved when they recite the timeless texts of the tradition, just as they were composed, and just as, these Jews imagine, they have been recited for generations. In contrast, many non-traditional Jews find authenticity only when they feel able to fully express themselves, when they "make it new."

So what happens when these two Jews meet in one body, when someone attempts the quest for authenticity in both the self and the text? Meet Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

I once heard the great Jewish thinker Rabbi Yitz Greenberg-not someone you would necessarily describe as a "spiritual seeker"-say that it was Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who opened for him an entire world of the possibility of prayer. Zalman was the first person Yitz ever heard sing a traditional Hebrew prayer in English. Of course, whole movements of Judaism pray in English, but who would have thought you could sing a tefilla in English, with all the intention and spirit that word implies? That kind of barrier-breaking has been the life's work of Reb Zalman, who took a traditional Hasidic upbringing and a charge from the Lubavitcher Rebbe farther into the rest of the world than anyone could have imagined.

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Image: Roy Monas

September 2004

Singing God's Praises:
Psalms and Authenticity
Josh Feigelson

Two Prayers for the Days of Awe
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

How can you be gay and Jewish?
Jay Michaelson

Hiding your Sins
Hal Sirowitz

Retrato de Familia
Bara Sapir

Jews and Bush
An Online Resource Guide

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David Stromberg

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Four Israeli Intelligence Directors
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