They are among the best-known lines in the Bible: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
For Betty Bracha Stone, that phrasing of Psalm 23 was not set in stone. The East Bay Hebrew teacher had the chutzpah to compose her own reinterpretation, one she felt was more spiritually exact: “You, oh beloved friend, are my guide; I desire nothing more.”
Psalm 23 is one of those included in “Thirty-Six Psalms: Let Us Praise,” Stone’s newly published take on the immortal texts.
Why retranslate poems that have been on the lips of the pious for thousands of years, works that U.C. Berkeley Bible scholar Robert Alter calls “the most urgently, personally present of all books of the Bible in the lives of many readers”?
Stone, 70, says she sees in the psalms “a movement towards an open-hearted integration of mind and soul. These words have in them some capacity to move us toward God’s embrace.”
The project began in the summer of 2012 after Stone survived a battle with cancer. She got a clean bill of health, but the crisis took an emotional and spiritual toll.
That’s when the longtime Kehilla Community Synagogue member was invited to join a group of women, led by Rabbi Dorothy Richman of Berkeley Hillel, who were committed to weeks of spiritual preparation for the month of Elul leading up to the High Holy Days.
Part of that practice was a twice-daily recitation of Psalm 27. “[The rabbi] said if you do this, I am sure it will be transforming,” Stone recalls, adding, “It was torturous to pray it.”
Though “The Lord is my light and my help” sounds anything but torturous, Psalm 27 also speaks of “enemies roundabout,” “watchful foes” and “unjust accusers,” which pushed her to meditate on how much is God and how much is human.
Stone remembers critiquing this and other psalms that contained similar language. “Let’s externalize what’s wrong with me,” she felt the text implied, “and call them enemies.”
Her deep reading of that psalm led to a study of all of them, and the notion to create her own translations. The next step was to winnow down 150 to the nice round Jewish number of 36, double chai.
She did not want to be influenced by other modern translations, so she avoided them except Alter’s seminal translation of the psalms, which features more footnotes than text. “I would go to Alter if I was stuck,” she says.
Stone also felt she could “tamper” with the text, as she noted in her book’s introduction. She tampered with pronouns, with time, with the order of verses and even with the meaning.
For example, many people know how Psalm 137 begins: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”
Not everyone knows how it ends: with a blessing on anyone who dashes Babylonian babies against the rocks. In her reinterpretation, Stone changed the last verse to: “Oh God, keep their babies safe. And ours.”
In another, the psalmist is furious about dying, crying out: “Turn away from me so I could die.” Stone says, “I couldn’t pray that, so I [wrote] ‘Turn your sweet gaze on me.’”
Given her lifelong love affair with Hebrew, it’s no surprise Stone would attempt to reinterpret the psalms.
The Atlanta native remembers trying to comprehend the meaning of the prayers chanted in synagogue during her childhood. She studied biblical Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania because, she says, “I was fascinated by it. I loved the exquisite structure of it.”
Stone moved to California in 1970, living in Gualala for a time and then in Oakland. She furthered her Hebrew studies at U.C. Berkeley and Berkeley’s Lehrhaus Judaica. Stone and her husband, Don, were founding members of Kehilla, where she later taught preschool, Hebrew and b’nai mitzvah preparation.
She still teaches, calling her adult introduction-to-Hebrew class at Kehilla “I Never Knew Hebrew Could Be So Much Fun.”
A lifetime of study paid off in her newly published book. “The poet in me was just waiting,” Stone says. “I’m not one who writes poetry, but I have a poetic soul.”
“Thirty-Six Psalms: Let Us Praise” translated from the Hebrew and interpreted by Betty Brach Stone (65 pages, $15). To purchase copies: www.36psalms.com.
Betty Bracha Stone will read from her book at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 24 at Afikomen Judaica, 3042 Claremont Ave., Berkeley.