“On a Manhattan-bound rush hour subway train in Brooklyn recently — two women — one, a 30-year old Orthodox Jew, and the other, a 55-yr old African American — each clutched editions of the Book of Psalms and each uttered its ancient words, quietly, one in Hebrew, the other in English. These women are on to something.”
So writes Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub in the introduction to “Healing of Soul, Healing of Body: Spiritual Leaders Unfold the Strength & Solace in Psalms,” his beautiful 1994 book on the healing power of the psalms.
Weintraub himself was certainly on to something, as he sought to revive the healing practice of reciting psalms for contemporary Jews in times of suffering. The image of two women on a Manhattan subway resonates even more powerfully now, as many can so readily envision New Yorkers as vulnerable on their ride to work, not knowing what terrors the day may bring.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I placed two translations of the psalms in my office, picking them up at odd moments during the day when I needed comfort or guidance. Stephen Mitchell’s 1993 “A Book of Psalms,” a Buddhist-influenced interpretive translation of selected psalms, addresses God as the Unnamable Oneness, far vaster and truer than the pain of the moment. And Nan C. Merrill’s 2001 “Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness,” a Christian-influenced interpretive translation of the Psalms, calls to God as “Love,” “Beloved,” and “Heart of all hearts,” softening the sometimes-harsh tones of the original text, bringing soothing wisdom, encouragement and consolation on every page.
Of course, Jews have always turned to the psalms in times of joy and sorrow — every morning and every Shabbat to celebrate the gifts of life, in times of communal trauma and while guarding a body after death. Yet many contemporary Jews seem to be rediscovering the healing potential of this ancient practice.
Using the psalms is not always an easy task for contemporary Jews in need of solace. Some contemporary readers have difficulty finding their own understanding of the anthropomorphic imagery the text often uses. Many cannot get beyond prayers for military victory, even though we well know that our lives are filled with many kinds of conflict, within and without. For some, the very essence of the psalmist’s deep trust in God is itself challenging, seemingly inaccessible to ordinary, doubt-ridden people like ourselves.
Rabbi Joshua Haberman attempts to do that with his new book “Healing Psalms: The Dialogues with God That Help You Cope with Life,” which joins the growing genre of contemporary works on the psalms.
My favorite part is the introduction, which invites the reader to dive quickly beneath the specifics of the text to the core spiritual message of each psalm, and to absorb this message as a response to our own life challenges. Haberman then offers “Five suggestions for reading the psalms,” a practical program for those seeking the kind of “dialogue with God” the psalms encourage. A four-page “Guide to topics in the psalms” enables the reader to quickly find psalms dealing with universal life issues such as abandonment, anger, evil, fear and loneliness.
The psalms are then presented with brief spiritual commentaries, summarized by evocative titles such as “Does my life make a difference?” “Is God on the job?” “The happiness of knowing God’s presence” and “God to the rescue.” These are followed by brief reflections on more general life themes, such as dependence, joy sharing, hope and humility.
Some may be disappointed that Haberman uses the Jewish Publication Society’s 1917 translation of the psalms, which — although grand in its time — is filled with archaic language, describing God in blatantly anthropomorphic and male terms.
I prefer a softer tone in books on healing. The language of these interpretations is sometimes more commanding than soothing, sounding a bit more like the soaring rhetoric of a fine orator than the loving touch of a spiritual guide or friend. Yet it succeeds in vividly presenting the psalms as a book containing the answer to any struggle that may plague us.
I hope for a time when life will bring us less sorrow and fear. These books remind us that, until life brings less sorrow and fear, we have the psalms to help us find company in our own pain, and timeless words of healing wisdom.
“Healing Psalms: The Dialogues With God That Help You Cope With Life” by Rabbi Joshua Haberman (288 pages, John Wiley & Sons, $24.95)
“Healing of Soul, Healing of Body: Spiritual Leaders Unfold the Strength & Solace in Psalms,” edited by Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub (128 pages, Jewish Lights, $14.95)