At my dissertation defense, a Princeton professor asked me: “Why did you choose to write about the Psalms?” I responded: “Because I dislike the book, don’t understand it, and am confused by its popularity.” My answer, as revealed by the troubled look on the professor’s face, lacked the correct sense of academic or religious piety. Several years later, and still writing about the Psalms, I stand by my remark. Actually, with a pandemic seeding global chaos and more people turning to the Psalter to find hope and comfort, I am going to double down. With all due respect to the emergency, Psalm-studded “Prayer Days” of my local Jewish community and to the novel attempt to fight COVID-19 with interfaith Psalm-singing, the Psalter really bothers me.
Let’s begin with the Psalmist, that mysterious voice that utters poetry to us as we scan our eyes over the glossy biblical page. I will call that voice “David,” doing so for the sake of convenience. Even ancient Jewish tradition, let alone modern biblical scholarship, acknowledges that the historical King David composed only a handful of the 150 poems that constitute the Hebrew book of Psalms.
David is overconfident. His boastful voice mars otherwise evocative poetry designed to petition God for support and salvation. Consider Psalm 6, a poem located at the center of a section of the traditional morning service called “Supplication” (tahnun). David begins by begging God for mercy, healing, and rescue. He even ascends to metaphoric heights: “I am weary with groaning; every night I drench my bed, I melt my couch in tears. My eyes are wasted by vexation, worn out because of all my foes.”
But then, the poem crashes and burns. For the remainder of its verses, David dizzyingly turns from a display of contrition to a certain, and even somewhat arrogant, demeanor. He demands that his enemies depart because “the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping” and “The Lord accepts my prayer.” He concludes by confidently claiming: “All my enemies will be frustrated and stricken with terror; they will turn back in an instant, frustrated.” What happened to the language of fear, loss and anxiety—those powerful words through which our modern woes can find expression? As we finish the poem, we are left with a single conclusion: In David’s case, pride goeth after the fall.
I would welcome this display of self-righteousness—if it were a single emotional flash of confidence amid the larger morass of depression and anxiety. If it were epic, dramatic, poetic. Alas, it is not. The poems that constitute the Psalter are overly predictable.
To be fair, we cannot entirely blame David for the repetitive nature of his poems. Poetic verses in the biblical period consisted of parallelism—saying a line once and then once again with some variation characterized most forms of lofty ancient Near Eastern literature. At the same time, David excels—revels even—in the humdrum. After how many times can we tolerate reading lines like “God judges the nations justly,” or similarly worded ideas, such as when David proclaims that “all his enemies will be embarrassed”? It almost appears as if David composed his poems by cutting, copying, and pasting words from a prefabricated list of stock poetic language. In fact, he even appears to self-plagiarize. Psalms 14 and 53 are almost entirely identical. That David asks his audience on multiple occasions to “Sing to the Lord a new song” seems somewhat ironic.
That’s troubling enough. But, truth be told, we are no better than David at being predictable with Psalms. We treat the book as an obvious panacea for all of life’s ills, as if reading from it moves some celestial mechanism that unlocks the gates of heaven. Sick? Read a Psalm. Want to be successful? Sing a Psalm. How about a shidduch? A Psalm will do. Granted, Jews imagined Psalms as a cosmic key for millennia. The third-century Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, among others, recited Psalms to exorcise demons, the ancient equivalent of viral pathogens. And in the early Middle Ages, Jewish scribes collected various Psalm-based recipes for success into a single literary genre called “The Book of the Use of Psalms” (Sefer Shimmush Tehillim), the ancient ancestor of the Jewish and Christian “recommended Psalm list.” Can we deal with life’s frustrations without routinely turning to this strange book of ancient Hebrew poetry?
Maybe not. Maybe David’s poems rightfully earned their prominent place within our mental and spiritual universe. Perhaps the very features of the Psalms that terribly irk me actually explain why it endures, why generations of readers entangle themselves within its web of words.
David’s poetic lines, after all, offer us something that the universe often holds back: simplicity through predictability. Nothing unsettles the human soul more than a disorganized world, a life that refuses to follow expected rules and patterns. Just ask the uncertain and anxiety-ridden figure in Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream.” Or, perhaps, query Mary Douglas, a 20th-century anthropologist who expressed this human need for order by defining “dirt”—both literally and metaphysically—as “matter out of place.” Douglas’ dictum perfectly captures the emotional environment of Passover cleaning, when chametz transforms into dirt and dirt into chametz. Archetypal Jewish mothers eagerly consign both to the dustbin on that glorious spring day.
Through its very predictability, its constant repetition of words and ideas, the Psalms provide an antidote to cosmic disorder. By reading from it, one begins the process of putting matter back into place. The void that life creates when it fails to live up to our expectations—when success turns into failure; when marriage prospects fail to materialize; when health declines—becomes filled by poems that proclaim in both form and content the fleeting nature of chaos’s reign.
The predictable universe structuring David’s poetry also allows for more than stoic equanimity. It breeds confidence, the feeling that a better future awaits. David, as the sweet singer of Israel, fully buys into this worldview. He rapidly turns from contrite to certain in the span of one verse because his spiritual universe dictates that God heard his prayers and will surely offer aid.
Personally, I cannot race after David and keep his pace. I am not a knight of faith, a hero eager to run his course, who views God’s favor as an all-encompassing shield. Nonetheless, I trudge along the path he blazed by relying on the “rod and staff” of habit, particularly its ability to slowly shape thoughts, feelings and behaviors. By reading Psalms in moments of confusion and doubt, we form a habit, which through repetition, encourages us to believe in and belong to David’s ordered world. This belief supplies confidence in otherwise tumultuous times of transformation. Confidence, in turn, provides comfort.
And, these days, we need solace more than ever. These months of pandemic further untangled our ordinarily fraying lives. The locations of our meaning-producing habits—schools, synagogues, group Shabbat meals—no longer provide stability. Open today; shuttered the next. Long-term plans seem pointless, replaced instead with isolation—physical, social, and spiritual. Can we imagine a future without COVID-19? Ought we dare? In a world disrupted and disordered by the chaos of a global pandemic (let alone political and economic tumult) to where may we turn for predictability, confidence and comfort? From where will help come? I now know my answer.
A.J. Berkovitz is an Assistant Professor at HUC-JIR in NYC. He is the co-editor of Rethinking ‘Authority’ in Late Antiquity.