October 28, 2004
I just read an excellent article by Josh Feigelson called Singing God's Praises: Psalms and Authenticity. It compares and contrasts two new (and very different) renditions of tehillim (psalms): one, on cd, by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and the other by Norman Fischer.
Josh quotes Reb Zalman: "In my work with liturgy I found that when a version was overly faithful to the Hebrew it was good for studying. If it was sonorous and high-sounding it was good for ceremony and high ritual. But to render the psalms as prayers a more direct and more heart-connected version would be better." Better, naturally, for Reb Zalman's purposes: getting the davvener inside the psalms, in order that the psalms may become a kind of two-way conduit for holiness.
Norman Fischer's psalms have a different goal in mind; they're cleaner and more spare. As Josh notes, Fischer is a poet as well as a Zen abbot: two callings which imply a certain affinity for simplicity. He quotes Fischer: "Since I am a poet and a religious practitioner, and not a Hebraist, my work with the Psalms rests largely on the work of translators. In that sense they are 'versions' rather than translations..."
The Zeek piece argues that Fischer's renditions may be more successful than Reb Zalman's, and that some of Reb Zalman's psalms work better than others. Josh suggests that the real merit here may be in the process, not the product. That fascinates me, because I've been working on my own prayer variants and I've also found the process at least as useful as the end result. I'm pretty happy with my variations on the birchot ha-shachar, but I'm even happier with the experience of getting inside the morning blessings to make them.
Toward the end of the piece, Josh writes that Reb Zalman begins inside the tradition and works his way out, while Fischer begins outside the tradition and works his way in. It's a smart formulation, I think, and near it comes my favorite quote from the article: "Zalman's relationship with the text feels like a marriage that has reinvented and reinterpreted itself over a lifetime. But fundamentally his partner, the text, is the same one he married many years ago." What a great metaphor! So go dig his essay, and then go dig these (very different, and also good) interpretations of tehillim. And while I'm praising my favorite psalmic things, here's a link to Steve Reich's Tehillim, an arrangement of several psalm texts for mixed-voice chorus and ensemble, in which melodies are structured to align with the meanings of the words. Inspiring stuff all 'round.