Special Feature: A Humanist Explores the Psalms
Avi Rose, PhD, is an educator, psychologist, and artist. He lectures and offers art-based seminars/courses in Jewish art, Israeli culture, education, and psychology. He lives in Jerusalem with his husband, Jungian psychoanalyst Binyamin Rose, and their two children. They all make art whenever possible.
As a non-theist I find the Book of Psalms, like much of the TaNaKh (Hebrew Bible), challenging. Powerful as some of these ancient poems are, much as they have grown in the Jewish collective imagination over centuries, they are trellised around the belief in a personal god who is conscious, ethical, and praiseworthy. Moreover, like other classical religious texts, the Psalms—particularly the pieces that sharply divide the world into “us” and “them”—have too often been weaponized, used to control, limit, or degrade people based on their faith (or lack thereof), gender, sexuality, or skin color.
So, when I was approached to potentially contribute to this noble and timely project, I was ambivalent, to say the least. Did I want to participate in such a theocentric initiative? Was there enough in the Psalms that still spoke to me? Was I even capable of connecting with the notion of “praise” (tehilah, the original Hebrew word for what we call a “psalm” in English) in these dark times where so much seems wrong? Really, what is there to praise?
Several transformative moments of encounter and reflection, however, have caused me to move past my initial hesitation. The first came from a walk I took late one evening along Jerusalem’s Old Train Tracks pedestrian path, whose fences are currently lined with artistic interpretations of the Psalms. Though the exhibit was heavily theistic in its orientation, I was deeply inspired by seeing the diversity of creative visual expressions that emerged from encounters with the text. It made me think that I too—as an inheritor of this wisdom literature—might similarly engage in a form of verbal/visual dialogue, to see what could be gleaned.
Later, as I was cleaning out my beloved work office of more than a decade (a direct consequence of the current health crisis), I came across an old, barely touched, paperback entitled Psalms/Now. Gifted to me decades ago by my late friend Carla, it is an interpretation of the Psalms by Leslie Brandt, illustrated by the trailblazing artist Sister Mary Corita Kent. Bathed in the bold shapes and bright colors typical of Kent’s style, the words of Psalms somehow took on new meaning, as if liberated from the past in their attempt to reach fresh eyes and hearts. Etched onto the inside cover in her typically perfect handwriting, were words of blessing from my long-departed friend. Reading those words, finding that book at that exact moment, was a gift. It was as if Carla had “reached out,” gently reminding me (as was her way) to live in the moment, tapping less into feelings of resentment and loss, focusing more on gratitude for what has been given and what has yet to be received. Carla knew a thing or two about finding gratitude in moments of turmoil. A descendant of the underground railroad, the first in her family to go to university, she chose to teach in one of the northern-most (and most underserved) regions in Canada. Diagnosed with terminal cancer before the age of 30, Carla lived each moment with a sense of joy and fulfillment.
Of course, many of us are trying to come in touch with gratitude in these days of loss and rage. All around us the world we knew (and perhaps took for granted) seems to be exploding into new, unfathomable pieces. Overnight, our health and economic security have become mired in uncertainty. Daily contact with loved ones, colleagues and strangers that once gave us structure and meaning, have become potential hazards, agents of our undoing. Confined to a great extent in our homes, we drift towards boredom, existential emptiness, and despondency. Looking out from our windows, we see a world that suddenly looks more unjust, sullen, and polluted. The pandemic and other long-standing social ills has led to widespread anguish and outrage. And yet, who among us has not had moments of gratefulness for the parts of our lives that do work, that bring solace and meaning, even as fiery shards crash around us? Who among us is not searching for a means to gather up what remains and express our thanks for these humble, life-affirming gifts?
In this context, the sublime poetry of lament, outrage, beauty, and praise that is the Book of Psalms, shines out against the bleak landscape of the moment—a beacon in full Corita Kent color. Like a message in a bottle from the past, the words offer us a language and structure to explore our very mixed emotions. Given their role in Western society for millennia, it feels appropriate to sit with the Psalms, to at least consider if and how they might inspire in this most difficult of moments. Can the text reveal itself in new and relevant ways? Do these words still have the power to inspire us towards gratitude and praise?
I am interested in finding out.
To end this beginning, I offer a version of the Psalm 23 as seen through the lens of Secular Humanism. It was written by the late Rev. Charles Donald Saleska:
Life itself is my guide
I shall not be denied its sustaining power.
The green earth provides me with lavish nourishment;
Cool still pools of water refresh my spirit.
A deep intuition leads me along a path that is true
for the sake of existence itself.
Even though I walk through a valley where dark shadows
prevent me from knowing where life
finally leads in death,
ultimately I will not fear,
For the energy of the universe is within me.
The tools by which I am kept from wandering
off into despair,
They are a comfort to me.
Even in the face of threats to my well-being
and my very life,
The spirit of life nourishes me,
honors me with its presence,
and reminds me that I really
have more than I need.
Surely goodness and kindness
radiate upon me constantly,
and I shall dwell within this universe
with its transforming processes, forever.
I look forward to sharing the fruits of my labor with the PsalmSeason community.
This piece was created in response to the Humanist interpretation of the 23rd Psalm shared above. After reading the interpretation, I was flooded with the image of light against the darkness, of courage in the face of danger. All around is the unknown, disease, uncertainty, and unrest. At first, I feel powerless, untethered, as if wading into peril with no sense of where to turn or how to act. Then, I am reminded that life and humanity are my light, my guides. True, they may not have answers, but they offer experience and support. By learning from the world, from those who travelled before me and those who are on the path with me, I connect with my own light; my intuitive sense of how to meet these challenges and face the danger. While I have no idea how (or even if) I will emerge from this darkness, I am emboldened by the fact that I am not alone, that there is kinship and a great collective will that pushes us all toward meaning and doing.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.