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.

 

Artist Statement:

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.

 

 

Read more about the PsalmSeason here & subscribe for email updates.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

"99.8% of U.S. deaths are of the unvaccinated. If you heard of an airline of that percentage dying, whereas a 0.02% on another, you’re switching flights." -- Dr. Jimmie Smith, Macon-Bibb County Health Department, Georgia.
As a scholar of religious studies, I frequently use critical race theory as a tool to better understand how religion operates in American society.
Inspired by their faith, four LDS students built new study resource that has revolutionized how hundreds of thousands of aspiring physicians study for their exams. "It really started because we just wanted to help people," one said.
We're now in one of the holiest seasons of the year for one of smallest and oldest religions in India -- one with a long history in the United States.
Organizing on-campus vaccination clinics, calling thousands of students, hosting informational webinars with medical experts – these are some of the ways in which IFYC’s Faith in the Vaccine Ambassadors (FIVA) have been raising awareness around the COVID-19 vaccine on campuses and high-need communities across the nation.
Last year's winners, listed below, created a range of initiatives, from virtual retreats and criminal justice initiatives to book clubs and racial equity workshops.
Religious objections, once used sparingly around the country to get exempted from various required vaccines, are becoming a much more widely used loophole against the COVID-19 shot.
What will the campus chapel, and the chaplaincy, look like more than a century from now? Let the adventure begin.
The issue is not the presence of religion in the public square. Instead, the question before us is how to express those religious commitments within in a pluralistic society.
We don’t know what the year 5782 – as it is in the Hebrew calendar – has in store for any of us. But we have the power to act in a way to do right by each other and bring a little more peace and love and joy into this profoundly broken world.
The following interview features Dr. Toby Bressler, senior director of nursing for oncology and clinical quality at the Mount Sinai Health System and vice president of the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association.
Part of what I found so beautiful about our conversation is that we both agree that American pluralism is not simply a pragmatic solution to the challenge of a diverse democracy, it is also a kind of sacred trust that God intends us to steward.
After 9/11, there was increased intentionality in widening interfaith relations to include a broader number of faith groups and discussions. Twenty years later, it is not unusual to see interreligious conferences, joint advocacy efforts and disaster relief teamwork involving faith groups ranging from Adventists to Zoroastrians.
Twenty years later, we at IFYC, like so many others, collect the shards of memory, recollecting, reconstituting the trauma and horror of that day. And the sacredness is in doing so together.
As we approach this significant anniversary of 9/11, we must work to infuse the day with purpose and pluralism. Pay it Forward 9/11 is bringing people together to do 20,000 good deeds for the 20th anniversary.
In the first month since 9/11, The Sikh Coalition documented over 300 cases of violence and religious discrimination against Sikhs in the U.S. and has since grown to become the largest Sikh advocacy and civil rights organization in the country.
“If you were to quiz these students on what happened on 9/11, they think they knew what happened, but nobody really explained it to them,” Lisa Doi said. “I had to think through, how do you teach this history to somebody who doesn’t really remember it?”
My prayer is that for as long as we remember 9/11, that we will take time to listen to the stories of loss that break our hearts, and join together in finding ways to heal the division, violence and hate that continue to tear apart our world.
It has been 20 years, but the pain of that day is still present in so many places.
20 years after the 9/11 attacks, four remarkable people took profound suffering, loss and grief and “somehow managed to not center enemies. What can we learn from that? How can that be a teaching to the culture?”
Now the entire planet is our garden, and Rosh Hashana is our chance to remember that we are all descended from the original gardeners — that we are here, each of one us, to tend our chosen plots as best we can.

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.