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

"It is permissible within our religion to defer, or to make up your fast later if you're feeling sick."
From experience, I know that Hispanic families had been greatly, and disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and survey data from the 2021 PRRI-IFYC Religious Diversity and Vaccine Survey corroborates this.
As the last few days of Ramadan are upon us – take our interactive quiz to find out how much you really know about this holy month.
We weren’t sure what to expect or how to navigate the complexities of getting to know colleagues from a distance, but IFYC team members Silma and Nadia welcomed us into their homes, their traditions, and their faith.
As the final project for the class, we wanted to do something that would make our campus a more inclusive, interreligious place.
IFYC is collecting prayers and meditations from diverse faiths to show our solidarity with the people of India, as well as links to charitable organizations that people can support.
Generally, tradition holds that the body is to be cremated or buried as quickly as possible – within 24 hours for Hindus, Jains and Muslims, and within three days for Sikhs. This need for rapid disposal has also contributed to the current crisis.
“Humanitarian Day embodies why Islam is relevant in America today. It’s why many Black Muslims embraced Islam, to be part of the solution, not only in their personal lives, but in their communities." - Margari Aziza Hill, MuslimARC
Recently, I asked a group of IFYC Alumni to share what they do in one sentence. I love their responses because they capture who they are so well.
As a nurse and a physician occupying different spheres in relation to the patient, Anastasia and I held comparable but also differing views about the role of religion and interfaith in the realm of patient care.
El movimiento necesita artistas, educadores, trabajadores de la salud, padres, funcionarios electos, científicos, clérigos, directores generales, y cuantas personas sea posible para hablar en contra de la injusticia donde sea que la veamos.
The scholarship covers the students’ tuition, as well as housing and living assistance while they pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees across all 18 of Columbia’s schools and affiliates.
En esta foto del sábado 9 de mayo de 2020, el Rev. Fabián Arias lleva a cabo un servicio en casa, al lado de los restos de Raúl Luis López quien murió de COVID-19 el mes previo, en el barrio Corona del distrito de Queens en Nueva York.
It is certainly within the rights of philanthropic and political institutions to 'not do religion,' but such an approach undermines any meaningful, holistic commitment to community or place-based humanitarian efforts in much of this country.
Last month, Kevin Singer, co-director of Neighborly Faith, brought two interfaith leaders together to discuss their respective publications and the consequences of the Equality Act on religious organizations, institutions, and places of worship.
It is in this spirit respeaking memory and finding time to etch it into the future that I offer the following exercise. It is designed to do with your friends or folks – preferably three or more. Take some time with it. Use it as a catalyst to...
Imagine my surprise upon coming to USA and celebrating my first Easter, but didn’t people realize it was Easter? Why are all the egg die and chocolates already sold out and none left for us celebrating a few weeks later?
They will, in other words, be learning the skills of mindfulness meditation — the secular version of the Buddhist practice that has skyrocketed in popularity to become America's go-to antidote for stress.
This is a sampling of sacred texts and statements, listed in alphabetical order by religion, that religious communities have used to engage in the work of public health amidst this global pandemic.
Chaplain Fuller’s leadership and guidance has left a lasting, rippling effect on and off campus which will guide communities and individuals into multifaith work and engagement long after her tenure at Elon.
In the grip of a deadly second wave of COVID-19, religious charities and faith-based organizations are among the many civil society groups that have stepped up to mobilize relief efforts.

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.