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Monday, October 30, 2006

Weeping for Psalms

Rabbi Josh Feigelson (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah class of 2005) reviewed two books on the translation of Tehillim (Psalms) in his article for Zeek Magazine titled “Singing God's Praises: Psalms and Authenticity”. One book was "Psalms in a translation for praying: A work in progress by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the other was "Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms" by Norman Fischer.

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is the primary leader and a significant founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement. From Wikipedia, here's a brief excerpt describing Jewish Renewal:
Jewish Renewal is a new religious movement in Judaism that attempts to reinvigorate what it views as a moribund and uninspiring modern Judaism with mystical, Hasidic, musical and meditative practices drawn from a variety of traditional and untraditional, Jewish and other, sources.
In seeking to augment Jewish ritual, some Renewal Jews borrow freely and openly from Buddhism, Sufism, Native American religion, and other faiths; this is termed syncretism. Many Jews outside this movement view religious syncretism as outside the bounds of Judaism.

Norman Fischer is a Jewish-American Soto Zen Buddhist priest. He is what some refer to as a Jubu, a Jewish Buddhist.

Here are quotes from Rabbi Feigelson's article, with my commentary:
Zalman frequently switches God's gender back and forth between male and female, highlighting the limitations of our language and our thinking about sexuality and its ascription to God. Also, more often than not he addresses God in the second person, as You, even when the Hebrew original is in the third person. Take Psalm 77, for instance. The JPS opens, "I cry aloud to God; I cry to God that He may give ear to me." Who is being addressed here? The reader, who is told that the Psalmist is crying out to God, and is perhaps invited to participate, or comforted in knowing that someone else also wants to cry out to God. But Zalman dispenses with the middleman: "I raise my voice to cry out to You, God. I raised my voice and You gave ear to me." This is good stuff, helpful stuff-it brings the davenner, the person doing the praying, to a much more personalized encounter with God through the text. It is certainly a more comfortable translation for our non-traditional Jew than a traditional translation.
Response: Rabbi Feigelson states that in Schachter-Shalomi’s translation of Tehillim he “…switches God's gender back and forth between male and female” and “…addresses God in the second person, as You, even when the Hebrew original is in the third person.” Concerning this approach, Rabbi Feigelson states that “This is good stuff, helpful stuff…” Should an Orthodox rabbi critique Schachter-Shalomi’s approach with these affirmations...or maybe condemnations instead?

Fischer addresses God as "you," not "You." The style is comfortable and intimate, almost conversational, but still at enough of a remove to feel set-apart and holy.
Response: From a lashon hakodesh (Hebrew) perspective, addressing God as “you" or "You” in English seems to be a silly semantic point. However, it is not silly when an Orthodox rabbi discusses and affirms this convention in a context that is completely misaligned with Orthodoxy.

A better translation [of Psalms] from a language standpoint, however, is Norman Fischer's Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms. Fischer is a poet, as well as a Zen abbot, and he acknowledges in his excellent introductory essay that his is not a translation directly from the Hebrew: "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, perhaps as much original English-language poems as faithful replicas of the Hebrew text."

He [Fischer] is not quite translating Psalms, as he admits-so is this Psalms at all? Does it matter? If it doesn't, what's the point of this project?

Fischer answers this question in his introduction, with a sharp insight: "Buddhism begins with suffering and the end of suffering." In contrast, "the Psalms make it clear that suffering is not to be escaped or bypassed… I would go so far as to say that for Western Buddhist practitioners, a sensitive and informed appreciation of the problematic themes included and so powerfully expressed in the Psalms is probably a necessity." (pp. xvi-xvii) Fischer is starting from Buddhism and using the Psalms to inform his Buddhist practice, and thus he has less at stake in the question of the authenticity of his translation. His work feels more comfortable in its own skin than Zalman's as a consequence.
Response: To a certain degree, Rabbi Josh Feigelson legitimizes Norman Fischer's book by reviewing it analytically instead of critically, and sometimes affirmatively. Why would an Orthodox rabbi bestow credibility onto a religious book written from a "Jewish Buddhist perspective", to be used by Buddhists? Why would an Orthodox Rabbi review this book at all?

An authentic translation, like any authentic and true human expression, cannot take place on the page. It can only-maybe-happen inside the mind and soul of a human being relating to the Other: God, human, or text.
Response: An authentic translation of Jewish holy writings begins with an accurate written lexical translation. An accurate translation can certainly convey emotion and elicit spirituality without compromising the content and context of the original text. Mistranslations may result in serious halachic ramifications. Rabbi Feigelson’s statement that an authentic translation “can only-maybe-happen inside the mind and soul of a human being relating to the Other...” epitomizes relativism.

Here is a partial list of related articles listed at the end of Rabbi Feigelson's article:
- Hasidism and Homoeroticism Jay Michaelson July, 2004
- How I Finally Learned to Accept Christ in my Heart Jay Michaelson June, 2000

To say the least, Zeek Magazine is an interesting choice of publication for an Orthodox rabbi to be published in...

Here are some quotes from the Zeek "About" page:
We welcome the heretical, honor the sincere, and are generally bored by in-jokes, apologetics, and irony.
We find the smugness of the cynic and the soft-mindedness of the believer equally repellent to truth. 'Secular' and 'religious' are idols of identity, which we wish to efface.
We are committed to building a new form of Jewish community and identity, one which is serious, playful, pluralistic, committed, inclusive, and cosmopolitan. We are interested in wherever the new Jewish cultures lead.
We are suspicious of any truths that claim to be universal...and any ideologies which reduce the complex to the simple.
Here is a sampling of articles published by Zeek Magazine:
- Star Wars, George Bush, Judaism, and the Penis
- God on Ecstasy
- Wrestling with Esther: Purim Spiels, Gender, and Political Dissidence
- How can you be gay and Jewish?
- Am I "Religious"?

Rabbi Feigelson's rabbinical alma matar, YCT, certainly respects his religious insights, as they have recently published a dvar Torah of his, "The Spirit of Song" (9/30/2006).

Relevant links:
- Josh Feigelson Northwestern Hillel Campus Rabbi
- The Feigelsonian Theory of Smurfian Communism in the Post-War Era

From Rabbi Josh Feigelson's Blog:
- Aaron's is Treif
- Slavery and Kashrut
- How to read the Bible

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