Guest Posting By Alice Jonsson - A Bas Noach Learning Tehillim
Recently I have begun studying Psalms with a local Rabbi. I had been looking for a way to further my Torah education by going a bit more in-depth than a beginner course. I also wanted to be able to ask lots of questions without slowing down the whole class. I want to go deep, but at the same time, I must admit I have huge gaps in my Torah knowledge and want to be able to fill those in – a bit of a contradiction. So why not arrange something that would work privately? This I recommend for anyone.
I met with a local Rabbi with whom I and some other Bnei Noach study. We brainstormed subject matter that we would both be interested in pursuing. The massive gap in my knowledge of Jewish history/Torah starts at the kings and goes to about the so called Dark Ages, which, as I understand, in terms of Jewish scholarship weren’t dark at all. But that’s another class. Since I know very little about the Psalms we settled there. We are working our way through each one, one per meeting.
Reading such profound, beautiful, enormously important, popular, influential, and sacred poetry is a joy unto itself. Doing so with a very well educated Rabbi adds so much. The fact that I can’t read Hebrew is very limiting. Rabbi can convey the texture, tone, and movement of the language so that it feels like reading a very different poem.
One aspect of poetry, for example, involves economy of language. Often, and clearly this is the case with the Psalms, each word is chosen very carefully – even going beyond meaning. To which sense or senses is the word appealing? Does it convey motion of any sort? How does the motion it conveys relate to the story within the Psalm, or the message of the Psalm? Is it a formal word or an informal word? Is there a play on words involved? Are there various meanings?
Rhythm of language can be totally thrown off in translation, obviously, especially when the grammar of the languages is so different. Is there a repetition of beginning sounds – or middle, or end? All of this would be pretty much impossible for me to analyze on my own.
Thus far we haven’t focused so much on authorship, solely because we can’t do it all. Rabbi teaches about the structure of the Psalms in terms of stitches, stanzas, and how ideas and messages within the Psalm often follow a formula of sorts.
Of course interlaced throughout we are discussing the religious message of the Psalm and how it applies to one’s life. This particular rabbi is also well educated about other religions, American and European history, and even philosophical movements that have impacted religious life, so we also spend a fair amount of time exploring how some ideas relayed in the Psalms have influenced other faiths or are rejected by other faiths.
If I compare how it feels to study the Psalms versus how it feels to study Chumash, which I also love studying, it’s much more emotional for me. It sounds strange perhaps, but it feels like I am connecting with all of the people who have read the Psalm and been moved by it too because of the way poetry gets into your heart and head in ways studying a book on mussar or a page from Deuteronomy can’t. Clearly they can connect with you in ways that a Psalm might not; it goes both ways.
There is a lyrical quality to a Psalm, even translated, that touches a part of the mind that nothing else quite touches. For example, I was in a toy shop with my son and picked up a fuzzy, stuffed robot that had a clunky little bell in it. The little per plinky plonk sound raced me back to the 1960s. It brought back a sense memory that I didn’t know I had stored away. That’s sort of the place that gets activated when learning Psalms for some reason. When this is combined with a powerful spiritual message, it is an inspiring way to spend an evening. It’s like a heart to heart meeting with the Torah.