My Article on Psalm 46 is Now Downloadable

September 17, 2013

EnglishJBQ_414_coverBack in January I had reported that Jewish Bible Quarterly had published an article of mine. Initially, the article was only available to paid subscribers or perusers of the printed journal. Meanwhile, it became available for free download here.

The study of said psalm was prompted by the Japanese Tsunami, as I blogged previously.

Meditating on the Tragedy in Japan

April 11, 2011

It’s been a month since tragedy hit Japan and over 25’000 men, women and children died, many of them swept away by the terrible waves of the tsunami. 150’000 are still homeless, living in temporary shelters. Many more are probably living with friends and relatives, so that the actual number of homeless may be much higher.

While we cannot possibly make sense of out such a human tragedy, it does (or should!) evoke in us a feeling of human brotherhood, shared suffering, a tremendous sadness that so many of G”d’s creatures, each endowed — as all humans are — with a spark of G”d-likeness, were so tragically lost (cf. the aggadeta in Megilla 10b, where G”d rebukes he angels at the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds, where the Egyptian army perished, saying “My creatures are drowning in the sea …”). It also evokes in us our very own human frailty. In the words of the author of the High Holiday liturgical poem Untane Toqef, man bears resemblance to:

… the broken shard, like dry grass, a wilted bloom, a passing shadow, a disappearing cloud, the blowing wind, the whirling dust, the fleeting dream.

And despite our frailty, we, humans, are called upon to better the world, and Israel has a particular responsibility to lead by example and construct a just, loving and spiritual society.

When faced with massive but distant tragedies such as these, one must of course ask what it is one wants to achieve.

What such a situation calls for, is, first and foremost, an emotional study of those who were facing their deaths, and of those who, while they survived, saw their homes and often their friends and relatives, too, swept away under the terrible waves. Beyond that, the sought after texts should give strength to those who survived but became bereft and destitute, and should allow those far away to explore the religious questions and needs of the survivors.

So what texts may be fitting meditations on those themes of human frailty? Which texts may give us strength in the face of the fear of death? I want to suggest the following psalms. Read the rest of this entry »

The Warmongering Laboring Amazons

December 14, 2009

R’ Yaaqov Emden (“Yaavetz”) remarks that it is appropriate for a woman in the throes of labor to recite Psalm 20, which is also part of the daily morning liturgy.

Does it thematically fit?

Thematically, Psalm 20 seems far removed from birth stools and midwives. Its theme is a military one, for soldiers going to battle against a powerful, well equipped enemy.

Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will make mention of the name of LORD-ETERNAL our God. They are bowed down and fallen; but we are risen, and stand upright. (verses 8-9)

Is this custom preserving some vague memory of women becoming particularly aggressive during labor, of all times? Did ancient women pray to turn into fiery warmongering Amazons, thinking that those heroines don’t fear birthing pangs? Or is this psalm about the various implements used to make women most comfortable during the painful birthing pangs? Some modern women prefer giving birth in a bath or on a Roma Wheel, rather than in a bed or birthing stool. Did our ancient Israelite ancestresses prefer reclining on a horse or a wagon?

By the same token, we may ask why this psalm was incorporated into the daily liturgy of sedentary farmers and merchants. Is this not a prayer for officers and soldiers? Read the rest of this entry »

How did Psalm 30 Land in the Morning Service

July 31, 2009

EnglishOne of the pleasures of having come to Basel was, that I was suddenly confronted with what seemed to me rather strange liturgical minhaggim, as up until then I had assumed that my tradition was of course the standard; a common human fallacy. One of the things I discovered, is that, while every synagogue I could remember visiting up until then, included Psalm 30 (מזמור שיר חנוכת הבית) in the morning liturgy, to be recited before Baruch SheAmar, in Basel, it was ignored.

My first indication that this Psalm’s inclusion in the liturgy deserved some scrutiny came even before I encountered Minhag Basel, from hearing about R’ Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s personal minhag of reciting said Psalm only after Barukh SheAmar, for in his opinion it was only within the framework of Pessuqei deZimra that one could begin to recite Psalms in the morning liturgy. (However, he had no objection to the liturgical recitation of Psalms after Pessuqei deZimra.) However, that was a chiddush of R’ Soloveitchik; it never was an established minhag.

So how come that it is recited in most communities, while many Yeckishe communities skip it? Read the rest of this entry »