Sunday, September 30, 2007

Soulless reviews of soulful psalms (translations)

Recently, I recommended Robert Alter's new translation of the Psalms (and especially an NPR interview with Alter, himself). Now, I'd like to recommend the New Yorker's review of Alter's book.

Actually -- in the 'great' tradition of New Yorker writers getting intoxicated by their own words and thoughts -- it's not really a review of Alter's work. It's more of an essay by the author -- novelist and literary critic James Woods -- about what he thinks about the Psalms. Luckily, what he thinks is very much worth reading. His article is a wonderful, short summary of some of the most important points about what gives the Psalms such incredible power and beauty even now, thousands of years after they were written. And Woods wonderfully states why the Psalms can be so relevant for us today as we sometimes struggle to maintain the strength of our faith in a world whose ubiquitous violence and suffering can test us dearly:

This struggle [presented in the Psalms] between faith and doubt, hope and despair, is undoubtedly one of the features that have made the Psalms such a help to so many readers and writers, both believers and nonbelievers.

A word of caution, however (and this is why I used the word "soulless" in the title of this post): Woods, like so many intellectuals, feels a need to say that while the Psalms are interesting to, in effect, gaze upon (like an ancient piece of art in a glass museum case), he does not think they actually have any relevance to our lives. He says, for example:

Psalm 90, like many others, belongs to a theological landscape quite remote from our own.

He says this is so because "with our new, borderless knowledge of the cosmos" we can no longer relate to "what the Biblical scholar James Kugel refers to as the 'starkness' of the Hebrew Bible, a bare, hard world in which a desert landscape of rocks and rare streams is briefly lit up by columns of fire."

Oh, Mr. Woods, come and stand beside me in the hospital some day. Come and stand beside me as I talk to a cancer patient facing death or the possibility of death. That place can indeed be a desert landscape, one full of the despair and desperate pleading that we find in the words of the Psalms. But -- and this is part of what makes chaplaincy work with cancer patients such an amazing experience -- it is exactly this kind of place that has the incredible potential to be suddenly lit up by "columns of fire", columns of fire that represent the presence of God becoming manifest in the suffering person's life. It is an amazing thing to be a part of.

But, if you read Woods' review with a grain of salt, you can really learn a lot by reading his fine article. I recommend it!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Harry Potter Yizkor

I'm a bit of a latecomer to the Harry Potter craze, but, after reading the final book, it's clear to me that these are much more than mere children's stories. The whole series -- especially the final book -- engages some of the most most profound themes in our lives, and many of these themes are the same ones that are central to our holiest of holidays, Yom Kippur, which starts at sundown tomorrow: themes that involve confronting our own mortality, confronting the possibility that we may not be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. Standing on the precipice of death that the fast and liturgy of Yom Kippur brings us to we are forced to ask ourselves what it is that really matters to us in our lives. Who and what matters to us most. What we really want to be doing with our lives. And what is the potential for teshuvah -- of a change in the direction of our lives.

The memorial service on Yom Kippur that we call yizkor is one of our ways of marking what matters most to us. We remember then the ones who have passed from this life who mattered to us most. Who we miss the most. Who we owe the most.

I would not be giving anything away about how the final Potter book concludes to say that there is a key scene in there where the now fully grown, bespeckled wizard recalls the people who have mattered to him most in a most intense and vivid way. He asks those now-dead people to walk beside him for a bit. He asks them to give him strength and courage amidst the greatest of his many tests. He asks them for forgiveness for the ways he has hurt them. And he tells them all they have meant to him.

If you participate in yizkor this Yom Kippur, may it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that your loved ones will come clear and vivid into your mind. May you find forgiveness and give forgiveness. And may their memory be a blessing unto you and a source of strength.

Tzom Kal/צום קל, an easy fast. #*#

Monday, September 17, 2007

Soulless psychiatrists?

According to this Times article, the divide between psychiatry and religion is alive and well.

I suppose it's true, but I think it's a sign of how I've grown in my path towards pursuing certification as a chaplaincy supervisor that it now strikes me as strange to think of the two as being in conflict. Both are a way of trying to understand the true essence of existence and the human place in the universe. I use the insights of both every day in my work.
clipped from
The New York Times
September 18, 2007
Vital Signs

Insights: Two Paths: Religion and Psychiatry

Of all medical specialties, psychiatrists are the least religious, a survey has found, and the most religious doctors are the least likely to refer their patients to psychiatrists.

Although psychiatrists were just as likely as other physicians to report that religious beliefs influenced their practice — about half said it did — just 29 percent of psychiatrists, compared with 47 percent of other doctors, said they attended religious services more than once a month. When asked whether they described themselves as religious or spiritual, 42 percent of psychiatrists and 53 percent of other doctors said they did. About a third of psychiatrists, but almost half of other physicians, said they “look to God for strength, support, and guidance.” Psychiatrists were significantly less likely to be Protestant or Catholic and more likely to be Jewish or have no religious affiliation.

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Soulless Psalms?

Actually Robert Alter's new translation of the greatest prayerbook ever written has plenty of soul in it (even if he avoids the word, itself). Alter is one of those rare top-notch academic scholars who also has a real commitment to finding the place where spiritual meaning and intellectual rigor meet. He's not my favorite Bible translator (that honor goes to Everett Fox), but he's way up there. This NPR interview is definitely worth a listen.
clipped from

Author Explores the Psalms, Sans Soul

'The Book of Psalms'

All Things Considered, September 17, 2007 · For thousands of years, the Psalms have been a powerful part of first Jewish, and then Christian liturgy. In translation, they contain some of the most memorable lines ever written in English.

Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California Berkeley, has published a new translation of the Psalms, The Book of Psalms.

Among the most noteworthy absences from his version is the soul. Why Psalms with no soul and no salvation? Robert Alter tells Robert Siegel that those are concepts superimposed on the ancient poems in more recent times.

Alter's previous works include the biblical translations Genesis and The Five Books of Moses.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Exercising the "hope muscle" -- the foundation of faith

At about 5 p.m. on Monday last week you would have found me sprawled out on the grass next to the side of the road in Far Hills, NJ. I felt utterly spent after nearly two full days of riding my bicycle up and down the hills of the Delaware and Raritan river valleys. A cloud of despair began to pass over me. I couldn't imagine pedaling the 25 miles yet to go towards my planned final destination for the night. And, yet, 20 minutes later I was back on the bike diligently climbing the hill before me and a few hours later I made it (albeit in the darkness) to my goal.

This is one of the things I love most about bicycle riding -- the cycles it takes me on between despair and, often, elation, especially the elation that comes from reaching the top of one of those terrible hills on a hot day and then to be suddenly and effortlessly flying fast downhill with the roar of the wind in my ears. In effect, bicycling trains me in the process of regaining hope. It helps me exercise the muscle that we use within ourselves to restore ourselves to hope.

And we need that muscle to help us restore ourselves to hope and faith. For a life of faith -- contrary to what the popular culture might say -- is not one of uninterrupted joy and untested confidence. I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes:

Since faith is a response to the Presence [of God] in life and history, this response ebbs and flows. The difference between the skeptic and the believer is frequency of faith, and not the certitude of position.
--Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, The Shoah and the legacy of anti-Semitism in Christianity in Jewish Terms (p. 27).
To maintain ourselves as believers we need to find ways to exercise our hope muscle so that it can become strong and can regularly pull us out of the despair into which we inevitably will fall. Hope, of course -- and the restoration of hope -- is a central part of Judaism and of the holiday of Rosh HaShannah that begins tomorrow evening. The Psalm we associate with these high holidays is Psalm 27, which concludes with a call for us to find hope:

קַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה: .
Hope for the Lord.

חֲזַק, וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ;
Be strong and He will make courageous your heart.

וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה
Hope for the Lord.
The Psalm is not at all subtle in its statement of where this hope can come from -- it opens with these famous words of trust and hope:

יְהוָה, אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי
The Lord is my light and my salvation.

--מִמִּי אִירָא;
From whom would I fear?

יְהוָה מָעוֹז-חַיַּי,
The Lord is the stronghold of my life.

מִמִּי אֶפְחָד.
From whom would I be afraid?
These words are indeed an inspiring statement of trust, a picture of unbreakable faith. And, yet, a few lines later in the Psalm we find the author desperately begging and pleading. Pleading, in particular, that God would not abandon him:

שְׁמַע-יְהוָה קוֹלִי אֶקְרָא; וְחָנֵּנִי וַעֲנֵנִי.
Hear, Lord, my voice -- I call out! -- and be gracious to me and answer me.

.אֶת-פָּנֶיךָ יְהוָה אֲבַקֵּשׁ.
. . . Your Presence (literally, "face"), Lord, I seek.

אַל-תַּסְתֵּר פָּנֶיךָ, מִמֶּנִּי--
Do not hide Your Face from me.

אַל תַּט-בְּאַף, עַבְדֶּךָ:
Do not turn Your servant away in anger.
--verses 7-9
This, then, is the great message of the Psalm: if you are to achieve the trusting faith of its opening lines, you also must be willing to fearlessly contemplate the loss of that faith -- to contemplate the possiblity that God may abandon you. And you must humble yourself and beg God. You must plead. You must beg as the Pslam's author did. This is the truest way to exercise the hope muscle. This is the way to restore yourself.

May it be the will of the blessed Holy one that you shall have the sweetest of year's ahead. And may you find the strength in your heart to be able to stand before God in humility and with repentance in your heart. And may you find hope. True hope.

Shannah Tova/שנה טובה

Monday, September 10, 2007

Chaplaincy makes the Times -- as carrying out a Holy book purge!

Whatever the merits might or might not be of the program described in this front-page New York Times story, it pains me that the first sentence of the story describes chaplains as carrying out a "purge" (of Holy books on the request of federal prison officials).

Being described as "purgers" does not reflect well on the profession.

It seems to me also that this case raises an issue that chaplains face in any setting -- whose interests do we represent? Do we represent the interests of the staff members we see and work with every day? Or, do we represent the interests of the patients (whom we may only see once)? It's easy to say we want to do both, but what happens when these interests are in conflict? And if we do choose to represent the interest of officials (over patients or prisonsers) does that mean we lose the credibility we need in order to get folks to trust us enough to let us into their lives to minister to them?

I first wrote about this in July here.

Prisons Purging Books on Faith From Libraries

Behind the walls of federal prisons nationwide, chaplains have been quietly carrying out a systematic purge of religious books and materials that were once available to prisoners in chapel libraries.

The chaplains were directed by the Bureau of Prisons to clear the shelves of any books, tapes, CDs and videos that are not on a list of approved resources. In some prisons, the chaplains have recently dismantled libraries that had thousands of texts collected over decades, bought by the prisons, or donated by churches and religious groups.

Some inmates are outraged. Two of them, a Christian and an Orthodox Jew, in a federal prison camp in upstate New York, filed a class-action lawsuit last month claiming the bureau’s actions violate their rights to the free exercise of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

September 10, 2007
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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Using great literature to teach pastoral care

While I was on my bicycle trip this week, I was pleased to see that Plainviews, the online journal for spiritual care providers, published a short article of mine. Here's the beginning of it:

Theology leaves the dusty tomes of libraries and comes to life when chaplains go out onto the floors of a hospital. The "big questions" – What is life? What is death? Why do the good suffer? – wait behind every corner for us to uncover.

But as those of us who supervise clinical pastoral education (CPE) students know, theological issues do not always leap quickly off the page from the verbatims and other clinical material students bring. There are two problems here: 1) the encounters recounted in the clinical material may not be theologically rich to start with, and 2) students' ability to reflect theologically – to be able to see deep spiritual issues in the concerns patients have – may not yet be well developed.

To address both these issues, it can be helpful to supplement students' clinical material with other sources that are already both full of the "big questions" and that already have some reflection built into them. Great literary works like Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich do both these things wonderfully as we discovered when we introduced literature into our summer CPE program this year.

read the full article

Greetings from Long Island, NY

I made it!! Yes, my bicycle trip from Reading to Long Island has been successfully completed (only about an hour ago). I am exhausted and happy. I have a lot of things about the trip I hope to write about in the next few days (including my sitting in on a PhD dissertation defense for the first time!).
But for now, I just want to celebrate that I made all my goals for the trip (completing it in four riding days, with one rest day in there also) and that I am safe and sound. . . and the weather! It was great. Today, I got awesome views of Manhattan and the Hudson River valley from the George Washington and Triboro bridges. Blue skies. Green trees and grass. Skyscrapers of grey and glass. Sparkling blue waters. Awesome. . . . And I got to see how Harlem (looking quiet and prosperous in spots) is looking these days, as well as the incredibly ethnically diverse and rapidly changing neighborhoods of Queens. . . . What I love so much about New York (among many things!!!) is the way it is always both constantly changing and is also always just as you remembered it from "way back".
Years ago it was the incredibly intense immigrant energies of my own people (Jews!) who gave so many New York neighborhoods their incredible vitality. Now it's largely other immigrant folks, but the basic energy is the same (and I love it!). And it was wonderful to see the Jews still there, too. Around lunch time, I happened to run across a old-fashioned kosher deli (I swear the paneling on the walls was vintage 1952) next to the Long Island Expressway near (my early childhood home of) Fresh Meadows. What a treat!!! I so seldom get to eat meat anymore (not a great offering of kosher options in Reading, PA, as you might expect). . . . Matzah ball soup. Hot pastrami on rye (with mustard). Kasha varnishkes. And real deli pickles. What a treat!!
Anyway, like I said, it was a great trip. :)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

On the road

I'm excited! If all goes well -- and God is willing -- I will begin a four-day bicycle ride from Reading, PA, to Long Island tomorrow morning. Wish me luck!

Here's a clickable version of the above map of my route. Each of the green bikes represents a stop on my planned path. It took me many hours to plan the route across northern New Jersey (not exactly known for its bicycle-friendly roads!), but with the help of and Google Earth I feel pretty confident I've plotted out a survivable path. I did a similar ride from Reading to the Atlantic Ocean (Long Branch, to be exact) last summer, so I have some idea of what's ahead. I wrote about one of the most exciting and inspiring portions of that trip here. This will be a shorter trip because I am only planning on bike riding one way.

Why am I doing this? I am reminded of the famous quote about climbing Mt. Everest -- "because it's there". That is, it will be a real challenge for me, not just physically, but from the difficulty of finding (and following!) a ride-able route. And because I really don't know what I will find out there. Previous trips have brought flat tires, broken spokes and other equipment failures; I hope to be going out with all the tools -- and knowledge -- I will need to handle them if they come. I'll be depending on my own resources the whole way because I'm riding solo.

Why else do I go? The people. The places. The things. It's America out there. It's God's world. It's everything inspiring and exciting in creation. There's no better way to see it then on two wheels driven by your own power!

Say a prayer that my battered bike (and my battered body!!) will hold up for the next few days!