Josh Feigelson
Singing God's Praises: Psalms and Authenticity, p.4

On the other hand, Zalman (who wrote a blurb for Fischer's book) epitomizes the old maxim: "You can take the bochur out of the yeshiva, but you can't take the yeshiva out of the bochur." Zalman has gone so far, and yet he cannot leave behind the Hebrew. He has lived with it for too long. Zalman's relationship with the text feels like a marriage that has reinvented and reinterpreted itself over a lifetime. But fundamentally his partner, the text, is the same one he married many years ago. Fischer, on the other hand, is starting outside Judaism (despite being raised Jewish, he never had the immersion education Zalman did) and working his way in; Zalman began on the inside, and has been working his way out ever since.

Perhaps they meet each other at a point of silence. It is a truism that despite their broad scope and expressive power, the Psalms, like all language, cannot express everything. As the Talmudic rabbi Judah of Gibborayya comments on Psalm 65, Sama d'kula mashtuka, the greatest praise comes in silence (Megillah 18a). While on one level this strikes some as repressive and stifling expression (though probably not to Fischer, who sits in silence all the time), on a deeper level we know it is absolutely true-language is limited, and rare are the occasions when we find the words to express the sum total of our experience. This is the existential crisis of Moses, the man of "uncircumcised lips" who is impossibly charged with the task of translating the ineffable into human terms; and his brother and foil, Aaron, the skilled communicator whose talents bear the fruit of the Golden Calf. The choices thus become a language that can never be complete, or a silence that can never allow us full expression. It would seem we can never be fully authentic, totally true with ourselves and the world. We can only try to come close.

The question then arises: if the Hebrew Psalms can't give us full expression or express the ineffable to us, then are the English translations any worse? Put another way, is there anything really lost in the translation? I think so. For starters, the form and character of the Psalms is conceived and lived in Hebrew. No matter how beautiful, there is still something lost in an English translation-both an aural or linguistic element, as well as the potential for intertextuality. As Zalman accurately notes, "The Hebrew words are, for one who prays and meditates on them, very elastic. They accommodate not only the simple manifest meaning of the P'shat, but also meaning in deeper and higher layers of significance."

Take the following example: After the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, many Israelis attached a bumper sticker to their cars, with the Hebrew words from Psalm 34, "Bakesh shalom v'radfeihu," "Desire peace and pursue it." On a recent walk in Jerusalem I saw that bumper sticker on the back of a car, and thought about how I would explain its significance to someone who didn't know Hebrew. On the political level, it was a statement by the left that the right wing has no monopoly on the Bible; the sticker grounds the peace movement in the same Bible on which Rabin's assassin had based his actions. Not only the words, but even the font-taken from the authoritative Koren edition of the Hebrew Bible-served this purpose. But there were more layers to it than that: the verse is the basis of a teaching in the Mishnah: "Be like the students of Aaron: Love peace and pursue it." (Avot 1:12) Aaron, like peace, represents a compromise with Truth, a compromise Rabin's assassin refused to accept. So the bumper sticker not only marginalizes the right wing on moral and Biblical terms, but on rabbinic ones as well.

You simply can't appreciate the depth of that kind of intertextuality-the multi-valent associations from three little words-in translation. Even if Psalms in any language can't get us to fully authentic self-expression, by virtue of their age and the fact that they have been studied and prayed for hundreds of generations of Jews, their Hebrew words have taken on a richness and flavor that don't make it across the linguistic divide.

Translation, particularly of an ancient and timeless text like the Psalms, is the dialectic of authenticity played out at a remove of one degree from the expression that gave rise to the original text. Zalman falls on one side of the ineffable line of authenticity, Fischer on the other. 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. But ironically, the quixotic pursuit of authenticity, of the truest expression of ourselves and perception of our existence, needs the tools of texts and translations in order to get us beyond them.

[1]       [2]       [3]       4
Image: Roy Monas

Josh Feigelson is in his final year of rabbinical school at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

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