Wednesday, September 19, 2007

What's the Yetzer Hara behind Historical Tanach Reading?

I heard a sadening interview with Robert Alter, a professor who's come out with his new translation of the book of Psalms on's website, which you can listern to here. From the interview, it is apparant that the author's main purpose in the translation was to de-spiritualify (I made up that word!) the book of Psalms. One example is how he strictly avoids the word "soul" when translating the word "Nefesh," holding that the author(s) of the Psalms do not believe in the eternality of the soul.

Another interesting thing to consider is looking behind the obvious relish he displays when reading his translation of the following psukim from Tehilim perek 82, in a way depicting the Psalm as describing polytheistic belief.

מִזְמוֹר, לְאָסָף:אֱלֹהִים, נִצָּב בַּעֲדַת-אֵל;
בְּקֶרֶב אֱלֹהִים יִשְׁפֹּט.
ו אֲנִי-אָמַרְתִּי, אֱלֹהִים אַתֶּם; וּבְנֵי עֶלְיוֹן כֻּלְּכֶם. ז אָכֵן, כְּאָדָם תְּמוּתוּן; וּכְאַחַד הַשָּׂרִים תִּפֹּלוּ.

My question is this: Why would someone invest so much time and effort in the de-spiritualification of Sefer Tehillim? What emotion underlies such a sacrifice of time and resources in trying to hard to remove, by hook or by crook, any reference to any transcendant spirituality or relationship to G-d? Although he rationalizes this approach with the assertion that spiritual references are a recent interjection into the Psalms, that explanation is merely the means he must use to get to his goal. It's especially interesting that someone who is knowledgable enough in Hebrew to accomplish such a task would be motivated to do this.

My feeling is that such a person must such spiritual potential which creates a vacuum in his soul which must be filled with a relationship with Hashem. I think that the ability to invest personal resources, to the extent that he has, is the result of the natural desire of a Jew to connect to Hashem. However, since he has invested himself in a life which is not in connsonance with that spiritual search, he must find some way of quieting that spiritual hunger for something greater than himself and something greater than our world.

The method he chose is work tirelessly to limit and consign "religion" to the small limited space of our world. By taking out any reference to the transcendant from Psalms and glibly asserting Dovid Hamelech's belief in a pantheon of gods, he is attempting to soothe his inner turmoil and emptiness by telling himself that there really isn't anything higher than this world to which his inner longing could be directed.

In the process, the writing of these books also serve as consecutive temporary attemps at achieving some repreive from his soul's need to fill the void and thirst that it feels.

His efforts at concealing and covering up the existance of a higher spiritual connection with G-d, that man requires, are not so different from what the rest of of do on a less visible scale. We do the same type of thing in various ways. Perhaps I may tell myself that a certain madreiga in Avodas Hashem is not really for people "like me." Rather, that is for special individuals, yechidei segulah. Or I may tell myself that the purpose of certain mitzvos is merely for a worldly purpose, without any specific intention of connecting me to Hashem.

In all of these cases, this is the work of the yetzer hara. Rather than soothing the cognitive dissonance that I feel when I know that my life does not measure up to its great potential by seeking to become personally greater and connect to the Infinite Light, I soothe it by denying the existance of that transcendant reality.

That is why it is especially ironic that he choose to humanize G-d in his translation of Psalm 82. He interpreted those verses talking about "Bnei Elohim" as refering to gods. When really, it is an answer to his essential problem. The psukim are actually saying (paraphrasing), You [the Jewish people] are Bnei Elyon, people with huge, lofty potential! But when you lower yourselves to rip out your transcendant relationship with G-d from your lives, then you will die like some "Joe" in the street.

May we all merit to never negate our infinite potential to connect to G-d through every detail in life and never shortchange our potential in exchange for temporary emotional comfort!

-Dixie Yid


A Simple Jew said...

I tend to agree with your analysis. If someone did not want anything to do with Hashem, he would not involve himself with such a time intensive project.

Alice said...

Your analysis is generous. I hope the author can one day feel the spirit. There was a time I didn't and now I do, so of course there's always hope!

Anonymous said...

Isn't it possible Alter simply wants to tell us what he thinks the words mean? If you don't like his conclusions, why don't you tell us why he is wrong - on the merits - instead of inventinging slanderous bathroom psychology explanations of his motives? I mean have you met the man? Spoken to him? So by what right do you attribute all this nonsense to him?

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

I thought about discussing his conclusions on their merits, but since that was not the point of my post, it would have been a distraction from the real point.

I am a believer in having a clear idea of what one is trying to say when he rights. I have to know what my point is and what my point is not, in order to know what words I should write that will develop the idea I'm writing about and not distract from it.

The readers of my blog are generally in agreement about the fact that the Tehillim were written with Nevuah, and certainly did not reflect polytheistic belief or a denial of Olam Habah. The goal of my blog is not to write polemics proving these things. IF someone else has a blog where that is their goal, then gezunte heit, they should write about that.

On Dixie Yid, I'm not interested in doing polemics proving Torah Judaism or disproving those who deny it. My goal on this site is, assuming Judaism is true and everything, talk about inspiring ideas that can help myself and others get closer to Hashem.

With that goal in mind, I see no point in writing polemics. The reason I choose this interview to write about is that I think we have much to learn from contemplating the intense dedication and work involved in writing a book to despiritualify sefer Tehillim. I think that such an endeavor must come from a deep and unrequited spiritual longing for soemthing greater. Some poeople try to connect to Hashem more deeply in order to quiet that desire, and some try to cover it up. But the main point is the presence of that desire.

*That* was the point of my post. Not proving or disproving any particular point of view. I am orthodox and he is not. So I wouldn't expect us to agree on the issues he speaks and writes about.

The point is, in order to have a unified, cogent site, I try to stay on point and not engage myself in debates. There are other sites for that. :-)

-Dixie Yid