The internet never ceases to amaze me. In spite of “middle age”. Actually, in spite of middle age, I’m reasonably competent at the business of the internet (only just so, according to my 21-year-old son). For some time now I’ve been a member of Ravelry, an online network of people interested in knitting and crochet (along with other related arts such as spinning, and more).
As of this afternoon, there are just more than 159,000 participants internationally, and nearly 1,000 of these are some kind of Jewish. What does this mean? In addition to Jewish Fiberaholics (the most general group), there are: Knit & Nosh (605 members; food only, no politics), Stitch ‘n Kvetch (Shabbat, Just Do It; 97 Orthodox members), Yarn and Falafel (267 Israeli members, or others committed to Israel, Jews By Choice (33 more-or less new members of the Jewish community), Look Who’s Coming to Seder! (I lead the 102 members of this mostly-Jewish group in an exploration of the meaning of Passover), Tzion (72 “apolitical” Messianic Jews and Christian Zionists), Knitting Our Way to Peace (411 Jewish, Muslim and others interested in conversation and “Promoting Peace One Stitch at Time”).
I’ve been a sometime contributor to a few of these groups, with more or less “success” (read: response), but the the newest group, Jewish Text Study promises a special opportunity. In only the past few hours, a reconstructionist rabbi has agreed to lead the project for the time being, 14 members have signed on, and we’ve started a conversation about Psalms (one/week, I expect).
Why get excited about studying Tehillim (Hebrew, for the psalm? Well, I’ve never done so, rigorously at least. I’ve sung some of them often, both in synagogue and church (as a Jewish boy soprano in a church choir!), but I’ve never had a chance to study them seriously as a Jew. And since, historically, recitation of at least one of the psalms was a part of most Jewish lifecycle events, this is a chance to dive deeply into the practice and meaning of reading the psalms.
Bibliophile that I am, I always start with material expression. How wonderful to find on the internet a facsimile copy (and informative discussion) of a 13th-century Italian Jewish illuminated cycle of Psalms (Ms. Parm. 1870, Cod. De Rossi 510), including the folio of the first psalm (at right)! I did not know that even medieval Jews divided the psalms into five sections (marked by doxologies at the ends of psalms 41, 72, 89 and 106. No, I did not know that the lectionary cycle of the Torah included 150 divisions, like the 150 psalms, until the Middle Ages.
Accustomed to Christian choir books, I couldn’t have been more delighted to see an illustration of a choir (for Psalm 149: Sing unto the Lord …), singing from a Hebrew choir book (though the image of for Psalm 76 was more than a bit more challenging …). And then there was the 17th-century English (Christian) metrical hymn (I’m a sucker for early printed music). Contemporary (Christian) quilters have used the psalms as a springboard for their work (a tree of life block the subject for Psalm 1, of course; more here); I wonder why Jewish needlework has not travelled here.
So what else can I contribute to Ravelry’s Jewish Study Group? In addition to a few links to the 13th-century text, perhaps some exploration of the text itself. I’m a *huge* fan of Robert Alter’s translations of Torah and Psalms, and relish the chance to dig into the latter. Here’s Alter’s compelling translation of the first psalm:
Happy the man who has not walked int he wicked’s counsel,
nor in the way of offenders has stood,
nor in the session of scoffers has sat.
But the LORD’s teaching is his desire,
and His teaching he murmurs day and night.
And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, that bears its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither –
and in all that he does he prospers.
Not so the wicked,
but like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand up in judgment,
nor offenders in the band of the righteous.
For the LORD embraces the way of the righteous,
and the way of the wicked is lost.
While deism is not my principal connection to Judaism, the psalm nonetheless speaks to me powerfully.
What is special about Alter’s text, beyond the sheer poetic beauty of his translations, are his amazing footnotes. With respect to this psalm, I’m persuaded by his use of *murmur* instead of *meditate* (used typically in standard translations), reflecting the practice of sounding prayer in oral culture, in which there would have been no silent reading.
To my knowledge, the practice of reading aloud (even to oneself) continued in European culture at large well into the medieval period, and Jewish tradition continues the practice. This is a connection even to contemporary Jewish study that I especially relish. Whenever I attend a Torah study session, I try to make a habit of listening to the reading rather than looking at my copy (a well-annotated Plaut) – the sound of the text (even the less-than-optimal Plaut) is remarkable, and over time, I hear resonances (of oral culture’s figures and formuli) across the parshot. Murmuring makes aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional (even musical) sense to me. I also like Alter’s observation about the way in which the author/s continue the conceit of *walk/stood/sat* (lines 1-3) throughout the text. These verbs highlight for me the ways in which the activity of trying to walk “in the way of the righteous” equally expresses the opportunity for relationship with divinity.
Makes me want to try that lace kippah just one more time, in case I should find a way to build (even) my own bridge to that woman in Hebron.