“Songs Ascending: A Fresh Take on the Book of Psalms, (Volumes 1 & 2)” by Rabbi Richard Levy— A New Translation

Levy, Rabbi Richard. “Songs Ascending: A Fresh Take on the Book of Psalms, (Volumes 1 & 2)”, CCAR Press, 2017.

A New Translation

Amos Lassen

“Songs Ascending: A Fresh Take on the Book of Psalms, (Volumes 1 & 2)” is a beautiful, poetic translation of the Book of Psalms that also includes textual commentary and insights into the translation process, illuminating the choices of the original composers and the choices facing us in the 21st century as we try to make each psalm our own. Rabi Levy shows us how to find answers to important questions—- “To what events, struggles, and triumphs in our lives might this psalm speak? How might this psalm articulate an aspect of our own sacred existence, or how might it help us celebrate a special day in our lives? How might it provide comfort when we are bereft and most in need of consolation, or how might it help us provide comfort for someone else?”

Levy sees that the force of the Psalms comes from their spiritual intentions; and he re-enforces and emphasizes this priority with rich commentary and postscripts that allow us to actually utilize the Psalms in ways that are meaningful. The translation is clear and engaging and the commentary is insightful and thought provoking.

“Songs Ascending” refers to the idea that prayer is ever upwards, from the human to the Divine and the Divine responds. Volume One includes Psalms 1-72 and Volume Two includes Psalms 73-150. Each chapter of the Psalms is treated separately, with the English translation to the right of the Hebrew text. Following the text and translation is a verse-by-verse commentary, after which comes a section titled “Spiritual Applications.”

“Songs Ascending” is different from traditional commentaries in two main ways. The “spiritual application” portion is not something found in most commentaries, much less in a Jewish commentary. This section reads almost like a daily devotional, something hat is foreign to most Jews because “devotionals have long been relegated to the realm of Christianity.” Rabbi Levy shows that not have to be the case because the Hebrew Bible and the Psalms especially offer much for those who yearn for spiritual growth. He proves that this does not need to be saved for the High Holidays. He suggests that such efforts should not be a once-a-year occasion.

Looking at the tradition of “P’sukei D’zimrah” (singing select psalms during the morning worship service), the inclusion of other psalms in the Kabbalat Shabbat service and yet another set in Hallel, Levy explains how the book of Psalms has much to offer us. This spiritual work is not for our own benefit alone, it can also bring us in sync with how we act as responsible humans and Jews in society.

Many commentaries focus on ancient Near Eastern texts as a means of understanding difficult passages. “For example, Psalm 29 (the psalm for Shabbat), is understood by traditional commentaries to be about the theatrics of the storm god Ba’al as he reveals himself to the world in a theophany of thunder, lightning, and earthquakes.” Rabbi Levy, instead, begins with the biblical text and then looks to Jewish tradition for illumination. He shows us how other biblical passages unlock the meaning of a Psalm, and concentrates on what the Hebrew means in context by paying attention to exploring the various verbal roots and what they mean and to the literary aspects of the poetry, such as alliteration, assonance, and parallelisms.

The insightful commentary provided along with thought provoking spiritual applications, we find something for everyone here from scholar to lay person from layperson.

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