TEACHING PSALMS IN A UNIVERSITY SETTING

 

David R. Blumenthal

Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies

Emory University

 

A recent Google search yielded 18,600,000 entries for courses taught on the Book of Psalms in universities, schools of theology, and various religious organizations. While this database cannot actually be searched, there seem to be four methods used to teach Psalms: (1) The historical method deals with authorship, language, historical context, the setting of the Book of Psalms in wisdom literature, and the history of higher and lower criticism in the study of the psalms. (2) The literary method deals with the various types of psalms: historical, royal, praise, protest, prayer, acrostics and the psalms as poetry. (3) The interpretive method deals with the Jewish and/or Christian traditions of interpretation of the Book of Psalms as well as of individual psalms. And (4) the inspirational method deals with the psalms as the human response to God’s presence, as a way into God’s presence and, in Christian settings, as a prophecy of, and Christian response to, the person and message of Jesus.

 

My own classes on the Book of Psalms are composed of undergraduate students. Many of the Jewish students have some Jewish background; some have attended Jewish day (that is, parochial) schools. They have a cultural / national understanding of their Jewish identity, sprinkled with some religious experience, as well as a social involvement with other Jews. None of them has any intense religious education. Most cannot read the text in Hebrew, and those who can read it, do not understand it. Most have no personal prayer life. They also have little understanding or appreciation of religions other than their own.

 

Most of the Christian students also have a cultural understanding of Christianity. It is the tradition of their family; it is the cultural background of their American way of life. Very few of them have any intense religious education, even those who attended parochial schools. As a result, they do not usually have a personal prayer life. Those who are consciously “Christian” are almost always limited to their own Christian evangelical experience, most of it rather recent. The Christian students, too, have little understanding and appreciation of the religion of others.

 

Finally, some students come from completely secular, or from non-western, backgrounds. Religion, for the former, is not a part of their lives; it is just unnecessary. For the latter, religion is so different that the very occidental Book of Psalms, with its one male transcendent God, is simply a strange world. Both these types of students have no knowledge of others’ traditions, though they are usually tolerant of other people’s ideas and practices. All students who take this class are willing to learn.

 

Given this mixture – and it is typical of the general undergraduate student body – how should one teach the Book of Psalms? My course is divided into four stages. The first stage is called Learning to Read the Psalms. Students are permitted to use any translation they wish; those who read Hebrew are encouraged to use the bilingual edition of the Jewish Publication Society. When variant translations appear, I indicate what I think the original Hebrew means but I allow a certain poetic license. Some editions print the psalms in paragraph format; others print them with each verse starting a new line. This, of course, is wrong. Poetry has voices in it, and the printing of the text should reflect these voices. The first task, then, is to get students to identify the voices in the psalm: sometimes the psalmist is talking to God, sometimes to others, sometimes even to himself. There are also passages when others are talking and a few times when God is the speaker. Identifying the speaker, and the person who is addressed, is the first task. I, then, ask the students to establish margins for each voice. This gives us a real text of the psalm.

 

A psalm is always a response of the author to a specific situation. It may be one of trouble, or joy, or depression, or participation in a communal act (e.g., royal coronation, preparation for war, pilgrimage), or doubt, or even anger. So, the second task in Learning to Read the Psalms is to identify the emotions of the psalm and to suggest the situation that generated the psalm. This teaches an important skill in naming emotions and identifying feelings in different situations. It also leads to open discussions about the kind of situations that the psalm evokes.

 

The third task in Learning to Read the Psalms is to read the psalm out loud with the intonation that the psalmist felt. This is very difficult for undergraduates who are unaccustomed to dramatic reading, so much so that, even those who are capable of it tend to submerge their abilities when reading before the class. Furthermore, students’ experience of reading psalms is usually in the cadence of a ritual reading, in a “church” or “synagogue” voice. For this reason, sometimes the class needs to read the psalm out loud six or seven times before we get an appropriate reading.

 

The fourth task in Learning to Read the Psalms is to put all this into writing by submitting a paper with the text of the psalm divided into margins / voices plus an explicatory commentary. This latter begins with a lemma (that is, with a quotation from the psalm) in bold, followed by a prose explication in normal typeface of what is going on at that point in the psalm. Then, there is another lemma and another explicatory comment. And so on until the end of the psalm.

 

Having identified the voices within the psalm, divided the psalm into margins for each voice, identified the emotions of the psalm, suggested an event that prompted the psalm, read it out loud, and handed in a written text with explicatory commentary, the class needs to repeat this process with other psalms. I begin with ‘easy’ psalms (Psalms 23, 114) and proceed to psalms of prayer (Psalm 27, 30), of danger (Psalms 121, 91), and of anger (Psalms 44, 109).  I often return to Psalm 145 to lighten the tone of the class.

 

The second stage of the class is Giving Voice to the Psalm. In this stage, I ask students to use the psalm as the voice for a person whom they imagine. The characters chosen have included: an anorexic young woman, a dying person, a child from an abused home, an orphan, a skeptic in matters of faith, a suicide, a homeless person, a soldier about to leave for a war, a physically abused child, a survivor of rape, a Ugandan refugee, and others. In this stage, students take the text with margins that they have created and write a second ‘inner-voice’ commentary, using the lemma method, which gives a voice to the character they have chosen. How does a homeless person recite Psalm 23? How does a survivor of child abuse recite Psalm 27? How does a survivor of rape recite Psalm 109? Students work hard at creating this inner voice. The results have been astounding (see http://www.js.emory.edu/BLUMENTHAL/index5.html, under “Voices from Psalms”).

 

Having written an inner-voice commentary to a psalm we have studied, I urge students to edit their work more than once and then to present it in class. The mnemonic I use is “TWEEP”: Think, Write, Edit, Edit, Present. The general advice in editing is “Make is stronger.” As to presentation, students do not have to present publicly if they are sensitive on the subject, but they do have to send it to me.

 

The third stage of the class is Choose Your Own Psalm. At this point, students choose a psalm of their own, identify the voices, create the margins, write an explicatory commentary, and then write an inner-voice commentary. I urge students to present this material in class, listen to the responses of their peers, edit yet again, and then submit. It is at this stage that students learn how to listen to others, as well as how to criticize others constructively. Some of the most meaningful exchanges take place at this time: students share deep personal experiences, students try to explain their own religion to others to whom it is strange, and so on. Presentations that require a second round are given that opportunity.

 

The fourth stage of the class is Using Your Own Voice. This is very difficult because the material is always personal and often difficult, perhaps bruising. As a result, I usually do not assign this task in class but provide it as an option for the final project. Students do not have to submit this, though I urge them to submit it to me confidentially.

 

Another version of the fourth stage is ‘re-texting’ a psalm. This requires students to change the fundamental imagery of a psalm and to rewrite it with their own imagery (see my website, cited above). This, too, is not easy.

 

The final project for the class is to submit a portfolio of one’s work, which includes two psalms they have already completed plus one on which they have been working, all with text-with-margins and explicatory and inner-voice commentaries. Because the fourth stage is very personal and, because the semester has only a limited number of sessions, I usually use the final project as the place for students to opt for fulfilling the fourth stage of the course by submitting their own personal inner-voice commentary, or by re-texting a psalm. Finally, I choose the best interpretations and, after obtaining written permission from the students, I put the best papers up on my website, as noted above. (For the full syllabus and the instructions for the final project, see http://www.js.emory.edu/BLUMENTHAL/Interpreting%20Psalms.htm. I have taught this course five times and the syllabus represents the best way to teach it, given that the course varies with the number of students and their readiness to work.)

 

Using this method has, I think, proven very successful in several ways: (1) Students learn to read poetry, identify voices, identify feelings, read out loud, assume the voice of another, write, edit, edit yet again, present publicly, listen to their peers, and submit a portfolio. (2) Students learn to identify deep emotions and situations that are part of the human condition, even if they do not always have answers. Some even find their own inner voices in the context of the Book of Psalms. (3) The very subject of the Book of Psalms gives students (and myself) the chance to discuss ways to envision religious consciousness, prayer, and the relationship between real life experiences and religion. And (4), some of the material discussed challenges the previous conceptions of the students and leads to critical thinking about their previous opinions and beliefs. Students have written me years later mentioning the importance of this course in their lives, often not even those whose work I chose to share publicly. It seems to me that this method for the Book of Psalms embodies the highest goals of a humanities education while dealing with one of the great classics of religious literature.