Mishkan and the trouble with the psalms

There was a time when Reform Judaism shied away from uncomfortable texts. Some Torah portions were even once regularly skipped in Reform communities. I thought that time was over, until I discovered Mishkan T’filah’s attitude toward Kabalat Shabat.

Last week, while at Temple Sinai in Denver I noticed something that had somehow escaped my attention until now. Though all of the psalms we traditionally associate with Kab Shab are represented, five of the eight of them are abridged. Only 98, 93 and 29 survive Mishkan intact!

So what’s missing?

In Psalm 95, the final four verses are missing, verses 8-11:

8 Do not be stubborn as at M’rivah,

as on the day of Masah, in the wilderness,

9 when your fathers put me to the test,

tried me, though they had seen my deeds.

10 Forty years I was provoked by that generation;

I thought, “They are a senseless people;

they would not know my ways.”

11 Concerning them I swore in anger,

“They shall never come to My resting place!”

In Psalm 96, four verses are missing from the middle, verses 7-10:

7 Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,

ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

8 Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name,

bring tribute and enter his courts.

9 Bow down to the Lord majestic in his holiness;

tremble in his presence, all the Earth!

10 Declare among the nations, “The Lord is king!”

The world stands firm; it cannot be shaken;

he judges the peoples with equity.

In Psalm 97, six verses from the middle are gone, 3-9:

3 Fire is his vanguard,

burning his foes on every side.

4 His lightnings light up the world;

the Earth is convulsed at the sight;

5 mountains melt like wax at the Lord’s presence,

at the presence of the Lord of all the Earth.

6 The heavens proclaim his righteousness

and all peoples see his glory.

7 All who worship images,

who vaunt their idols,

are dismayed;

all divine beings bow down to him.

8 Zion, hearing it, rejoices,

the towns of Judah exult,

because of your judgments, O Lord.

9 For you, Lord, are supreme over all the Earth;

you are exalted high above all divine beings.

In 99, verses 6-8 are gone from the middle:

6 Moses and Aaron among his priests,

Samuel, among those who call on his name–

when they called to the Lord,

he answered them.

7 He spoke to them in a pillar of cloud;

they obeyed his decrees,

the law he gave them.

8 O Lord our god, you answered them;

you were a forgiving god for them,

but you exacted retribution for their misdeeds.

92 lacks four of its middle verses:

9 But you are exalted, O Lord, for all time.

10 Surely, you enemies, O Lord,

surely your enemies perish;

all evildoers are scattered.

11 You raise my horn high like that of a wild ox;

I am soaked in freshening oil.

12 I shall see the defeat of my watchful foes,

hear of the downfall of the wicked who beset me.

So what are the uniting themes here? Mostly anything that glorifies God by ascribing violence to him or by describing the defeat or our enemies. God forbid we even engage with this image of God. I can understand discomfort in the face of this type of language. Indeed, it makes me uncomfortable.

Is the solution to the problem posed by these uncomfortable passages to excise them? Must prayer be all comforting reinforcement of what we already think? Or should it challenge us to engage with an uncomfortable world?

But this is the Reform way. When it comes to Torah, we’re okay reading and re-reading passages that treat female characters with little detail or ignore them altogether, but when it comes to liturgy, Reform has to sprinkle the text with women, from Sarah to Miriam. We’ll read Torah portions about sacrifice till the cows come home, concocting all sorts of exegetical reasons that those passages have worth, anything that even vaguely reminds us of sacrifice is right out. And it’s the same story here.

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19 Responses to Mishkan and the trouble with the psalms

  1. jepaikin January 7, 2010 at 11:49 pm #


    But I do think there’s a difference between reading the Torah (either as history or as poetry) and respecting it as a complete text; and praying to God and wanting the words you speak to reflect your beliefs and intentions.

    Though… these are psalms. They lie in an interesting grey area. Included in prayer, but derived from Tanakh.

    • David A.M. Wilensky January 8, 2010 at 11:29 am #

      Indeed. Here’s a precedent: Yotzer Or (I think) quotes a prophetic text (can’t remember which one), but alters it as a reaction to Zoroastrianism.

      However, Yotzer Or is known to be a rabbinic composition, though it quotes texts, so I’m okay with futzing with text. In that case its poetic license. Similarly, the formulation in which God announces godself to Moses in the Torah is quoted in Avot. When Reform created Avot V’imahot, the quote was expanded and altered. I’m ok with that too, for the same reason I cited for being ok with it in Yotzer Or.

      However, Kab Shab is a very different issue. Here, psalms are presented as psalms, not as rabbinic compositions that quote psalms. To be clear, it’s not as though MT is lying to us. It notes which verses are present in small type, but titles them like “Psalm 95,” etc.

      Either way, what concerns me is the ease with which MT dispenses with troublesome material.

  2. ML January 8, 2010 at 12:37 am #

    Would it be better to remove the psalms completely or abridge them?

    Would it be preferable to substitute a completely different psalm (that conformed more closely to Reform ideals)?

    • David A.M. Wilensky January 8, 2010 at 11:36 am #

      Of your three options, none are great.

      No matter which of those three you choose, you dispense with a set of material handed down by our tradition. The psalms themselves are from the Tanach, though the list of which psalms to include is from some medieval kabalists. But they are just as important to the tradition, as creators of what has become a recognized, solidified liturgical rubric. There’s a slipper slope in front of me if keep arguing my way down this path that leads straight to ArtScroll, so I’ll stop this argument here.

      The point is that the Reform world has a great tradition of confronting ugliness in the world through social action. What’s aversion to confronting ugliness in our tradition through an honest approach to text?

      • ML January 8, 2010 at 1:51 pm #

        In a sense, you’re right. None of them are fond options.

        However, most of the KS psalms get abridged in actuality, even if not in the siddur. Is there a Reform congregation that sings all of the psalms, all of the way through? It would be a rarity if so. I’ve spent a lot of times at Conservative KS services as well and half of them are reduced to the first line (or two), then silence/mumbling, and concluding with the last couple of lines.

        I think the fact that they state in MT which verses are there (where it’s easy to tell that some are missing) is being honest. I’m with you in that it’s not my preference, but it’s probably closer to how Reform congregations actually practice.

        I leave you with this quote:

        “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision. To pray is to stake our very existence, our right to live, on the truth…of that which we pray for. Prayer, then, is radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in a life that could be God’s.”

        • David A.M. Wilensky January 9, 2010 at 7:48 am #

          ML, where is that quote from?

          • ML January 9, 2010 at 6:15 pm #

            Abraham Joshua Heschel.

  3. Larry Kaufman January 8, 2010 at 12:42 pm #

    Your discomfort with excerpting psalms parallels to some extent the discomfort many of us felt (more than our earlier liturgists expected) with the “free interpretation of the Hebrew text rather than a translation of it” that pervaded GOP and GOR, sometimes noted, sometimes not. As you observe regarding the abridgments in the psalms, this is not intended as deception. (GOP and GOR chose “From Psalm XX.)

    As JEP has implied, the standards for Torah study are not necessarily the same as the standards for creating liturgy; and you have conceded the danger of accepting the inherited as immutable. And I would maintain that if liturgists have the right to eliminate or edit, then they have the right to eliminate or edit. (Even conservative Conservatives have added the imahot, an interpolation I understand in terms of the zeitgeist, but mostly just find amusing — unlike MT’s interpolations of Miriam, that I find annoying.)

    You leave as questions the role of liturgy in challenging rather than reinforcing or comforting. That would be a point worth expanding on.

    And, when it’s time for the next “establishment” Reform siddur, if you’ve made peace with the establishment, I have little doubt that your judgments will help determine what’s in, what’s out.

  4. rogueregime January 8, 2010 at 12:49 pm #

    Crazy, no? In my book, it’s one thing to focus on certain passages to the exclusion of others, but to excise “troublesome” verses from the middle of a psalm… That’s just weird and, IMO, dishonest.

    It reminds me of how I felt when I first realized that the entire second paragraph and 2/3 of the third paragraph of the v’ahav’ta were left out of the RJ version. I remember feeling duped.

    • David A.M. Wilensky January 9, 2010 at 7:50 am #

      I felt that way as well. And I’m a big fan of the paragraph that MT brought back (but only in the morning! and of the one that’s still missing).

  5. jepaikin January 8, 2010 at 1:21 pm #

    When considering the status of changing of liturgy, I always > think of Shakespeare.

    There has been virtually no production of any of Shakespeare’s plays in the past century that has used an entire text as a whole. Whether on stage or on film, Bill’s plays are almost always edited, redacted, cut down, shifted, rearranged, and updated – all to make the the production fit in with the vision of the director and to establish a specific connection between the audience and the messages of the play.

    Some lambaste this in the name of upholding the immutability and sacredness of Shakespeare’s words.

    But if done thoughtfully and with great intent, such versions almost always results in a play that is better able to speak to the audience, or at least better able to communicate the ideas of the director (to be sure, sometimes directors fail, just as siddur editors do…)

    The crucial thing to note is that few people in such an audience would deny that they were experiencing Shakespeare. He still gets top billing.

    And how about West Side Story, The Lion King, or Ten Things I Hate about You? Even drastic re-visionings to their extent are still seen as being versions of Shakespeare.

    Is it not the same for the siddur? Even when faced with sweeping edits to text – both liturgical or tanakhic, could we not agree that there are elements of validity if the intent is to better establish a connection between God an Jews in an honest way?

    • rogueregime January 8, 2010 at 1:37 pm #

      I’m not so sure about this.

      When it comes to artistic expression, such as Shakespeare, I can see the benefits under certain conditions of a certain amount of editing, redacting, etc.

      Religion, though, isn’t the same as art.

      I think it’s fair to say that, however a given indidivual chooses to practice it, one of Judaism’s hallmarks is its difficulty. We’re supposed to struggle with it, not remove all of the difficult parts so that we don’t need to struggle.

      Take my example of the v’ahav’ta. Seriously I didn’t know that the key middle sections were missing until many years later. What was the point of taking these paragraphs out? Obviously the fire and brimstone didn’t sit well with the RJs who removed them. But was I well served by this sleight of hand?

      I think the more apt comparison with Shakespeare is, what if his tragedies were given happy endings? Would that make Romeo & Juliet “better”?

      • ML January 8, 2010 at 1:52 pm #

        To me, that example would fall under the editing of the text, not the removal of undesirable text.

      • jepaikin January 8, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

        For me, it’s not about making the play objectively “better,” it’s about allowing it to establish a stronger connection between the audience and play.

        In the case of Romeo and Juliet, for example – The ending of West Side story is different; only “Romeo” dies. Is this “better”? I don’t know… but it certainly better communicates the message of the play (the possibility of a reconciliation between the warring “families”).

        And to your earlier point, RR, that religion, isn’t the same as art, certainly they aren’t one and the same, but structurally there is substantial overlap. It may be a bad example for Jews, but for the Greeks and Romans, religion and art (especially theatre) were one and the same.

        From a structural standpoint, what’s really the difference between a director or dramaturg doing thoughtful research into the background of a text and a sha’tz or siddur editor doing the same with tanakh or liturgy?

        • rogueregime January 8, 2010 at 2:15 pm #

          But if “establish[ing] a stronger connection between the audience and play” — in our case, between Reform Jews and Torah — involves systematically “disappearing” text relating to disturbing or difficult themes, then I do have to wonder if the integrity of the original is being undermined. We’re not talking about anachronistic language or outdated ideas here; we’re talking about fundamentals.

          Here’s my problem: “West Side Story” may be based on Shakespeare’s R&J, but it isn’t R&J nor does it pretend to be. It’s an adaptation. Reform’s “disappearing” difficult text from Jewish liturgy is something else altogether. It’s not adapting or creatively editing; it’s hiding. At least put a footnote saying that lines have been removed.

          Geez, I guess I’m still a bit sore over thinking the v’ahav’ta was only two paragraphs! : (

          • Larry Kaufman January 8, 2010 at 2:43 pm #

            Maybe you should give some thought to why it was called Reform. The Founders thought that Jewish worship needed to be changed, in style and in content. They weren’t hiding anything, or “disappearing” anything; they were getting rid of what didn’t work for them. They were making a new entity, based on the best of the past.

            Kind of like going to see West Side Story, and then being sore because it wasn’t Romeo and Juliet.

            • rogueregime January 8, 2010 at 2:56 pm #

              Yes, I’m aware of that. But I’m not of the generation that made those choices, and as David pointed out in his post, I thought Reform Judaism was getting better on this score.

              I suppose if one thinks the “best” of the past are those parts that don’t challenge or provoke, then RJ has done a bang-up job.

    • David A.M. Wilensky January 9, 2010 at 7:53 am #

      But do we remove death scenes from Shakespeare because they are uncomfortable?

  6. jepaikin January 8, 2010 at 1:22 pm #

    I should add that I believe current productions of Shakespeare’s plays are the perfect embodiment of the balance between keva and kavannah.

    I’d love to take a group of religious school students to a play and then to shul and ask them to do a comparison.