On May 3, 2022, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought welcomed Adam Kirsch, features editor at The Wall Street Journal, for a guest lecture in Straus Center Resident Scholar Dr. Shaina Trapedo’s course, “Tehillim and the Human Condition,” which was offered in collaboration with the Straus Center and Jewish Studies department at Stern College for Women. Kirsch’s presentation drew on his illuminating chapter on the literary legacy of King David and Psalms in his 2019 book Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer?
Kirsch began his talk by noting that while the Midrash declares “Whatever David says in his book pertains to himself, to Israel, and to all times,” the influence of the Psalms extends far beyond individual Jewish readers and communities. “From 16th to the 20th century,” Kirsch explained, “no poems were more widely or deeply read than the Psalms… they were indispensable.” Renaissance English poet and cleric John Donne captured the attitude of his age when he declared, “As manna tasted to every man like that he liked best, so do the Psalms minister instruction, and satisfaction, to every man, in every emergency and occasion.” In addition to being familiar with the liturgy, Kirsch said that early moderns found that the Psalms offered “the very scripts of their own inner lives.” Martin Luther translated them into German and composed music for several psalms, and for the translators responsible for the King James Version of the Bible, David was a clear prophet. With Psalms’ consistent position that God is on the side of the oppressed, it is little wonder, Kirsch argued, that they appealed to persecuted Christian writers like Luther, Milton, and the Puritans, who compared themselves to Israelites embarking through the wilderness toward a new promised land. “If that was the only voice of the Psalms, it would be strong but narrow, but it’s not,” Kirsch said, as even non-religious readers can come to the Psalms and find meaning and solace.
Through numerous translations and adaptions into English, Kirsch demonstrated how Christianity popularized the Psalms and gave them a global audience. However, for the Psalms to be considered a Christian text, they needed translations that aligned with Christian theology, as Kirsch demonstrated with examples from Psalm 2 (which capitalizes “Son”) and 23. He also commented on Robert Alter’s contemporary translation effort to “remove the Christain drama” from the Psalms and employ linguistic and cadence patterns more consistent with the original Hebrew.
Some of the most moving psalms for Kirsch are those in which the tensions run high and the longing for God is more pronounced, such as Psalm 42. “The Psalms also make room for experiences of devastation,” Kirsch said, when sometimes we “find the only sensation of God is in the feeling of His absence.” To illustrate the prescient sensibility of these ancient mizmorim, Kirsch took the class through a guided reading of Paul Celan’s 2001 poem “Psalm” as a modern (and poignant) response to the Psalms’ insistence that “we confront God’s distance as well as nearness” and the enduring desire to connect with the Almighty even after the Holocaust.
As an award-winning author of numerous books, articles, and two poetry collections, Kirsch also answered several questions about his experience as a writer engaging with the Hebrew bible and Jewish tradition in an increasing secular world. “Poetry,” he said, “is a more spiritual way of writing in that you’re addressing someone who’s not immediate.” And as for Tehillim, Kirsch said he made a conscious effort to learn what he hadn’t been taught earlier in life since “Psalms is not just a text written once, but an event though goes onward and expands.”