Songs Ascending: A Fresh Take on the Book of Psalms
“To ask something of God is to praise the Holy One, for it demonstrates the worshiper’s belief that God has the power to grant the prayer”
— Songs Ascending
The title of Rabbi Richard Levy’s new book, Songs Ascending: The Book of Psalms in a New Translation with Textual and Spiritual Commentary, plays on the idea that prayer is ever upwards, from the human to the Divine. But, as stated in the quote, the Divine responds; humans have God’s ear, so to speak.
Coming from a man who marched alongside Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr., on the streets of Selma, this commentary offers one vision of prophetic Judaism played out through the words of the psalmists (or “poets” as Rabbi Levy calls them). In the acknowledgments he notes that this work was a very personal endeavor, and one can see this reflected throughout. Reading this commentary feels as if one were studying with Rabbi Levy, and gaining his personal insights and words of wisdom.
The layout of the commentary is as follows: 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 set apart from traditional commentaries in two main ways. First and foremost, the “spiritual application” portion is not something found in most commentaries, much less in a Jewish commentary (e.g., the JPS Torah Commentary series). This section reads almost like a daily devotional, something foreign to most Jews; devotionals have long been relegated to the realm of Christianity. Yet, Rabbi Levy adroitly demonstrates that this need not be the case – the Hebrew Bible and the Psalms especially offer much for those who yearn for spiritual growth. He proves that “work before the ark” need not be saved for the High Holidays. In fact, Songs Ascending seems to suggest that such efforts should not be a once-a-year occasion.
Noting 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 (psalms sung during certain festival services), Levy explains how the book of Psalms has much to offer us. This spiritual work is not for our own benefit alone, but can bring us in tune with how we act as responsible humans and Jews in society. For example, the “spiritual application” for Psalm 72 calls to task our commitment to social justice and our responsibility to create just leadership in the world.
The commentary also differs in its explication. Many commentaries focus on ancient Near Eastern texts as a means of unlocking 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, on the other hand, begins with the biblical text and then looks to Jewish tradition for illumination. He notes places in which other biblical passages unlock the meaning of a Psalm, and concentrates on what the Hebrew means in context. Attention is given to 1) exploring the various shorashim (verbal roots) and what they mean and 2) the literary aspects of the poetry, such as alliteration, assonance, and parallelisms.
Consider the commentary for Psalm 29. Verse 1 notes the alliteration and assonance in kavod vaoz, stating that the English “resplendence” and “strength” were chosen to mirror the repetition of vowel and consonant sounds. Verse 6 draws the reader’s attention to the fact that “Sirion” is another name for Mt. Hermon (Deut 3:9).
Finally, unlike other commentaries, sometimes editorial liberties are taken to make the text comprehensible to the contemporary audience: “The words we have added [in verse 6] are an attempt to make the image more vivid to the reader who may have no idea what Sirion and Hermon refer to...” (p. 106).
With its clear and engaging English translation, the insightful commentary, and thought provoking spiritual applications, Songs Ascending offers something for everyone, from lay person, to rabbi, to biblical scholar alike. And for that, I give it a “two thumbs up,” or as we say in Hebrew: kol hakavod (all the honor)!