What Now? Episode 2 podcast transcript
The following is a transcription of episode 2 of the podcast What Now?, “Talking Back to God” with Benjamin Sommer, provided for accessibilty for all website visitors.
Sara Beth: Welcome to What Now? A podcast from the Jewish Theological Seminary that asks how we respond when it all goes wrong. I’m Sara Beth Berman, your host, and a graduate of the Davidson School at JTS and I’ve been searching for answers for a long time. I’ve spoken on this show about the devastating loss of my fiancé Rafi nearly a decade ago, and I’ve thought a lot about the tragedies and misfortunes we encounter every day. On a scale of one to 10 where one is someone eating your lunch, even though it was marked clearly in the office fridge, and 10 is that time I was widowed before my wedding. Even though I’ve done some healing since that loss, I’ve never stopped asking: what now? How does Judaism think we should respond to our own tragedies? To finally answer that question, I’m meeting with professors and teachers from my beloved alma mater, The Jewish Theological Seminary. Even teachers have had to wrestle with tragedies of their own, and have applied their wisdom and scholarship to finding answers. I’m hoping that the answers they found will help me figure it all out. After years of banging my head against a wall while I whine loudly about tragedy, maybe my professors can help me make sense of it.
Sara Beth: In this episode, I spoke with Professor Benjamin Sommer, a Bible professor here at JTS. Professor Sommer and I chatted about the not always lighter, lighter side of tragedy, his incredible work with Psalms, and the theological work of The Boss. (Yes, that one.) I’ll let him introduce himself.
Benjamin Sommer: My name is Benjamin Sommer. I’m a professor of Bible and ancient Semitic languages here at The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Sara Beth: It’s really great to have you on the show. As part of my exploration in What Now? I’m trying to figure out how tragedy plays into our lives and what we’re supposed to do to deal with it. So my first question for you is on a scale of one to 10 where one is a flight delay and 10 is the Book of Job, can you describe something that happened to you on the one side of the scale?
Benjamin Sommer: Well, first of all, I’d have to say that in my experience, a flight delay isn’t necessarily just a one; in particular, when you’re flying from Chicago to Newark and you built in a four-hour flight delay just in case so that you know that you can make it to the Springsteen concert with your brother, and there’s a seven-hour flight delay, that’s more than a one, especially if you’re a Springsteen fan from New Jersey. So yeah, that can be more than a one.
Sara Beth: Okay. There’s nothing wrong with having a flight delay. There’s a lot of things wrong with having a flight delay that causes you that sort of stress, but it’s okay if you’re not viewing that as a one. As a fan of They Might Be Giants I would have had a similar reaction if something like that had happened to me. So you didn’t make the concert?
Benjamin Sommer: I did not make the concert. During the concert, I was mostly in Pittsburgh because the flight landed in Pittsburgh for some reason. So yeah, I did not make the concert. And my brother didn’t make it either. I told him on the phone, just go to the concert, but he stayed at the airport, which I think was really too bad. Any Springsteen concert missed is a tragedy.
Sara Beth: I was about to say, I’m very sorry for your loss. I’m not allowed to be that sarcastic on this podcast, but that’s my usual response to something like that. So on the other end of the spectrum, when we’re talking about something that’s a 10 that’s Book of Job bad, can you think of something in your experience that you would be comfortable sharing?
Benjamin Sommer: I think first of all that compared to many people, I honestly, I’ve lived a very, very fortunate life. I think that I haven’t experienced a lot of the difficult things that other people have experienced. I can think of some things in particular. I’m remembering back when I was in my early twenties when my father was ill for about a good eight months, and then died. That was a really hard time, especially in the sense that he died. He was just 64, it’s really too young to die. So that was certainly one of the hardest times. And for my family, which is very close to another family that we grew up along with, that was a hard time because a few months later the eldest son of that family was killed in a car accident near Jerusalem where he lived and so that combination, since our two families went through both of these things really together, that combination was a particularly hard time.
Sara Beth: I’m so sorry to hear. Part of interviewing people for this podcast is holding space for everybody’s tragedies that they have experienced. I want to talk a little bit about the academic work that you do and talk a little bit more about that experience.
Benjamin Sommer: Well, I’m a scholar of Bible and also of Jewish thought more broadly. I’m especially interested in the ways that when we understand the Bible as the Ancient Near Eastern work that it is, it surprisingly becomes, I think, even more interesting and richer for the purposes of modern religious thought, of modern Jewish thought. More specifically, right at the moment, I’m working on a Psalms commentary for the Jewish Publication Society, and that is a book of the Bible that certainly does address the full gamut of religious and human emotions. I myself, am editing the whole five volume set on the book of Psalms that the Jewish publication society will be putting out, and I’m writing the commentary on the first part of the Book of Psalms, which tends especially to have what we could call psalms of complaint or psalms of plea, psalms of people who are in crisis. There are other kinds of songs that show up in the first part of the book too, and these sort of psalms show up elsewhere, but they’re really focused a lot in the first part of the Book of Psalms, so that’s a lot of what I’ve been working on lately.
Sara Beth: You spend a lot of time studying the Psalms. How does that impact your lived experience when you lost your father and lost your family friend in quick succession?
Benjamin Sommer: Well, I think that in a way, as a Bible scholar, as a biblical critic, as a modern scholar of the Bible, I think I’m aware of certain sides of the Book of Psalms that a lot of other people might not be aware of and I think that that does affect the way that I approached, not just the book of Psalms, but prayer more generally. Maybe I’ll give some background and then come back to your question. One of the things that’s really quite remarkable about the book of Psalms is that it doesn’t have a whole lot of contrition. The Book of Psalms is really the Bible’s main book of prayer. You might say that most of the Bible has an arrow going down from heaven to earth and that there’s a divine message for the human audience. The Book of Psalms is 150 poems where the arrow goes in the other way. It’s going from Earth to heaven as the ancient Israelites are praying in the ancient temples to God, using these poems from the Book of Psalms.
Benjamin Sommer: But when you go through the entirety, all 150 chapters of the Book of Psalms, it’s really noteworthy that while there are many different kinds of psalms, many different moods that show up, one type of religious mood tends to be absent, which is contrition or penitence. If you open up the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book, prayers for forgiveness are very very common. Prayers in which we ask God to help us be better people are very common. Prayers in which we admit our wrongdoing are very common, not only on Yom Kippur when they’re most well known, but just the daily prayers of Judaism, not on the Sabbath, but on all of the weekdays, are full of prayers of contrition. Christian liturgy also is full of prayers of contrition, but in the Book of Psalms, there is almost no contrition.
Benjamin Sommer: When people are in crisis elsewhere in the Bible, very often a prophet will tell them, well, you’re in this crisis because it’s a crisis that you created. You’re in this crisis because God is punishing you because of what you did. In the Book of Psalms, you don’t get that. In the Book of Psalms, when you get the 30 or 40 psalms of crisis, you get a tone that doesn’t say, I know that you’re punishing me, God, and I’m sorry, so please stop punishing me. Rather, most of these poems say, I’m suffering terribly and I really shouldn’t be suffering this badly, so what’s going on God? You’re supposed to rescue me. You’re the savior, nu? So the Book of Psalms tends to have a fair amount of anger at God. A fair amount of frustration or just bewilderment.
Sara Beth: I’m interested in how you apply that. When you were going through these trying times in the loss of your father and of your family friend.
Benjamin Sommer: Well, especially after this family friend was killed suddenly, that’s where a second blow, which in some ways was even worse because he was so young, his wife was pregnant with their first child, well, their only child, obviously. It really became a very difficult for me to daven, to pray, because my father had died, I was going to synagogue twice a day to say Kaddish, but it became really really hard for me, in fact, just impossible for a while, to pray. I would go to synagogue, and wait until the end of service and say Kaddish. I would actually put my tefillin and tallit on in the morning, but I really, I just couldn’t pray. I couldn’t daven other than saying Kaddish because I was really just so angry, so surprised, so frustrated, that davening, prayer, no longer worked. I think that’s a very common experience. I think lots of people go through that after particularly tragic deaths or tragic events. That’s not atypical at all.
Benjamin Sommer: But I wonder if it was maybe a little bit easier for me to get back into davening because as a Bible scholar, I knew that actually expressing anger and expressing frustration, actually is part of Jewish liturgy. It’s there in the Psalms. People often don’t realize it because people maybe just read them through quickly in Hebrew and don’t actually understand the words. Very often I think people think they know what the Bible should say and so when the Bible says something very different, they read the words, but they literally don’t see what they say. But in my case, I think that I realized that anger or frustration at God doesn’t preclude a relationship with God. It’s part of relationship. Anger is part of any relationship, frustration is a part of any relationship. And of course it’s the case that there can be anger between God and a human being. So maybe it was a bit easier for me to cycle back into a more positive part of that relationship because I knew that in Jewish tradition, being angry with God doesn’t end the relationship. Being frustrated with God doesn’t mean that it’s all over. In the psalms of complaint, eventually in some of those psalms, the anger subsides. And in some of them it doesn’t, but then there are other parts of the Book of Psalms that are much more joyful and thankful, and I realized that that period of not davening didn’t have to be forever.
Sara Beth: About how long did it last for you?
Benjamin Sommer: Honestly, I don’t remember. Quite a few years back. It probably wasn’t, you know, zero to 60 you know, it’s not like one day I just suddenly decided I would start davening again as opposed to just saying Kaddish, just sitting there and waiting for Kaddish. I think it probably was a little bit more, well, okay, I’ll say the Shema, which isn’t really a prayer anyway, it’s just a biblical passage and it’s the most important thing that we’re biblically required to do twice a day. You know, I probably got back into it, you know, little bit by little bit. Although the truth of matter is, if you’re in synagogue and not davening, that’s a form of relationship. It is a statement to God. That’s different than just checking out completely.
Sara Beth: That’s true. I once was giving my father the silent treatment, but since we mostly talk through text messages, I picked up the phone and told him that I was giving him the silent treatment. That’s a real thing that happened. Okay, so now that we’ve had a chance to delve a little deeper into the Psalms, and the prayer experience, and the contrition, and the anger, and things of that nature, how does this stuff that we’re talking about help us answer the question, well, what now?
Benjamin Sommer: I think it’s interesting to think about this particular group of Psalms that I’m talking about, which I called either the “plea” or the “complaint.” It’s interesting to think about, well, which is it really? This is around 30, 35 psalms in which there are a certain number of elements that tend to show up. One of which is a complaint: the speaker in the psalm, the worshiper, describes some crisis, and one of which is a plea: the speaker asks God to save him or he, the speaker asked God for help. And there are some scholars who refer to this group of Psalms as the “plea psalms”. Other scholars refer to this group as the “complaint psalms.” It’s really interesting to think about which term you happen to prefer. It’s a bigger debate about what do we think we’re actually doing when we’re praying.
Benjamin Sommer: If you think that these are primarily a plea, what you’re saying is, well, by uttering the words of this psalm, I’m asking God to change the world. I’m asking God to do something that God wasn’t really doing up until right now. So in a sense I’m saying this prayer because I want to change God so that God will change my life or God will change the world. If you primarily think of it though as a complaint, if it’s primarily a complaint, then there’s some value in just my describing the crisis. There’s something that helps me, for me just to let this out, to first of all verbalize what’s going wrong and for me also to verbalize, which many of these psalms do, my sense that God is dropping the ball on this, that God is powerful, God is supposed to be just and merciful, and if all three of those things are true (God is just, merciful, and powerful) then this terrible thing should not right now be happening to me, or it should start to be solved, it should start to go away. And I think that there can be some value to admitting, especially for a religious person who considers herself or himself to be in a relationship with God, there’s value to admitting that you feel the other part of this relationship, the other being in this relationship, is not doing what should be done.
Benjamin Sommer: So is prayer really an attempt for us to change the world? Or is prayer an attempt for us to verbalize what we have inside that is painful to keep inside? That’s not a modern debate. That might sound like a very modern debate, but the truth of the matter is already in the Middle Ages. In Judaism, you can see that this is a debate between mystics and rationalists in Jewish tradition. For mystics, it’s clear that prayer is supposed to change God. Prayer and other rituals are supposed to make God do something that God wasn’t doing. For the rationalists, people like Maimonides, God is perfect and therefore God never changes. So whatever prayer is doing, it’s not trying to change God because you can’t change something that is perfect. So for Maimonides, prayer is really doing something more for us as individuals and for us as a community. By expressing things, we’re letting things out; by expressing things in certain ways, we’re educating ourselves and we’re educating each other within the community about how to deal with problems and what our values should be.
Sara Beth: You went back to Maimonides. It’s been a very long time that there’s been different interpretations of what the Psalms are doing and what prayer is doing. What does that ancient practice—how does it play into the way we engage in prayer now?
Benjamin Sommer: Well, I think that especially when we look at the way the Psalms functioned in biblical times, I think it can help us sort of imagine a bit more richly how we might be able to recite the Psalms, study the Psalms, use the Psalms in our own religious life. These prayers of complaint were probably recited at a temple, not just at the Jerusalem Temple, but earlier in Israelite history, there were local temples all over the land of Israel. Israelites would have gone to the small temple in their village or in the village, you know, one hilltop over. And, people who were in some sort of crisis, people who had an illness in the family, people who maybe were about to lose their farm because they were in debt, whatever it happened to be, would probably go to a temple to look for help.
Benjamin Sommer: But we have to remember of course, that very few people knew how to read. Very few people were literate. So what a person would probably do is go to the temple, a member of the temple staff, a Levite or a Cohen, a priest, would be there. You would tell the priest, you would tell the Levite, what was wrong. This is what’s going on in my life. I need God’s help. And the Levite would probably then say, okay, maybe go to a box where there are a bunch of scrolls and you know, kind of shuffle through it looking for a particular prayer of complaint that, yeah, this one would work well for somebody who is sick, or this one would work well for somebody who feels he’s being pursued by enemies because they’re going to take away my farm. They’d open it up, and say repeat after me, and then the person would line by line, repeat the psalm that the Levite, or the priest, had just chosen. And this is something that they would do in a much more public setting than maybe we sometimes realize.
Benjamin Sommer: We think about, especially in the Western world, which has been so influenced by Protestant Christianity, we think of prayer as being very much an individual, interior sort of thing. But in ancient Israel, this is something that would have been happening in a very public space with other people around. You would be reciting this aloud because the Levite would recite it out loud and you would follow what the Levite said. The same was true a few months later, when maybe you came back because the crisis had passed, the problem was solved. And part of what you probably did as part of your psalm of crisis during the complaint, or plea psalm, is you said, God, if you help me, I’ll come back and I’ll sing your praises, I’ll thank you publicly.
Benjamin Sommer: So you would come back and you’d say to the Levite, I don’t know if you remember, I was here a month ago and this and that was going on and you had me recite that thing and look, you can see I’m all better now. Everything’s great. So I’ve come to pay my vow. And then the, the Levite would go back to the box, you know, shuffle around and find something, and he says, okay, repeat after me. And then you would publicly thank God for helping you. And this is not something that you would do at home by yourself. You would do this in a community. Everybody else is hearing you recite Psalm 30 or whatever thanksgiving psalm the Levite chose. And that was the point. The point was to thank God publicly so that other people would hear how reliable, how powerful, how merciful God really is.
Sara Beth: So you’re talking about an ancient practice of a Levite shuffling through a box of papers, which basically describes my life actually. But now what are those psalms? What are some of the psalms that you would use or that you would suggest in anger, and then in gratitude afterwards?
Benjamin Sommer: So examples of these, you can find Psalm 6, Psalm 13, Psalm 44, or Psalm 88, and they’ve got different tones. Some of them end with real confidence. They all begin more or less the same way. So just as an example, let’s say, I dunno, Psalm 5 begins “Amarah ha’azinah adonai binah hagigi” “Listen, O God, to my utterance. Pay attention to what I’m thinking.” They start off calling on God, they use God’s name and then there’s some verb that says, listen to me. Then it goes on maybe to describe the problem, but some of them then change their moods. Some of them become very, very confident. Maybe just the act of saying this out loud made the person feel somewhat better. So let’s say one example of this among many towards the end of Psalm 6 which is one of the psalms of complaint. All of a sudden the mood changes from desperation to confidence when the person says “Suru mimeni kol po’alei aven ki shama Adonai kol bekhi’i.” “Get away from me all you evil doers,” the people who were somehow causing this problem, “because God has heard the voice of my weeping.” “Shama adonai tehinati adonai tefilati yikah.” “God has heard my plea; God is accepting of—” The verb used here, “yikah,” means it’s happening right now. “God is accepting my prayer.” So all of a sudden the mood changes. And so it ends actually on a much more confident note.
Benjamin Sommer: But there are other examples that are very, very different. Psalm 13 is a very, very short one. It’s a little harsher. It begins “Ana adonai, tishkaheni netzah?” “Until when God? Are you going to forget me forever?” This is Hebrew, but it would work well in Yiddish. There’s a certain degree of tone here that it’s a little bit surprising. It’s very familiar with God and there’s a sense, not of contrition, of, I know that I’m a sinful human being and we human beings are naturally sinful, so—that’s not the tone here at all. The tone here is sometimes things happen in the world that shouldn’t happen, and you’re supposed to be omnipotent. Why is this happening now to me?
Benjamin Sommer: Some of them, Psalm 44 or Psalm 88, they’re kind of longer. I won’t read the whole thing now. It’s really surprising just how angry those two psalms are. They don’t end with a note of confidence. Many psalms end with a promise that if you save me God, I’ll come to the temple. I’ll make a sacrificial offering or I’ll thank you. I’ll recite a psalm of thanksgiving. Those two psalms, they’re missing that. They don’t have that vow at the end. Those are moments of almost pure anger even in just the psalms of complaint. In other words, we can run the gamut from a great deal of anger and frustration to anger and frustration that really at a certain point turn around as the person’s mood changes. So these two types of psalms and these two types of religious experience, they’re very, very intimately bound in the Book of Psalms. Anger at God, frustration and surprise, is a legitimate religious emotion that you see in the Book of Psalms. You flip that in the psalms of thanksgiving and then you get this tone of thanks. Part of what, to me at least, the Book of Psalms tells me, as a religious individual, is that relationships with God can change and we don’t have to feel that we’re losing religion if we’re angry at God or if we don’t understand what God is doing. We can see in the Book of Psalms that an authentic religious person goes through both kinds of emotions, negative and positive, in the relationship with God.
Sara Beth: So how does our modern recitation of psalms in a daily prayer situation today compare when we’re talking about the Levite experience of the ancient world?
Benjamin Sommer: So you know I, as a Bible scholar, I think about the way people used psalms in the ancient world, in ancient Israelite temples. I think that we, modern Jews, medieval Jews, many of us have really lost something. I think that there isn’t such a robust sense in many Jewish communities of using the psalms and really adopting them. I think to some extent in Protestant churches, especially in the African American church, I think there’s a more authentic sense that the Psalms can still function this way. I think that very often, you know, Jews, we don’t really always utilize the Psalms. We kind of mutter the Psalms, right? You know, in pesukei dezimra, in the morning service, people just kind of like [mumbling]. That’s kind of the tone of voice that we use when we’re reciting the Psalms and we miss a lot there.
Benjamin Sommer: It’s true that among, especially in an ultra-Orthodox communities and especially among ultra-Orthodox women, there is a tradition of psalms recitation. For example, back when I lived in Chicago, across the street from me, there was an ultra-Orthodox family and the mom in that family, the grandma really in that family, she got together with a number of other ultra-Orthodox women every single Saturday afternoon, and this group, sometimes it was five, sometimes it was 10 people would come. They would recite the entire Book of Psalms as an act of piety on Shabbat afternoons. If 10 people showed up, then everybody had to read 15 psalms. If only five people showed up, everybody had to read 30 psalms. But that is a kind of common piety. Sometimes, you know on the subway you might see an Orthodox woman with a Book of Psalms, a person who’s murmuring the Book of Psalms, and it’s very traditional Jewish way, and that’s a wonderful thing,
Benjamin Sommer: But I do think that when you’re murmuring the Book of Psalms or muttering it, you sort of lose a lot of this content. The way that we utilize psalms, or we say the Psalms in Judaism nowadays, doesn’t always pick up with the content of the psalms. The extraordinary frankness and honesty about religious emotions and the variety of religious emotions that the Book of Psalms puts on display for us. And I think that when we sort of think about historically how psalms actually functioned in the ancient world when they were first composed, that can sort of remind us of how we might be able as Jews to reclaim the Book of Psalms.
Benjamin Sommer: Again I, I think that some of our Christian neighbors with whom we share this scripture, I think especially in Protestant communities, there’s more of a sense that some of this has lived on. There’s a story, I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but it’s a great story about another faculty member, perhaps one of the most famous faculty members, perhaps the most famous faculty member at JTS decades ago: Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish theologian, once was speaking in a synagogue as all of us JTS faculty, you know, do from time to time. And after his talk, a member of the synagogue came up to him and said, you know, I recently went with my neighbor to her church and I thought the psalms were just so beautiful. Why doesn’t Judaism have a Book of Psalms?
Benjamin Sommer: And there’s a lot we can learn from this story, whether it’s true or not. For one thing, if it is true, I think it explains how Professor Heschel’s hair came to look that way. If you don’t know what I mean, and you’re listening, just Google photo of Abraham Joshua Heschel and you’ll see what I mean. I think that’s when his hair went white and kind of started going at those funny angles. But there’s a need for us to reclaim the Psalms and when we think about how they functioned in the ancient temple, I think that we can begin to see how they might function in our own lives as well. Part of what comes to mind there, by the way, is that they functioned in a more public setting. That psalms were not just private individual prayers but that you said them in the temple, in your local temple—you might’ve said them even in the village gate or the city gate where people would be gathered—because part of the point of saying these psalms, especially the psalms of thanksgiving, was that you wanted other people to hear what God had done for you. And so the idea that it’s not just private, it’s very much a public experience and a public use, that’s also something that we get out of thinking of the ancient setting of these texts.
Sara Beth: You gave us some lines from the Psalms to teach us a little bit about what’s in there, what the mood is, what the content is. I’m wondering if you have an example from Springsteen that you’d like to share?
Benjamin Sommer: There are a number of Springsteen songs that really deal with religious themes. Actually, my colleague from Rutgers university Azzan Yadin-Israel has published a book on religious themes in Springsteen’s work. It’s actually, it’s a very fine book, very, very readable. It’s not like an overly academic book. I can say honestly, as a scholar, my articles, my books and stuff, you know, they’re quoted in footnotes all over the place, but I think the footnotes that I’m most proud of are the footnotes of my work in Azzan’s book on Springsteen’s lyrics. And it’s actually interesting that I think that the speaker of psalms in crisis and the speaker in Springsteen’s religious poetry—I’m thinking especially let’s say of Nebraska, of the last two songs in Nebraska—they’re similar in that they’re both in despair, but they’re also very, very different.
Benjamin Sommer: The speaker in the psalms knows that God exists, knows that God is merciful, God is just, and God is powerful and knows that the world doesn’t cohere with those three things and is just wondering what’s going on here and therefore is a bit frustrated or bewildered or angry. The person in the Springsteen poetry, I think, again, especially the last two songs of Nebraska, you see this, it’s not that that speaker believes God exists and that God should be doing a better job. It’s that the speaker thinks it would be just so great if faith were real. If what religious people believed in were real, it would be so great if I had that faith, I wish I could have it, but I can’t. And so I think that there’s an extent to which in the Psalms, there’s always this hope that God is really going to come through. The anger is because it hasn’t happened yet. But the expectation is sooner or later, God should come through.
Benjamin Sommer: The second to last song on Nebraska, “My Father’s House,” ends with the speaker looking back up at the house he grew up in, and knowing that his sins can never be atoned for because the father, and of course Springsteen is coming from a Catholic background, and so for him, God the father, and God the son, and God the Holy Ghost is supposed to bring forgiveness of sins, and he knows that God is gone. That’ll never come back. He lost that belief. And so he’s looking up at the house on the other side of the road knowing that his sins will never be atoned for. So I think that there’s a similarity of crisis, but even the angry person in the Book of Psalms still believes in God and even in the midst of the anger, there’s still some expectation that sooner or later things should get better. That’s what you’re missing, I think, in the Springsteen songs that deal with religion.
Sara Beth: We’ve talked about these different approaches to psalms and to prayer. And how does that help us today?
Benjamin Sommer: Well, I think that realizing the range of emotions in the Book of Psalms might help us to realize that relationships with God can change over time. That a pious person, a religious person, doesn’t always have to feel it. There are times of emptiness, the times when one senses that God’s face is hidden. And that’s actually a normal part of being a religious person. People, I think, are often surprised by how much anger you can find at God in the Book of Psalms. Again, I mentioned before, let’s say the beginning of Psalm 13, Psalm 44, Psalm 88, I think some people actually read that and just don’t see it because they just assume that Scripture is always very pious and then they have a very, very narrow idea of what piety means.
Benjamin Sommer: But when we realize that the Book of Psalms does allow people to express frustration with God, does allow people to say, Why is this happening?, does allow people to protest a little bit without giving up a belief that God exists. When we realize that, I think that we can realize that we can have different kinds of emotions, different kinds of relationship with God in different parts of our life in different years, in different months, and going through a feeling of hiddenness doesn’t mean that that’s the end of religion.
Benjamin Sommer: In other words. I think there’s an extent to which the book of Psalms is one of several biblical books along with especially Job and Ecclesiastes that seems kind of gutsy and it’s impressive to realize that they made the cut. That whoever put together Scripture, the scripture that we’ve got in the Tanakh, in the Jewish Bible, includes voices that don’t express a simplistic piety, but that express a kind of religiosity that’s much more sophisticated, much more honest, and sometimes is honest in the sense of saying, I can’t explain what’s going on now, I can’t explain why this is happening, but that isn’t the end of the religion. That isn’t the end of the person’s religious life and it’s important to realize that the Bible itself has these different kinds of voices, has this variety, and has this real honesty when talking about God.
Sara Beth: Professor Sommer, thank you so much for sharing your really interesting academic work, and a little bit about yourself, sharing Springsteen and your experiences. It’s been really cool learning with you today.
Benjamin Sommer: Thanks very much. Todah rabah.
Sara Beth: What now, Professor Sommer? Well for sure I should be listening to more Springsteen and we’ve been transported back to the time of psalms when they were sketched out on rolls of parchment. I imagine my ancestors, the Levites, rifling through a file folder looking for the right psalm, the right frame for a particular supplicant’s situation. I thought about how sometimes I absentmindedly flip through Spotify playlists until I find the right music to keep me going through an assignment; or, I put my head together with other teachers of prayer to find the right word, the right song, or the right texts to help a friend process their feelings about a given situation.
Benjamin Sommer: As much as I think about tragedy as profound losses, Professor Sommer reminded me that something as simple and simply annoying as a plane delay can really, really feel ruinous. In my summer camp days, I would often hear “Sara Beth, it’s an emergency!” And then my staff would proceed to tell me that they’d run out of golf pencils. I would help them reframe. Nobody is going to die from lack of golf pencils, and also there are about a zillion markers in that box next to you. Please use those. Outwardly, I’d help them refocus while helping them solve the problem. Inwardly, I’d sigh that they lacked perspective. But Professor Sommer’s plane delay reminds us that regardless of the scope of how bad something actually is, it’s important to acknowledge the perspective of the sufferer and reframe, and to order some new golf pencils.
Benjamin Sommer: This reframing is hard, and the psalmist gives us a place for raging at God, which is so vital, but is it enough for me? So far I have some pieces of the puzzle of how Jewish tradition helps us respond to tragedy. I’m still not ready to stop banging my head against the wall. I have more professors and a lot more questions to fling at them. The first of which is always of course, what now?
Sara Beth: What Now? Is produced by Michal Richardson, editorial oversight provided by Rabbi Tim Bernard, funding for the series is provided by JTS’s Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, and suffering is provided constantly by the human condition. What Now? Is recorded by JTS’s delightful and vibrant new media staff. Larry Cameola and Brian Hart. Hit subscribe. Give us a review. Help more people find answers to the big questions. This has been your host, Sarah Beth Berman, JTS Davidson, 2009. It’s been real banging my head against the wall with you.