The Book of Psalms
In Plain English
By Aaron Lichtenstein
Urim Publications, 2006, 201 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - July 15, 2009
The biblical book of Psalms is a reservoir of solace, encouragement and comfort for Jews and Christians facing crisis and despair. It is the core of their liturgy. It is a masterpiece of poetry, but like all poetry it is not always easy to understand, especially since it was composed more than two thousand years ago by many writers with different styles, and some illusions, metaphors and other beautiful figures of speech are no longer part of modern thought.
This problem is intensified for non-Hebrew speakers and even those who know only Modern Hebrew, because the psalms are written in ancient Hebrew and some words are now obscure and others have a different, sometimes contrary meaning in Modern Hebrew. Thus, people who want to understand the psalms need either a competent commentary or a translation that takes these problems into account.
Three outstanding and very successful recent versions of Psalms have done this. One is The Bible Psalms with the Jerusalem Commentary in three volumes, published by Mossad Harav Kook in Jerusalem in 2003. It contains a very extensive and instructive commentary; hence the need for three large volumes, and its Modern English translation of the Hebrew is very readable.
The second is The Book of Psalms by the noted scholar Robert Alter, published by W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. in 2007. Alter, a literature expert, produced a freer and more colloquial translation and set the English in nice poetic phrases, each thought on a separate line. He includes many notes on the psalms that explain them.
The third is the volume by Aaron Lichtenstein, a teacher at the City University of New York, the author of The Seven Laws of Noah and a staff editor of the prestigious Encyclopedia Judaica. His goal is to capture the meaning of the psalms in everyday English.
Lichtenstein notes that the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, who wrote his famous twelfth century Guide of the Perplexed in Arabic, told his Hebrew translator Samuel ibn Tibbon that he should not be over scrupulous and render his book literally. He should focus on the idea, the interpretation, not the word. Lichtenstein follows this rule and offers his readers a "contemporary reading" of the psalms and, like Alter, does so in poetic verses. He offers no commentary or notes.
His accomplishment can be seen by comparing some of his versions with others, especially the famous, now outdated King James Bible, which fails to follow the Maimonidean rule. It conscientiously translates the Tetragrammaton as "Lord" and Elohim as God. Lichtenstein, more interested in the ideas rather than a literal rendering, usually, but not always, uses "God" for both. However, in psalm 46, for example, he places "The Lord" for Elohim.
King James' psalm 1 reads:
Happy is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stood in the way of sinners,
Nor sat in the seat of the scornful.
But his delight is the law of the Lord;
And in His law doth he meditate day and night.
This is beautiful, but Lichtenstein is clearer:
Fortunate is the man who never went the way of the wicked,
Nor consorted with sinners,
Nor sat around with the cynics,
Who instead yearns for God's teachings,
And studies God's Torah day and night.
Another example is psalm 41, where King James has:
Happy is he that considereth the poor;
The Lord will deliver him in the day of evil.
The Lord preserve him, and keep him alive, let him be called happy in the land;
And deliver not Thou him unto the greed of his enemies.
Lichtenstein's contemporary reading is:
Fortunate is he who can understand the poor,
For God will protect him on his day of evil.
God will guard, energize, and establish him,
Not letting his enemies fulfill their wishes.
A final example is psalm 46. King James has:
God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore will we not fear, though the earth do change,
And though the mountains be moved into the heart of the seas;
Though the waters thereof roar and foam,
Though the mountains shake at the swelling thereof. Selah
Robert Alter lines up his verses more poetically. He does not capitalize "selah" or follow it with a period. (Selah is an obscure term and may be a musical instruction.)
God is a shelter and strength for us,
Therefore we fear not when the earth breaks apart,
Its waters roar and roil,
The translator of the Bible Psalms is concerned, among other thing, to have the translation conform to the sentence structure of the Hebrew. Thus, even though line three ends with a comma, line four begins with a capital letter since it introduces a new sentence.
God is our refuge and strength. We find great help in trouble.
Therefore we do not fear when the earth is upturned,
and when the mountains collapse into the heart of the sea,
If its waters roar and foam, if the mountains quake with its swelling. Selah.
Lichtenstein has a much shorter and sharper version, and deletes "Selah":
The Lord is always there to protect us from danger,
Therefore we need not fear during earthquakes,
Even as whole mountains topple into the sea,
With mighty waters churning over crashing heights.
These few examples show that Aaron Lichtenstein has succeeded in producing a very fine readable version of Psalms.