Ps. 150: The Beginning and the End
Benjamin D. Sommer is Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He is currently working on the Jewish Publication Society’s Psalms Commentary.
The Beginning and the End: Psalm and the Hierarchy of Religious Experience
What sort of religious experience does the Book of Psalms reflect and encourage?
Some Jewish texts, sages, and movements emphasize prayer and joy over Torah-study and intellectualization; others present the opposite as the proper hierarchy of religious experience. Already in the Talmud the proper place of each is discussed, with advocates of each expressing their opinions; most classical rabbinic texts tend in the end to value study over prayer. But the debate continued throughout Jewish history, most famously between Hasidim and Mitnagdim during the early modern period. In its first few generations, Hasidism emphasized prayer more than Torah study, the heart over the mind. The yeshiva-based Mitnagdim, however, value intellectualization and textual mastery as the preeminent path towards the deity.
So we might rephrase our opening question: Is the Book of Psalms fundamentally a hasidic or mitnagdic book?
At first blush, the answer seems obvious. The Psalter is, after all, a book of prayers. The exuberant hymns, with their cries of “Praise Yah!” (e.g., Psalms 29, 33, 95, 114, 117); the songs of thanksgiving, which disclose the strong connection between the person praying and the God who answered their cries for help (e.g., 18, 30, 32, 116, 118); the personal complaints and petitions, which are rooted in the worshiper’s intimate sense of connection with God (e.g., 3, 4, 5, 71, 77); the communal complaints and petitions, whose aggrieved tone presupposes a long-standing closeness between community and deity (e.g., 44, 60, 74, 90, 123)—all these genres, which together account for the vast majority of texts in the Psalter, represent a religiosity of feeling, not a religiosity rooted in the intellect. Each genre encourages an individual or a community to address a personal God with intense emotion.
Yet the canonical Book of Psalms is more than the sum of its parts. One can ask the same question about psalms and Psalms and receive different answers for each, since the way psalms are organized into Psalms may spin the psalms in a surprising way. The most prominent way to give any collection of material a particular identity that one might not have discerned from its contents alone is in the way it is either introduced or summed up.
The poem that opens the Psalter is an unusual psalm. It neither addresses God (like complaint-petition psalms and thanksgiving psalms) nor speaks of the deity in the third person (like psalms or praise). Its topic is the torah, a term that refers to means divine guidance generally as well as the Five Books of Moses, which provide the banner example of that guidance. Psalm 1 praises the person who constantly murmurs, studies, recites, reads, and meditates on God’s Torah; the verb yehegeh in verse 2 has all these meanings. Now, the combination of verbs and nouns occurring alongside the word “Torah” in verse 2 of Psalm 1 (which is the first chapter of Ketuvim, the third section of the three-part Jewish biblical canon) also appear together in the first chapter of the Book of Joshua (which is the first chapter of Nevi’im, the second part of the canon), at Joshua 1:8. It is no coincidence that the second and third parts of the canon both begin by praising constant study of the Torah—the first part of the canon. Both the Nevi’im and the Ketuvim greet their readers by wondering why the reader is here at all; what really matters, their opening chapters maintain, are the five books that appear first in scripture. Psalm 1, like Joshua 1, is a deliberately self-undermining text. This poem asks its reader: why are you singing psalms, when you could be studying Torah? An implied compromise may be to study the psalms as another form of Torah. This compromise is hinted at by the Jewish tradition of dividing the Book of Psalms into five ḥumashim that parallel the Torah’s five books.
Scholars including Meir Weiss, Claus Westermann, and Gerald Wilson point out that this paean to Torah-study at the head of the Book of Psalms helps us to see the book in an unexpected way. While individual psalms are prayers, which one uses in ritual and liturgical settings, the Psalter that begins with Psalm 1 is a textbook, to which one turns for guidance and instruction. One recites or sings a psalm; one reads or studies the Book of Psalms. I would phrase their point, in Jewish terms, this way: Psalm 1 represents an attempt to spin a hasidic book in a mitnagdic direction. Surprisingly enough, the introduction to the Book of Psalms attempts to put the book and by extension prayer in their place. That place, to be sure, is important; the Psalter remains a part of Scripture, and prayer remains part of the religious experience of the committed Jew. But that place is also secondary: the Psalter is less important than the Pentateuch, and prayer is less important than study.
Just as an introduction presents a vision of a work, so does a conclusion. In this respect, the contrast between the first and last poems in the Psalter could hardly be more striking. Psalm 150 is not concerned with Torah study, with recitation or meditation. Indeed, it is not concerned with words at all. Rather, Psalm 150 calls on all living creatures to praise God through music, listing specific types: the whole world should praise God with trumpets and harps, with drums and cymbals, with lyres and pipes—but not, apparently, with the voice. The logocentrism of Psalm 1 is challenged by the non-verbal music of Psalm 150. This final poem, then, presents the Psalter as a hasidic book rather than a mitnagdic one. Further, the two psalms mention different religious institutions. Psalm 150 opens with a reference to God’s holy place, which either means the Jerusalem Temple or at least hints at it. The only locus of religious meaning mentioned in Psalm 1, on the other hand, is the text of the Torah. Here again we find a contrasting set of religious values. The conclusion of the Psalter emphasizes the importance of sacred place, and perhaps implies the importance of Davidic royalty who sponsor that place; the introduction to the Psalter regards the holy as a function of the sacred word, open to any who are willing to study it.
The canonical form of the Book of Psalms, then, presents a debate about its own identity, and about the hierarchy of religious experiences. Is the worthiest way to the deity found in hasidic song or in misnagdic study? Psalm 150 gives the hasidic stance the last word—but only for someone who has followed Psalm 1’s mitnagdic advice and studied the Psalter as a textbook, from beginning to end.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.