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Ps. 137: Opening to You, An Interview

Headshot of Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer is a poet, author, and Zen Buddhist priest. His most recent poetry titles are On a Train at Night (PURH, France, 2018) and Untitled Series: Life As It Is (Talisman House, 2018). His latest Buddhist titles are What Is Zen (Shambhala, 2016) and The World Could be Otherwise: Imagination and the Bodhisattva Path (Shambhala, 2019) His interpretation of the Hebrew Psalms, Opening to You (Viking Compass, 2002) is widely read in both Jewish and Christian circles. 

1. How did you, an ordained Zen priest, decide to work on a book-length project on the biblical book of Psalms?

I was at an ecumenical conference with the Dalai Lama in the mid-nineties at the Abbey of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky (where Thomas Merton lived as a Trappist monk for more than twenty years). We were all invited to join the monks as they performed their daily office. I knew very little about Catholic monasticism and was astonished to find that chanting psalms was their daily practice. I happened to be in attendance when they chanted Psalm 137, a psalm of exile and bitterness, in which the speaker asks God to avenge Israel’s pain and suffering by dashing the heads of enemies’ babies against the rocks. Terrible! I could hardly believe that chanting stuff like that was the centerpiece of the spiritual practice of such holy men (I was getting to know them at the conference and saw that they really were spiritually developed and very sincere people). So, when it was my turn to address the group, instead of offering polite remarks, I asked them, in full sincerity, how such a thing is possible. After that, what had been a fairly boring conference took a turn for the real, as the monks stood up and passionately gave testimony to their feelings—including what was hard for them—about the Psalms. This got me interested. By chance (chance?!), a few weeks later my son came home from a trip to Israel and brought me a tiny pocket copy of Tehillim (Psalms) with English and Hebrew on facing pages. On my various airplane rides to and from retreats and other events I scribbled out my own versions of psalms, just for fun, and to become more familiar with them. These, inadvertently, became the book. 

2. Why do you call your collection “Zen-Inspired”? To what extent were you attempting to translate these texts based on Zen teaching?

I actually wasn’t trying to fit the texts into Zen teachings, but rather to meet them on their own terms, as far as I could understand them. Of course, my translations, like anything I do, were influenced by decades living as a full-time Zen practitioner (I have done nothing else in my adult life, except write poetry). When the book was ready to be published, I wanted to call my texts “versions” or something like that, not translations; I simply don’t know Hebrew well enough to attempt to translate. But the publisher insisted on the term “translations.” So I added “Zen-inspired” to the title to make it clear that I am not a Hebraist, and also to indicate my perspective, my conditioning. I explain my interpretive process at some length in the introduction to the book, including my rationale for various word choices.

3. Can you give us an example of a challenging translation issue?

One dilemma in making versions that I considered useful to me and to others like me who were unfamiliar with psalms was how to preserve the emotion of the historical period of the texts, and the specific people out of which they come, yet at the same time widen it. Take for example the words Israel and Jerusalem that appear many times.  I looked at the etymologies of these words to try to find the spiritual force animating them. Israel means “one who struggles,” and Jerusalem “the place of wholeness.” In my versions, I sometimes used both words as proper nouns, sometimes more generically, to indicate their spiritual analogues.

4. While many Zen practitioners do not embrace a theistic worldview, you write of the importance of God in your spiritual life.                                                                       

While Zen is classically agnostic on the subject of God, and many practitioners would be uncomfortable speaking theistically, I am not. I find the feeling of and the idea of God quite compatible with my life and experience. If a person is a “self” then there is an “other.” We need others. Other people are others. And God is the ultimate other. Maybe all love is ultimately love of God or God’s love of us. Christians say “God is love.” A thought not foreign to Judaism! When the psalmist is brought low, stripped of everything, what else can he do but call out to God? The self has become zero; God is One. In moments of joy too, there’s an impulse to share with that One Other, to sing or chant words of praise, awe, or thanksgiving. 

5. What would you say to the reader of Psalms who struggles with the word “God”?

As you may have noticed in my book (and as I explain in my introduction), I rarely use the word “God” in my translations. Instead, I use the word “you” (not capitalized). This is related to what I was just saying about the relational nature of life and the spiritual world of the psalms. The word “God” has serious limitations in our contemporary context. It has been reduced to negative parental and judgmental notions. And lately it has even become a political buzzword. For me, all this is the opposite of what the word, as it is used in psalms, evokes: something immense and indescribable, an “object” of affection and awe. So I decided to avoid the words “God,” “King,” or “Lord,” and instead used the one English word that best captures the complex yet simple, and mysterious, nature of relationship—“you.”

6. What did you learn from your work on the Psalms about suffering—a central subject in many spiritual traditions?

I learned that suffering is an inescapable part of life. That being human entails suffering. That opening to one’s suffering honestly brings us closer to truth. I learned that God is waiting for us in the midst of our suffering, and that we have a responsibility to help others in their suffering. 

7. Is there a particular psalm that speaks to you now, in the midst of the pandemic and the more recent social uprising?

Psalm 22, which happens to be the one Jesus refers to at his bleakest hour (see Matthew 27:46). The feeling of being forsaken by God is a strong feeling for many people today too. To find comfort in God, to have confidence that God is present even when life is terribly painful and confusing, you have to speak honestly about feeling forsaken, abandoned. Starting from there, if you can stand digging into these feelings, I think you can find what you need.  

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