New Psalms for a Paradigm Shift in Judaism

Blessed are you, world—you appear before me each day as problems to solve and living visions to praise.

THESE VERSES of a contemporary psalm came to me in Hebrew, the language of Jewish continuity and the one I find best suited for enduring Jewish creativity. I wrote most of the poems in this essay first in Hebrew and then translated them into English. They offer alternatives to traditional forms of Jewish prayer and psalmody that do not require a leap of faith. Think of them as post-theistic—that is, their author has been deeply imbued with theism, maintained a lifelong quarrel with it, and emerged as an unconflicted non-theist.

Illustration by Autumn Evelyn

My project of writing secular psalms was prompted by Shaul Magid’s call in the 2015 Winter issue of Tikkun for forms of Jewish worship to embody Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s paradigm-changing approach to Jewish theology. In an accompanying sidebar approving Magid’s message, Reb Zalman (z′l) admitted he had not been ready to initiate such a change during his life, but knew that its time was coming.

In his book Paradigm Shift, Reb Zalman brought into Jewish discourse the Gaia hypothesis, formulated by biologists in the 1970s, which posits that biological organisms and the inorganic world form a unified, self-regulating system that preserves the conditions for continued life on Earth. Expressing this in evolutionary terms, humans are the embodiment of the cosmos becoming self-conscious, and, in moral terms, are therefore responsible for the future of that evolution. Gaia, Reb Zalman told us, was the living God, and we were Gaia’s vanguard.

With the human crisis on the planet (climate change, population size, food resources) becoming ever more pressing, our rabbi-theologians have been following Reb Zalman’s lead in giving us various versions of God as Gaia—most recently, Arthur Green’s Radical Judaism (2010) and Brad Artson’s Renewing the Process of Creation (2015). In the past two decades we have seen God presented as a verb, as the verbal phrase is-was-will-be, as a transformative, liberating movement toward justice, as the interdependence of humans and plants—all formulations welcome, it seems, except those that attribute to God the power of being in charge, which we post-Holocaust Jews cannot accept.

Over thirty years ago, I spoke to my teacher, Reb Zalman, about my difficulty with the traditional language of Jewish prayer. He asked me if I thought I could say “you” to the universe. As he did to so many others, he gave me permission to experiment—to use barukh ata olam, “blessed are you, world,” as an inner mantra, even as he urged me to continue to say the traditional words. After thirty years, I realized that I needed to go further, to claim Barukh ata olam as more than an inner mantra, by giving myself permission to say those words in prayer. That discovery led to the creation of these prayerful poems, which I think of as psalms for our time.

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Source Citation

Tikkun 2017 Volume 32, Number 1: 43-46

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