Robert Alter’s new translation of the book of Psalms—from the Hebrew, as a Hebrew—is supposed to be a beautiful work that highlights the rhythmic mastery of the ancient book. And yet, it sits uncracked on my desk. I did, however, read the Cliff’s Notes last night (aka a review in The New Yorker) and found myself enjoying the philosophical musings of the reviewer, James Wood, as much as Alter’s work.
What is God like? Is he merciful, just, loving, vengeful, jealous? Is he a bodiless force, a cool watchmaker, or a hot interventionist, a doer with big opinions, a busy chap up in Heaven? Does he, for instance, approve of charity and disapprove of adultery? Or are these attributes instead like glass baubles that we throw against the statue of his invisibility, inevitably shattering into mere words? The medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides thought that it was futile to belittle God by giving him human attributes; to do so was to commit what later philosophers would call a category mistake. We cannot describe his essence; better to worship in reverent silence. âSilence is praise to thee,â Maimonides wrote, quoting from the second verse of Psalm 65.
Whatever one thinks of Maimonidesâ chilly rigor, it is cannily paradoxical that even as he advises silence he quotes from the noisiest book in the Hebrew Bible. And, not only that, but from the very book that dramatizes, again and again, the gap between our language and the indescribable God, between our certainty that God is with us and our anxiety that he has abandoned us, between his cosmic proportions and our comic littleness.
Now the psalmist seems to say that, if the heavens speak anything, it is not language but possibly only a highly visual silence. Almost three thousand years before such modern doubt, we are briefly in the world of Melville, who complained of âthat profound Silence, that only Voice of our God,â asking âhow can a man get a Voice out of Silence?â This struggle between faith and doubt, hope and despair, is undoubtedly one of the features that have made the Psalms such a help to so many readers and writers, both believers and nonbelieversâand especially to Christians, who have appropriated this book like no other in the Hebrew Bible. The seventeenth-century poet George Herbert perfectly captures this dappled texture in his psalmlike poem âBitter-Sweetâ:
Ah my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament, and love.
Pretty, ain’t it?