Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

"The Dead Do Not Praise the Lord": Alter's Psalms, Agnon's "Tehilla," Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago

Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

"The Dead Do Not Praise the Lord": Alter's Psalms, Agnon's "Tehilla," Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago

Article excerpt


In his illuminating introduction to his exciting translation of the book of Psalms, (1) Uri explains how he struggled to preserve its authentic Jewish nature in respect of biblical belief, and how he tried to do the impossible: reproduce in fluent English an ancient Hebrew poem, which would retain the character of the Hebrew language. That is, he aspired to render a translation that would read as if imitating the rhythm, the resonance, the poetic parallelism, the synonymity, embedded in the Biblical Hebrew; above all, it would preserve the theological and ideological meaning of the words and expressions. The English, so different from Hebrew, was meant to ingest the Hebrew and speak Hebrew in natural English. Anyone reading psalm by psalm this English translation of the book sees at once that Uri has achieved his goal. Furthermore, one who is hard pressed to understand the ancient Hebrew can find almost always a Modern English equivalent to the unfathomable Hebrew word.

Two literary texts, one from Hebrew literature and the other from Russian, floated into my vision as I read this introduction by Uri, and as I read several of the psalms that Uri translated into English. The Hebrew text is S. Y. Agnon's "Tehilla," whose heroine is named after the book of Psalms, tehilim; the Russian text is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, in which, in an unforgettable scene, Psalm 91 is quoted.


Let me begin with Agnon's "Tehilla," with its extraordinary eponymous heroine. Tehilla is a remarkable old woman, whom the narrator--Agnon's alter ego--meets on his return to Jerusalem after a lengthy sojourn abroad. The story consists of a series of encounters between the two, in each of which a fraction of Tehilla's long life, replete with calamity, becomes revealed; at each meeting, an aspect unfolds of her rare character and her outlook on life, which remains optimistic and yearns to repair the world. The narrator listens intently to her words, because this unique aged woman has sparked his curiosity and because Tehilla has charged him to compose a letter for her that she will take to her grave. She hopes to meet in the World to Come her betrothed, Shraga; the match had been annulled by her father over two generations before, and she wants to beg his forgiveness. Tehilla thus prepares her dying meticulously, hoping after her death to close unsettled accounts.

The book of Psalms occupies a central place in Tehilla's preparations for her departure from this world. For example, in one of the fascinating meetings of Tehilla and the narrator, he finds her in high spirits. When he asks what has made her so joyful she replies, "Each day I read the psalms appointed for the day; but today I read the psalms for two days together." But even as she explains the cause of her joy, her face grows sad. The narrator asks her to explain the sudden change. She answers:

   Assuredly you know as I do, that all a man's deeds are appointed,
   from the hour of his birth to the hour of his death; and
   accordingly, the number of times he shall say his psalms. But the
   choice is free how many psalms he will say on any one day. This man
   may complete the whole book in a day, and that man may say one
   section a day, or the psalms for each day according to the day. I
   have made it my custom to say each day the psalms for that day; but
   this morning I went on and said the psalms for two days together.
   When I became aware of this I was sad, lest it mean that there was
   no more need for me in the world, and that I was disposed of and
   made to finish my portion in haste. For "it is a good thing to give
   thanks to the Lord," and when I am dead I shall not be able to say
   one psalm, or even one word. (2)

A determinist outlook on life arises from Tehilla's words. Everything is preordained, even "the number of times [a man] shall say his psalms. …

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