20: "NAFSHI" AND "ANI"
PSALM 131 ACCORDING TO A.L. STRAUSS
ABOUT THE POET AND MAN OF LETTERS, ARYEH LUDWIG
The study of Psalm
131 presented here is based entirely on the literary analysis of Aryeh Ludwig
Strauss, z"l. The importance of Strauss's work with respect to the book
of Tehilim goes well beyond the analysis of any particular psalm, and it
is difficult to exaggerate its influence on the method underlying these studies.
Since Strauss is a relatively unknown figure, I wish to briefly introduce the
man, his life, and his contribution to the understanding of the book of
Aryeh Ludwig Strauss
was born in 1892 in the city of Aachen, Germany, into a family that engaged in
commerce. At an early age, he abandoned the business life and devoted himself to
During this period,
the beginning of the twentieth century, a movement of return to Jewish culture
and values began to arise within the assimilated German Jewish community. These
stirrings did not skip over the young Strauss; already in his youth he studied
Hebrew, and, in his twenties, became a Zionist, to no small extent under the
influence of Martin Buber. Buber, one of the primary leaders of the
Jewish-Zionist awakening in Germany, influenced Strauss in many areas. Strauss
eventually married Bubers daughter.
At the same time that
Strauss was drawing closer to the Hebrew language, to Jewish tradition, to
Jewish nationalism, and to popular Yiddish culture, he also turned from an
atheist to a believer, and he began to observe some Jewish traditions. To
complete the picture, mention should be made of Strauss's socialist
Already before World
War I (in which Strauss fought as a soldier in the German army, and was even
wounded, despite the fact that he was a pacifist), Strauss published poems and
articles in the German language. His articles dealt with literary matters,
Judaism, socialism and, in the end, with Zionism as well.
After the war, at the
beginning of the 1920's, Strauss began to translate Yiddish poetry into Hebrew.
Over the next decade, his literary activity was split between writing German
poetry and studying German literature, on the one hand, and occupation with
Jewish culture, on the other writing articles, translating from Yiddish and
Hebrew, and editing books that were meant to fill German Jewry's thirst for
Jewish literature in the German language.
After two previous
visits to Eretz Israel (in 1924 and in 1934), Strauss immigrated to Eretz Israel
in the winter of 1935. His visit to the country and his enthusiastic encounter
with its scenery gave rise to his first Hebrew poem, "El ha-Mifratz"
(1934). In a short account of the inner struggles that eventually gave birth to
this poem, Strauss describes the paradoxical process in which he translated his
poem from Hebrew into German.
Even after settling
in Eretz Israel, Strauss continued to write poetry in German (even though the
subject matter of his poetry was related to Eretz Israel and his volume of
poetry that was published in Germany in 1935 was even called "Land Israel").
Slowly, however, he began to write poetry in Hebrew. As he became more deeply
rooted in Eretz Israel, and as he gained greater mastery of the Hebrew language,
his Hebrew poetry began to flow more easily; he was then in his late forties.
Most of his Hebrew poems were collected in the volume, "Sha'ot ve-Dor"
(Mossad Bialik 1951).
This "miracle" of
being able to begin writing poetry at a relatively advanced age, in a language
that is not one's mother tongue, is described by Strauss in the account
mentioned above (see note 2): "By the time I wrote my third poem in the fall of
1940, I had gained fluency in the Hebrew language, fluency that was encouraged
and assisted by the master poets of medieval Spain, headed by Shmuel ha-Naggid
and Yehuda ha-Levi."
Upon his arrival in
Eretz Israel, Strauss joined kibbutz Hazore'a, and several years later he began
to teach in the Ben Shemen youth village, which at the time was absorbing young
immigrants from Germany arriving through Youth Aliya.
In 1944, with the
arrival of large numbers of refugee youths in the Youth Aliya institutions, it
was deemed necessary that teachers and counselors be trained to assist in their
absorption. A framework for the speedy training of teachers and counselors was
established in Jerusalem the Youth Aliya Counselors Seminary. This institution
conducted six-month courses, training many teachers in two programs, one for
religious teachers and one for non-religious teachers. Nathan Rottenstreich, who
headed the general program, invited Strauss to teach in the seminary. Strauss
accepted the offer and moved to Jerusalem.
Strauss's teaching in
the seminary already touches upon his approach to the book of Tehilim in
general and to psalm 131 in particular, and I shall expand upon this in the next
Strauss was later
invited to lecture in the literature department of the Hebrew University in
Jerusalem, and it was he who established its department of comparative
literature. His students in those years include some of the most important
poets, writers, and teachers of literature in Israel (Leah Goldberg, Dan Pagis,
Haim Gouri, Nathan Zach, Tuvya Ribner, and others).
Aryeh Ludwig Strauss
died in 1953, at the height of his literary career, both in terms of writing and
teaching. His primary literary heritage was written in German; his writings in
that language poetry, prose, plays, essays and scholarly articles were
collected in two large volumes that were published in Germany in recent years.
Very little of his diversified literary heritage was published in Hebrew: only a
small amount in his later years and a little bit more after his death.
A.L. STRAUSS'S REVOLUTIONARY APPROACH TO THE STUDY OF
Let us go back to the
period during which A.L. Strauss taught in the Counselors Seminary in Jerusalem
in 1944, where he first became known to the broad, diversified and adult public
as a gifted teacher and exemplary personality. Strauss had originally been
invited to teach literature, but since there was nobody available to teach
Scripture, he was also asked to teach Tanakh. "I am not a Bible teacher," argued
Strauss, but, bowing to necessity, he accepted the position. As a poet and
literary analyst, he decided to teach the book of Tehilim. His
Tehilim classes were given both in the program for religious teachers and
in the general program, and for many years they remained inscribed in the
memories of his students as an uplifting experience.
information was reported to me by Nechama Leibowitz, a"h, who also taught
at that seminary (she taught Rashi's commentary to the
participated in the class that he gave on Psalm 23, and he illuminated the psalm
in an entirely new light. Aryeh, I said to him after class, I recite this
psalm every Shabbat, and never did I see in it what you have uncovered!
I don't know, Strauss responded modestly, I read the psalm aloud once or
and then I read it over quietly a few more times, and whatever comes to my mind
over the course of these repeated readings that is what I
The Youth Aliya
Department of the Jewish Agency eventually decided to publish some of the
lectures given in the seminary along with other works written by scholars in
various fields, in a series of pamphlets, entitled "Iyunim la-Madrikh
ve-laMoreh" ("Studies for the Counselor and the Teacher"). The first
pamphlet in this series (out of dozens of pamphlets that were ultimately
published) was "Al Shelosha Mizmorim mi-Sefer Tehilim" ("Three Psalms in
the Book of Tehilim") by Aryeh Ludwig Strauss.
Strauss wrote this pamphlet based on the lectures that he gave in the seminary.
It is comprised of 24 small pages in which he analyzes Psalms 23, 114 and 131.
It was published in 5711 (1951).
year later Strauss published another article in the literary journal
"Bechinot" (no. 1, 5712), in which he analyzes another psalm no.
During the period of
his final illness in 1953, Strauss dictated his analysis of yet another psalm
Psalm 12 to his student Nechama Leibowitz. She read it at a symposium held in
Strauss's memory in 1954, and it was published in "Nefesh ve-Shir"
(Iyyunim 19-20) later that year (see end of note
All of these articles
on the book of Tehilim were republished in Strauss's posthumously
published volume, "Be-Darkhei ha-Sifrut" (see note 5, item 3), pp.
spiritual-intellectual upheaval can take place without being noticed, "by
chance," and even without its initiator or those surrounding him being aware of
what is happening. Such was the upheaval caused by Aryeh Ludwig Strauss in his
lectures on the book of Tehilim in the middle of the 1940's, and in the
publication of the small pamphlet, "Al Shelosha Mizmorim mi-Sefer
Tehilim," at the beginning of the 1950's.
those that he gave to the psalms of Tehilim profound literary analyses,
in which he utilized all the modes of understanding poetry available to a poet
and literary critic had never before been offered, at least not in the Hebrew
What were the most
prevalent approaches to the understanding of the book of Tehilim until
then? Traditional exegesis focused primarily on the explanation of obscure words
and the resolution of grammatical difficulties in isolated verses. In more
recent generations, short paraphrases were also given to summarize the gist of
criticism undertook several tasks in addition to offering a literal explanation
of the biblical text. It proposed various types of textual emendations to
reconcile difficulties in the psalm; it dealt extensively with the task of
dating the psalm, generally by way of baseless speculations, with the rule being
the later the better; it dealt with strange speculations about the role of the
psalms in the Temple service, also with no real foundation; it sorted the psalms
into different genres based on their form and content; it divided each psalm
into sections, thinking that with this it fulfilled its obligation regarding
study of the psalm's structure; and finally, it engaged in an esthetic and
conceptual assessment of the psalms, each psalm receiving a "grade" in the eyes
of the critic.
There is only one
thing that never entered the commentators' minds: to see the psalm as it is as
a poem, and to apply to it the analytical methods of literary theory that are
used today to understand poetry. Surely this is the most elementary thing that
begs to be done when approaching works of poetry, even if they are ancient and
suffused with the awe of sanctity of many generations.
To be sure, the
classical commentators did not deal with literary theory either, nor were they
even aware of its existence. But why didn't the modern commentators, living in
the first half of the twentieth century, think of using such an approach with
respect to the psalms of Tehilim? There is a twofold answer to this
question: First of all, these commentators were by and large not trained in the
field of literature. Secondly, biblical criticism, as it had developed over the
course of more than a century, influenced everyone in the field of Tanakh and
misdirected them away from the right questions, and certainly the right answers.
Moreover, some of the fundamental assumptions of biblical criticism negated,
a priori, any justification for literary analysis.
In order to liberate
the field of biblical scholarship from these deficiencies, it was necessary for
a man steeped in literature and fully proficient in the methodology of poetic
analysis to explain and teach the psalms of Tehilim in the same way that
he would explain and teach the classics of Hebrew and universal poetry: out of
deep esteem and love for that poetry. This is precisely what A.L. Strauss did,
simply because he didn't know how to do anything else, when it fell upon him to
teach Tanakh to teachers and counselors from all across the country, as they
rapidly trained to help in the absorption of the Jewish youth streaming into the
country during the years of the Holocaust.
This is what Strauss
writes in his "Introductory Notes" that precede his analysis of the three
The analysis of the
following three poems is an attempt to evaluate biblical poems in the way that
any other poem would be evaluated. I am well aware that the historical and
religious essence of these poems, which are chapters of the Holy Writ, goes
beyond the mere human-aesthetic understanding. It never entered my mind to
challenge the alternative understanding, which appreciates that aspect of
biblical poetry, and necessitates the question: What is the role of the poem in
the great edifice of Israel's Torah, its life and holy service. This is indeed
an important question, but it does not negate the importance of the question
that we are asking: What is the poem in itself? What is its human core and what
is its artistic structure? What is the relationship between the idea and the
image that comprises the poem's linguistic body?
Strauss's words betray an apologetic tone, directed at those maintaining
a traditional religious approach to the book of Tehilim. He feels the
need to justify his literary approach and to explain its legitimacy alongside
the traditional approach. It seems to me, however, that this defensive attitude
is unnecessary, and that the distinction that Strauss makes between his own
literary approach and the traditional approach is incorrect. It is precisely
someone who asks "What is the role of the poem in the great edifice of Israel's
Torah and life" who must reach a deeper understanding and internalization of the
psalm. To that end, he must use the best methods available today for the
understanding of poetry, namely, literary theory and the methodology of literary
The principle taught us by Chazal that "the Torah speaks in the
language of man"
applies not only to the basic linguistic-literal level of the words of Tanakh,
but also to the way that they are fashioned into whole literary units, e.g., a
biblical narrative or poem. Accordingly, the analytical methods developed in
recent generations to understand human literary creations are appropriate and
essential for the understanding of the biblical story or poem. Moreover, it is
incumbent upon the Torah student coming to study biblical poetry to take
advantage of the intellectual achievements and serious attitude of literary
theory regarding great poetry, which for him is holy poetry. The fact that the
methodology of literary analysis developed out of the study of medieval poetry,
or secular poetry of various kinds, does not invalidate this methodology from
being used also in the study of the psalms of Tehilim. On the contrary,
"Let not the priest's daughter [= the poetry of Tehilim] be like an
innkeeper [= regular poetry]."
In the decades that have passed since Strauss's death, the literary
approach to the study of Scripture has become a central approach in biblical
study (though with respect to biblical scholars who are not scholars of
literature, intermingled among their literary analyses are elements of
criticism, though they seem to be unaware that the two approaches do not mix).
Strauss had heirs, both in the world of literary theory and in the world of
biblical studies, and their work is immeasurably broader and more sophisticated
than Strauss's pioneering articles.
Nevertheless, Strauss will be remembered as being the first to teach us
(at least in the Hebrew language) how to approach the study of Tehilim
seriously, profoundly, and using the methodology of literary analysis.
Furthermore, many have attained important achievements in the study of Tanakh by
following the path paved by Strauss, but none have been graced with that
nobility of spirit, that poetic spirit, that human simplicity, that characterize
the analyses of the psalms of Tehilim by A.L. Strauss that unique
Jewish poet, who moved about the temples of world literature with total
familiarity, but owing to historical-spiritual circumstances, returned to his
homeland, his language and his roots.
To complete this section, and before we begin the actual study of psalm
131, I wish to cite Strauss's last comment in the "Introductory Notes" that
preface his analysis of the three psalms:
have applied the term "stanza" to any rhythmic unit that is comprised of more
than one line usually a pair of parallel lines, but sometimes three of four
lines, which constitute a defined rhythmic picture. The numbers (1, 2, etc.)
refer to the stanzas, and not to the traditional division into
Even this "technical" comment contains an innovation, to which the
readers of my studies have certainly become accustomed: The psalms of
Tehilim must be written in the form that poetry is written in our time,
in short lines, and divided into stanzas. This manner of writing is an essential
foundation for any literary analysis that will follow.
(Translated by David