Are Hymns All That Different from Psalms? Perhaps

“Better to go to the house of mourning,” says the book of Ecclesiastes “than to go to a house of feasting.” Heeding this advice—even if not by design—Howard Jacobson has found himself going to quite a few funerals and memorial services of late. But a recent one led him to some thoughts about how Jews mourn their dead:

So here I am, sitting on the back row of a little urban chapel, giving thanks for a life that ended only last week. But at least the service isn’t taking the humanist route. No breezy gathering of accidental mourners wearing cardigans in a room resembling a bridge club and everyone desperate not to mention God. Instead, a real vicar in a real surplice; a reading from St. John’s Gospel; many in the congregation wearing black; and proper hymns instead of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

Even so, the hymns make me feel uncomfortable. They always do, though there’s often no discernible religious difference in sentiment between a hymn and a psalm, unless the hymn happens to be one of those that ends with an invocation of the cross. The mourners, I notice, move without any sort of spiritual jolt between “Guide Me, O, Thou Great Redeemer,” and “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” though the first is unmistakably theirs and the second definitively ours. So if the Anglicans make no distinction, in the face of bodily dissolution, between Old Testament and New, why must I?

Let’s rephrase the question: am I right in thinking there’s a qualitative difference—religiously speaking, and poetically speaking as well—between a psalm and a hymn? How desperate the gravity of Psalm 77: “In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord: my sore ran in the night, and ceased not: my soul refused to be comforted.” How jaunty, by comparison, [the Christian hymn] “Be Thou My Vision”: “Thou my best thought, by day or by night;/ Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.”

Isn’t a psalm a more elevated form, as different from a hymn as a hymn is from an ironic song in a Monty Python movie? . . . Even in the King James Version some unwarranted Christianizing was afoot. But if that means essential distinctions between psalms and hymns were elided, there remains difference enough for a Jew to feel that hymning is a species of trespass.

But why, Jacobson wishes to know, should he, a very secular Jew, care?

Create a free account to continue reading

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register

Create a free account to continue reading

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register

Read more at Tablet

More about: Christianity, Judaism, Mourning, Psalms

The Arab Press Blames Iran Rather Than Israel for Gaza’s Woes

Following the fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad over the weekend, many journalists and commentators in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia didn’t rush to condemn the Jewish state. Instead, as the translators at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) note, they criticized the terrorist group for “operating in service of Iranian interests and thus inflicting suffering on the Gaza Strip’s residents.” One Saudi intellectual, Turki al-Hamad, wrote the following on Twitter:

It is apparent that, if at one time any confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian organizations would attract world and Arab attention and provoke a wave of anger [against Israel], today it does not shock most Arabs and most of the world’s [countries]. Furthermore, even a sense of human solidarity [with the Palestinians] has become rare and embarrassing, raising the question, “Why [is this happening] and who is to blame?”

I believe that the main reason is the lack of confidence in all the Palestinian leaders. . . . From the Arabs’ and the world’s perspective, it is already clear that these leaders are manipulating the [Palestinian] cause out of self-interest and diplomatic, economic, or even personal motives, and that the Palestinian issue is completely unconnected to this. The Palestinian cause has become a bargaining chip in the hands of these and other organizations and states headed by the [Iranian] ayatollah regime.

A, article in a major Arabic-language newspaper took a similar approach:

In a lengthy front-page report on August 7, the London-based UAE daily Al-Arab criticized Islamic Jihad, writing that “Gaza again became an arena for the settling of accounts between Iran and Israel, while the Palestinian citizens are the ones paying the price.” It added that Iran does not want to confront Israel directly for its bombings in Syria and its attacks on Iranian scientists and nuclear facilities.

“The war in Gaza is not the first, nor will it be the last. But it proves . . . that Iran is exploiting Gaza as it exploits Lebanon, in order to strengthen its hand in negotiations with the West. We all know that Iran hasn’t fired a single bullet at Israel, and it also will not do this to defend Gaza or Lebanon.”

Create a free account to continue reading

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register

Create a free account to continue reading

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register

Read more at MEMRI

More about: Gaza Strip, Iran, Islamic Jihad, Israel-Arab relations, Persian Gulf