A Shepherd’s Song by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel
Reviewed by Jenna Black, San Diego State University, May 24, 2014
In reviewing Rabbi Michael Samuel’s inspiring and deeply spiritual book, I first want to establish my personal spiritual connection to his theme, the 23rd Psalm. The first two passages from the Bible that my devout Christian grandmother had me memorize were the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. The stained glass window above the altar in our church, depicted Jesus as the Good Shepherd, so I associated the imagery of the 23rd Psalm with the idea of the loving care of the shepherd for His flock. These indelible images shaped my first understandings of and connections with God. Imagine my excitement and the flood of nostalgia that came over me when I first encountered Rabbi Samuel’s book (1996), “The Lord is my Shepherd: The theology of a caring God” and then “A Shepherd’s Song (2014). His scholarly analysis of the shepherd metaphor has given this reader an intellectual understanding of how symbolism and allegory speak to both the spirit and the mind to bring us closer to God.
Rabbi Samuel begins his book by setting a purpose for our conversation: “We must struggle within to find a language of faith that is pastoral with our souls” (p. 25). Samuel frames the journey we travel through the book in the “midrashic” (interpretive) tradition of Judaism, while also bringing out the sources, what he terms “prophetic examples” of pastoral metaphors from ancient religions, Greek philosophy and Christianity. Rabbi Samuel sounds a warning that in the Industrial Age and an era of “religious behaviorism”, the loss of our ability to depict and interpret our spiritual reality through myth, metaphor and living symbols can result in a “loss of soul.” He explains how the “root metaphor” provides a “spiritual language” that anthropologists see as “defining the community’s belief” in every culture in the world (p. 68). These are what the Rabbi terms our “spiritual epicenter.” The author identifies the importance of language and literature as it contributes to our appreciation of the ancients’ mode for communicating sacred ideas and timeless messages of truth across 25 centuries. But also, Samuel leads us to appreciate the importance of developing a “religious imagination” for viewing, understanding, and relating to our immediate and transcendent reality. Rabbi Samuel describes this as a process of “healing our wounded images of God” from childish perceptions and negative experiences with parenting to “religious terrorism in our time”. Samuel states that “…[P]ositive images of God awaken our capacity to wonder and stimulate our ability to see beauty and goodness in ourselves as well as others.” (p. 86)
Rabbi Samuel provides an extended discussion of Maimonides and his “break with Talmudic tradition” and his “agnostic legacy” through his “criticism of rabbinical anthropomorphists.” He provides a cogent defense of anthropomorphism, depicting God through humanizing and personalizing imagery, as a way “to make God accessible to man.” He elaborates an understanding of “God’s own personhood” as “transpersonal” so that our imagery of God leads us to an understanding of God’s love and His relatedness to Creation. The Rabbi’s analysis of perspectives toward representations of God from Judaic scholars challenges to begin our own healing of wounded images as we see how historical intellectual debates and polemics take us deeper into understanding of God’s character and relationship with humanity and ourselves. This extends even to a bold and provocative discussion of the Shepherd metaphor and “seven qualities of shepherding seen during the Holocaust” (p. 244).
Having given the reader a rationale for the importance of symbolic language to provoke critical thinking and soulful contemplation of relationships through comparisons and associations, Rabbi Samuel takes us step by step through the rabbinic expositions on the 23rd Psalm and the daily life and work of the shepherd with his (or her) flock as a metaphor of God’s love for Israel. Samuel carefully analyzes Hebrew terms and words, often providing valuable insights into morphology and nuances of meaning, as well as difficulties caused by mistranslations or misinterpretations. This scholarly examination is a model for exegesis, where attention to words and even parts of words is as important for constructing meaning of the text as is a predisposition toward imagery and allegory. We learn how the shepherd leads rather than drives his flock; how he gets the sheep to relax; how he uses his rod and staff, how sheep will only drink from still water, etc. to understand the deeper meaning of each word, phrase and verse of the beautiful 23rd Psalm. This section of the book is both didactic and inspirational as the author models “the four parts of the lectio divina; reading, listening, meditation and prayer” that function to “create the interior space for a spiritual encounter…”(p. 291-2).
A highlight of “The Shepherd’s Song” is Rabbi Samuel’s analysis of the Book of Job as “a tale about shepherding.” Samuel makes the tale of Job accessible as well as profoundly meaningful through this thorough reconstruction of its meaning, including the role of Job’s friends as a metaphor for modern societies and peer pressure when we suffer reversals of fortune. The Rabbi leads us to understand how “[T]he social realities of their world reflected God’s justice and maintenance of the social order” (p. 336) and how “…[I]nstead of worrying about processes that are beyond jurisdiction, God beckons Job to look at what lies within his power to change and alter.” (p. 352) God is the Shepherd of leadership, the Shepherd of hope, the Shepherd of provision, the Shepherd through the darkness, the Shepherd of restoration.
In summary, Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel’s book is a deeply satisfying read, from the intellectual and scholarly perspective as well as the religious and spiritual. Rabbi Samuel does in fact create the interior space for a spiritual encounter and for this reader, a reconnecting and renewal of imagery of God from my childhood that has helped me grow spiritually and has restored my soul. God bless you, Rabbi Michael for the precious gift of this wonderful book.