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Jewish World Review
Dec. 12, 2003
/17 Kislev, 5764
Can the Bible be a secular language?
By Rabbi Hillel Goldberg
Used as replacements for common expressions, biblical verses attest to the human capacity to sanctify even the mundane.
Thirty years ago, I taught at the Jerusalem College for Women ("Michlala"). This was only my second teaching job. I was
young. I loved it. I still remember some of my students, daughters of eminent people, young women destined to eminence in
their own right. I was barely a few years older than they. As a beginning teacher, I made mistakes.
Once, apparently, I assigned too much work in too short a time. My supervisor, a master pedagogue, Rabbi Yehuda
Coperman, simply and gently cited half a verse from this week's Torah (Bible) portion in the context of Jacob's preparation for his
meeting with his brother Esau.
It is 22 years after Esau threatened to kill Jacob and now the two are about to meet. Jacob is afraid. Among his preparations
is a tribute to Esau in the currency of the day. He sends droves of animals.
"He put in his servants' charge each drove separately and said to his servants, 'Pass on ahead of me and leave a space
between drove and drove'" (Gen. 32:17).
Jacob's plan is this:
First I give part of the tribute, then Esau notices another drove coming, and then still another. I pace the droves. I really
That's exactly what Rabbi Coperman said to me. Steeped as he was in the words and phrases of the Torah, he naturally
summoned one of them as a parable that speaks for itself. He simply said: "Leave a space between drove and drove."
This phrase became one of my old friends in this week's Torah portion.
This week's Torah portion is full of old friends phrases that stick; ideas, allusions and verbal associations that I greet anew
each year. There is a prejudice for newness in readers of the Torah portion. Let's discover a point no one has ever made
before. This is a legitimate approach. But there is much to savor in the old and the familiar. Indeed, the goal of Torah study is
that its words become familiar and comfortable. To reread the Torah each year is to greet old friends: expressions and events
that have left a permanent mark on the mind.
As I reread this week's Torah portion, I encounter Jacob's fear as he sets out on his journey back to Canaan and his inevitable
encounter with his brother his enemy. He expresses his feelings before G-d in a single word, so rich, so multi-layered:
"Katonti," translated I am small, I have been diminished or I am unworthy. Once I wrote an article praising Kalman
Samuels, the founder of Shalva, a 365-day-a-year program for special needs children in Jerusalem. He sent a thank you note;
it contained a single word: "Katonti." Ever since, the word stuck.
On his way to meet Esau, Jacob sends his tribute, family and possessions across the ford of the Jabbok. Then, the Torah
records, "And Jacob was left alone," whereupon a mysterious man or angel wrestled with him until dawn (32:25).
A mysterious man who appeared early in my adult life was Rabbi Jacob M. Lesin. His holiness was so pure that he seemed to
be an apparition, akin to the being who wrestled with Jacob only to disappear, never to be seen or heard from again.
Rabbi Jacob Lesin had four wives: His first died suddenly a year or so after they married, around 1922; his second (who bore
his children) died after some 17 years of marriage; his third, whom he married just before WW II, perished in the Holocaust;
his fourth he married after the Holocaust. Surely, here was a life steeped in tragedy. Yet, writ on Rabbi Lesin's countenance
was a faith so natural, so elevated, so consistent that he seemed akin to a celestial being. His many volumes of writings,
masterpieces of ethical insight and literary style, give voice to that faith.
When he died in his late eighties in 1978, he was eulogized by a slightly younger colleague, a scholar of renown, Rabbi Jacob
Kaminetsky. Standing near his deceased friend of many decades, saying that he had anticipated that Rabbi Jacob Lesin would
become the High Priest in the rebuilt Holy Temple in Jerusalem, Rabbi Jacob Kaminetsky mourned for his colleague and for
himself. He said, "And Jacob was left alone."
Piercing. I never forgot it.
Can the Torah be a secular language? Of course it can. When Rabbi Coperman told me to take it easy on the students
("Leave a space between drove and drove"), he was using a biblical verse in a secular way. Still, we must be careful in defining
It is clearly secular to yank a biblical verse out of context to express a personal point. Not a single one of the four levels of
biblical exegesis (plain meaning, allegory, homiletics, mysticism) was served by Rabbi Coperman. At the same time, there is a
very different tone in a biblical verse than in a prosaic message ("Let up on the students!"). To be so comfortable with the
biblical text, to be so natural in summoning its phrases to express oneself, is a beautiful example of imbuing the secular with the
Likewise, when the head of the program for special needs children wrote me, "Katonti, I am unworthy," he imbued a simple
thank you with an elegant biblical twist. When a rabbi mourned a colleague's death and his resultant loneliness by saying, "And
Jacob was left alone," he infused a difficult moment with an elevating association. In Israel, even taxi drivers, fruit merchants
and carpenters are full of expressive phrases taken straight from the Bible to make their point.
Used as replacements for common expressions, biblical verses attest to the human capacity to sanctify even the mundane, the
However, the Torah, used as a secular language, can also be dangerous. If the learned individual comes to identify his every
desire and decision with that of the Torah, by virtue of his ability to locate an apt biblical phrase to express himself, he
becomes an authoritarian personality. He exploits the Torah to advance his own agenda. He confuses his will with the Divine
will. He masks personal preferences with a biblical patina.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News. To comment, please click here.
© 2003, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg