Mar 2012

Holy Text-People

Liz is a current Wexner Graduate Fellow (Class XXIII) and a second-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York.  Liz can be reached at

I have been thinking about what makes a text holy. At my core, I am a librarian’s daughter. So during winter vacation, when I reorganized all of the books in my room, I arranged them topically, like a microcosmic and eclectic Dewey Decimal system. Various siddurim are grouped together on one shelf, with assorted Bibles and Biblical criticism tucked in on the other side of my air conditioner. Second Temple Literature, Aramaic dictionaries, and a broad sweep of Jewish History sit on my desk, with Hebrew Fiction and Modern Jewish Thought a shelf above. And plastered on my walls are a living Talmud of quotations and inspirations that I have collected over the years. Daily, I write post-its to myself with ideas and questions. Woven together with the pictures of text-people and text-places that I love, all of these are my holy, sacred texts. 

I am comfortable understanding “holy text” as both an expansive and an expanding concept. Text need not be limited to ancient and canonized words, but I cannot help setting these categories apart from other texts that I find personally precious. I feel more deeply attached to Rabbi Richard Levy’s A Vision of Holiness than an out-of-print century-old Machzor that I picked up at a synagogue rummage sale, but something inherent in the liturgical nature of a siddur or the canonized status of Megillat Esther still resonates for me. Relevance and personal meaning does not necessarily negate the sanctity of a traditional or ancient sacred text. There are some lines of psalms that speak to me as powerfully as a line of poetry from Natan Alterman or Yehuda Amichai. Sometimes these poets, ancient and modern, even speak to each other through me. 

More troubling for me is when I disagree or find discomfort in the words or ideology of one of these older holy texts. I am able to understand them in their historical context — to a point. There are some words so abhorrent that no justification can rationalize or authenticate their sanctity in my eyes. But by cherry-picking from our textual canon, can I justify keeping the jewels and ignoring the shards of glass? Does accepting the sanctity of a text mean accepting this text in its entirety?

This past summer at our Wexner Graduate Fellowship Institute, I learned a quotation from perhaps my all-time favorite Jewish scholar, Abraham Joshua Heschel, that has stuck with me: “What we need more than anything else is not text-books but text-people.” I know, in part, this means that we need to elevate the culture of Jewish learning and familiarize ourselves and others with holy texts, but it also means that we can approach people as the texts themselves, through our interactions, relationships, and experiences with them. Just as no text is objective, no person is purely objective either – and this is only logical, because as a progressive Jew, I believe that our texts were written by human beings. However, unlike many of our texts, which cannot be discussed with their authors, we can engage with text-people in a way that is both very personal and present. This immediacy brings with it a whole new set of exciting opportunities and challenges. When speaking with a friend, colleague, or student, I need to draw not just upon my reason and analytical ability, but my intuition, empathy, and emotional intelligence as well. I have to be prepared for a text-person to respond, and to not always agree with what is said. 

This is the blessing of our Wexner community. Texts, defined expansively and traditionally, come to life in the words of my classmates, my modern prophets. Through dialogue, conversation, and collaboration, we create new texts, paving the way for a textually, spiritually, and intellectually diverse Jewish future.