Bringing new life into old words


When I was a sophomore at Columbia College in 1963-1964, I had the privilege of studying creative writing with Kenneth Koch, a celebrated poet of what is known as the New York School.

Since creative writing is inspired by “creative reading,” Koch made it his mission to bring to our attention up-and-coming authors who were not yet widely read. I am especially grateful that he introduced us to the Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges (1889-1986), whose short-story collection “Ficciones” (Grove Press, 1962) had recently become available in an English translation from the Spanish.

Borges’ stories, though quite brief, are challenging in their mind-bending complexity and surrealistic wit. One particular story in “Ficciones” has continued to intrigue me, puzzle me and – until recently – elude my grasp, “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote.”

The premise of this story is humorously bizarre: Pierre Menard, a French author living during the first half of the 20th century, has taken it upon himself to write “the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of Part One of ‘Don Quixote’ and a fragment of the twenty-second chapter.”

What makes this so patently absurd is that Menard’s text is identical in every respect to those sections of Part I that Miguel de Cervantes wrote in 1605, despite the fact that Menard “did not want to compose another ‘Don Quixote’ – which would be easy – but ‘the Don Quixote.’ It is unnecessary to add that his aim was never to produce a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable ambition was to produce pages which would coincide – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.”

Absurdity piles upon absurdity: as the narrator matter-of-factly points out, “The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.” But this appears to be logically impossible: if two texts are “verbally identical,” how could one be “almost infinitely richer” than the other?

Though I have returned to Borges’ enigmatic story from time to time over the years, I was not able to make much sense of it until recently, when I reread the brilliant “Jews and Words” (Yale University Press, 2012) by the father and daughter team of Amos Oz (1939-2018) and Fania Oz-Sulzberger. On the next to last page, I found what I had been looking for – an interpretation of “Pierre Menard” that makes sense:

“Menard does not translate, or copy, or quote, or paraphrase, or review, or comment upon, Cervantes’ book. He authors it. It is now a new book. It is Menard’s book.”

The authors continue: “Every time we, or you, or the rabbi, or the rabbi’s daughter, read a text, we author it in our own image …. Even if we repeat ancient words verbatim, they are no longer the ancient words, they are new now, and they are ours, in our image, in our contexts, until the next author comes along, the next Pierre Menard.”

What father and daughter are saying is that, in a very real sense, we readers transform the books we read into books that we author; we put new life, our life, into old words.

Let us consider as an example Psalm 23 – whether we know it in the King James version, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” some other English translation, or the Hebrew original, “Adonai ro’i lo echsar.” While there are those who believe that the author of this psalm is none other than King David, others hold that the man or woman who composed these six verses will forever remain anonymous.

We can speculate about what circumstances might have inspired the psalmist to write these well-known words, but we can never know what he or she happened to be thinking and feeling 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. It can be argued, then, that all of us who read Psalm 23 – to ourselves or out loud, in solitude or in public – are authoring these ancient words as if for the first time, in our own image, in our own circumstances here and now.

During my final three years of rabbinical school prior to my ordination in June 1971, I served as student rabbi to the Manhattan-based Temple Beth Or of the Deaf. How well I remember, though a half-century has passed, the profound relationship one of the synagogue leaders had nourished with Psalm 23. Her name was Kitty, and she was one of the two Beth Or members who spent hour after hour patiently teaching me American sign language. I remember her satisfaction when I could finally sign “The Lord is my Shepherd” from beginning to end.

When I visited Kitty on her deathbed after she had suffered a severe stroke, she was lying on her back seemingly oblivious to the world around her; nevertheless, she retained enough residual muscle strength to keep signing Psalm 23 over and over again. She was taking that psalm with her, or perhaps that psalm was escorting her into the olam habah, the world to come.

Let me now turn to the words of the first half of verse 49 from Psalm 89: “Mi gever yichyeh v’lo yireh mavet?” – “What person shall live and not see death?”

I was still a teenager when I first saw those Hebrew and English words on the white front cover of a paperback collection of essays on death and dying. Now that I have passed my 75th birthday, I am living those words far differently than I did when I was 17 or 18. With every passing decade, I have been rewriting those words, even as they remain the same, reworking their relationship to my blood and bone and brain.

To paraphrase words written on the first page of “Jews and Words,” the half verse from Psalm 89 is a vital fragment of the text-line – not the bloodline – that has given us Jews our immortality.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at

Rabbi Rosenberg