Corrections or additions?
This article by Michelle Alperin was prepared for the December 15,
2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From the Bible, Top 50 Ideas
In the aftermath of 9/11 the world feels less secure, and many have
turned to religion either for spiritual sustenance or simply for a
sense of stability. Even the less spiritually inclined are newly
curious about the sources of Western religion in light of the extremes
to which certain groups have taken religious principles. But although
in the course of their lives many people resolve to read the Bible,
they don’t always follow through.
The well-known stories of the first two books all make for good
reading – Adam and Eve; the sagas about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the
story of Joseph and his coat; and finally the Israelites’ slavery in
Egypt and their great redemption. But the details of temple
architecture, priestly clothing, and sacrificial instructions are
likely to turn off all but the most persistent readers.
For those looking for an introduction to the moral truths that Western
society has inherited from Scripture, Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins of the
Jewish Center in Princeton has written "The Bible’s Top 50 Ideas:
Essential Concepts Everyone Should Know," with the help of Abby Treu,
a rabbinical student and former Princeton resident. Elkins will speak
about the book and sign copies on Thursday, December 16, at 7:30 p.m.
at the Princeton Public Library.
The difficulties inherent in reading the Bible gave Elkins an idea for
an adult education course at the Jewish Center: "Why not give a course
on the really meaty, important, value-oriented verses in the Torah,
the first five books of the Bible?" If he were to open any page and
put his finger down on a verse, he says, it would likely land on a
chronology or a bloody priestly activity – "all the things that make
people bored or put it down or not be interested." But through careful
selection, he could unearth those verses that really encapsulated the
essence of the Torah.
And so he did. For 35 weeks he brought his students verses or clusters
of verses that reflected universal moral values – "Love thy neighbor
as thyself" (Lev. 19:18); "Justice, justice, shalt thou follow" (Deut.
16:20); "Neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor"
(Lev. 19:16); "Hear. O Israel: the Lord our God the Lord is One" (Lev.
He posed questions to his students that have been asked by both modern
and ancient Bible commentators: Why is a word spelled in a certain
way? Why is one word used instead of another one? Why does a word
appear in one position and not another? Based on the lively interest
of people in his class, Elkins decided that a beefed up version of the
class materials would make a great book, and he wrote a draft.
But 35 verses weren’t enough for a book, and his draft sat on the back
burner as other responsibilities intervened – until he had a great
idea: he asked for help from Abigail Treu, a Princeton High School
graduate and member of his congregation who was a rabbinical student
at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Treu’s job would be to draft
material for the last 15 verses, following Elkins’ style, and she was
happy to oblige: "As a rabbinical student," she says, "it was a great
opportunity to get paid to sit in the library and go through the
medieval and modern commentaries, and in terms of resume building –
what fun to say I already have published a book!"
Elkins was the one who selected most of the verses: "Finding the ’50
best’ was not as difficult as you might think," he observes. "I read
through page by page, until something grabbed me – something with
eternal value that was exceptionally important to pass on."
When asked to describe his favorite verse, Elkins first demurred,
saying, "That’s like asking which of my children I like the most." But
almost immediately he realized that he did have a favorite, Gen. 1:27:
"And God created man in His own image." "Nothing is more central, that
the nature of what is human has elements of the divine," he says. "It
impacts all the laws on the ethical treatment of human beings. You
can’t treat a divine creature except with fairness, truth, justice,
According to Treu, both she and Elkins view the guiding principle of
the book as "making things accessible; our goal was to get people
reading and studying." Elkins adds that the book will appeal to Jews,
Christians, and Moslems, because the "Old Testament" is the heritage
of all three religions.
A 1964 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Elkins came from a
home where Jewish texts and their moral lessons were not present. "I
grew up in a nonreligious, nonobservant, noncultural home. Neither
parent went to college or was Jewishly involved," he remembers, but
his parents did send him to Hebrew school to study for his bar
mitzvah. "At the synagogue," he says, "I found something that was
missing in my life, which was ritual; its poetic aspect and the music
attracted me very strongly." He and his friends also attended services
occasionally at the neighborhood "shtibel," or small Orthodox
synagogue. "They had old time cantors who emotionally grabbed me," he
recalls. "It was a powerful attraction to the whole culture."
Jewish youth group and summer camp experiences strengthened his
commitment to Jewish living through high school, and as he began to
consider possible colleges, he says, "it hit me that I really wanted
to be a rabbi." He met with his several rabbis to investigate whether
he could "live the life of a rabbi" and decided that Conservative
Judaism would work for him: "It meant not traveling too far Jewishly
from where I was," he explains, and it supported his own liberal
understanding of Jewish law as "something to enrich, not to deprive."
Elkins’ life as a writer has been closely entwined with his Judaism.
His earliest inspiration was his childhood rabbi, Mortimer J. Cohen,
who wrote "Pathways to the Bible," for years a classic confirmation
text, and also contributed book reviews to the Jewish Exponent, which
Elkins later did himself.
From the beginning, Elkins was an enterprising writer, creating his
own opportunities. While in rabbinical school he happened upon a
children’s book on biblical archeology by Azriel Eisenberg and wrote a
review of it that he sent to Jewish Education. Eisenberg read the
review, took to heart Elkins’ suggestion that the book needed an
index, and asked Elkins to write one for the next edition. Then, happy
with Elkins’ work, Eisenberg invited him to be a co-author on two
Elkins continued to write as a congregational rabbi, but in 1976 a
personal life event changed the course of his career. Having been at
Temple Beth El in Rochester, New York, for four years, he got divorced
– something, he says, that rabbis just "didn’t do" in those days, and
"it was hard to stay in the same pulpit." He decided then to get a
doctorate in humanistic psychology and education at the
Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, and ended up remaining out of the
pulpit for nine years. During this time, he had a counseling practice,
lectured, consulted, and explored the new age and human potential
movement. He studied guided imagery, human relations, and Gestalt
therapy, and was even certified in hypnosis. He also brought together
his Judaism with his new interests in a book called "Jewish Guided
Imagery," which has been reprinted three times.
Another connection he made during this period that would become
important later was with Jack Canfield, one of the creators of the
"chicken soup for the soul" series of books. Having met at a Gestalt
therapy workshop, where Canfield was a facilitator, the two became
friends. "Once ‘Chicken soup’ was a success," relates Elkins, "he
wanted to do a ‘Jewish soul,’ and he asked me to be the third person
on the book – the one who collects the stories." He continues,
"Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul" has been the highest selling Jewish
book in the last 10 years, with about 200,000 copies. The book has had
a strong impact on people’s lives. I get hundreds of letters and phone
calls, as well as personal reports wherever I go."
Elkins’ co-author, Abigail Treu, graduated from Columbia University in
1997 as a philosophy major. She remembers agonizing during her senior
year over what to do next – either graduate school or a nonprofit –
but she wanted her career to include public service and also allow her
to follow her intellectual bent. She took a job doing development for
Channel 13, figuring she could go back to school any time, but
"whatever I would do in the nonprofit world, fundraising would be an
When it came time to go to graduate school, she remembers, "I was
having trouble forcing myself into a philosophy or a religion Ph.D. I
asked myself what good it would do for the world to have another
expert in philosophy." Having become Jewishly observant by the end of
college, she then considered the rabbinate and eventually applied and
was accepted to the Jewish Theological Seminary. "A rabbi learns to be
a teacher," she says, "and is an expert in religion, philosophy, and
theology, but there is also this component of serving the community."
Perhaps part of her service to the community is this book whose goal,
she says, is "to get people reading and studying."
The book’s official publication date is February 1, although
preliminary copies will be available at the Jewish Center office and
at the Princeton Public Library program. The book is structured to be
easily accessible for a beginner, while introducing readers to the
rich tradition of Jewish commentary. Each small chapter opens with a
verse and a contextual explanation, followed by seminal questions
about each verse posed and answered by commentators, Jewish and
non-Jewish, who range over centuries.
Elkins related a story he once heard about Rabbi Saul Lieberman, a
Talmud professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, that captures the
role of commentary in Jewish tradition.
"Professor Lieberman was being interviewed by a non-Jewish reporter
from the New York Times. The reporter started looking around the room,
and a conversation like the following ensued:
"What is this book up here on the shelf?"
"That’s the Torah."
"And this one?"
"That’s the Talmud, a commentary on the Torah."
"And this one?"
"That’s another commentary from about five centuries later."
After about five minutes of this, the reporter said, "I get it. What
Judaism is is a conversation between the generations." Lieberman
responded, "You’ve hit the nail on the head."
Elkins hopes that his own book follows in this grand tradition:
"Reading this book one will get not only a deeper interpretation of
the verses, but the history of interpretation – 2,500 years of
biblical scholarship, from ancient to modern."
Public Library, Witherspoon Street; Thursday, December 16, at 7:30
p.m. Free. Call 609-924-9529.
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