Gershon Hepner

The Biblical Ladder and its Spectrum

Biblical interpretation may be thought of as a ladder,

     an ascent for the alleged plain meaning of the text — peshat —

often as inaccurate as can be any dictation,

     followed by remez,

hints to meanings that are normally a little madder,

     and moving with far more deliberation to derash,

a meaning of the text that is a parafictional,

     creative derivation.

At the summit of the ladder you may reach

a meaning that is dangerous to teach,

appropriately called a secret: sod

the Hebrew word for it, extremely odd,

like people on the spectrum, as atypical…..

although their meanings sound terrific, all

very hard to understand in contrast to

ones far more typical, appreciated by just few

devoted followers, as is very sadly true

of peoples who hold spectral points of view,

which while to understand them is extremely hard, are

sometimes more comprehensible than verses of a baffled bard are.

In “Life and Text,” LRB  Winter 2023, reviewing  Fragile Finitude: A Jewish Hermeneutical Theology by Michael Fishbane,  Ariel Evan Mayse of Stanford University writes:

Life and tradition are in constant interaction,” writes Michael Fishbane in Fragile Finitude. It is Fishbane’s second work of personal theological reflection after a long and distinguished career as both a historian of biblical interpretation and an original interpreter of Jewish texts. In these books Fishbane describes how the words of tradition call us to attention and, in acts of exegesis, form the ground from which spiritual life blossoms.

Is Jewish theology really possible in our day? Fishbane insists that it is and that such work is a spiritual, cultural, and personal necessity. He argues that our interpretations of canonical Jewish texts are necessarily shaped by contemporary experience. But his thesis is stronger yet: interpretation is the lifeblood of religious consciousness, and it is simultaneously the key to our being in the world. We must, Fishbane writes, “cultivate a mind devoted to God’s all-creative vitality in worldly reality,” and the Jewish way to do so is through interpretation…..

Fragile Finitude extends the fourfold model of interpretation, offering it as a method for hearing the divine voice and for making sense not only of canonical texts but of personal experience. This possibility reflects Fishbane’s understanding that creation and revelation are parallel self-disclosures of the divine, both of which call for human interpretation.

In “Did Adam Speak Hebrew?,”, 2/8/23, Philologos (Hillel Halkin) writes:

The deepest level of interpretation is sod, the mystical one—and here, as might be expected, there developed a Jewish tradition of language mysticism that attributes to Hebrew the ergative powers that enabled it, when spoken by God, to bring the universe into being. The classic work in this genre is the Sefer ha-Y’tsirah, the “Book of Creation,” a text attributed by tradition to Abraham but most probably dating to the period of Genesis Rabbah. Its opening verse states that God “engraved” the universe with the help of “32 wondrous paths of wisdom,” which are the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet plus the “ten spheres of Nothingness [b’li mah].” These ten emanations or sfirot, with which much later kabbalistic speculation is concerned, correspond to the decimal system, and the rest of the Sefer ha-Y’tsirah goes on to explain how the universe was created through the agency of Hebrew and mathematics.

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at