I’ve noticed that I no longer just read books—I engage in dialogue with them! What could be more true to the Jewish tradition and heritage than that? I just now twigged to this habit. I was reading a book and I found myself compelled to grab a pencil and write some subtle but important suggestions for wording improvements. Here:
Roman legions under the Emperor Vespasian had literally begun their siege of Jerusalem, in 68 CE, before the rabbis finally began to encode the Oral Torah. They had to: when a danger exists that the Oral Torah might be forgotten, it must be put into writing. Israel’s Temple priests and rabbis, and most of the leading custodians of the Hebrew Revolution’s traditions, would die in the ensuing holocaust.
I grabbed a pencil, circled the word “holocaust”, and wrote: Let’s reserve this word and use it sparingly, even when referring to the Shoah.* Try: catastrophe, calamity, disaster, destruction, or devastation.
Then, on the very next page, came:
While God’s Torah remains constant, its meaning—that is, the ways in which people interpret it—develops and unfolds according to human needs and experiences. New issues are constantly arising, so students must extend and apply the ancient “Guidance” to correctly answer questions that even Moses never faced.
Again I grabbed my pencil, this time to circle “interpret” and write: Better: “understand”!
These were only the most recent two examples of this tendency, but caused me to realize it’s what I’ve been doing for a while now. In fact, these may be atypical examples, since mere suggestions for small changes in wording are really the least of the things that come up in my internal dialogue while reading. (Well, okay, proofreading/copy editing observations are the least of the things that come up. But that's not important now.) I must confess, however, that I don’t always grab a pencil and start annotating. I probably should. It would get me in the habit of writing down and clarifying my thoughts more often.
*In case you were wondering, I felt the need to comment/quibble/question the use of the word holocaust for two reasons. First, I feel that using it to refer to anything other than the Shoah—the attempt by the German Nazis in the mid-20th century to exterminate the Jews—somehow weakens or cheapens the word. The Holocaust, better Shoah, was a unique and discontinuous event in human history, and it seems unfitting to in any way compare anything else to it. It is beyond comparison.
Second, I don’t even like to use it to refer to the Shoah, because the word holocaust has very unfortunate denotations:
[When] it first appeared in Middle English in the 14th century, it was used in reference to the biblical sacrifice in which a male animal was wholly burnt on the altar in worship of God. It comes from Greek holokauston (“that which is completely burnt”), which was a translation of Hebrew 'lâ (literally “that which goes up,” that is, in smoke). In this sense of “burnt sacrifice,” holocaust is still used in some versions of the Bible. In the 17th century the meaning of holocaust broadened to “something totally consumed by fire,” and the word eventually was applied to fires of extreme destructiveness.
—The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Although many—perhaps most—of the victims of the Shoah were, in fact, totally consumed by fire; that the word holocaust in at least one context means “a burnt offering to God” makes its use to refer to the Shoah unfortunate at best and blasphemous at worst. God never requires human sacrifice.