Davar Acher: What is a Davar Acher? One Jew, Two Opinions

by Jan Katzew
(Originally published in
Ten Minutes of Torah and Reform Voices of Torah)

My chavrutah (study partner and friend), Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D., has proffered a witty and wise reading of the fratricidal Cain and Abel episode. “Conflict, apparently, is a basic part of human nature . . . even when the population of the world stands at only four.”

How we manage and sometimes even resolve conflict remains a defining characteristic of human life. Conflict is inevitable because we are all partial, in both senses of the word. We are biased and we are incomplete. 

One healthy and instructive tool for managing internal and sometimes external conflict is embedded in the concept that underlies a davar acher, “another word” or “another thing.” A davar acher in classical Torah commentary is a second opinion, typically composed by the same author who wrote the prior comment. It offers proof that multiple simultaneous interpretations of a text are possible, and often desirable, even, and perhaps especially by the same person. One Jew, two opinions is not only a joke; it is also a virtue. “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” (F. Scott Fitzgerald).1

As a first-rate mind, Rashi offers multiple commentaries on a trenchant verse in an unresolved dialogue about human responsibility that resides at the heart of the Cain/Abel conflict: In response to Cain’s timeless query: ” ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ And [God] said, ‘What have you done? Your brother’s blood is shrieking to Me from the ground!’ ” (Genesis 4:9-10).

Rashi, commenting on the plural form of the word “blood,” writes: His blood and the blood of his descendants (see Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a). Davar acher, he caused him so many wounds that he had no way of knowing which one was fatal.

Rashi took a linguistic anomaly and made it profound, so profound that he proposed two legitimate understandings, both of which are reasonable and relevant. Cain did not only murder Abel; he also prevented Abel from perpetuating life through procreation. That is why statements about six million Jews having been murdered during the Shoah may be historically accurate but incomplete, and why the aphorism that a person who has taken a life has taken a world is compelling (cf. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).

Rashi’s davar acher suggests a valid alternative rendering of the text. Cain’s act was so violent, so fueled by jealousy and vengeance that Abel’s death was impossible to assign to a single wound. The Bible is a bloody book and sadly, we still live in a bloody world. At its best, Bible commentary “uncovers” the text and trusts the reader to make it meaningful. In the process, it may uncover wounds that benefit from exposure to multiple, even conflicting interpretations.

1F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up,” Esquire, 1936

Rabbi Jan Katzew, Ph.D., is URJ Director of Lifelong Learning. He can be reached at jkatzew@urj.org.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email
Guest Blogger

About Guest Blogger

RJ.org accepts submissions for consideration. Send your posts to rjblog@urj.org. Please include biographical information, including your affiliation with any Reform congregation or institution.

One Response to “Davar Acher: What is a Davar Acher? One Jew, Two Opinions”

  1. avatar

    It seems that for my Bat Mitzvah earlier this month what I wrote for my D’var Torah was more a Davar Acher.

    I’m continuing my studies and need to know more about this.

    Thank you!

Leave a Reply