Senators Bible teacher preaches personal ethics in public life

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

In her Bible study group on Capitol Hill, Naomi Harris Rosenblatt points to the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs to explain why Princess Diana's death had a more sensational effect than that of Mother Teresa.

"Mother Teresa did 10 times more for the poor, but it's hard to identify with her because we don't know anything about her personal struggles," said Rosenblatt, a Washington-based psychotherapist and teacher. "You can emulate her but you can't identify with her. With Diana, you can identify with her because you know about her personal struggles.

"That's the greatness of our Bible — that the people we study in it are not like Mother Teresa. They're not saints."

Rosenblatt, who has been leading weekly Bible classes with senators for about 15 years, will be the keynote speaker Thursday, Sept. 25 at the United Jewish Appeal Western Regional Lion of Judah event at San Francisco's Westin St. Francis Hotel.

The Bible is timeless, Rosenblatt believes, not only because it provides great stories but also because it offers lessons.

"Unlike works of literature or descriptions of celebrities' lives, the Bible also gives you a set of tools, a system of beliefs and values," Rosenblatt said during a phone interview from her Washington office. "It offers a code of behavior that will curb in the long run our worst instincts. And it gives expression to the highest ideals, the yearning for compassion, for learning, for justice."

Rosenblatt, who was born in Haifa, in pre-state Palestine, has been intrigued with the Bible since she was a 6-year-old schoolgirl. At age 15 , she met her future husband, Peter Rosenblatt, now a Washington attorney. After serving in the Israeli navy, she married him and immigrated to the United States.

Her weekly Bible classes for senators had their genesis in a long-term friendship between her husband and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who were together at Yale Law School. At that time, Rosenblatt and Specter's wife were students at what was then New Haven State Teachers College.

"When Arlen Specter was elected to the Senate, the four of us had dinner together. I was commenting that there were so many Bible classes on the Hill, but I was upset that nobody was teaching the Hebrew Bible and interpreting it. I felt that the way we Jews study and interpret the Bible was not being represented…He said to me, `I'll provide the senators. You do the teaching.'"

The group, which consists of Jews and Christians, Republicans and Democrats, meets in Specter's office. "Sometimes it's two; sometimes it's 10. Sometimes there's a vote and they rush out in the middle. You sort of have to keep a sense of humor."

On the other hand, the "session itself is extremely serious because the senators go through struggles on what to vote for, how to vote, the use and abuse of power, spirituality in life, how to protect private life from the intrusion of public life."

Rosenblatt said her group was "one of the best-kept secrets in Washington" until 1995, when her book, "Wrestling with Angels," was published. Her analysis of Genesis examines how the patriarchs and matriarchs offer role models for dealing with contemporary dilemmas.

While discussing sibling rivalry among Joseph and his brothers with the senators, Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) began "talking about the civil war and the terrible price that took, which is ultimately the pain and anguish and hostility among brothers. He related it to his own history.

"Everybody was respectful," she said. But some "wondered whether he was talking about history or remembering it."

Organizing the class as a series of seminars, Rosenblatt begins with Genesis and goes through the entire Bible. Among her favorite stories are those about the kings Saul, David and Solomon.

"One of the reasons I love David the king — I'm smitten with him — is that he's a man with tremendous weaknesses, but he also had many strengths.

"Self-restraint and self-discipline," she said, are qualities "that I, living in Washington, have learned to admire greatly. We talk about that in the seminar. We talk about that a lot."

She has also compared former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's diplomatic forays with Moses' trips back and forth to Pharaoh, launching discussions on the art of negotiation.

In teaching the class, "I let my Bible guide me. I stick to the biblical text and from there they can bring up any issue that they please."

Turning to rising hostilities between liberal and ultra-religious Jews in Israel, Rosenblatt returns to Genesis and the stories of sibling rivalry, "one of our curses in history."

She envisions the High Holy Days as "an opportunity for making resolutions and healing disunity…for emphasizing the common denominator that unites us rather than dwelling on the differences.

"We have to live like a family where every member keeps his or her uniqueness but in the end acknowledges that what unites them is more important than what separates them."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].