It was some 30 years ago that President Reagan signed into law and established a new federal holiday: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to be observed on his birthday. It took a couple years after the passage of the law for it to be first observed and it was only commemorated in all 50 states for the first time in 2000. Every year during this time I try and reflect on the ever evolving nature of social justice and our country. One of the highlights of my previous work at Harvard was the annual event put together by the Harvard Chaplains on this weekend exploring a different theme of Dr. King’s with modern day applications through lecture, poetry and music.
This year I began to re-read Dr. King’s address to the congregation at Temple Israel in Los Angeles in 1965. Three years before he was assassinated he spoke powerfully that evening in California filling the Sanctuary with his prophetic and powerful voice for justice. One paragraph struck me deeply this year:
“We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. And what affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” And he goes on toward the end to say, ‘Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never sin to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’”
It seems to me that we are witnessing a breakdown in the shared space of society in our current time. The shared public square where divergent views come and meet; where people of differing social backgrounds, educations and religious, ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds gather seems to be disappearing. We live in our own individual silos. It is possible that the only interaction an upper middle-class individual and a poorer individual might have is within the context of waiter/busboy/barista/bus driver and customer.
When we fail to know one another in society we experience a lack of empathy and care. If I can put all the people who are different than me in boxes made by my own lack of personal experience, stereotypes and judgments than I don’t have to worry about their welfare or well being. In the same speech Dr. King also declared the truth that: “A great nation is a compassionate nation.” Compassion grows from an active and dynamic shared society and the empathy, care and concern that it generates.
How do we rebuild a shared society? How do we exit our individual silos and begin to build together? It takes small steps and small victories. It takes getting to know the people who serve you and the people you serve. It takes inhabiting the public spaces of a city together. It takes putting down the smartphone or tablet and not being afraid or feeling it awkward to encounter the person sitting next to you on the bus or subway.
In these ways and in so many other myriad of ways we will cause to flourish yet again the diverse shared society that is one of the keys that made this country so great. During this weekend let us commit ourselves to that important task.
Tu Bishvat, which begins tonight, is the fourth new year of the Jewish calendar. Beginning as a tax holiday for counting the age of trees in order to know when one could begin to use their fruit, the holiday has come to be a sort of Jewish version of earth day, as well as a celebration of the shivat haminim – the seven famous products of Israel and our connection to the land of Israel.
Although Jews lost many of our agricultural leanings after going into exile, trees are something that anyone can relate to, and many commentators have noted a connection between trees and human beings, and supported this connection with a verse from Deuteronomy.
The original verse is one which is part of Jewish rules of war, asking rhetorically, “When you besiege a city a long time, making war against it to take it, you shalt not destroy the trees by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them, but you shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged?” (Dvarim 20:19)
Our rabbis took the verse not as a question, though, but as a statement: Humans are a tree of the field.
At this time of year, most trees (at least those in temperate climates) are bare. No one can tell if that tree will bear anything valuable or not – it is only the beginning of the year, and we will have to wait and see – will the sap rise in this tree? Will it flower? Will most of the branches live? Will the flower fruit, or will the blossoms fall unfertilized? Even if there is fruit, will it ripen, will animals eat it, will they rot on the tree?
There is no way to know yet. Similarly, with humans: we may be wise or foolish, righteous or wicked – until the sap rises, there’s no way to know. It is even true to a certain extent that how we grow is strongly influenced by our surroundings – is there a drought for learning, that leaves us ignorant of our own traditions? Are we forced to drink water which is muddy, or do we grow by a clear stream? Is there enough sun for us, or do we grow in the shade – and very importantly, is there someone to care for us, to make sure we grow straight?
But unlike trees, we also have some say over how we turn out. We may be trees of the field, but ultimately, we can choose to go where there is sun and water, to grow straight or be bent, to produce fruit, or to be a dry stick
By now it seems that the entire Jewish world is abuzz about Thanksgivukkah, the once in a lifetime convergence of Hanukkah (choose your spelling) and Thanksgiving. There are stories on NPR and The New York Times, sweet potato latke recipes everywhere you look, and even a kickstarter campaign by a fourth grader to design a “menurky” that raised $48,000. Perhaps the height of absurdity is that Thanksgivukkah even has its own Twitter account.
Why all the fuss?
Let’s be clear: the convergence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving is a big deal for Jews, but not so much for American society. Frankly, most non-Jewish Americans I have spoken with are mildly amused and politely supportive, but hardly excited about the overlap of the two holidays. For Jews, though, it is as if this year is Hanukkah’s debutante ball—a coming out party for the holiday to symbolize it finally warranting conversation within—if not wholesale merger with—American culture. I can’t help but wonder whether, for fairly secular Jews, the excitement stems from the fact that Hanukkah, for the first time in as long as I can remember, will not culturally serve as the ugly step-sister of the melodious, ornately decorated, and wholly secularized Christmas. It is being viewed as an equal, as the name Thanksgivukkah itself suggests.
But I would like to suggest a more constructive role for Thanksgivukkah. While some are bemoaning the merger of these two holidays, I think there are at least two reasons why both Jewish and non-Jewish Americans alike benefit from the convergence of the two. First, as my colleague Laura Duhan Kaplan eloquently wrote, Thanksgivukkah provides a wonderful opportunity for re-telling, and therefore revitalizing, the Hanukkah story. This is entirely in keeping with Jewish tradition, where Hanukkah has been retold, and reinterpreted, many times throughout our history (after all, the miracle of the oil lasting eight days doesn’t even appear in the two Books of the Maccabbees, but only “surfaces” centuries later in the Talmud).
Second, I think Thanksgivukkah has potential to be instructive and wisdom-creating for Jews and non-Jews. Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday for gratitude. It is, as its name connotes, a day for giving thanks for the bounty we enjoy in our lives. Gratitude, of course, is an important part of Judaism, as it is in all religions. It is the ethical posture with which we begin each day when reciting the prayer Modeh Ani. A famous Jewish saying, from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 4:1 posits:
Who is rich? One who appreciates what one has.” We are encouraged in the Talmud to recite 100 blessings each day (BT Menachot 42b) as a means of reflecting upon our good fortune and expressing gratitude.
But Hanukkah is not primarily about gratitude. It is about (re-)dedication. Gratitude is (at least within Judaism) inherently passive, a mental process of reflection and appreciation, of self-cultivation. Dedication is about taking action, about embodying values, about doing what is necessary to enable a life of sacred meaning. The original purpose of celebrating Hanukkah (outside of the sordid political machinations of the Hasmoneans that, frankly, would make the Borgias dynasty blush) was to enable the Judeans to celebrate the fall harvest of Sukkot which they hadn’t previously been able to due to the profane state of the Temple under Seleucid rule. That is what the “dedication” was all about, and also why Hanukkah and Sukkot are both 8 days long. This lesson of dedication, of action in pursuit of the holy and the good, is one which all of American society would do well to receive. Especially in Washington, we do a great job of talking ad nauseum, but we seem incapable of even the most common-sense action.
Of course, action in pursuit of the holy, unmediated by gratitude, can lead to the zealotry that ultimately destroyed Judea and is currently causing unspeakable tragedy throughout the Middle East. But gratitude unmediated by dedicated action equals mere platitude; it is a Hallmark card that is politely read and then thrown away. The duality of gratitude and dedication is what makes Thanksgivukkah a truly special holiday. So let’s take advantage of Thanksgivukkah this year and spread the message of why we, as Americans, need both gratitude and dedication if we want to prosper as a society. After all, it is going to be another 70,000 years before we have another opportunity to do so!
The confluence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah seems to have brought more than the usual rush of madness to Hanukkah, which has become a major holiday in the USA by virtue of its usual proximity to Christmas. Although most of the Thanksgivukkah posts have been at least a bit tongue-in-cheek (other than the ones with recipes, which all look either terrifyingly heavy, or not particularly appetizing), one article I saw recently castigated the Thanksgivukkah celebrants, pointing out that Thanksgiving was not, and is not, a celebration for Native Americans, who remember it a bit more as the beginning of the end of their cultures, a destruction of their peoples, and as the beginning of the theft of their land.
Dare I say it? It’s something for us to consider that people at the borders of cultures can see the very same thing quite differently—and here’s your dangerous aside: It’s legitimate for Native Americans to mourn this day, just as we celebrate it, and it is legitimate for Palestinians to observe their Nakba, or catastrophe, rather than Israeli independence—without it meaning unending hatred of either side for the other—only history that must be understood and moved forward from.
Native Americans and non-Native America have a quieter, but no less fraught relationship. Native Americans still suffer from poverty, and violence. They will never, though, have full sovereignty of their original lands, which makes sympathy easier—at least in part because we have no expectation that we will ever have to give up anything. But there was a time when Native Americans were portrayed as dangerous savages, people who would rape or steal your women, scalp you in your sleep, or any number of other stereotypes—and everyone knew these things as truths.
Today, there are still plenty of places where stereotypes of Native Americans continue—not the least of which is the noble tribal elder, or primitive wisdom hawker, no less than the shiftless alcoholic, and there are places and people who know these to be “truths,” as well.
In the Middle East, our “truths” are just as hard, our stereotypes just as firm, and we are just as distant from seeing one another as people. But we also should have hope. Perhaps someday, Thanksgiving will come to be a symbol of overcoming years of prejudice and wrongs. and perhaps someday, there will be a day that Palestinians and Israelis, too, can celebrate together, remembering a time when we were enemies, but were able to make peace, and eventually became neighbors, and who knows—maybe even allies.
We are in a moment now, when that could begin to happen—if. If we are willing to step out of the stories that we know to be true, and take a breath for a moment instead of repeating the histories that are our own perspective. Not because they are wrong, but because at this time, in this moment, they are not helpful. They will be, someday, something we can talk about together, but when we come together to discuss how to make peace, they turn into a whose-victimhood-is-more-important contest. If we stop insisting on the stories that we usually tell ourselves, and instead look toward the future we could build, then it could be no dream.
We can’t be Pollyannas about it—it does mean that we—both—will have to give things up. Not least of which is the idea that the Palestinians have given nothing up. Not least of which is the idea that all descendants of the Palestinians will be able to return. But it will be worth it, because the foundation of the world is built on peace, truth, and justice, as Pirke Avot reminds us, and it is in our hands to make those foundations firmer.
Below, Rabbi Alana Suskin explains why her family doesn’t trick-or-treat. To hear from another Jewish mom with a different perspective, check out: “Why I Let My Jewish Kids Trick or Treat”
I feel fairly ambivalent about Halloween. On the positive side: although winter in the DC metro area is an exercise in perfect misery of cold and drippy wet, the end of October is still decidedly fall and can still often be quite nice: not yet rainy, not terribly cold, sometimes there are still bright leaves on the trees. So there’s the mid-autumn thing.
There’s also the neighborhoodliness of all the folks putting on a show for the kids, an opportunity for people to meet and interact with their neighbors, which these days can be a rare exercise.
There’s also a few pagan friends I have who look forward to their religious observance of Samhain (the pre-Christian, Celtic name for the holiday upon which the roman church based All Hallows’ Eve when it couldn’t rid the local populations of their age old observances). I’m pleased for them.
But most of all, with the more recent innovation of making a big deal out of what was a relatively small deal when I was little, I am Thrilled. To. Happiness. about the post Halloween sales of orange fairy lights and other useful sukkah items for the year to follow. (Yay!)
All that said, I don’t trick or treat, and neither does my child. And because we’ve talked about it, and he understands “we don’t observe that holiday,” at least at this point (he’s nine) he doesn’t seem to mind, even though he does have friends—even Jewish friends—who do.
Right now, what we do is help other kids celebrate their holiday by giving out candy (and if he eats a few Snickers bars, that’s fine, although he was sad when I explained to him that even though there are actually no authenticated cases of non-family members harming children with Halloween snacks, we can’t make candy apples or other treats to give out because people are afraid that someone might hurt their kids by giving them something harmful) and if he wants to dress up for them in a costume, he can do that even though our dress up holiday is Purim.
We have also talked about whether the values of Halloween are Jewish values: whether demanding gifts from others is a Jewish value (we didn’t get into the under threat of “trick” part), and we talked about how Judaism views death and dead bodies, and whether displaying “funny” skeletons and ghosts is in line with Jewish tradition, which views the human body, even after death, as holy, which is why Judaism forbids displaying corpses, even those of criminals after execution, and why it is considered a very holy mitzvah (obligation, and good deed) to be part of a chevreh kadishah l’metim (holy society for the care of the dead) in which one takes care, gently and with reverence for the soul which inhabited it, of the recently deceased corpse.
Which is why, when one is sitting with the body after death, making sure it is never left alone, one does not say certain prayers in the same room as the deceased’s body, lest the soul feel mocked because it cannot engage in that mitzvah anymore.
And it is also why, when it was in town, we did not go see the museum exhibit in which the corpses of people who had been preserved were posed in all sorts of positions for display of their inner workings. We talked about how, although Jewish tradition believes that the soul separates from the body after death, the body is a gift to us from God, and is an important part of us, to be treated with respect during life as well as after death, which is why we do not tattoo it, or mutilate it for any reason other than medical necessity, or throw it away until we have fulfilled the missions that God assigned us and then we are taken from it.
For us, the whistling In the dark of Halloween in making light of skeletons and ghosts and displaying them is not in line with the love we should have for those who passed from this earth before us, and whose love sustains us—and are not a threat to us—even after they are gone.
Finally, I find myself enormously disturbed by the sexualization both of little girls in their purchased costumes, but also in the adult celebrations in urban gathering areas (etc). While I firmly hold that the value of tzniut (modesty) is far more about respectful speech, humility, non-conspicuous consumption both in dress and in possessions, and deportment in general, the overemphasis on sexuality for women, let alone little girls, is not a value I share or wish to.
Which is why, since so few people know or observe the pagan, or even Christian origins of the day, it could be reasonably considered an “American” holiday, (Thanksgiving’s origins, on the other hand, are decidedly American, but its themes are religious in a way that is perfectly in line with Jewish values), we nevertheless do not celebrate Halloween.
One of my beliefs about Judaism is that as Jews we live and can model countercultural values, and it seems to me that, at least in my own home, Halloween is a time when we can model our difference—in a very quiet way.
I don’t, of course, go around harshing everyone’s mellow—I don’t criticize those who find a bit of harmless fun in it, I don’t even suggest that those Jews who enjoy it ought to refrain and I certainly don’t have anything against cupcakes, chocolate, or little kids spending an evening outside int he dark. But it is an terrific opportunity to have a discussion with your family about Jewish values, about how we view death and life, sexuality (for older kids), and the difference between Purim’s dress up where we are obligated to give food to others, and Halloween’s where we demand it from others.
Hoshana Rabbah is kind of a weird day – even for the Jewish calendar. It’s not really a holiday – it’s the last day of Sukkot- but it has some peculiar rituals associated with it that we don’t do for the rest of Sukkot. We have an all-night tikkun (study-session), like Shavuot. It’s named for the fact that we say more hoshanot than on all the other days of Sukkot. Its main, distinctive feature is the beating of the aravot – the willows that are stuck into the arba minim — that leafy thing-lemon wanna-be combo- that we hold and shake throughout the week -but we don’t say a brachah (blessing) on doing so.
There have been lots of proposed explanations of why we beat the aravot – some of which are quite lovely, and I hope that people will look them up and get a great deal of meaning from them. One of the most likely explanations, though, is rather prosaic: My teacher, Rabbi Brad Artson, writes elsewhere on MJL, that the mishnah explains that the destruction of the aravot is actually because, since the festival is ending, we render the aravot unfit to use, as a signal of the end of the holiday. He notes that the beating takes place after the willows are no longer needed, and in fact are destroyed immediately following their last use; that we do so without any blessing; and that the mishnah, following the discussion of the ritual destruction of the willows, then tells about children loosening the lulavs and eating the etrogs – in other words, rending them unfit as well. He then notes, “The Shulhan Arukh [a code of Jewish law] supports this supposition when it notes that we are not to beat off all the leaves on the branch, only a few. Hence the havatah only includes beating the aravah once or twice. The purpose pf the ritual is not complete destruction, only preventing its further use. In this regard, the Shulhan Arukh’s understanding of havatat aravot parallels the removal of one tzitzit [fringes] from a tallit [prayer shawl] that then becomes pasul [ritually unfit].”
What I found interesting here is the analogy to the clipping of the corner of the tallit, which is also done when someone dies, in order that they can be buried in a tallit, because one doesn’t bury the tzitzit (fringes) if they are still ritually fit to use. What many people don’t know is that hoshana rabbah is the actual ending of the cycle of repentance, of the Yamim Noraim.
The mystical text, the Zohar, says that while the judgment for the new year is sealed on Yom Kippur, it is not delivered until the end of Sukkot (i.e., Hoshana Rabbah, which we noted above, is the end of Sukkot). So until Hoshana Rabbah, it is still possible to change your behavior, seek forgiveness through teshuvah, and have the decree set for each of us changed (That’s why the special greeting for Hoshana Rabbah is different than the rest of the holidays: pitka tova ”A good note,” which is a wish that your final decree for the year will be a good one).
Since Sukkot is when the world is judged for water and the blessings of agriculture, together with this notion of a final moment of verdict makes Hoshana Rabbah a bit like Yom Kippur, a day on which we wear white, cease to eat and drink and engage in physical, human activities, mimicking death. So, perhaps, when we beat the aravah – but only to the extent of rendering them unfit for ritual use (after all, we have ritual items for many holidays that we don’t destroy at the end of the holiday), perhaps this, in a small way, mimics our burial, and offers to God the final means by which we are able to be forgiven for our sins: through our deaths. And of course, willow leaves look like teardrops.
And now, when we celebrate Shemini Atzeret – our joyful, intimate, gathering with God, and we return the Torah back to its beginning, before anything has happened or gone awry, we too, are able to be completely new, in love and wholeness with God.
Back in biblical times, Israelites would come to the great Temple three times a year, in the fall, and at the beginning and end of spring, corresponding to the festivals of Sukkot (now upon us), Passover, and Shavuot. The commandment was to “appear at God’s appointed place and celebrate – three times a year.” (Ex. 23:17).
What if that is enough? I have said from the pulpit on Yom Kippur that “if you are here today as your once a year, please go home and come back on Sukkot.” I meant it then, and still do. If your once a year is this heavy, often guilt laden burden, that is a tough nut to crack. Come back on Sukkot, better, come at the end of Sukkot, for Simchat Torah – there is dancing, and if you’re into it, drinking too. Plus, there is nature, and guests, and food. Yom Kippur has fasting.
Of course, we are the not the people of the Bible, the “People of the Book.” Rather, we are “the People of the Rabbinic Interpretation of the Book.” The rabbis who brought us our Judaism emphasized daily practice just as much as milestone moments designed after these pilgrimage holidays. To be sure, there is great power in the everyday.There is structure and meaning in taking note of the miraculously ordinary. Nonetheless, there is obviously great power in the extra-ordinary.
Imagine going to see your favorite musician or band. The last great concert I went to was a Soundgarden concert. When the boys cut their guitar chords and let the reverb ride out for a full 5 min. it was, fairly literally, a religious experience. Would it feel the same if I went to hear them every week? Every day? Three times a day?
By analogy I am suggesting that rabbis and religious leaders need to distinguish the purpose of religious experiences. Some moments are for the well initiated, the regulars, the ones who feel comfortable in the service, any service. These people often enough have a sense of the divine in what others might perceive as ordinary (sitting, standing, reading). When some people try and connect this way and fail, they come away with a sense of “I guess I don’t read meaningfully enough, or sit powerfully enough, or I don’t sway with book in hand well enough.”
But there are other moments, ecstatic moments, that are created with music, with dance, with a good old-fashioned “happening” that draw on the power of the crowd, on swaying together, eating together, and just being together that is transformative. For many Jews who connect deeper in this manner, I am wondering out loud: Maybe three times a year is enough?
I recently met a woman who I really liked. We have a lot in common, being professionally accomplished Jewish women of roughly the same age, with grown kids in their twenties, and an intense interest in progressive politics and making our contributions to repairing the world. She’s raised a Jewish family infused with traditions and conversations about Jewish values. She has a strong Jewish educational background, and speaks Hebrew, as does her husband.
And we are both marginally affiliated Jews. I hold memberships in two communities in Israel; one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv, but not one near my home in New Jersey. She belongs to a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood that she doesn’t attend, but continues to support out of a sense of history and loyalty. We talked about where we would attend High Holiday services and she said, “anywhere but in the sanctuary of my shul,” (shuttering, as if that would be an ordeal.) I told her that my husband and I would be attending an experimental holiday “prayer event” with “Lab/Shul,” in New York City. We were looking forward to a spiritually rich, musical and interactive experience. She told me about a California rabbi who she finds very inspiring, whose services are live-streamed on the internet. After Rosh Hashanah we shared our thrill for having had wonderful holiday experiences.
That week I met another very interesting women, also close to my age, professionally accomplished, with young adult kids. She, like me, is studying at a graduate school of Jewish studies, to see where it leads. We talked about our holidays, and she told me that she was still seeking, having left the Reconstructionist synagogue in her New Jersey neighborhood (where she had once been very involved), not because she didn’t like it, but because the expense of dues didn’t make sense to her family after the kids left the nest. Like us, she and her husband planned to spend the holidays in New York City (away from home in New Jersey), to access “hip” alternatives. We talked about where to find the best Israeli food in Manhattan, because she, like me, spends a lot of time visiting Israel.
Then I met another woman in my age cohort at a business meeting in Manhattan, another professionally accomplished woman from the NY Metropolitan area, and her story was much the same. She was anxious to tell me that she had been very involved at her neighborhood synagogue for a long time, serving on the board and actively contributing. But she left there after a political shake up between the board and the clergy, which she found very distasteful. So she and her family found a really “cool” rabbi who was doing High Holiday services in a rented storefront. She talked about how it was informal, engaging, and deeply spiritual. She is also seeking a meaningful Jewish path, feeling alienated from her Reform community, which she feels is too much about politics and not about spirituality. She went on to tell me about the non-profit organization that she and some friends founded in Israel and the amazing work that it is doing.
We are living in challenging times for synagogues in America. Most of my rabbinic colleagues are worried about declining membership, declining volunteer commitment, declining fundraising income. Some worry that the model of the American synagogue, created in the 20th century in a different reality, may be itself endangered. Others complain about losing members to “pop-up” congregations, storefront arrangements for holidays and Shabbat that offer cheap Jewish engagement, or Chabad. Pay as you go, or perhaps no commitment at all, rather than membership dues with a commitment.
I was there until recently too, scrambling to innovate in big and small ways in a small congregation. Now, from the outside looking in, I am driven to imagine in different ways. Synagogues need to ask challenging questions of themselves, reimagining their strategies for serving a more complex set of needs and demands. People will vote with their feet and their wallets for the kind of Jewish spiritual experiences they want – and are willing to pay for. My commitment for this year is to support and encourage new models, while seeking ways to add my own creative ideas and efforts. Perhaps, rather than fearing this change, we can all embrace the new world of possibilities that come with it.
The three women I profile here are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are noteworthy. A rabbi or a program or a community that can catch their attention and nourish their needs will earn their support. It is up to us to seize this time of change to build a better future for the Jewish people.
(Photo from Lab/Shul, Yom Kippur 2013, 5774)
My childhood memories of the festival of Simchat Torah center around a paper flag topped with a candy-apple and candy canes. I loved the joyous dancing and the candy was a real treat. Yet, I can’t remember anything of the ritual of the ending and beginning of the reading from the scroll and any prayers we recited long ago receded into the background.
After years of trying to hold onto all of ritual the elements – the evening prayers, the rituals of the ending and beginning, and the dancing and singing, I felt we needed a different focus. In keeping with other ritual innovations in my community in the last two years, I reimagined the experience. We started and ended with food – always appreciated! And with a room full of kids of all ages and adults, I led a brief guided meditation of evening prayers, sealed with a blessing, and closed in song. Then we got the music going and danced joyously. Moving all the chairs away for a full space, we took off. And as the energy flagged, we slowly switched into a different ritual mode – we unrolled an entire Torah scroll around the room, as silence fell and everyone cooperated in carefully and respectfully handling the scroll. The sense of awe was palpable.
I called two teens for the blessings, the honored roles of bridegrooms of Torah and new beginnings, followed by the briefest of readings from the ending and beginning of the scroll, and everyone was rapt in attention. Then the real fun began – “Stump the Rabbi” – a learning game envisioned by Jay, our spiritual life committee chair. I had suggested that we ask everyone to think of their favorite story or teaching in the Torah so we could find together them in the unrolled scroll. But Jay’s idea was that the community would ask me to find their favorite sections of the text within a 60 second time limit. They came ready and couldn’t wait for me to find their chosen quotes and stories. We lost track of time and I had to apologize that it was time to end when worried parents began to realize that it was time to get the kids home on that school-night. The kids weren’t the least bit interested in stopping. They were having too much fun.
I got stumped once – by a seventh grader who wanted me to read the story of Moses hitting the rock. I didn’t locate it fast enough – and he was delighted. But for all the stories that I did find and read, the joy of learning was just as strong. Everyone left with anticipation of next year’s Simchat Torah, and came back on Shabbat morning talking about the fun.
We didn’t have candy-apples or candy canes. But the pizza, apples and cookies were just fine. And the experience was a new generation’s joy – engaging, meaningful and memorable. How wonderful that it left us all waiting for more!
I don’t know how or when it happened. But somehow, in the not too distant past, the pinnacle of the Simchat Torah celebration moved from the Hakafot and Torah readings to a new, and visually-impressive, presentation — the unrolling of the Torah in its entirety.
More and more congregations have embraced it and I find it both perplexing and troubling.
Traditionally, the Torah is treated as if it is nearly alive. It is NOT alive, but we accord her a great deal of respect. We do not touch the parchment as the oils from our hands will rub away the ink and render it unusable. When we open the scroll for a reading, we open it not more than three columns in order to maintain some semblance of modesty. If we are moving the Torah from one location to another, we would not place her in the trunk. Rather, the scroll would ride inside the car. Nor would we leave the Torah in the car overnight. If a Torah is rendered unusable, we bury her. We stand when the Torah is removed from the ark (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 28:3). And, God-forbid, should the Torah should be dropped, the one who dropped her is required to fast. As are those who have witnessed the incident (Orach Chayim 3:3).
Unrolling a Torah in its entirety seems to defy our customary ways of handling the scroll.
What is troubling is that there are long-standing rituals associated with Simchat Torah. The Shulkhan Arukh, not to mention a number of Sages, provide clear instructions regarding the ways in which we read the scrolls on this festival. Why toss out the mandated practices only to replace them with something new?
Innovation can be a wonderful thing. It keeps stasis at bay. It seems to me, however, that unrolling the Torah is simply a gimmick to get folks interested in participating. When I read descriptions of this practice as “the highlight of the Simchat Torah experience,” I am saddened. Saddened that we have become so jaded that our traditions are perceived to be both uninspiring and antiquated. Saddened that we seek more thrilling, more “meaningful” rites. Perhaps that is what so compelling about Chabad. They are seen as delivering “the real thing” rather than re-branding it or re-imagining it. How is it, then that instead of seeming outdated, the ways in which they practice their Judaism are seen as “authentic”?
*this post appeared on RJ.org in 2010. The discussion that followed in the comments are worth a read.