Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
Many of my most formative experiences and Jewish-identity-markers have had two things in common: they were highly competitive, and involved text study – but they didn’t necessarily involve reading the Torah.
When I swam in circles of teenaged sages, I often grappled with my embarrassment at being the only person in the room who hadn’t actually read the Torah. Now, I’ve come to realize that I can be a member of the People of the Book even if that Book still sits, well-intended but unattended, on my shelf. I am starting to accept that sometimes the parameters set out for us aren’t necessarily effective for each individual, particularly the expectation that, come Simchat Torah, I’ll not only be done reading with the community, but will be ready to start anew.
Every Simchat Torah, though, I do engage with Torah, in some sense. At least, I revise my goals and then watch my conviction dwindle:
I will at least read one weekly d’var from one of the Jewish list-serves I subscribe to.
I will let a children’s video about the parsha (the weekly Torah portion) play in the background while I work.
Okay, fine, I’ll at least know the name of the Torah portion each week, even if I don’t get around to reading it.
Perhaps part of my internal dilemma stems from a feeling that I’m missing out– not on the teachings and traditions (although that is certainly true, too), but rather that I have disregarded the point of disciplined Torah study for the sake of moral development. I tend to look at it with the same academic rigor as my schoolwork, as an academic commitment more than a moral obligation.
So why can’t I turn that into a benefit?
In the time it took me to read one of my undergrad psychology textbooks, I could have finished Genesis. The effort of my Honors thesis could have easily encompassed Exodus and Leviticus. Perhaps the energy spent salvaging those tanking group projects would have been better allocated to Numbers and Deuteronomy. Now that I have graduated, that doesn’t have to amount to guilt; rather I can redirect that academic discipline into my ethical advancement.
I struggle with the Torah, as every Jew should, but so far that struggle has not been productive. This Simchat Torah, however, I will not lie to myself. By approaching our history from a scholarly, rather than religious, angle, I am hoping to gain insight into the nuances of our heritage as it has evolved since the destruction of the Temple. From there, I can begin to extrapolate the morals which will help nourish my Jewish soul.
Better yet, I am setting a personal goal to not only do my own supplemental reading, but also to renew in our community an urgency for teaching literacy to all of our children, not just the Jews. I am sure that my own commitment to better Torah literacy will enrich the work I do in advocating for literacy in general.
Whether this will be our 70th reading of the Torah or our very first at any age, we have seen how a good story, a compelling parable, and the poetic nuance of ancient phrases can inspire debate, promote academic curiosity, and guide wandering hearts. There is value in reading religiously, and there is value in religiously reading.
This year, I hope to do more of both.
Chag Simchat Torah Sameach, y’all!
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Pronounced: PAR-sha or par-SHAH, Origin: Hebrew, portion, usually referring to the weekly Torah portion.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.