Monday, September 23, 2013

On Not Dropping Torahs or Unrolling Them Around the Sanctuary: A Modest Dissent for Simchat Torah



            A recent Forward article about a Conservative temple in Asheville, NC, where not one, but two Sifray Torah (Torah Scrolls) were dropped during Kol Nidrei (All Vows) on Erev Yom Kippur has the Jewish blogosphere all a-twitter. The errant scrolls suddenly, tragically, rolled out of the Holy Ark during the recitation of the prayer—either through excess piety, the rotation of the planet, or, as some readers believed, an Ill Omen (the ever-present Kinehura, or Evil Eye, God, or G-d, forbid).
            Many Jews have “dropped Torah” stories. Mine took place in the summer of 1969, when I was a camp counselor at Camp Hatikvah, a short drive from Woodstock, NY, where the legendary rock concert came and went, unbeknownst to me. Hatikvah was nominally Orthodox, although most of the campers came from secular Jewish backgrounds. I was, then, Orthodox, and religious enough to appreciate the camp rabbi’s dictum that all counselors who attended Shabbat morning services had a break from being with their campers for a few hours. Shabbat Shalom-- Shabbat of Peace, indeed!
            Services were dull, being conducted by campers past the age of bar mitzvah; women had no leading role in their conduct; indeed, I do not remember seeing any there, since they would have had to sit behind a barrier. We boys conducted everything, with the rabbi as guide and arbiter of halachic matters.
            I do remember feeling concerned when the rabbi chose as Torah carrier a boy who, while bar mitzvah and therefore of age to carry the Torah, was known to one and all—except, perhaps, the rabbi—as a klutz, who often tripped over his own feet. This unfortunate managed to carry the Torah most of the way around our rustic social hall, but, just prior to returning the scroll to the Ark, tripped, falling with the Torah.
            We all simultaneously held our breath—I do not recall such a silence in shul, before or after that day—until the rabbi declared, “He didn’t drop it—he fell with it! We don’t have to fast!”
The rabbi’s precedent in this instance was, I later realized, less Jewish law and more baseball, that of the outfielder who catches the pop fly, rolls dramatically with the ball, and then holds his fielder’s glove boldly aloft to show he never dropped the leathern sphere, to the cheers and applause of the fans.
            I remember thinking, “Whoa—slick, Rabbi! That was some quick paskening (meaning, deciding a rabbinical question).” That was, perhaps, the day on which I gave some thought to, perhaps, becoming a rabbi, myself.
            The next time I heard of someone dropping a Torah was during lunch at a rabbi’s convention, at which a female colleague shared the story of her officiating at a service where someone did, indeed, drop a Torah. She quickly and brilliantly announced to the assembled multitude that, since either law or custom (custom, I believe) required that all the witnesses fast for thirty days (a sort of Jewish Ramadan), eating only at night, and that, since there were more than thirty worshipers present, each person should fast for one day.
            “Did they fast?” I asked.
            “I don’t know about the others,” she replied, “but I fasted my day,” and returned to complacently eating her kosher corned beef sandwich.
            With the advent of Simchat Torah, that Torah-centered holiday, I become aware of the current fad—excuse me, custom—of gathering congregations into the center of sanctuaries in Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and other liberal congregations, all over America, and, I imagine, abroad. The rabbi, cantor, and other worthies take one of the Torah scrolls and unwind it fully, surrounding the congregation within its parchment folds, to symbolize that We are One, that we comprise a whole and entire people, as long as we abide by its laws and teachings, and do not stray. The Torah has deep totemic meaning, in addition to its being the wellspring of our Jewish knowledge—though I always wonder, when the Torah is carried through the congregation, how many worshipers touch and kiss it for the wisdom it contains, and how many treat it as though it is a talisman to ward off evil, and how many do it for both reasons, myself included?
            What irks me about this “unwinding” custom is that I love and respect books, the older the better. I own, for example, an 18th Century copy of Parkhurst’s Lexicon of Hebrew and Chaldee (Aramaic) Words, which is very precious to me, since I did my graduate work in English Literature in 16th Century English Literature, focusing on exactly how much Hebrew the Protestant divines and poets (like John Milton) knew in those days; they were taught by Sephardic Jews who had converted to Anglican Christianity, thereby being deemed fit to instruct at Oxford and Cambridge, which began as church-based universities.
Unlike books, which have a history, a Torah is ageless and impossible to date, except by expert soferim, or scribes. It is written on the skin of a kosher animal, and sewn together with dried animal sinews and veins. The resultant scroll is not only sacred; it is also very fragile. Because of this, and because of its utter holiness, being written, according to Midrash, with “letters of black fire on parchment of white fire,” (Talmud Menachote 29a) we try to handle it as little as possible. When chanting from it on Shabbat and holy days, we strive to touch the parchment as little as possible, using a delicate touch of our tsitsit, or prayer-fringes, which we then kiss, to show our devotion to the very words of Scripture. The Ba’al Koray, or Torah Reader, uses a silver yad, or pointer, to show the place as they chant; another complaint of mine is the heavy-handed Reader who drags the silver pointer across the parchment while singing the words, scratching the delicate surface and scarring it forever. Being left-handed, I choose to rest my left elbow on the Torah roller, and position the yad above the letters, never touching the surface. I believe a right-handed person could do the same thing.
My objection to unrolling the Torah around the perimeter of the sanctuary or social hall, therefore, is that it reduces the Torah from Text to Object—a Sacred Object, perhaps, but an Object, nonetheless. We chant from it; we cherish it, touch and kiss it as it is carried around, garbed in velvet, satin, or wooden case. When it is nakedly and openly displayed for all to be enclosed in its folds, it loses that sense of distance, of otherworldliness.
This Simchat Torah, therefore, I wish all my brother and sister Jews happiness and spiritual fulfillment, but the Sifray Torah of which I am custodian will retain their spiritual and physical integrity. They will not be unrolled to encompass the entire congregation, though I respect and support my colleagues who do this. Only in my heart will I ever unroll the entire Torah; only in my heart. Chag Same’ach—Good Yuntef!