Taking Refuge in Sacred Texts
Most books that we read we never open again. A classic draws us to revisit it on occasion. Not so the Torah. As we finish reading it yearly in our synagogues, we immediately begin it afresh, without interruption. By the Middle Ages, a special festival had emerged to mark the completion of the cycle called Simhat Torah, which is little more than a doubling of Sh’mini Atzeret, the final day of the fall harvest festival season. As the name suggests, our “joy in the Torah” gives expression to the centrality of the sacred book in our lives. The seven-fold procession around the synagogues, with lulavim (bundles of palm, myrtle and willow branches) in hand, pleading for national redemption on Hoshana Rabbah (the last day of Sukkot), has been transmuted into a seven-fold procession of dancing and singing with Torah scrolls to thank God for the privilege of finishing yet another round of reading from beginning to end.
But, levity can be redolent with gravitas. Simhat Torah points to the momentous shift form sacred space to sacred book that Judaism negotiated after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 C.E. The void came to be filled by the synagogue, with Scripture serving as its oxygen. Words replaced sacrifices. While the public reading of the Torah became a vehicle of adult education, the Psalms provided the lions’ share of the liturgy. Emanating from the book, study and prayer soon shaped the character of the institution.
Unlike the Temple, the synagogue was portable, democratic and unencumbered by laws of purity. Jews could now erect places of worship wherever they might settle. Therein, they approached God in prayer on their own, without benefit of a priestly hierarchy. Only ignorance barred one from reading Torah or from leading services. Finally, adults were not excluded because they might be in a state of ritual impurity. Paradoxically, the early church, with its priestly intermediaries and purity regulations stood closer in spirit to the Jerusalem Temple than the synagogue.
Above all, the synagogue took refuge in the sanctity of the book par excellence, which harbored not only God’s word but God’s manifest presence. Before each public reading, the congregation acclaims: “You, who cleave to the Lord your God are alive this day.” In its liturgical context, this verse from Deuteronomy (4:4) identifies God and Torah as one, making Torah the very incarnation of God. Every Jew has access to and a share in God’s word and being, which is why the Torah is never read without asking a specified number of us to experience the act up-close by taking analiyah (ascent to the Torah). As the final parashah, Ve-Zot Ha-Berakhah , read on Simhat Torah, emphatically affirms, the Torah is the sacred heirloom of the entire people: “Moses commanded us the Torah as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob”(33:4). And it is this verse with which we are to send off our children as they begin their religious journey (BT Sukkah 42a). From earliest age, they are brought to appreciate that the life-sustaining wellspring of Judaism is a book which in time they will make their own.
In short, the Torah is an extension of God’s persona. There is no greater sacrilege in Judaism than the desecration of a Torah scroll. We rise in its presence, carry and kiss it like a child and bury it when worn and tattered as if it were human. Reading it is the central feature of the synagogue service and retaining the archaic format of a scroll over a codex heightens our sense of otherness and holiness. Among life’s most important and enduring tasks is to study its endlessly expansive contents. Thus the wraparound ritual of Simhat Torah comports expressively with this book-based value system. The absence of a caesura signifies our yearning to be ever in the shade of God’s protective presence.
Especially in dark times, Jews repeatedly took refuge in their books. From Yehudah Hanasi’sMishnah after the failure of the Bar Kokhba rebellion to Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah in the face of the fanaticism of the Almohades to Yosef Karo’s Shulhan Arukh after the expulsions from the Iberian peninsula to S. Ansky’s Destruction of Galicia in Yiddish after World War One to Emmanuel Rigelblum in the Warsaw ghetto, the people of the book met brutality with spiritual resistance. The response, in truth, failed to avert death for many of the victims, but it often left behind a testimony of inspiring consolation. By infusing their suffering with dignity and purpose they gave meaning to our untrammeled lives. I often think of my grandfather, a Jewish educator, of whom I have no memory, who in his last tormented months before his death in Theresienstadt transcended his appalling confines by reading. In extremis every book is sacred.
The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Simhat Torah 5764 are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.