Today I celebrated Simchat Torah by putting the finishing touches on a journal article surveying some rabbinic thought on the creation narratives.
On my first visit to a secular humanistic Jewish congregation, the first thing I noticed was that there was no ark or Torah scroll. Oddly, considering my beliefs, this bothered me a little for about three minutes. Rather quickly I began to think about what the Torah actually said and then I reflected on the way that the scrolls themselves have been revered in traditional Judaism.
I thought of all the times that I led services and how, when we arrived at the Torah service, we made such a fuss about standing for it and parading it and kissing it. On reflection, I felt some resentment about growing up with this fetishization of a scroll. I soon learned that this humanistic congregation kept its Torah scroll in a place of honor in the library. It’s the perfect location for it.
One of my professors, the quite traditional Jakob J. Petuchowski, once described a scene that he claimed to have witnessed at Chicago Sinai Congregation, bastion of Classical Reform Judaism. He told us how the congregation would make an enormous fuss over the Torah service. It would go on for quite a while, until finally the rabbi would pull open the ark, take out the scroll, lift it high for all to see and announce, “This is your Torah, O Israel!”
Then he would put it back.
I wonder if he was just too embarrassed by its contents to engage in a ritual reading. That is certainly the case with the Yom Kippur afternoon reading in the Reform movement. They do not read the traditional portion, Leviticus 18:1-30, opting for the next chapter instead. Even there they read only verses 1-4, 9-18, and 32-37. (This is a pain in the tuchis when you’re trying to read from the scroll.)
The sacralization of the scroll and its contents is anathema to a modern understanding of morality. We can’t yield moral lessons from a text that favors misogyny, homophobia and the slaughter of innocent people. The Torah absolutely has intrinsic value as the foundational mythology of the Jewish people. That doesn’t mean I want to dance with it.