Let’s talk Torah. With the increase of Saturday morning services here at Temple Israel, and the approach of the sofer visit, I thought it appropriate in the next upcoming newsletters to discuss, in depth, some of the basics of the Torah service and Torah “etiquette” so that all feel informed and comfortable when the Torah makes its appearance.
Let’s begin with a brief history of the Torah service itself. Believe it or not, the Torah service is not mentioned at all in the Talmud. Rather, it is first mentioned in post-Talmudic tractates called “Soferim.” The entire Torah service is a re-enactment of Sinai, meant to show our great praise of God and acknowledgement of God’s dominion through the sharing of the law with the congregation. A fascinating aspect of the Soferim tractate is that it mentions the honor of “hagbah,” the lifting of the Torah so that it is “shown to men and women alike.” This speaks to even the ancient understanding of egalitarianism within Torah, that it is for all in attendance. In 21st century Reform Judaism, we continue this egalitarianism by welcoming both women and men to the bima to perform the blessings, to read Torah and haftarah, and to engage in other honors such as hagbah (mentioned above), galilah (the dressing of the Torah), and hakafah (carrying the Torah around to the congregation).
Since one of our main goals in Judaism is to help bring everyone closer to Torah, the latter honor of hakafah truly embodies the understanding of bringing Torah to each and every person. The hakafah is a time when everyone should feel a sense of joy and connection. As the Torah is taken around, congregants have the opportunity to reach out and “touch” the Torah. Traditionally, during this time, each congregant had an opportunity to hold and even kiss the Torah, giving everyone, and especially children, a sense of warmth and connection with a seemingly untouchable object. This contrasts with touching the actual scroll of the Torah, which is prohibited since the oils from our fingers can damage the delicate writing and parchment.
Interestingly enough, this prohibition has sometimes led to congregations “building a fence” around the Torah, suffering from what rabbis call “Torahphobia,” wherein congregants feel prohibited from touching any part of the Torah, including the outside of the scrolls, or even the Torah cover. This misunderstanding of what can and cannot be touched is the reason you usually see congregants using their tallit or their prayer books to touch the Torah, and then kissing those objects rather than the torah itself. It is, however, perfectly acceptable and, indeed, closer to tradition to physically embrace, touch, and kiss the Torah on its protective garments. In fact, during the last Shabbat service, my son, for the first time, reached out and put his hand on the Torah as it passed by. What an incredible and beautiful moment! Our son, recognizing the power and reverence in this sacred object, wanted to feel closer to it. Though Barrie offered him a corner of her tallis to use to touch the Torah, he wanted to use his bare hand. He didn’t want the tallis as a go-between.
There is much that we, as adult Jews, can learn from watching our young children experiencing Judaism. When they are still little, before they fully comprehend or have been exposed to minhag and halachah, they have the innocent wonder that I wish we as adults could tap into more. They feel their Judaism while, I think, many of us are busy performing our Judaism. This has never been more evident to me than in watching the, often well-meaning, rules and boundaries we have placed surrounding our Torah.
There is so much more I could say on this, but I will leave it for another newsletter. For now, I hope you can all see that the Torah is not untouchable, nor is it something to feel intimidated by. Rather, it is our livelihood, our story, and we should show it love and care both by respecting its delicate parts and by holding it, physically and spiritually, close to our hearts.