Friday, February 24, 2012

Simchat Torah

When I started listening to Humanist podcasts, I thought it would only be fair to throw in a Jewish one, so I listen weekly to the JTS Weekly Torah Commentary. It was sort of a random decision: there it was on iTunes, so I subscribed. On the one hand, I like keeping up with the weekly parsha, and it's a convenient way to do so. On the other hand, Exodus is bogging things down a bit, which seems odd since Exodus is such a great story.

I was listening to the podcast yesterday on my way to work when I drifted off (we are in Exodus, have I mentioned?) and started thinking about why Torah is even important to me. I think it started because I had been reading about the riots in Afghanistan because of some Korans that were accidentally burned by American soldiers. People have died, and I thought, "These are books. You can print more." I wondered, then, how I would feel about people burning Torahs. And I'd be angry. I'd be viscerally angry, because the Torah means so much to me. So I can understand that much, but I hope I'd stop short of violence, because in the end, a Torah is an object. And if the people who burned them apologized and weren't trying to stop us from making more, then I'd have to get over it.

But that brought me to the question of my relationship to Torah. If I don't believe in God, then what's the big deal? And I remembered that when I spoke to the Humanist Rabbi, I was disturbed to find out that Humanistic Jews don't revere the Torah. But if I don't believe in God, why does that bother me?

And then, maybe because I was getting close to work, I started thinking about my conversation with David, which I blogged about before. David is a 63-year-old black undergraduate student at the University where we work, and he was telling me about his theory (he's a philosophy major) that the stories a community tells itself have a lot to do with the success of the community. He even pointed out that the stories don't have to be true.

When I put those two things together, it all started to make sense. To me, without Torah I'm not sure we're Jews. And I think David's theory is the reason. The Torah is our story, or at least the beginning of our story. So whether you believe that we are Jews because we obey certain laws or because God made a covenant with us or because we have a certain history and culture in common, the Torah is the root. At the very least, the Torah--the physical object--is a symbol of our cultural story. And I don't think we will benefit from dismissing our story.

The story has always been that we revere the Torah because it is the word of God. Because of that, we are to literally risk our lives to save a Torah. People have run into burning buildings to save Torahs. People buried them when the Nazis were coming and went back years later to resurrect the Torahs. We have one in our congregation that was purchased from a community that no longer exists--everyone was killed, but we have the Torah. Does owning that Torah bring us closer to God? Or does it help us remember the people who saved the Torah in the first place?

Maybe the reason that Jews have survived for so long despite the odds is that we have something bigger to believe in. And that something is not God: it's us.

My brother is not "of the faithful." He has nothing Jewish in his house, he married outside the faith, and although his wife was raised without religion, they have a Christmas tree and celebration every year. Still, he wants his children to celebrate Chanukah and attend a seder and eat chicken soup and fahnkuchen. Why?

I think the reason is that he wants his children to know their story. His story. No matter how involved he's become in the American story, the hipster story, and even the story from his wife's culture, he's still connected to the Jewish story and although he doesn't feel the need to connect his children to a Jewish community, he wants them to know the Jewish story.

So why would we throw out something so powerful?

For centuries, Jews have celebrated the Torah and used it as a symbol. We have literally danced with it, literally passed it from generation to generation, literally tasted sweetness from its parchment. Because the Torah is a symbol. By literally passing the scroll to a child at her bat mitzvah, a parent symbolically hands down all of our learning, the wisdom of generations: our story. Ours, not God's. If we don't believe in God, then we don't believe that God wrote the Torah. People wrote the Torah. Our ancestors wrote the Torah in order to set down a dramatized version of history along with all of our laws so that future generations would have that story to pass to our children. It's a story powerful enough to have sustained us for thousands of years and to spawn two other religions that have done a pretty good job of taking over the world. The greatest story ever told.

If we give that up, what are we?

1 comment:

  1. Hear hear!

    I read something a while ago, I have forgotten where now so I can't link it to you sorry, and it had an interesting analogy for the centrality of Torah. In true Jewish tradition, it is a story. I'll try and retell it as best I can remember.

    Once upon a time, a man gave his young son a scroll. He told the little boy "Carry this with you all the time. Keep it safe. Never let it go." The little boy took the scroll home, and wrapped it in a cloth to keep it safe. When he had a son, he passed it to him, with the same instruction. That son wrapped the scroll in another, thicker cloth. He passed it to his own son, with the same instruction. This time the son carved a wooden box to house the scroll. When he gave the scroll to his own son, he gave the same instruction. This son grew up, and made a basket in which to place the box containing the scroll. He gave this basket to his own son, with the same instruction. This continued throughout the generations. Each generation decorated the basket, until it was a magnificent work of art. Then one man came to pass it on to his own son. The boy asked "Why do I have to carry around this thing in the basket? The basket is so beautiful, but the thing in the basket makes it heavy. Can't I just take the basket?" The boy's grandfather overheard. Angry, he took the box from the basket. He took the scroll out of the box, and unwrapped the two layers of cloth. He handed the scroll to the boy and said "Wrap this in the first layer of cloth. Wrap it in the second layer of cloth. Place the scroll in the box. Place the box in the basket. Now tell me, what is the basket for?"

    Judaism without Torah is like an empty basket. You can carry around an empty basket if you want, but it's a bit pointless.