Friday, October 1, 2010

Holiday offers good excuse to celebrate

Yep, it’s Friday again; time for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Members of the tribe will be celebrating today. Here’s why.

It’s time to do a little dancing with the Torah. Simchat Torah is being celebrated today by Jews around the world, the observant finishing up the last chapter of the Five Books of Moses before immediately turning back to the opening chapter of Genesis to begin the annual process all over again.

On this day the quiet solemnity of the synagogue takes on a different vibe, filled with members literally dancing and singing in a joyous celebration that can last for hours. Across the sanctuary, Sefer Torahs are opened and read while everyone present – men, women and children – are honored with aliyot, praising God for giving the Jewish people the Torah.

What the holiday really means depends on your faith. Among the celebrants are Jews who believe the Torah was written by the finger of God, its stories the literal truth and the 613 laws detailed in the Chumash divinely ordained. At the other end of the spectrum are Jews who wouldn’t know the difference between a Torah scroll and a Toro lawnmower.

A decade or so ago I took part in a popular Jewish studies program that explores Jewish history, ethics, rituals and traditions. The two-year course is Torah based and students come from a wide-range of backgrounds and beliefs.

During one particular session on ethics that was digging into some esoteric concepts of purity, a fellow student blurted out what seemed to be his honest worldview – all of this religious stuff is absolute nonsense and stupid. What he actually said, I recall, was a bit more profane than the watered down version I offer here.

Truth to tell, I was stunned, not so much because he didn’t believe in the literal truth of the Torah, but that he seemed certain there was nothing of worth to be found in the ancient text. After his short tirade, there was silence, an awkward vacuum that was waiting patiently to be filled.

For whatever reason, I spoke up and agreed that there was much in the Torah that made absolutely no sense at all. But then I said to label it all “stupid” was a pretty stupid thing to say. Toss aside any cosmic beliefs in the divine and you still have a text that is filled with moral concepts and beliefs that can be found at the core of what most of us consider civilized behavior. Ignore all that and there still remains profound parables that are both literate and filled with meaning, and achingly beautiful lines of poetry that have become part of Western culture.

I paused then, trying to recall one or two lines from the Torah to make my point, and for some bizarre reason the first bit of text that popped into my mind was Adam’s joyful declaration on learning God had created a companion for him: This is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. This shall be called Woman, for from man was she taken.

I imagine there were many in the room, including the guy I was lecturing, who thought I’d picked an absolutely “stupid” bit of text that illustrated his point perfectly – the Torah is filled with misogynistic fairy tales that are meaningless, from a time when “might made right”.

I would argue that if you study the Torah openly, understand the context, and push aside the ebb and flow of contemporary politics, mores and beliefs, the essential truth of the statement remains just as valid today as when it was written thousands of years ago.

Adam, we learn, is thrilled to have a companion. The lesson is that humans are not meant to live alone. All the rest is, um, commentary. It’s also poetry. I imagine if the same line was written today, it would read something like: G-man, OMG! This is 2G2BT. THNX dude!

So today I celebrate with the millions of Jews around the world who find meaning in the words of the Torah, connection to an ancient people and belief. I also celebrate my distant ancestors, poets who knew how to work and play with words. TFLMS!

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