Thursday, 05 Oct 2023

Written by Rafe Thurstance

Not so long ago, a relative of mine informed me that they believed that the study of Torah was a pursuit for “lunatics”, those with a particular “weakness for authoritarian dogma”, and those who, unlike themselves, “have a delusional proclivity for belief in fairy tales” – what this says they think of me I am yet to fully establish, but I can say with full conviction that I believe them to be nothing short of categorically wrong.

The study of Torah isn’t as clear cut as one might think. For the large majority of the Jewish people, studying, or perhaps even just learning, Torah means reading it in easily digestible chunks every Shabbat in their synagogues in a never-ending yearly cycle that was ended and restarted with the festival of Simchat Torah. Of course, for a huge part of our history, this was the exclusive privilege, and expectation, of male Jews. This has thankfully changed, because as we progress through time, and reconsider our Judaism and our relationship to our traditions, so too do the ways in which we engage with those traditions.

The word Torah itself means many things, and in the most simple definition, Torah is the first five books of the Bible. For the Jewish people, however, Torah has always meant something a little bit more than that. The de facto text of the Torah that we preserve in our scrolls comes hand in hand with an abundance of commentary, questions, additions, and traditions which we know as the Oral Torah and can be found in the corpus of rabbinic literature – the Midrash, the Talmud, and continually growing corpus of modern commentaries and challenges from a variety of positions across the Jewish (and non-Jewish) world.

Biblical Torah is rarely read by Jews in a fundamentalist way because, as Clive Lawton says “the act of reading involves the act of study. Every text of Torah is an invitation to wonder and argument. Torah is never simply obvious. […] The Jewish approach has always been, “If that’s what it says, then what does it mean?” Each reading demands an explanation.”

So in a partial answer to my challenging relative, I study Torah because that means to explore, confront, interrogate, and dialogue with the voices of our past, present and future. Studying Torah means to recognise your own intellectual ability and limitations, and to stand on the shoulders of giants and look out towards where we want to be.

 Clive Lawton, who founded Limmud, once wrote that “it is not as a result of genetics that Jews have regularly shown themselves to be successful scholars. It’s nurture, not nature. The tradition of Torah study has built up a tradition of questioning and clarifying which is simply an incomparably rich skill to cultivate.”

This weekend we will celebrate the festival of Simchat Torah. This festival is not mentioned in the biblical Torah, or in the Talmud, and unlike Purim and Hanukkah was not established as a religious holiday by decree of any religious authorities. Curiously, the festival does not commemorate any historical event (real or imagined), or mark an agricultural event that was later imbued with spiritual and historical meaning. Simchat Torah grew slowly over time from purely grassroots origins.

Those origins can be found in Babylon towards the end of the Amoraic period around the fifth and sixth centuries. The Babylonian custom of reading Torah (which is now relatively universal) was to divide it into fifty-four portions to be read more or less weekly throughout the year. It had long been a custom in Babylon to celebrate coming to the end of a particular section of study, order of the Mishnah, or tractate of the Talmud (see bShabbat 118b), and so it seems that this practise grew into similarly making a celebration when all fifty-four portions had been read.

By the time Simchat Torah had become widely established as a festival in the Jewish world, it was a Jewish world that was mourning having lost everything it had held dear: their land, their independence, and the Temple along with everything that came along with it. The rabbis envisaged a loss of everything that the Jewish people had once been able to see as a source of joy, and in a traditional Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur we get a real sense of that anguish when we read “ein shiur rak HaTorah hazot” – nothing remains but this Torah.

And it is that book, and arguing with it, that has since brought so much joy to thousands of Jews over at least a couple of thousand years. The first book of Torah, Genesis, is a wonderfully complicated portrayal of human relations and (almost) everything you might wish to know about family dynamics can be teased out of the stories therein, as well as deep questions about our human responsibilities to each other and our environment.

The other four books or the Torah contain clear guidelines on one way in which we might organise a society: the laws of inheritance, damages, property, how to wage war properly, and how to treat the stranger. Moreover we find a talking donkey, messengers of God wrestling with a man on a beach, God being challenged directly by the five daughters of Zelophehad and a tacit dare to consider what miracles are (if they even exist) and how they work in the world.

Biblical Torah has given rise to so much other Torah, and has been the life source of essentially our entire peoplehood and tradition that the question of why we study it answers itself. Simchat Torah may have started as a celebration of reaching the end of a reading cycle, but it is so much more than that; it is the celebration of everything that Torah is and has birthed. We owe it to ourselves, our tradition, and those that come after us to rejoice in that!


Rafe Thurstance LBC rabbinic student


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.