Friday, 09 Oct 2009

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

Simchat Torah is a relative newcomer on our holiday festival calendar. For obvious reasons, it is not mentioned in the Bible, as it depends on post-biblical developments: the canonization of the Torah and its division into sections to be read in the synagogue week after week and completed in one full year. It is also post-Talmudic. The name for the holiday is not attested before the 11th century, and some of its customs derive from the late medieval or early modern period. Yet perhaps precisely because this holiday developed freely over the centuries, without being restricted by any biblical prescription, it came to express ideas and values central to our Jewish outlook on life.

I refer specifically to two customs that developed in the Middle Ages pertaining to Scriptural readings that follow the end of Deuteronomy. First, the practice of adding the opening verses of Genesis to the Torah reading from the end of Deuteronomy, so that the cycle begins immediately, without waiting until the following Shabbat, and the joy of the holiday is not merely a result of the conclusion of a text, but also of a return to its beginning. And second, using the beginning of the Book of Joshua as the Haftarah, so that we continue the story of our people following the death of Moses. It is the combination of these two practices that reveal a characteristically Jewish attitude.

The return to the first verses of Genesis represents the power of our tradition rooted in the past. If every generation decided that it would accept nothing on faith, that it would discover everything for itself, there would be no civilisation. Imagine a world in which no doctor relied on the medical experience of the past but tried out every medication independently before prescribing it; where no musician ever listened to anything written by Bach, Beethoven, or Chopin, but decided to start from the scratch and work through all the problems on his own. Imagine our religious life if each time we came together for worship, we decided to create new original prayers and read passages from texts that had not been read before. Civilisation is based on the use of the discoveries and achievements of previous generations, as well as learning from their failures and mistakes, and this requires preserving what has come before, returning to the past in search of guidance for the present and future.

We exemplify this pattern by returning to Genesis at Simchat Torah. As soon as we finish the last words of Deuteronomy, we begin again, in order to ensure that what we have learned and accomplished will not be lost. Each year we live in new circumstances, face new problems, are bewildered by new dilemmas. But each year we undertake the same journey: from the sublime description of the Creation, through the familiar stories of the Patriarchs, to the saga of Moses and the Exodus, to the encounter with God at Sinai, through the multitude of commandments and the accounts of the wandering in the wilderness, until we finally leave Moses once again on top of the mountain. In the sea of strangeness and confusion that is contemporary life, here is something constant, year after year, something familiar. It acts as a mooring, a point of reference and orientation. The problems and dilemmas may be new, but the Torah to which we turn for guidance is that which has guided and inspired out people for 2500 years.

Yet if Simchat Torah consisted only of finishing the Torah and then beginning again in order to emphasize the importance of preserving the past, it would not fully express the Jewish concept of time. There have been philosophers and historians who claimed that all of history moves in predictable cycles, that empires rise, flourish and fall in a pattern that has repeated itself countless times, that nations are destined to follow the same pattern, like the progression of the seasons, which leads nowhere except back to itself.

The Jewish view of history is fundamentally different; it is not a cyclical but a linear view, based on the assumption that somehow we are moving toward a great goal: the messianic age that will see the fulfilment of the ideals of our faith. Reliving the past is not enough; We must move forward. How appropriate, therefore, that the Haftarah for Simchat Torah contains the first verses of the Book of Joshua, which follow logically and chronologically from the end of Deuteronomy. The Torah ends describing the death of Moses; then soon after, we continue to read, “After the death of Moses, the Eternal spoke unto Joshua” (Josh. 1:1).

Each of these practices—returning to repeat the story of the past, and moving onward to the continuation of the story oblivious to the past—can be destructive if carried to an extreme. We see many examples today of religious groups so preoccupied with the past that they repudiate any value in the changes of contemporary life. In Christianity, there are Roman Catholics (fortunately a small minority) so committed to a traditional liturgy for Good Friday that they refuse to abandon ancient formulations that are offensive to Jews, and there are Protestants who refuse to take seriously the theory of evolution.

In Islam a Nigerian group called Boko Haram expresses contempt for all modern education, including science—not only evolution, but teaching that the earth is a sphere, or that rain falls because of the natural processes evaporation and condensation—held to contradict the Qur’an and therefore the teachings of Allah.  Near the Khyber Pass in Pakistan last March, Wahhabi radicals destroyed the shrine to a Sufi martyr where other pacifist mystically-inclined Muslims have for two centuries come for prayer, meditation and religious music—insisting that a tomb must never be a place for prayer, and that “Music is against Islam. Musical instruments lead men astray and are sinful. They are forbidden, and these musicians are sinners”.

And in Judaism, last Friday’s Jewish Chronicle reported that senior Charedi rabbis in Israel have issued an edict prohibiting the use of the “Shabbat lift”, that enabled Orthodox Jews living in high rise buildings or staying in high-rise hotels to avoid climbing dozens of flights of stairs on Shabbat to their lodgings. This is the outlook of the famous statement by the Hatam Sofer in the 19th century: “Hadash asur min ha-torah, what is new is forbidden by the Torah.” It is the mindset of people always returning to the past without any interest in moving forward.

At the other extreme are those who recognise no value at all in the great creations of the past, who want to move forward without ever glancing back. A generation ago it was the nihilistic mentality of young people so turned off from their society and traditional values that they claimed to want to tear it all down and build from scratch. “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” they said—until they turned thirty. “Don’t take anything on faith, because your parents or teachers say so. Experience everything for yourself, discover everything for yourself.”

Today it is people like Richard Dawkins who cannot begin to understand why anyone would want to go back and read verses from the Torah again—“What makes my jaw drop is that people today should base their lives on such an appalling role model as Yahweh . . . the cruel ogre of the Old Testament” (The God Delusion, pp. 249-51). The ancient work that has inspired and uplifted millions of human beings in past and present is dismissed with arrogant contempt. Or militant secularists in Israel who, to make a point, will eat a treif meal in the middle of Yom Kippur.   

The main stream movements within Judaism today—modern Orthodox, Masorti/Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Liberal—have all found an equilibrium based on the practice of Simchat Torah. They recognize the necessity of reconnecting with the past, by returning to the opening verses of Genesis, while they also recognize the value in modern culture and the challenge of addressing contemporary problems, by continuing the story with a new generation under Joshua in the Promised Land. The precise balance between these two needs varies from movement to movement, but the underlying principle is common to all. Authenticity does not require an endless repetition of the past; progress is impossible when severing all bonds with the past. Going back to Genesis, we reassert our commitment to preserve what is finest in our tradition; continuing onward to Joshua, we show our preparedness to move into the future with confidence.

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
October 2009

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