The first time I attended a prayer service at a synagogue, before I converted to Judaism, I felt complete awe when the rabbis removed the Torah from the ark. It was not only one of the most beautiful pieces of art I'd ever seen; the Torah seemed utterly immersed in an ancient and powerful aura of holiness. That night, Temple Emanu-El in Dallas--now my synagogue--was hosting an interfaith service, and the rabbis invited us onto the platform to look at the Torah. I gingerly climbed the stairs and stared, spellbound, as the rabbis talked about how a Torah is made, preserved, repaired, read, blessed, and cared for in the synagogue.
Ten years later, I have not lost that sense of awe. If anything, it's increased. And in the days approaching Simchat Torah--the holiday that commemorates the annual completion of the Torah-reading cycle--I am once again infused with the joy of my connection to the Torah and to Jews worldwide. During Simchat Torah, I'll celebrate the Torah's inner beauty. I'll prepare to begin anew at "In the beginning," Genesis 1, and this year, seek greater depth there, some new, hidden gem.
While my awe of Torah came instantaneously, though, a kind of love at first sight, I often find studying the text difficult. Like most liberal Jews, I take little of it literally. I don't accept an Adam made from dust, or an Eve created from a rib. A God telling people to kill others for land? No. Animals in an ark, God desiring animal sacrifices, God striking people dead for touching the ark that held the tablets of the law? No, no, no.
I've gone repeatedly to Torah study sessions, only to land in one of my rabbi's offices, complaining that Torah study makes me fidgety and uncomfortable. A lot of the discomfort initially stemmed from the fact that I came from a fundamentalist Christian background, and had for many years taken the Bible literally. Now, studying in a Judaic context, I continue to hear occasional comments that are too literal for me. Yet I've learned that Jews simply don't think like fundamentalist Christians. I have to remind myself that as Jews, we are encouraged to grapple with a biblical text, hearing and interpreting it in myriad ways.
Because Jews all over the world follow the same schedule and read the same parsha (Torah portion) in any given week, the completion of the reading at one synagogue coincides with the completion at all other synagogues worldwide. Those of us who have never held the Torah as it's carried down the aisles on Saturday morning will hold it on Simchat Torah. All Torahs will be taken from the ark, and all of those present will have a chance to dance with one. Wine flows freely, while food and singing fill the synagogue.
Each week during Shabbat services, I'll brush the Torah scroll with the fringes of my tallit (prayer shawl) as it is carried around the sanctuary, bringing its holiness back into the core of my being. I'll feel the familiar tingling of my spine as the ark is opened, and we bow and sing the aleinu prayer. As the men and women of my synagogue are called to the bimah to recite the blessings over the Torah scroll or read from the weekly Torah portion, I'll understand a little better the hard work they've put into doing so. As my friend Jack, a Holocaust survivor, waits each week for everyone to leave the chapel, climbs the steps, opens the ark, stands before the Torah scrolls, and quietly recites words I cannot hear, I'll allow his love of what that scroll represents to inflame my heart.
The history of the Jewish people is written there, with all of the tragedies, beauty, foibles, and, ultimately, triumphs. That is one of the reasons we dance: to celebrate the survival of a little group of nomads who clung to Torah regardless of their circumstances. On the 23rd of the Jewish month of Tishrei, I'll have the rare opportunity to watch as all of those scrolls are removed from the ark in my synagogue. We'll culminate our joy of Torah--Simchat Torah--through dance, food, wine, and music.
Before I converted to Judaism, I regarded Torah as the most boring part of the Bible. It seemed preoccupied with laws--many of them, such as animal sacrifices, inapplicable and irrelevant to my life. Each day, then I attempt to look at the history of Torah and its people, regard it in its cultural context, and then strive to find some fresh, modern application for my life. This is the Jewish approach to scripture that I'm still trying to wrap my head around.
In addition, I've learned that Judaism presents a different approach to Torah-one that allows us see these stories as metaphors, lessons, and inspirational material. We do not have to sacrifice our intellect to glean wisdom from the Torah.
Despite my difficulties in studying Torah, I have grown to love it for many reasons. For one thing, it portrays the history of the people of whom I've become a part. It's the basis of an astounding system of justice and a moral code, elaborated on beautifully and carefully in the oral law that followed it. Torah depicts people who are fallible, human, but full of humanity's poetry and longing for God, and love and concern for others. And while I love the wrangling and questions and endless digging by Jews as we study, it's my rabbis who make Torah interesting, accessible, and palatable to me.