The Torah scroll is taken out of the ark. The rabbi walks in a procession around the synagogue holding the Torah as congregants reach out with their tallises (prayer shawls) or siddurim (prayer books) to touch the scroll and then put the tallis or the siddur to their lips, thus giving the Torah a kiss. It’s the way I’ve always seen it done, and I never gave it much thought.

Until, that is, a couple of years ago when a non-Jewish congregant expressed confusion and distaste about the tradition. An avid student of Judaism who was committed to raising her children Jewish, she explained that she had always appreciated Judaism’s absolute refusal to worship objects, a check against idolatry.

But wasn’t kissing the Torah just that, an idolatrous act? I gave an answer about how kissing the Torah was simply a way of showing respect, but I wasn’t entirely convinced–and I still am not.

The fact is, kissing the Torah as it is carried through the congregation does look a lot like practices in other religions that seem idolatrous to Jewish eyes, such as placing food before statues or venerating icons. When do you cross the line from respect to honor to veneration to worship?

The fact is, many traditions have entered Judaism as folk practices, discouraged or denounced by rabbinic authorities–from lighting Hanukkah candles to the Kol Nidrei prayer. Perhaps kissing the Torah found its way into our practice as a folk tradition–a tradition of the people. It’s a physical way of showing reverence and awe, but one not necessarily based on the bedrock Jewish principle of rejecting idolatry. Interestingly, many traditional authorities are troubled by the same concerns and proscribe kissing the Torah, or wish to see the practice limited to young children.

Of course we want to honor the Torah for the sacred texts it contains, including God’s name. At the same time, it is vital to remember that the holiness we cherish lies in the content–the wisdom, the stories, the laws–and not in the vessel.

I still reach out my tallis to touch the Torah and kiss it but, thanks to my congregant, it is now accompanied by a conscious reminder to myself of just how easy it could be to slip into idolatry.

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