an aesthetic perfection at the heart of Simchat Torah's ritual.
The absolute seamlessness with which we (virtually) simultaneously
conclude the annual cycle of reading the Torah, and then start
all over again, is immensely appealing-- an exquisite representation
of a people's devotion to and ever-unfinished encounter with
As nearly as I can recall, I understood that early on, back
in Baltimore as I was growing up. My principal Jewish connection
in those years, family aside, was through Habonim, the Labor
Zionist youth movement; the synagogue was peripheral to my
Jewish identity and involvement. But I never missed the annual
Simchat Torah celebration.
It wasn't just the aesthetics of the occasion that attracted
me. It was, as well, the uncharacteristic revelry that marked
the holiday. Already then, as now, Jews of all manner of conviction
(and lack thereof) would congregate at the local Hasidic shul
- in Baltimore's case, the shul of the revered rabbi Elimelech
Hertzberg (father of the distinguished Jewish scholar, Rabbi
Arthur Hertzberg). There, the usually somewhat subdued worshippers
were transformed into boisterous celebrants, drinking and
dancing and exulting in having once again made it all the
way through the Torah, giddy with the prospect of beginning
All of which is prelude to my Simchat Torah crisis.
Over the years, I retained my particular fondness for the
holiday and for the special enthusiasm with which it is celebrated
in Hasidic circles. When I came to Boston in the early 1960s,
it was natural for me to seek out a Hasidic shul when the
holiday came around. And, as in Baltimore, I was not alone
in my predilection; the smallish house that was the better-known
Hasidic shul was bursting at the seams on Simchat Torah night.
Somehow, the rabbi learned that I am a descendent of the Ba'al
Shem Tov, Hasidism's founder, and so I was always given the
honor of holding a Torah scroll as we danced through the crowded
But some time in the mid-60s, the women's movement happened.
And quite suddenly, it dawned on me that there was a fatal
flaw in the nature of the evening's merriment. My own children,
three daughters, were stuck behind the mechitzah
(a curtain separating the women from the men), permitted only
vicarious delight. And this just at the same time that Simchat
Torah was taking on an entirely new aspect, becoming a national
(and not only a religious) holiday; it was the evening that
Moscow's Jews chose to gather in numbers at their central
synagogue, a silent protest against their repression by the
There, the repression was externally imposed; here, it was
of our own making, and insupportable. So I, daughters in tow,
departed in search of gender-friendlier settings - a purpose
readily accomplished in the contemporaneous revival of the
Tremont Street shul in Cambridge, which has long-since become
the central gathering place for Simchat Torah's joyful noise.
I love Simchat Torah, when we (men and women) literally
embrace the Torah. Our raucous, sweaty form of celebration
is wonderfully physical, embodied. Still, Simchat Torah has
become for me an occasion to consider a rather more esoteric
We gather to celebrate and do honor to the central text of
our tradition, the Torah. Good. But I cannot help wondering
and, indeed, worrying about our relative neglect of all the
corollary texts--by which I mean something vastly larger than
merely the standard commentaries. These days, in a perfectly
appropriate effort to "return to the Text," to encourage
Jews to wrestle with the wellsprings of the tradition, we
run the risk of suggesting that those wellsprings begin and
end with our sacred texts. But that is a terrible mistake.
Judaism is not and never was mere doctrine, even revealed
doctrine. It was and is the story of the interaction between
a people and its texts.
In that sense, every Jewish life is a commentary on the text,
even on The Text. The history of the Jews, and our literature,
are also our wellsprings, and a Jew who is fluent in the formal
canonical literature but is ignorant of where we have been
and what we have done (mind you, not merely what has been
done to us) is not yet whole.
Is it necessary to add that a Jew who knows it all but does
nothing with the knowing is deeply flawed? The living Torah
of our people, the unfolding text of this unfolding civilization,
is the story of our devotion to justice. It instructs us to
observe not only Shabbat but also to observe, as it were,
social justice. It remind us that Shabbat comes a resting
place, not a stopping place. It is the day we use to refresh
ourselves so that we can bring new energy to the struggle.
Emanuel Levinas warns us against transforming "the difficult
task of Judaism into a mere confession, an accessory of bourgeois
comfort." Our history and our literature show how we
have heeded (and sometimes neglected) that warning.
I wouldn't suggest we establish a new holiday, a kind of "Simchat
Everything Else." But I do wish that we'd find ways to
underscore--and yes, celebrate--the experience of the Jewish
people. (Our holidays are inadequate to the task, commemorating,
as mostly they do, events more than two millennia old.) Save
as we do, we propagate a Judaism that is independent of the
Jews, Judaism as disembodied faith. Judaism without Jews?
That isn't Judaism, not even the Judaism we learn in the Torah.
(Leibel) Fein is a teacher, writer, and veteran social
justice activist. He is the founder of Moment magazine, Mazon:
A Jewish Response to Hunger, and the National Jewish Coalition
for Literacy. He serves on the Advisory Board of SocialAction.com.
article republished with permission from
www.socialaction.com, a service of Jewish
Family & Life!
join the Religious Action Center's RACNEWS and receive legislative
updates on these and other issues of concern go to the Religious
Action Center's Web site.
address the tremendous humanitarian needs in the Sudan,
the Union for Reform
Judaism has established the Sudan Relief Fund. To contribute
to this fund, click
here or send checks payable to the Union for Reform
Judaism (write " Sudan Relief Fund " in the
memo section of your check) to:
Union for Reform Judaism, Attn: Sudan Relief
633 Third Ave. 7th Floor
New York, NY 10017
more information and recommended reading go to: