October 5, 2004
Week 46, Day 2
20 Tishri 5765 

Torah Without Story, Judaism Without Jews
by Leonard Fein

There's 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 the Book.

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 once more.

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 room.

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 Soviet regime.

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 problem.

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.

Leonard (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.

This article republished with permission from www.socialaction.com, a service of Jewish Family & Life!

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