Rabbi's Notes - October 2000

by Rabbi Margaret Holub

Two Rabbis (c) Uncle Mike's Graphics Welcome to the inside of my head, and sorry for the clutter. By the time you read this, Rosh Hashana will have probably passed. If the post office cooperates, maybe it won't yet be Yom Kippur, or Simchat Torah, or Hanukkah. But either way, at this moment when I am writing, right after the full moon of Ellul and two weeks before Rosh Hashana, part of my mind is occupied with making many small ritual decisions for the holidays and for the Shabbat services I will soon be leading. By the time these services come, whatever decisions I've come to -- however thoughtfully or thoughtlessly -- will be acted on. So I thought I'd invite you in to one or two of them, even though you'll probably be reading about these deliberations after the fact.

Jewish services (not to even mention sacred texts) are complex enough that you can think about them for lifetimes and still find unexamined corners. For some people this level of detail is maddening. Oh for one of those religions that "just" says one sentence over and over! Or "just" sits quietly and breathes! For me, part of the fun and delight of Jewish ways is their endless intricacy. There are always new discoveries to make, new ways to look at things you thought you already knew. Or, more profoundly, as I heard said recently by (modern orthodox) Rabbi Yosef Leibowitz, Torah (meaning Jewish revelation) is deliberately oblique so that its true meaning can ONLY be discovered in conversation and rumination. Its meaning is, says Rabbi Leibowitz, a little like the meaning of love. You only understand Torah by torah-ing, like you only understand love by loving. "Torah," he said, "only exists in the voice of people studying it."

Okay, so how should we call people to the Torah during the service? Here are some of the considerations that fill my brain and heart as I ruminate on this "detail:"

  1. what I think of as the traditional tradition, the oldest mainstream way of doing it.
  2. the many variants I am aware of among Jews of different denominations and styles, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, Reform/Conservative/Reconstructionist/Renewal/orthodox/ultra-orthodox/hasidic, American, Israeli, big-city and rural, formal and less formal, and of course our own local traditions.
  3. matters of justice that seem clear to me, like the inclusion of women.
  4. matters of justice that seem less clear to me, like the inclusion of children or of non-Jews.
  5. matters of meaning -- why do we call people to the Torah in a certain way? What is each element of the ritual trying to accomplish or communicate? Why this order? These words? This choreography?
  6. emotional matters -- not wanting people to feel left out, giving people who don't want to be included an out, acknowledgement of people's simchas and losses.
  7. housekeeping matters, especially not wanting things to take too long!
  8. the larger matter of spirit -- wanting the entire experience to be loving, connecting and deepening.

Lately I've been talking with various people about all these considerations and contemplating them as I drive (it's been the luckiest thing for my rabbinate that I have a long commute!) A few weeks ago I put a query on my Reconstructionist rabbis' e-mail list. The last step garnered someone's suggestion that I contact Phyllis Berman, a longtime Jewish Renewal leader in Philadelphia who has taught on this question of calling people to the torah. I did this and received a hugely generous and thought-provoking response from her.

Phyllis actually counsels that we take an approach we already sometimes use -- calling everyone who wishes to the Torah by discerning themes from the content of each paragraph of torah we are reading. So if we are reading about Abraham and Sarah's conflict, we might invite people up who are in situations of family conflict. Then we would do a customized mi-sheberach, a blessing asking for fortitude, wisdom, healing for people whose families are struggling.

Even though we've called people to the Torah in this way a number of times before, something about the way Phyllis describes it hits me anew. The "traditional tradition" is to call people up because they are a kohen or levite, or because they have some occasion happening in their life. People are called to the Torah because they are becoming Bar Mitzvah, about to get married, in mourning... None of these reasons has anything to do with the content of the Torah. It doesn't matter if you are reading about family quarrels or how to decorate the High Priest's vestments. Suddenly, reading Phyllis' e-mail, it occurs to me that by using the traditional approach we are calling people up to the scroll, but not necessarily really to the Torah. What a great thing, to connect the scroll to the words it contains. By calling people to bless the scroll based on the words about to be read, we build connections not only with the physical Torah scroll but with its content.

But then, I think, maybe some people will be alienated if we make this connection. Maybe it is good that, even if a person is struggling deeply with the words of Torah, they can still find a blessing in the object itself. Here we have such a special sefer Torah, a holocaust survivor given to our community as a celebration of somebody else's simchah. It has a sweet local history too, being read each week here, all the b'nai mitzvah, young and older, who have read from it for the first time, all the different High Holy Day readers, all the pictures in our minds of the scroll being held, lifted, passed around danced with, kissed. It is important in our diverse community that everyone feel welcome blessing our scroll. If you have to be moved by the particular words being read in a particular service, well, maybe that actually makes it less accessible instead of more so.

Then, too, there is the matter of "honor." We are often told that being called for an aliyah is an "honor." So if you come up to the Torah because you are moved by a passage, or by an intention derived from the passage by the person leading the service, are you arrogating an honor to yourself? On the other hand, is it an honor if people are asked at random by the gabbai to come forward? On what basis might our community wish to honor someone by calling them to the Torah? Should we really think of coming forward for an aliyah as an honor? Or is it another kind of spiritual step, perhaps even a humbling one, to come forward vulnerably to receive blessing or healing or comfort?

And should people come up alone or in groups? Obviously group aliyot are maximally inclusive. We like inclusiveness. And it smooths over some awkwardnesses. If there's a big gang up there and there is one person who isn't Jewish or isn't thirteen or whatever someone else might not be comfortable with, well, it was their own choice to come up, right? And there will certainly be someone else standing there who is a "kosher" aliyah. Coming up in a group is easier too, say, if you don't know the blessing very well, or you're shy or full of emotion.

But should it be easy? There is something powerful about a lone individual in front of the open Torah making the blessing in a single voice. It is powerful for the person doing it and powerful for the community. I am inclined to think that an aliyah should be a little bit scary, a kind of a personal offering. We should, as a community in prayer, do everything to support people in taking the scary step. We can help them with the blessing, give them a hug before they go up and shake their hand when they come back. But maybe it really is, like the term aliyah suggests, a "going up," a climb, a bit of an ordeal. And perhaps by trying to make it easy and comfortable we actually rob the climber of a bit of intensity.

And what about people who aren't Jewish? We've been able to get along as a community for a long time without hashing out this question, and I think we would do best to leave it that way. My own strong feeling is that we are blessed to have "fellow travellers" in our community, whose path includes a warm relationship with Judaism and the Jewish community, and that they, not we, should decide if it would be meaningful to come forward to the Torah. I find it deeply moving when a supportive non-Jewish parent, for example, says the Torah blesing at their child's bar or bat mitzvah. Others here and in the larger Jewish world may well feel differently. Again this makes group aliyot attractive. No gabbai has to decide to call one person or exclude another. But then that powerful, honorific sense of being called upward is lost...

So you can see, the questions go on forever. At some point it is Shabbat morning, or Rosh Hashana, someone is taking the Torah out of the ark, and a decision has to be made. All kinds of elements go into that decision, and hopefully it is clear and well thought through. But in the end there is one piece of information you can't have in advance. And that is experience. Part of the conversation that makes Torah come alive is in the experience of trying things in a loving, open-hearted community and seeing, feeling, learning how they work. So that this voice of experience, too, gets added to the mix for the next Torah service.

Copyright 2000 Rabbi Margaret Holub

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Last updated 12/23/2001(rge)