Simchat Torah 5779

Rabbi Nathan Godleman – 30 September 2018

Rejoicing in the Torah

I wonder how many Liberal Jews will struggle a little over the weekend, as we reach the culmination of the festival season with Simchat Torah. ‘Rejoicing in the Torah’ may present a number of difficulties, our intellectual position on the text – its origin and much of its content, and a Liberal antipathy towards processing the scroll among them. Nevertheless, even the most classical congregations will be giving their sifrei Torah an airing and some of us will be confronted with the biggest problem of all: that of not doing ‘joyful’ very well in synagogue. If joyful is the kind of emotion evoked by passing one’s A Levels or passing one’s driving test – a kind of spontaneous jumping up in the air and shouting out ‘hurray’ kind of joyful, Simchat Torah can feel rather staged, as the moment of Hakafot approaches and we are nigh on commanded to dance and clap.

I remember a Kabbalat Shabbat at a festival in the Gallil a few years ago where the group Nava Tehila were on stage. I thought I had managed to ‘let myself go’ during a Shabbat song, only to be gently mocked by an Israeli friend for a shuffle from side to side I had called dancing! Maybe we have simply absorbed too much of the Englishness (I don’t think it applies in Scotland or Ireland) which caused Samuel Pepys such consternation when he visited a London synagogue in the mid seventeenth century. A degree of embarassment at outward display; a natural reserve. Or, dare I say it, maybe other Jews are better at this kind of thing than we are!

A recent series of posts on the SLLS Facebook page displayed images of ark inscriptions from synagogues across the country and beyond. Each was meant as a reflection for Elul, and very beautiful they were, too. (Take a look!) Only one of the contributions mentioned joy. All the others were of a ‘Know before whom you stand’/’You are near to all who call upon You; who call upon You in truth’ order. ‘Ivdu et Adonai b’simchah’, ‘Worship the Eternal One in joy’ (Psalm 100:2) was almost absent, only rescued, quite literally, after a discovery by our chair, Alice. The bimah at South London Liberal did once carry the verse on a banner, now hidden away in a stairwell, water-damaged, yet still proclaiming its joyful imperative. We are in the process of arranging its repair and display, which is an obvious metaphor for a need felt widely, well beyond Streatham. How can we sing of joy with stony faces, even stony hearts?

Of course, joy – from the Hebrew root sin-mem-chet, can imply something inward- as well as outward-looking; a profound and personal joy. In terms of the festival, this definition could reflect a deep engagement, week in week out, with Torah. A commitment to follow the annual cycle closely, to hear its narratives and study its commentaries, to feel a sense of accomplishment at its completion, because we were personally involved throughout.

Therefore, perhaps two challenges present themselves to the Liberal Jew who is tested at and by Simchat Torah. To simultaneously let go and enjoy (interesting word) and to take hold and engage. As Claude Montefiore writes in Outlines of Liberal Judaism (1912), we are creatures of body and soul.

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