by Anne Kinderlerer, Avodah / Service Wardening Team
At Simchat Torah, the Festival which expresses our joy that we have both completed and re-started our annual cycle of Torah readings, we affirmed our values before each procession of the Torah scrolls. The first of our five values is that of Torah: 'our commitment to Torah; to learning and being in conversation with ancient wisdom that holds, moves, informs and challenges us.'
As a new community we need to decide on an annual Torah cycle that connects us to our traditions, reflects our values and offers the potential for both revelation and study every Shabbat. In this blog post I seek to show our active engagement in Torah even as we consider how we read Torah. I’ll start by looking at the history of Torah reading before explaining the choices that our community is making about which parts of Torah to read.
Nehemiah 8 provides the earliest record of both the public ritual associated with reading the Torah, and the reasons for it.
(א) ח׳ אוַיֵּאָסְפ֤וּ כָל־הָעָם֙ כְּאִ֣ישׁ אֶחָ֔ד אֶל־הָ֣רְח֔וֹב אֲשֶׁ֖ר לִפְנֵ֣י שַֽׁעַר־הַמָּ֑יִם וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ֙ לְעֶזְרָ֣א הַסֹּפֵ֔ר לְהָבִ֗יא אֶת־סֵ֙פֶר֙ תּוֹרַ֣ת מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ב) וַיָּבִ֣יא עֶזְרָ֣א הַ֠כֹּהֵן אֶֽת־הַתּוֹרָ֞ה לִפְנֵ֤י הַקָּהָל֙ מֵאִ֣ישׁ וְעַד־אִשָּׁ֔ה וְכֹ֖ל מֵבִ֣ין לִשְׁמֹ֑עַ בְּי֥וֹם אֶחָ֖ד לַחֹ֥דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִֽי׃ ... (ח)וַֽיִּקְרְא֥וּ בַסֵּ֛פֶר בְּתוֹרַ֥ת הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים מְפֹרָ֑שׁ וְשׂ֣וֹם שֶׂ֔כֶל וַיָּבִ֖ינוּ בַּמִּקְרָֽא
1. The entire people assembled as one man in the square before the WaterGate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the scroll of the Teaching of Moses with which the LORD had charged Israel. 2.On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding…. 8.They read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading.
The Rabbis used this biblical precedent as their model; teaching that Moses and Ezra had established the times and lengths of the Torah reading. A systematic cyclical reading of Torah came much later, and over time the emphasis of public reading moved from teaching and interpretation to a symbolic representation of the revelation at Sinai, with the physical Torah scroll as the object best connecting the community with God’s revelatory voice.
Two cycles were evident by the time of the Talmud. One in Eretz Yisrael where the entire Torah was read over about a three-year year period consecutively. The other in Babylonia where the whole Torah was read each year, a practice which had become standard by the middle ages.
The Mishnah refers to an early practice of translating the Torah where an official, a m’turgaman, translated the reading into the Aramaic vernacular. This practice of explaining the Torah as it was read seems to have disappeared with the adoption of the annual cycle, perhaps because of the time it would take.
One who reads the Torah [in public] may not read less than three verses. And he should not read to the translator more than one verse [at a time], but [if reading from the book of a] prophet [he may read to him] three at a time. If the three verses constitute three separate paragraphs, he must read them [to the translator] one by one. They may skip [from place to place] in a prophet but not in the Torah. How far may he skip [in the prophet]? [Only] so far that the translator will not have stopped [before he finds his place].
הַקּוֹרֵא בַּתּוֹרָה לֹא יִפְחֹת מִשְּׁלֹשָׁה פְסוּקִים. לֹא יִקְרָא לַמְּתֻרְגְּמָן יוֹתֵר מִפָּסוּק אֶחָד, וּבַנָּבִיא שְׁלֹשָׁה. הָיוּ שְׁלָשְׁתָּן שָׁלֹשׁ פָּרָשִׁיּוֹת, קוֹרִין אֶחָד אֶחָד. מְדַלְּגִין בַּנָּבִיא וְאֵין מְדַלְּגִין בַּתּוֹרָה. וְעַד כַּמָּה הוּא מְדַלֵּג, עַד כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא יִפְסֹק הַמְּתֻרְגְּמָן:
Progressive communities have tended to emphasise the importance of Torah learning as a function of the weekly Torah reading, and thus a desire to bring back the process of translating and explaining so that the community understands the reading. The requirement for more time has led to the widespread re-adoption of triennial cycles that read a third of each sedra each week to stay aligned to the traditional cycle and to come back to Simchat Torah each year .
We wish to adopt a Torah cycle that is true to our value of Torah, a commitment to reading the whole of Torah, and an ability to see the Torah service on Shabbat Morning as both a re-enactment of “We stood at Sinai” and as part of Talmud Torah- Learning Torah.
At Shir Hayim we have followed an idiosyncratic minhag where we split the Torah cycle into thirds by reading the first two aliyot and the maftir in year 1, the third and fourth and the maftir in year 2, and the fifth, sixth and seventh aliyot in year 3. This causes confusion, both because it is unique and because we are not in the same year of the Triennial cycle as the reform readings (or the conservative triennial cycle). In addition we learn from the Mishnah above 5 that the practice of skipping in the reading is frowned upon because it is burdensome to people, given the potential for confusion and the necessity of rolling the scroll in front of the community.
Reform Jewery has gone further than a straight triennial cycle and has picked selections from the Torah to make in Rabbi Silverman’s words:
“a meaningful body of literature which is highly challenging. Selections occur within the three divisions of each sidrah, to make for more edifying reading, omitting passages which contain for example, long lists of genealogy, or details of sacrifices or of the furniture of the tabernacle, which could become like searching for spirituality in the telephone directory, a cookbook or a builder’s instruction manual.”
The difficulty that not reading the whole of the text raises for us is expressed clearly by Judith Plaskow: “It is intellectually dishonest to focus simply on the positive aspects of tradition. Individual religious ideas and values have contexts; they are connected to other ideas. They are parts of systems that seek to express and establish particular world views. Why engage with tradition if we’re not prepared to look at the ways it shapes us for good and evil.”
In order to express our commitment to reading and learning the whole Torah, and to allow service leaders to choose shorter sections to emphasise learning
That we adopt the Conservative movement’s Triennial cycle and move back a year (from the Shir Hayim cycle) so that we are in the same place in the three year cycle as the Reform movement https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/19861990/eisenberg_triennial.pdf
That service leaders are free to choose the whole of the triennial sedra or a part of it, and the reform readings are contained within the Triennial Sedra. https://www.reformjudaism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Calendar-of-Torah-and-Haftarah-Readings-5779-5781.pdf
That we adopt the Reform calendar, so for the 6 to 15 weeks a year where there is a difference we are aligned to Israel rather than the diaspora. This is because as a community we do not, at this point, observe the second day of festivals which is what causes the discrepancy.
For the time being we’ll continue with this proposal. In the meantime we are bringing people together to form a team to help us make choices about our religious practice as a community.
If you are interested or have thoughts/questions/ideas about this then please be in touch with Rabbi Daniel (firstname.lastname@example.org).
In this article I used classical Jewish texts from the Sefaria website. I also looked at My People’s Prayer Book Vol 4 Seder K’riat Hatorah edited by Rabbi Lawrence A Hoffman; The Coming of Lilith: Essays on Feminism, Judaism, and Sexual Ethics, 1972-2003 by Judith Plaskow; and the British Reform Judaism website: Reform Judaism-1000-words-reading-torah-haftarah/.