Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Kosher Scrolls? Sacred Scrolls!

First, some background. For those who don’t know, Judaism requires that holy scrolls, such as (and especially) the Torah be written in very specific ways. For everyday use (e.g. study, reading), you don’t have to worry. But, the Torah scroll from which we read on Shabbat has to be handwritten by a specially trained scribe (sofer). In addition, incredibly minor flaws in the text (such as one letter being partially erased/scratched out) invalidate the entire scroll – it’s no longer usable for ritual purposes. Keeping a scroll in proper, kosher* condition is thus very difficult, and winds up being very expensive (since only trained scribes can do repairs, as well).

* “Kosher” doesn’t only apply to food. It really just means “proper,” and is used to more-or-less mean “conforming to Jewish law.

On one of my my Rabbinic e-lists, a question has come up about why we, as Reform Rabbis (who don’t believe that we are bound by the law, only that we are to be educated and influenced by it) would care about this? Why spend large amounts of money (thousands of dollars in some cases) “repairing” scrolls which are perfectly usable? Why rely on Ultra-Orthodox Jews (since they make up the vast, vast majority of scribes) to keep our scrolls in “working order,” when they don’t even consider us to be true Jews, ourselves? Isn’t this just elevating ancient customs, which may have made sense when they were created, to holy status? Isn’t that what we, as modern, Liberal Jews, are committed to not doing – not doing something just because it’s always been done that way, especially when there’s a better way?

On the one hand, I find the argument compelling. I had a very hard time articulating why I should care about the kashrut (kosher-ness) of a scroll. Why not, as some colleagues suggested, just use a printed text (even in book form) for Torah reading on Shabbat? Why not use any well-written version, so long as it’s correct*

* it’s worth noting, as an aside, that some of the impetus behind the strict laws was probably to guarantee careful and accurate transcription, in the pre-computer, pre-printing press days.

But, even though I found that point of view intellectually sufficient, it didn’t sit well with me. Could I really picture taking a mass-produced scroll out of the ark on Shabbat? Or, just breaking open a nice, easy to use, printed book, instead? The idea of it seemed so improper as to make me almost physically uncomfortable. It just seemed wrong, but I couldn’t express why. There are many things that I do which are not according to tradition or Jewish law. Why did I get hung up on this one?

The best answer I’ve seen so far came from a colleague of mine. He fired off a quick response, so he apologizes for the somewhat rambling nature of this (I’ve only made minor adjustments), but I think he captures something essential in his thoughts:

What is left among our Jews, and non-Jews among us for that matter, that is sacred anymore? What is left that we take seriously? Shabbat? Not so much, by and large. And don't even start a discussion about candle lighting times. Do we use it as a way to pay attention to the natural world? No, thank you; we Reform Jews have long ago ushered in, and said goodbye to Shabbat on our own time schedule, not that of the spinning planet. Yartzeits [anniversaries of the death of a loved one]? Barely. We have the list which we read each Shabbat, but there is little urgency to come say kaddish by most of the children of those on the list. And then, when they do care, they often call in to move the date the name is read, so it can be more convenient. What then? What is truly kadosh [holy, sacred] to our people? What is left that they are willing to let take primacy in their lives? Not even shiva [the first 7 days of mourning for a loved one] holds a grip, by far. And that one is about comforting their friends! One of the few things left is the holiness of Torah and the mezuzah klaff [the small parchment which is in the mezuzah]. That is one of the few things left where people feel small in its presence. People worry over the Torah, fret over letting it touch the floor. They subsume themselves to the importance of Torah. They WANT it to be perfect, kosher, fit and proper even if they don't understand how that is accomplished. Same thing on a smaller scale for the mezuzah klaff. They care. We have Jews who CARE about something Jewish. We have a last thing that gives a sense of awe.

And yet now we might suggest that really, it doesn't matter. Yet another moment of holiness turns out to be not quite that holy. A couple letters flaked off? Eh, don't worry. You're telling me I can print a better, sharper and let us never forget cheaper v'ahavta for the mezuzah from my computer? Fantastic. Who wants something handmade anyway? I understand that we ought not make a fetish of things but respect and devotion is not the same as a fetish. Wanting something handmade from a skilled artisan that has a pleasing look and feel, what's the problem? I don't check the political stance of the woman who sells ceramics at the summer art fair, do I? Could we make our own? Sure there are liberal sofrim out there, and as soon as I no longer care about making the salary I make, as well as develop handwriting that is legible, I'll drop what I'm doing and become one. Until then, I guess I'll work with people who know how to do it. And I'll let my people have one last, final, tiny, remnant of kedusha in their lives. Because just about every thing else that gave people that sense has been debunked and reduced and dismissed.

Larry Freedman

Personally, I have never opened a Torah scroll without being affected by the moment. Sometimes only in small ways, very often in a deeper sense. There is something awe-some in this text which ties us back, on so many levels (content, form, use) to all who came before us.

Rabbi Freedman is right – there aren’t many things which liberal Jews like us let have authority over us*. We change, as we have the right to, nearly everything which doesn’t “work” for us. But, at some point, to some degree, religion must also be about serving something other than ourselves. It must be about obligation and (as loaded as this word is) submission, as well as being about our own needs and wants.

* Berit Milah - ritual circumcision - would be another, by the way

Maybe that’s enough. Maybe having this one place where we don’t get to make the rules is reason enough to not change those rules. Maybe even the most liberal of Jews among us can find a use in saying, on occasion, that it’s really not up to me.

1 comment:

Wendy Withers said...

I guess my question is whether Reform synagogues take the time to research and find a sofer who is a member of a more liberal form of Judaism? I know of a female sofer (soferah?) who makes mezuzah scrolls. On her website she explicitly states that her scrolls are not considered kosher because she is a woman. These kinds of decisions (finding a nontraditional sofer or finding a more traditional sofer who has a Reform, Conservative, etc. mindset) is more important than deciding whether or not a Torah scroll should be kept kosher. If a brick was missing in a synagogue wall, I'm pretty sure the congregation would make sure it was fixed. Although, having a Reform mindset does allow us to change our priorities a bit. If a congregation had structural problems in their building that needed to be fixed and an aleph missing from their Torah scroll, I'm guessing they would fix the safety issue first.