Sunday is Simchat Torah (“Rejoicing with the Torah”), the day on which we Jews conclude the annual cycle of Torah reading, and begin the reading all over again. The synagogue service on Simchat Torah is marked with wild dancing and song, and the Torah is paraded around the shul. Lots of us have fond memories of the holy day as kids, and some of us continue to observe the holy day ourselves. But so what?
What’s the point of reading and rereading a book that most of us don’t believe in? Few Jews believe that God dictated Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. Most of us understand that the books of the Torah are compilations of different texts written at different times by people with different agendas. Most of us choose not to live our lives by the dictates of Torah, and few of us bother to read (let alone study) it. So why bother with Simchat Torah at all?
Let me be as concise as I can about this: Without Torah there is no Judaism and no Jews. God may be a figment of our imagination; Israel may be just one nation among others; Jews may be chosen only in our own eyes; but Torah is indispensible.
Identity depends on story. You are who you are as a person because of the memories you have, and the stories you tell about yourself and the lives of those with whom you identify. Story is everything to humans. That’s why memory loss is so devastating. Without our memories we lose our stories, and without our stories we lose ourselves.
Torah is our story. And like most stories, it is largely fiction. But that doesn’t matter. Truth is not the enemy of fiction. As any great novel demonstrates, fiction if often the best vehicle for telling the truth. Torah is that kind of fiction; the kind that tells truths, often discomforting truths.
People complain that Torah is filled with xenophobia, misogyny, and genocidal rage. Of course it is. Torah is our story, and mirrors our wickedness as well as our goodness. That’s what makes it worth reading over and over again. The more sophisticated we become regarding human nature, the more Torah helps us explore that nature. The more we are willing to open ourselves to the promise and perversity of humanity, the more Torah reveals these to us. We see what we are ready to see, and are beckoned by Torah to see a bit more as well.
This is why we read Torah differently throughout our lives. This is why we read it over and over, year after year, millennia after millennia. It evolves as we evolve; and it promotes that evolution my mirroring not just what we are at the moment, but we can become—both good and bad—in the next moment.
But what about the supernatural nonsense of the Torah: all the magic and miracles? Torah is myth, and often speaks through parable, puzzle, and paradox. That’s what makes it fun and challenging. To mistake myth as literal fact is to blind ourselves to the meaning of the text. When we read about the impossible we are challenged to test what is possible.
Simchat Torah celebrates the power of story to shape identity. The challenge is to read Torah with fresh eyes year after year; to see new possibilities in it that lift us Godward.
If we read Torah passively, our Jewishness becomes passive, and a passive identity creates stale people, stale lives, and limits the future to an imitation of the past. But when we dare to read Torah actively, when we challenge its madness and allow ourselves to be challenged by its genius, then we continually reinvent our story and ourselves. The future of Judaism and the Jewish people doesn’t depend on where we live, how we vote, or whom we marry. The future depends on whether or not we engage Torah passionately and creatively.
Whether or not you attend shul this Simchat Torah, I urge you to make Torah study a habit. Even if you have a copy of Torah in the house, buy yourself a new one. Check out the different versions and see which one speaks to you. Then read the parsha of the week and jot your thoughts down in the margins. Make the Torah your Torah. Then each week—or monthly as we in Murfreesboro do it— gather over Shabbos dinner with family and friends and wrestle with your different insights.
If there is one thing all Jews can do to insure not just the survival of our people but the thriving of our civilization, this is it.