Telling Our Story: A Humanistic Take on Simchat Torah, or, Why I Love the Traditional Torah Reading Cycle

It seems that, at last, we are arriving at the end of the rush of holidays that mark the early Fall for Judaism. Simchat Torah marks the point at which, in the traditional cycle of Torah reading (that is, the version of the cycle set forth by the Babylonian rabbis 1500 years ago), Deuteronomy is concluded and Genesis is begun again.

In the Humanistic Jewish world, we don’t necessarily adhere to the traditional schedule because the Torah is, at bottom, a book for us. An important book, certainly–the founding book for Jewish culture–but a book nonetheless. (In the Birmingham Temple, the founding congregation of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, the Torah is in the synagogue library and not in an ark.) So the traditional cycle isn’t adhered to.

And, actually, the traditional cycle isn’t completely adhered to in many liberal congregations. A number of synagogues have adopted the regular rotation of Torah portions as set forth by Babylonian authorities, but have cut the portions in thirds in a kind of modification of the three-year cycle set forth by the Palestinian rabbis.

Not using the traditional reading cycle makes Simchat Torah a bit different, since, of course, we aren’t necessarily starting the Torah over again. But I really like the idea of following the generally-accepted cycle. Here’s why:

Simchat Torah–and, actually, the entire cycle–give us a chance to predictably encounter and re-encounter the key components of the Jewish past. For modern Jews, the idea of the sacrificial cult is hard; deviating from the traditional cycle allows us to avoid addressing its place in Jewish history.

But the Torah–all of it–is part of the Jewish story. It’s not that we think the entirety of the story is true, but that as the founding document, as a matter of identity I think we have an obligation to engage the Torah. Simchat Torah is the holiday that we, as Humanist Jews, can use to do that each year.

(To be sure, getting stuck with Parshat Vayikra (the beginning of Leviticus, which is a multi-chapter catalog of the various types of the sacrifices and how they are performed for different forms of offerings), is a bummer for a bat/bar mitzvah.)

But the Torah–all of it–is part of the Jewish story. It’s not that we think the entirety of the story is true, but that as the founding document, as a matter of identity I think we have an obligation to engage the Torah. Simchat Torah is the holiday that we, as Humanist Jews, can use to do that each year.

That’s part of why I really enjoy the fact that the Torah includes, in Parshat Bereishit, that kind of boring genealogy. Not because it’s a banner read–it’s not a riveting account of events, unless you’re a Hebrew morphology geek and really want to practice your Pay-Vav/Yod verbs in Qal and Hiphil–but because it’s about telling the everyday story of how humanity progressed (as the Torah understands it) from one generation to the next.

So, as we come down from the intense high of the series of Jewish holidays in the Fall (and Arthur Waskow’s take on why this happens in his “Seasons of Our Joy” is a really interesting read), l hope that you, dear reader, will take some time to re-engage in your story–the easy parts, and, especially, the interesting parts.

Chag sameach!

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2 thoughts on “Telling Our Story: A Humanistic Take on Simchat Torah, or, Why I Love the Traditional Torah Reading Cycle

  1. Pingback: A Quick Greeting | A secular Jew in Indianapolis

  2. Pingback: On the High Drama of Torah Cantillation – Simchat Torah 2014 / 5775 | A secular Jew in Indianapolis

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