Sermon – On reading Torah. Even the icky bits.

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 1 April 2011

I ended my sermon last week by expressing the hope that this week I would be able to talk about the Parashat HaShavua, the Torah Portion rather than events in the world. And but for our continuing foray into Libya, about which I don’t think I can say anymore, talk about the Torah portion I can.  Which is great.  Except for the Torah portion.  Because this week we have read from Tazria – perhaps the most impenetrable, most alienating portion in the Torah.  And this being Shabbat HaChodesh, the challenge of Tazria has been brought into particular focus because alongside it, we have read one of the defining moments in our collective story, the preparation for the Exodus from Egypt.

Exodus we read k’ilu yatzanu mimitzrayim – as if we too had gone out from Egypt, The purification of mouldy garments by the priests we read, well, it’s unclear how.  Or indeed why.

It is a legitimate question – why read this stuff at all?  What purpose has reading it fulfilled for us?  Indeed, more than read it, we make it the centrepiece of our worship. We do not need to.  In the Reform movement we do not have a reading system in which we read the whole Torah – in a given year we read only a small section from one third of each of the parashiyot in the Torah, and there are sections of Torah that we never read at all in our three year cycle.  The Reform calendar does not include every single chapter of the Torah, as it is felt that certain aspects do not necessarily merit public readings.  We do not, for example, read certain genealogical lists, nor some of the more difficult purity texts. So why is it that we feel any obligation to read even a small section from this week’s sidra rather than skipping on to something more powerful?  If any portion does “not necessarily merit public reading”, surely it is this one?  To put it another way – if we do not believe we have an obligation to read all of the Torah, why read this bit?  Conversely, if we do believe that we have an obligation to read even this section – how can we privilege it over those sections that we choose not to include in our Calendar of Readings?

Underlying the issue is a fundamental question – what is the purpose of public reading of Torah in general in Reform congregations and how is that expressed in what we actually do? The Israeli scholar Moshe Halbertal has written about Judaism as a text centred society.  In such a society he argues, what defines whether we are within or without the community is not location or even practice but how we relate to the text.  He writes “Some of the major developments in Jewish tradition can be understood through the community’s notions of its relation to the text, of what text is, and how text functions in its midst”.  In this respect we are surely lacking. And we are far from consistent within our movement.  Take the special portion we read last week for Shabbat Parah – the ritual of the red heifer, one of the weirder rituals of priestly Judaism.  There is remarkably little consistency between synagogues in the movement –  Some congregations, like ours, read the extra scroll, some just a handful of verses, and some ignore it completely.  Some rabbis use it as an opportunity to demonstrate ‘how we can find modern meaning in ancient ritual’ while others reject it entirely, as the irrelevant superstition of a bygone age.   That some of us do and some of us don’t is further evidence that we don’t quite know what Torah reading is for.

The same is true for the Haftarah, and for other biblical readings.  Take the Megillah.  Some communities choose to abbreviate the megillah, emphasising the educational and communal elements of the festival, some leave out the problematic bit at the end of the book where the Jews massacre thousands of their enemies.  Some read it all. As a friend, who is a Reform Jew in values if not in practice, said, the one thing he doesn’t really understand is this nonchalant attitude we seem to have to the bible. Herein lies the problem – this friend comes to synagogue seeking to fulfil what he perceives as an obligation – to hear the megillah being read.  Not to engage with it, necessarily, but to fulfil the rabbinically ordained obligation to hear it being read.  The reading of the Torah on an annual basis in an Orthodox synagogue reflects a similar fulfilment-oriented mindset.

As Reform Jews we have, thankfully, removed the fulfilment mindset.  But as yet, I think, we struggle to define what it is that replaces it in our relationship with public reading of Torah.  It is certainly true that we prioritise understanding –we read small sections of Torah with translation and, in theory, with sermons on the parashah.  We do so, we say, after the model of the Jews of ancient Eretz Yisrael who also read small sections, though it must be noted that they read the whole Torah in a triennial system, section after section, beginning again with Bereshit every three years or so.  That we insist on translation and understanding is admirable, but it is not enough, nor is it the issue –our inconsistency lies in the fact that unlike our ancestors, we select, and that we largely arbitrarily select what we are to read.

If we say we read Torah as formative literature, how can it be that we choose to break up some of the key narrative sections to such an extent that we read one unit of the story of Joseph, or the Exodus, or the Genesis narratives, one week, and the conjoining bit 12 months later if at all, thus removing literary structure or merit?

If we are reading Torah for the ethical or educational value of the text, the messages we might find for our modern lives, why are we reading the Tazria type bits at all?  An American reform responsum from the early twentieth century stated:  A “question well to be considered is, whether such chapters as Tazria-Metsora and similar portions offensive to our taste and void of all religious meaning for us, ought not be omitted altogether” The responsum further suggests that rather than read Tazria this morning, we might have read “those beautiful and inspiring portions of Deuteronomy which, according to our calendar, are assigned to the hot season of the year when the synagogues are empty, and which ought… to be read before larger assemblies, being of such highly educational, ethical, and prophetic character” .

If the purpose of public reading of Torah is primarily educational, it is hard to find fault with this suggestion.  And to be true to our progressive principles, this might well be what we ought to do.  Greater selectivity would be a legitimate way to ensure consistency, meaning and principle in our Torah reading.

And yet, this idea makes me a bit uncomfortable.  Another perhaps preferable solution to the lack of clarity in our current practice is not to stop reading those bits which we don’t get, to be more selective, but, surprisingly to read more of them – to return in the Reform movement to reading everything, perhaps on a genuine triennial system, perhaps over an even longer period – perhaps a septennial system.  We could, I promise you, still have Simchat Torah every year.

To do so would be to recognize that public reading of Torah is, even for us, an expression of a sense of obligation – not obligation to fulfil halachic standards but an expression of a sense of obligation to the Torah itself.  To read completely would be to recognize that we have received the whole of the Torah – not from Sinai, but from our ancestors over thousands of years of tradition.

Our current system of reading in which we miss out bits along the way in a search for understanding and engagement, is inconsistent and, to use the friend’s word – nonchalant.  More importantly, it ignores the fact that while some sections of Torah more than others might move our hearts or minds, the reading of any section of Torah, whatever its content, is supposed to be an act of religious drama.  If we truly believe that God is present in our sacred text, then we must strive to meet that divine presence as much in the genealogical lists that we currently skip as in the heart-stirring portions of Deuteronomic ethics to which the American responsum referred – and as much in the description of priestly laundry ritual as in the preparation for