Sermon – Writing a New Torah Scroll

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 22 October 2010

This may be an apocryphal story, but I’ll tell it anyway.

The American rabbi and writer Laurence Kushner tells of the time he gave a tour of his synagogue building to a group of kindergarten age children who had never before been inside the synagogue.  Things didn’t go exactly to plan.  He had only just got to the climax of the tour, just got up on the Bimah, one of those old fashioned ones with a big curtain across it, when it was time for the lesson to end. Kushner didn’t want to rush, so he promised the group that they would continue where they left off the following week: And when we meet again, he promised, I’ll open the curtains and show you something very special inside.

The next day, one of the nursery teachers came to the rabbi and told him what had happened next.  Apparently, on returning to the classroom, the children had had a debate about what was inside the ark.  One child, wondering what a really special thing might be, claimed that there was a “brand new car” behind the curtain.  Another child, more in tune with the environment, argued that there must be a Jewish book inside.  Another said that the ark was actually empty.  Then the last child to venture an opinion suggested this: when the rabbi opens the ark next week, there will be a giant mirror inside.

According to Kushner, who I suspect may have embellished the story just a little, the last child had inadvertently put her finger on the real power of the Torah – its extraordinary value – that in it we come better to see ourselves.

It is this power that has sustained the Jewish relationship with Torah over the centuries – its ability to adapt and be a lens through which we see the world. I have never before heard someone compare the Torah to an 18-rated film, as our Bar Mitzvah did earlier.  But that he did so – and was still able to find meaning in it for himself – seems a great example of the ability of the Torah to be that mirror – to reflect a new historical context.

This awesome power has ensured that even through phenomenal change – change in which many of the previously fundamental aspects of Jewish life were challenged – how we think about God, belief in divine authorship, belief in the unity of Torah – even as these changed, the relationship with the text itself as the primary mode of Jewish existence remained.  The way in which we read Torah – that we continue to read it and study it – has remained central even through the enormous intellectual upheaval of enlightenment and modernity.  So, tellingly, at no point has regular Torah reading fallen out of practice in progressive Judaism.

And for the same reason, at no point has the sanctity of the Sefer Torah – the scroll itself – been questioned.  Even as we might openly debate the authorship of the words written therein, the bedrock on which respect for the item was grounded – even as we question this, the sefer torah itself still remains the most sacred object in any synagogue, remains bound by a series of rules about how it is to be read, carried, touched, and written.

This preciousness of the Torah scroll is perhaps best expressed in a text from over 1800 years ago found in Mishnah Megillah , one which continues to inform the way in which synagogues make decisions today.  There we read that a community may sell a synagogue to buy an ark, an ark to buy a mantle, a mantle to buy sacred books and sacred books to buy a sefer torah.  However, we may not sell a sefer torah to buy sacred books, sacred books to buy a mantle, and so on.  The scroll stands at the pinnacle of a clear hierarchy of degrees of holiness.   Incidentally, we can, according to later Halachah – Jewish Law – sell a scroll in order to redeem a hostage  – the welfare of a human being having greater religious importance than any item.  Similarly the Talmud  tells us that according to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, if you do not have enough to eat, you still should not sell a scroll in your possession, though again later halachah  refines this to state that this is true only if you barely have enough to eat – if someone is actually starving they may sell a scroll.

So the value placed on a scroll is such that to sell one is considered an act acceptable only in the most pressing of circumstances – the effect of having one fewer scroll in an ark would be to diminish the sanctity in the community.  And correspondingly, it follows that to purchase or to create a scroll is a thing of great value and huge honour.

Led by this idea, there is a tradition in Jewish law that each person in Israel is commanded to write their own sefer torah.  According to Maimonides in his Sefer HaMitzvot – his compilation of the commandments found in the Torah : “We are commanded that each of us is to write a Torah Scroll for themselves.  If they write it with their own hand, Scripture considers it as if they had received it themselves from Mount Sinai.  If they cannot write them for themselves they are obliged to buy one or to hire a scribe who will write it for them”

Clearly, it is no longer possible for the vast majority of us – we neither have the skills, nor the finances, to be able to do this.  However, we can do it collectively It is a mitzvah that we can fulfil together. So this year we have launched, here at Alyth, a project together to commission a new Torah Scroll – one that we hope to launch at Shavuot.  This is especially important for us as we actually need a new scroll – one that we can use for our many alternative services, without breaking our backs.  But we are also fulfilling this ideal – that we express the enduring importance of Torah to us by making a new one for the world.  The ideal is that we will do so together – that ideally each of the 3000 members of this community will have contributed – it is possible to contribute from just £1 – to buy a letter – in fulfilment of the halachah that “Anyone who corrects a Torah scroll – even one letter – it is as if they wrote all of it.”  And as we create this scroll there will also be opportunities to study – the sofer, the scribe, will visit us – including a special evening towards the end of next month.  He will also visit our education programmes, and there will be opportunities for small groups to visit his studio.

In so doing we will also be returning to the message of Kushner’s story.  The Talmud tells us that we are obliged to write a scroll even if our parents have given us one.  That is, making a scroll is not merely a practical obligation but a statement we make.  In writing a Torah anew, each of us reengages with Torah for our own generation – as the scholar Rabbi Avraham Binyamin Wolf Sofer commented:  This law teaches us not to take the Torah for granted. Each and every one of us has to accept it as though we ourselves stood on Mount Sinai.  The commandment is, therefore, that everyone should personally write a Torah scroll rather than make do in this respect with the legacy of one’s parents. This holds true for a community as much as for the individual.

Torah survives because of its enduring ability to give us fresh insight each time we read it.  And as a result, a Torah scroll remains the most special thing.  Our theologies may have shifted almost unrecognisably from the time when halachah evolved, yet in this area every Jewish community around the world is united – that there is no object more precious than a sefer torah.

This year we have the opportunity to re make that statement – to add to the sanctity of the world, to reaffirm our relationship with Torah, to have another very special thing behind our curtain to show our children – even more special than a new car.