Note the “he,” please. That’s how most folks imagine the ritual of hagbah, lifting the Torah. It’s a guy thing, based on a guy story in a mostly guy text.
The first (and only) time I saw a woman perform hagbah, I wanted – immediately and badly – to lift a Torah scroll myself. Lori, after all, was just about my size (very small). If she could do it, I thought, so could I.
Every year, I vowed to do the weight training, strengthen my skinny arms, and lift the Torah. Every year I’d fail to do the training, regret my lack of time and commitment, and renew the vow.
Four years passed. By that time, I’d been diagnosed with osteopenia. I’d been given the wake-up call: Do weight-bearing exercise, take your calcium and magnesium daily, and protect those aging bones.
During those same years, our son, Erik, had been increasingly devoting his exercise regimen to strength training. When I bemoaned my failure to get with any program, he created one specially designed for me (and for hagbah). I need only do four specific exercises two times a week at the gym, increase reps and/or weight as I go and, Erik promised me, I would do hagbah within two months.
I was devoted to the cause. I reported on my progress to my twenty-one year old personal trainer. The ten pounds I could barely move became twenty, thirty, and thirty-five after eight weeks of training. I was pulling up forty percent of my body weight and it was the time of year when the Torah scroll was near center and relatively balanced on both posts. I was ready to give it a try.
“Weak,” my husband Ralf pronounced, as my arms shook.
“Wobbly,” I agreed.
Hagbah, Ashkenazi style, demands that the congregation see three full columns of Torah. The scroll has to be held high and turned so that everyone in the congregation can see it. Drop the Torah, and everyone present is required to fast during the day for 40 days.
Hagbah is serious business.
I wrote my senior thesis for ordination on hagbah. My teshuva, a response to a halakhic question, began with a true story:
A small community has gathered for a Shabbat service. This morning, the rabbi looks around and notes who is in the room. She knows everyone present – who has back problems and who is in ill health, who is mourning, and who is anticipating a life cycle event. This morning, she sees that not a single Jewish person is present who could take on the mitzvah of hagbah.
There is one man in the room who would certainly do so, if she asked. He is married to a Jewish woman and has raised both his children Jewishly. He has lived Jewishly for two decades. He attends services regularly, prays alongside his Jewish friends and family, and supports the small congregation wholeheartedly. He happens to be one of the most morally upstanding members of the congregation, and the rabbi has long appreciated his ethical sensibilities and calm nature.
Can that man perform the mitzvah of hagbah?
It’s a long teshuva, I admit. I wandered through plenty of ancient history and lots of rabbinic writing. In the end, my answer was that halakha permitted the non-Jew to raise the Torah.
The fellow in the story has long since joined the tribe officially. He is one of our regulars where hagbah is concerned, and his way of lifting the scroll is extraordinarily beautiful. He turns with confidence, the scroll held securely and firmly overhead.
Before services last night, I approached him as he and his wife were setting up for oneg.
“Steve,” I said, “I need help with hagbah.”
He gestured to his clothing. “I didn’t really dress for it,” he said.
“Well actually,” I said, “I need you to be right there when I do it so if I lose the Torah you can catch it! But it’s a secret,” I said quickly. “I want to surprise everyone.”
Steve grinned. “You’re going to do it?” he asked.
“If I feel I can, I will try,” I said.
Before hagbah, I told my congregation about the way I teach this portion of the service to our bar- and bat-mitzvah students. I let them know that the one prayer they can sing with a leetle more speed at their service is the one we sing when the Torah is raised (v’zot). “Be kind to the person doing hagbah,” I say, “and don’t chant too slowly.”
I asked my congregation to be bar- and bat-mitzvah students that night. “Stand,” I said, “when the Torah is raised and feel free to sing that prayer at a nice pace.”
I saw a long-standing member whisper to our temple administrator. Both women knew about my goal. I could practically hear the question: “Is she going to try it?”
I gripped the posts. I told myself that my earlier attempt that same afternoon was mere rehearsal. This was for real. I needed to brace myself and be tough. “I will lift you up,” I thought to myself.
I wanted everyone to see that a woman could be strong enough for hagbah. The Torah is the repository of gorgeous and frightening stories, loving and harsh law, enigmatic and revelatory narratives. When we lift the Torah, we honor and recognize that we humans are those self-same things – beautiful and scary, tender and cruel. We are carriers of secrets and capable of bringing light. Our Torah is our mirror, and to look into it is to look into ourselves.
Black fire on white fire, so the Talmud says. And all colors in between, I think.
“I will lift you up,” I thought.
To see another woman performing hagbah, check out the video on the page below: