Little Torah

Every year, I read The Tattooed Torah by Marvell Ginsburg to the children of our Religious School.

“It’s a true story,” I say.

Of course, as a historian, I also know we argue all day about what makes for a “true” story. We can argue about what the word “truth” really means. But any story can tell a truth. This one does.

The Tattooed Torah is based on a rare thing: A genuine piece of redemptive history.

Almost half a century ago, two trucks rolled up to the Westminster Synagogue in London, England. They were carrying precious cargo: 1564 Torah scrolls.

The scrolls, confiscated by the Nazis from Jewish communities in Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia, had been labeled and cataloged during World War II, each “tattooed” with a number. Jews of Prague were first forced to sort and pack up the collection for the Reich. Once finished with the labor, those same Jews were sent to concentration camps and murdered.

After the war, the Torahs were rediscovered and eventually donated to the Westminster Synagogue. Over the years, the scrolls were painstakingly restored and allocated on permanent loan to newly established synagogues, retirement homes, hospitals, and youth groups around the world.

The Tattooed Torah tells the story of just such a Torah – a small one from Brno, Czechoslovakia. In the book, the “Little Torah” is restored, given a new mantle and lovingly presented to the children of an American congregation.

When I tell this story to our schoolchildren, it never fails: One of the children shyly raises a hand.

“I wish we had a Little Torah,” she (or he) says.

This spring, I found something as close as I could get and our congregation could afford – the Five Books of Moses printed on paper made to look like parchment, rolled on two decorated posts, and given an embroidered mantle just like a real scroll. Our Little Torah would be about 14 inches long. It came with a small yad (pointer) and a miniature breastplate.

I ordered. Admittedly, I was rather nonplussed when I unpacked the little Torah. It had been wrapped in newspaper. The headline that wound around the Torah (in bright pink letters): “Sex and the Modern Woman.” Above the headline was the teaser: “Bold female-oriented erotica breaks out of its brown paper wrapping.”

I had to laugh. My students come into my classes thinking that biblical scripture is a made of stories about ancient ancestor-heroes, lots of fuddy-duddy laws about skin diseases, and religious poetry punctuated by plenty of “thee’s” and “thou’s.” Maybe they are aware that the Song of Songs is replete with sexual imagery, but if so, it is regarded as an anomaly.

They find out otherwise. In Proverbs 8:30, for example, Lady Wisdom tells the reader that before the world was created, she was daily God’s “delight.” (Trust me, the word translated as “delight” has erotic overtones.) In Genesis 18:12, Sarah laughs at the idea that her elderly husband could possibly, um, offer her sexual pleasure at his advanced age.

The Torah was and remains, above all, a human creation, a human thing. So having a Bible wrapped in an article about women’s erotica seemed oddly apropos of the human experiment as a whole: Messy, unpredictable, flawed, and funny.

Nevertheless, I rewrapped the Torah in a nice, soft cloth, and brought it to Religious School last Sunday. The children were, in a word, thrilled. Noah immediately asked me if he could take Little Torah to school. Evan suggested that the kids use cones to make finials for the posts. Leta took the pointer and read from the print as if she were practicing for her bat mitzvah this August. John asked if the Religious School could make an ark for Little Torah. Everyone practiced hagbah, lifting the Torah high overhead for the congregation to see.

The kids took turns carrying Little Torah around the room while the rest sang Al Shlosha D’varim.  They decided that every Torah service could now include children as well as adults carrying a Torah. We even tried out a novel idea: What if, while I was chanting from the big Torah, one of our older students pointed to the very same passage in little Torah at the side of the leyning table?

I drove home thinking of the original Little Torah of the story, of her tattoos and the marks she bore of a time of destruction and loss. I thought about the way I had become part of a determined effort to help Jews and Judaism – at least in some small way – thrive again. I thought about the way our children cared to hold their heritage in their arms.

It made for a nice story. A true one, too.


I Will Lift You Up

Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people,
for he was above all the people; as he opened it,
all the people stood up (Nehemiah 8:5).

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:


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