The Gift of an ALEPH Student – A Story of Torah

The classroom – material or virtual – is a location for revelation. I am not just a guide in that setting, I am guided.

Nowhere is this truer than in a classroom with students of the ordination programs at Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Most, though not all, are pursuing their ordinations as cantors, rabbis, and rabbinic pastors as second careers. Many have already led professional lives as lawyers, social workers, teachers, musicians, health professionals and more. Even my younger students are carrying rich experience and admirable maturity into the classroom – it’s a reason, I suspect, why they are there in the first place.

This semester, I am teaching the history of Hasidism. Students have discovered that much of what they believed to be factual about Hasidism belongs to the realm of myth. But simultaneously, they have learned what has made those myths powerful.

The power of story, for example.

One of my students, Chaya Lerner, frequently speaks both to the history she is learning and the way she sees this history playing out among the Hasidic communities she serves as a social worker. Her class contributions are consistently thoughtful, measured.

Chaya is pursuing ordination as a rabbinic pastor with Aleph. She is a calm, clear-headed woman — straightforward and true.  She is, above all, fair.

One day, she told us that a member of her own Reform congregation had died. He was not a learned Jew, she said, but he was a kind man. He cared deeply about supporting and strengthening other congregants’ Jewish identity. He gave generously to programs to do just that.

“I was sitting in the sanctuary when his casket was rolled out,” she told us. “And I suddenly realized: There went Torah. He was Torah for our community.” Without the slightest self-consciousness, Chaya described what she did. She leaned over and kissed the casket as it went by. “Just as I would a Torah scroll.”

We were quiet for a few moments. A good man, not so Jewishly educated, had reminded his community to care about Jewish identity – to nourish and sustain it. It was a kind of Torah.

The community was enduring loss. Chaya had told us, with a story, how deep that loss had been.

“And there,” I said finally, “we have had a story from Reb Chaya.”

It was the kind of story that could be told decades from now or in the next hour, I added. We could each tell Chaya’s story in all sorts of settings, because it gave over the raw truth of the power and gift an individual Jew could be for others.

One week later, I did just that. I was speaking at an interfaith event about Torah scrolls – how they were made, what they were made of, how their features could tell a story inside their stories. I spoke about the importance of owning a Torah scroll for each and every community. I walked my audience through various commentaries about selling a Torah scroll – when it was to be avoided at every and nearly all cost, the rare and specific cases where such a thing could be permitted.

“The Torah is the heart of a Jewish community,” I said, “but in the end, the life of a human being is the most sacred of all. In fact, we believe that the life of a human being can itself be Torah.”

I looked at my audience. “Let me tell you a story I heard from my student, Reb Chaya,” I said.


Note: Thanks to Chaya Lerner for giving me permission to publish this post.


Little Shulamit

Little ShulamitShe is one of the best gifts I have ever gotten. Naturally, she came home and immediately found herself a space on my desk, just to the side of the computer screen.

She was given to me by two of my congregants after Yom Kippur ended.

“She looks just like you!” he said.

“We couldn’t resist,” she added.

Indeed, the first thing I noticed about Little Shulamit (besides the Torah scroll she held in her arms) was the fact that she was clearly either smiling a really huge grin or singing her heart out.

That would be me, at Kabbalat Shabbat services. Or at Religious School, dancing around with our kids. Or at… any number of congregational settings where the thing I most feel and most need is joy.

Perhaps this is what others need most, too? Last Friday, I watched a guest at our service dance with her little girl to a sweet and rousing rendition of Oseh Shalom. She clearly longed for the shalom she was dancing for. Her daughter felt as much, I suspect.

And then, this past Sunday, our newest member at Temple Or Olam sent me a note she had written to her adult children.

“We just returned from Friday services,” she told them. “Like nothing either of us have ever experienced – or imagined occurring – in a synagogue! It was like being at a wedding: food, dancing and singing… We smiled, laughed and sang throughout! The spirit of goodness, sharing and love was intoxicating. I am so glad I found this place.”

Is it possible to make an entire congregation drunk on kindness and goodness?

I could wish for such inebriation. I long for us to remember our vows at Yom Kippur to do better in the coming year, to listen and to forgive, to love.

Every time new members join Temple Or Olam, I take some time to speak to them personally about congregational life. It is hard work to maintain a community, to work with different personalities, to keep the spiritual flames alive while accomplishing the more mundane tasks that are so necessary to each get-together, each program, each communal moment.

I ask new congregants to remember, if they are hurt or disturbed by something I have done, to come to me, to speak with me or “softly and soon.” Go directly to those you might be having any kind of miscommunication with, I ask. Trust them to be able to listen and respond just as you would – with love, with hope, with conviction in the essential goodness and kind intentions of all parties.

Joining a congregation is easy. Staying with one is hard.

Congregations are made of fallible human beings. New congregants who believe (not infrequently) that I am their ideal rabbi will find out in no time that I am just as human as they are.

We all make mistakes and they are often serious.

But most mistakes are also less grievous than they may seem, and much more forgivable than we want to admit. It is, after all, mostly our pride that makes it so difficult for us to forgive others when we feel hurt.

So here, right on my desk, stands my little Shulamit figurine. She is innocent and happy and she loves her Torah.

I want to be like my little figurine: Singing my heart’s hopes to the Holy One of Blessing, wrapping the Torah to me, body and soul.

I want to be just like her.


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.


Simchat Torah – Our Last Dance with the Temple Emanu-El Torah

A small and slender woman danced the opening cross-steps of the hora. A mother and her eight-year-old son did high kicks while holding tightly to the etzim, the Torah’s wooden posts. The tallest man in the room whirled and turned with her high in his arms, his face glowing with affection.

Our Temple’s president, Judah Malin, later told me that when he carefully placed our scroll in the arms of a Christian friend of mine who is now confined to a wheelchair, her face was alive with light and excitement.

Each had taken a turn holding our Torah in their arms, and for the very last time.

Our Torah is beloved by everyone in our congregation. We have many Christian friends who love her with just as much honor and respect as any Jew.

I have never seen it fail: Whenever I brought our Torah to a church community and spoke about secrets of her especially small or large letters or the noticeable change in calligraphy as one portion of her parchment gave way to the next, those with me were moved to smiles, to joy, even to tears.

There is something exquisite in the moment you know this fact for certain: Revelation comes in many, many forms. True revelation comes from light and joy and it transcends everything – gender and sexual identity, ethnicity, faith tradition, belief systems.

In the end, it must be about love. We were all meant to be about love.

Our Torah is a work of love and an encounter with love.

We struggle with its prohibitions and its commandments. Some are kind and some are incomprehensible. We are challenged by its beautiful and terrible passages. We worry over frightening scenes and are comforted by stories of compassion.

We read tales of God trying to understand humanity and humanity searching for God.

In the Mekhilta de R. Yishmael, a midrash likely composed in the mid- to late-third century C.E., Rabbi Yishmael writes:

‘They encamped in the Wilderness’ (Ex. 19:2): The Torah was given in a free place. Because if the Torah had been given in the land of Israel, the Israelites could have said to the nations of the world, ‘You have no share in it.’ But because it was given in the wilderness, publicly and openly, in a place free for all, everyone wishing to accept it could come and accept it.

Avoda Zara compares the non-Jew who loves Torah to the High Priest.

R. Meir used to say, ‘Whence do we know that even an idolator who studies the Torah is equal to a High Priest? From the following verse: Ye shall therefore keep My statutes and My ordinances which, if a man do, he shall live by them (Leviticus 18:5). It does not say, “If a Priest, Levite, or Israelite do, he shall live by them,” but “a man”; here, then, you can learn that even a heathen who studies the Torah is equal to a High Priest!’

My congregation does not fear placing our Torah into the arms of a non-Jewish spouse or partner; they are part of our community, too. I do not hesitate to have my dear Christian friends hold her either – they love her and revere her.

It was to be the last time our congregation saw our first Torah unfurled. She is headed for retirement in a little more than one month. We are, with all that we have, raising the funds for a new Torah in part to do our first Torah this honor. She has served us well and with great grace. Our Torah represents Jewish communities utterly destroyed in the Holocaust, and our obligation to remember them.

And yet: She has had the courage to stand for the reconciliation, the understanding, the love that human beings of different faiths and beliefs can hold for one another.

May we be blessed with that kind of courage – each and every one of us.


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