Romancing the Scroll

Reposting this from last year in honor of this week’s Torah portion, Ekev …

So Here’s the Backstory.

My husband and I are now devoted groupies of an organization called Nehirim, from a Hebrew word for “lights.” Founded by author and activist Jay Michaelson, Nehirim hosts retreats, trips, conferences, you name it — all with the goal of building community among LGBT Jews, partners, and allies and helping them take that spark back home.

Nehirim Men's CampRetreats that coincide with Shabbat include full services — some traditional, mostly Renewal-style, but always complete with Torah readings. When the organizers of this year’s Men’s Summer Camp reached out for volunteers to read from the scroll, I raised my hand, and before I knew it, I was practicing an hour or two a day every day for about three weeks. Two aliyot, portions of about half a dozen verses each, from the triennial cycle.

Did I Mention the Bar Mitzvah Thing?

I only volunteered because Brian and I have been studying for the past few months with one of our community’s wonderful rabbis, in preparation for what might be, for all we know, the world’s first joint adult bar mitzvah ceremony for two married, gay converts.

Bar MitzvahBar mitzvah (or the female version, bat mitzvah) is an Aramaic phrase meaning “son of commandment.” Since the early middle ages, and for girls since the late 20th century, it’s been a rite of passage whereby children become adults under Jewish law, fully entrusted with the tradition and its joys and obligations. In more recent decades, “a bar/bat mitzvah” has become a community celebration, too, with big parties and social justice projects, and it’s also become a common step for adults who didn’t go through the process at age thirteen, either by choice or circumstance or because they converted.

So that’s where Brian and I are, having decided to take our commitment to Jewish living up a notch or two, in April of 2012, when each of us will read from a Torah scroll.

And That Is No Small Feat.

A Torah scroll is a copy of the entire Five Books of Moses, a roll of stitched-together parchment pages, every letter reproduced by hand from an unbroken chain of manuscripts going back to at least the early Middle Ages.

Torah ScrollEach scroll is a dramatic work in its own right, with critical moments in the text reflected in spacing and lettering. When the Sea of Reeds parts on the way out of Egypt, the text pulls apart into two jagged, parallel lines. When the Ten Commandments are given, each is set apart from the rest of the text in a way that’s impossible to overlook.

The text itself is right out of ancient Semitic literary culture, which means its primary function is to aid the memory of readers who are presumed to know every word by heart. The alphabet is made up only of consonants, with some letters doubling as vowels under conditions that take a while to explain.

To give you an idea, here’s how a Torah scroll would render Hamlet’s famous soliloquy:

To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of struggles, and, by opposing, end them. 

TW B’ ‘R NT TW B’ THT ‘S THQWSTYN WHTHR T’S NWBLR ‘N THMND TW SFR THSLYNGS ND ‘RWS ‘F ‘WTRGYS FWRTN ‘R TW TK ‘RMS ‘GNST ‘SY ‘F STRGLS ‘ND BY ‘PSYNG ‘ND THM

Did I mention there’s no real punctuation, either? What’s more, every line of text is meant to be chanted according to a prescribed set of melodies, which must also be memorized.

So Here’s What I Was Looking At.

The Torah portion from the week of the Nehirim retreat is called ‘Ekev, from Deuteronomy chapters 7 through 11. This is what the first bit of ‘Ekev looks like in a Torah scroll (via Navigating the Bible):

Ekev

And this is what the text looks like when overlaid with all the information you really need to chant it. If you have a RealAudio plugin, you can hear roughly what it comes out sounding like.

Ekev

Except for some of the dots in the middle of the letters, every little doohickey is either a vowel sound or a melodic sequence to be memorized.

Difficult But Doable

Just ask any of the millions of bar/bat mitzvah kids who met the challenge and went back to eighth grade homeroom all the stronger and more affirmed for it. After several lessons with our rabbi, I felt I had enough preparation to manage a moderately sized reading, using the notation and audio files at bible.ort.org.

And so began one of the most remarkable encounters in my short life as a Jew. Every day for about three weeks, I listened and repeated, quizzed and corrected myself, adding phrase by phrase, verse by verse to the parts I could recite from memory.

Without much in the way of conscious thought, I started to feel the emotional shapes of the melodic inventory — tenderness, alarm, solemn awe, comfort, and more, all packed into little scales almost anyone can sing.

And bit by bit, the text itself opened up to me in a way that’s hard to put into words.

I’m no literary noob, you see. I got enough graduate coursework under my belt to critically engage with any text, day or night, with one hand tied behind my back. I’ve spliced and diced Torah plenty, applying literary-critical approaches, queer hermeneutics, structural and cross-cultural analysis galore.

This was different. I think the realization came to me when I was working on the text one day over my lunch hour. There I was, sitting in a little room, reading and repeating, over and over again, letting the text and its melodies, its consonants and its vowels and subtle structures wash over me like sheets of rain.

The lines stopped being a thing under my microscope, an item on my to-do list, a test of my cognitive abilities. Somewhere along the line, ‘Ekev became my companion.

That meant I could start taking the text at something deeper than face value. ‘Ekev is a fraught little package of Divine reward and punishment and a seeming endorsement of the ethnic cleansing of Canaan. I think I’ve read some settlers in the the West Bank use it, along with other portions, to justify displacing and assaulting the Arabs who live there. There it is, in black and white:

Ekev text

v’achalta et kol ha-amim asher Adonai eloheicha notein lach lo’ tachos eincha ‘aleihem v’lo’ ta’avod et eloheihem.

And when you have consumed all the peoples that HaShem your G-d has given to you, show them no mercy and do not worship their gods.

But with all the lines and their melodies in my head, I couldn’t just magnify one part of the text, as I had plenty in the past, and say, “this is its unforgivable flaw, this goes too far, this is too much.” That would be cutting my best friend out of my life because she disappointed me or lied to me once. That would utterly negate her beauty, her compassion, her love for me.

And her wisdom. You’re going up against immense odds, she’s telling me, with nothing but a strange and invisible G-d on your side, One Who values action more than objects, justice more than jewels. You won’t be able to hold onto your values if you try to accommodate the people waiting for you by, say, agreeing on an acceptable level of ritual prostitution, human sacrifice, idol worship, and oppression of the poor. Whatever happens, don’t ever become like them.

Ekev text

ki t’omar bil’vav’cha rabim ha-goyim ha-eileh mimeni eichah ‘uchal l’horisham

You might say in your heart, these nations are greater than I am. How will I be able to drive them out?

You’re not going to make it if you accept the geopolitical realities at face value. You’re not going to make it if your vision is fixed on the world as it is, not as it could be.

Ekev

lo’ ta’arotz mipneihem ki Adonai eloheicha b’qirbecha el gadol v’nora’

Do not cringe before them, for Adonai your G-d is with you, a great and awesome G-d.

The values you are taking with you are more powerful than any of the armies you will face, but only if you believe in them and remember where they came from and never stop fighting for them.

The day before I was called up to read, I was alone, swinging in a hammock on a beautiful country day, having practiced the reading a dozen or more times, and it hit me. This text is radiant with love. And my tears fell.

Showtime

I rehearsed a few times with generous rabbi friends, including in front of the actual scroll at our Nehirim retreat, one with tiny little letters and variations on some shapes I hadn’t seen before.

At first, I approached the reading the way I do a lot of things — softly and with meek self-effacement. I felt so much tenderness in the words and the melodies that I hadn’t really thought about the broader context.

MosesOne of my rabbi friends, David Dunn Bauer, reminded me that this is Moses’s dying speech to his people near the end of their long journey. He’s heaping upon them his admonishment and warnings, love and awe and frustration and his desperate hope that, in spite of all the failures and setbacks of the last forty years, it will all be enough.

So it was kinda written to be belted out, not softly murmured. Project. Butch it up a little why don’t you. Put some masculine oomph into it and let it be beautiful just that way.

So on a Friday afternoon while the rest of the gang was off tubing or mud bathing or something, I took a hiking trail into the woods and chanted at the top of my lungs, over and over, until I started going hoarse. At one point I saw a large doe on the trail ahead of me, scrutinizing me. I smiled and wished her a good Shabbos, and then I started belting out my lines again. She turned and trundled off into the woods.

Come Saturday morning, a group of about thirty men sat davenning together, singing and bowing and speaking our ancient words. When the Torah scroll was lifted up and carried around like a newborn baby, I was connected to all the other times I’d encountered a scroll.

One time in particular I’ve never told anyone about. I was at an evening study session at our synagogue, and one of our scrolls was on the table from a previous session. I volunteered to return it to its arc, the stone cabinet that holds all our community’s scrolls.

This one in particular was very special — it was found, along with hundreds of others, in Prague after the Second World War. The Nazis had stolen it from a small Bohemian community just before deporting or murdering every Jew they found there. Along with the other scrolls, it was intended for a museum  to commemorate the total destruction of Jewish civilization. After the war, the scrolls were restored and adopted out to Jewish communities all over the world, including ours.

The sanctuary was empty as I carried our scroll, our survivor, to the arc, cradling it like a baby. My steps slowed and I started to cry as I remembered the last time I had held it, on the day of my conversion, in front of a whole community that had come to welcome me as a brother.

I had stood there that day only because Torah, with all its seams and scars and beauty, had opened my heart wider than I ever thought possible.

“I love you so much,” I said as I kissed it gently and laid it to rest in the arc.

I had to contain those same tears that morning at Nehirim as I approached a sister scroll. After all, I couldn’t very well chant if I was crying and sniffling.

I watched and prayed as the blessings were recited and then I pointed at the spot where the reading was about to begin. Men who had come up for special blessings touched the corners to their prayer shawls to the scroll and kissed them, and then it was time.

Breathe In. Breathe Out.

All the men there, we’d all been through so much.

So much doubt and rejection, so many years lost trying to be what we weren’t, so much struggle just to find safe places to love and live and pray.

“V’haya-a-a-a-a ‘e-KEV tishme’u-u-u-un,” I sang. It’s up to you to guard this relationship with G-d, these transcendent values that have brought you so far.

My legs were shaking, and my voice was quivering, but I kept on, my whole body moving in tune with the melody.

“Ve-sha-ma-a-a-a-ar AdoNAI elo-HEI-cha le-cha-a-a-ah et ha-BRIT ve-et-ha-CHESED …” G-d will protect you, G-d’s covenant and lovingkindness will go with you. I missed a trope and started out on the wrong note for the next one, but I just kept going.

“Va-ahe-e-ev’cha u-ve-ra-che-cha v’hirb-ECHA …” G-d will love you and bless you and multiply you.

Such deep longing for our happiness and well-being. I tried to keep all the men in the room in my heart as I put everything I had into each word.

“V’chol mad-ve-e-e-e-ei mitzRAYIM ha-ra’IM…” all the terrible afflictions of Egypt. Your freedom and liberation came at such a heavy price. What will you do to honor and remember that?

“V’lo-o-O ta-a-VOD et-elo-o-o-hei-he-e-m, ki MOKESH HU LA-A-A-ACH.” No matter how far you come, you must not fall into worshiping power and control the way your oppressors do. You are love. You are justice. Don’t forget that.

The first aliyah was done. I stepped back. Another group was called to the Torah. More blessings, more love and inclusion.

Second aliyah. “Ki-i-i to-MAR bi-l’VA-a-a-ve-CHA-a-a ra-BI-i-i-im ha-goyim ha-EIL-eh mimeni…” You’re going to doubt yourself. You’re going to see yourself as your oppressors see you, as small and weak and divided. It’s okay.

“Lo-o-o ti-RAH-A-AH mei-hem! Za-CHOR TIZ-KO-o-o-or eh-eh-et asher a-SAH Adonai elo-HEI-chem le-pha-ROH u-le-chol mitz-RA-yim…” Don’t be afraid. The G-d of history, the G-d of all creation is on your side. Carry that knowledge and let it make you strong.

“Ken ya-ah-SEH-eh-eh-eh-eh Adonai elo-HEI-CHA le-chol-ha-a-MI-i-i-im asher atah yar-EH-EH-EH mi-pnei-HEH-em.” The people who oppress you, the people who put power and fear ahead of love, they will know what it means to be powerless, to lose the control they thought they had over you.

“Ki Ado-NA-a-ai elo-HEI-CHA be-kir-BECHA. EL GADOH-O-L VE-NOH-O-O-O-RA-A.” Don’t be afraid. G-d is with you. G-d’s great love and justice and passion will win out in the end. Nothing on earth is more powerful.

I looked up. There was so much love in that room. Such a perfect, radiant moment with this strange document at the center of it, this one improbable survivor.

I got it. I really got it. Torah is beautiful in ways that nothing else on earth can be beautiful. And in that one crystalline moment, I saw it. Just like Torah, the men in that room could not have been more beautiful, more perfect than with their joys and scars and wrinkles.

Since it was my first time ever reading during a Torah service, we sang and danced around the scroll and said shehecheyanu, the blessing of gratitude for perfect moments.

Lots of praise and affirmation afterwards. Lots of gratitude for the love and passion that came out of me.

But the love and passion came right out of that scroll. All I did was put in the hard work to channel it to the men then and there in that space, which was a joy any way you slice it.

This entry was posted in Journal Entries, Observations, Prayer, torah and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Romancing the Scroll

  1. Neil Frau says:

    This is very moving! Thank you for writing such a beautiful peace and for your love for Torah.

  2. Pingback: Romancing the Scroll II | Almost Jewish

  3. david says:

    Sublime feelings… as a relatively recent convert you have the charming and inspiring advantage of seeing things as an explorer discovering a new world. i envy you.

    david

  4. Dorith says:

    Wow Michael. Just wow. Your words are so powerful. I think reading this is going to change my relationship with Torah and Torah scrolls. Thank you for sharing this. Is it ok to share it with others?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s