Reinventing Jewish rituals
This article originally appeared on The Media Line.
In ancient times, every seven years the King would gather everyone in the country for a special ceremony called “Hakhel” or “Assembly” to read the Book of Deuteronomy. At Jerusalem’s Western Wall this year, tens of thousands came to hear Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, read the traditional text.
A few miles away, at the First Station, a renovated railway station originally built in Ottoman times, a different type of “Assembly” was taking place. Here, volunteers from the audience were encouraged to go onto the stage and read whatever part of the Bible they chose in whatever language they felt comfortable.
“The whole idea of the Assembly is about bringing everyone together and about unity,” Elisa Rabinowitz, the founder of Kol HaOt which organized the Bible reading told The Media Line. “It is about democratizing the Bible and making it accessible to everyone. We want to hear all voices — men, women and children.”
About 150 people gathered on open benches in the middle of the First Station for the reading during the recent Jewish festival of Sukkot, or Tabernacles. Around them were stands selling everything from ice cream to grape leaves. The reading was punctuated with musical selections and a live illustrator quickly sketched while the reading took place.
Some of those participating had reserved their spot online, but many decided to participate at the last minute. Sami Reuben, a British businessman who visits Israel frequently, was one of the few dressed formally for the occasion. In stentorian tones, with a plummy British accent, he read the passage of the Ten Commandments.
“I decided to do it in English to represent the English speaking community and make a statement that the Torah belongs to everyone of all backgrounds,” he told The Media Line. “I feel inspired, and there is a great sense of unity here. Part of the process of being in Israel is to recreate these rituals.”
The crowd was primarily native English-speakers, many with young children in tow. They appeared to be a mix between secular and modern Orthodox. One young father came up with his three-month-old son.
“He’ll be reading here in 13 years,” the father joked.
Another father brought his six-year-old son to read, who already knew part of the Book of Exodus and chanted it fluently. Several young women who recently celebrated their bat mitzas also came up to read.
“It felt amazing,” Miya Elitzur, a young woman, who had her hair covered with a scarf, indicating that she is married and an Orthodox Jew. “It felt like doing the commandment of Hakhel (Assembly) in a modern way, but also connected to our past.”
Others said they enjoyed choosing passages that were especially meaningful to them.
“I read the part about the spies going to the land of Israel,” Howard Metz, a Jerusalem dentist told The Media Line. “I felt like royalty. It was the King who used to read, and now I’m doing it.”
One ultra-Orthodox man, pushing a stroller and with two young children in two, stopped to watch. In the ultra-Orthodox community, women do not lead religious rituals. At the Western Wall, for example, ultra-Orthodox Jews have attacked women who tried to publicly read the Torah, the Old Testament, there. Several women have been arrested for violating the protocol of the site, which is defined as a synagogue.
Here the reading was from a printed book, not a hand-written Torah scroll, and Aaron Gusher, 33, a full time yeshiva student and a father of six did not seem disturbed at all.
“This is a wonderful thing,” he said “You see all different types of people paying attention and learning about different things.”
What about the egalitarian nature of the event?
“It’s perfectly fine,” he insisted. “In a synagogue there might be some who disagree, but it in an open forum like this it’s fine. The Torah (the Bible) is for everyone, even for non-Jews.”