December 11, 2019

Sacred Text

"We’re coming to Ki Tisa," said my daughter, Samantha. "I remember how I studied the golden calf, and how Aaron asked the Israelites for their jewelry."

Samantha’s bat mitzvah was seven years ago this weekend. Ki Tisa was her Torah portion. Since then, we’ve reminisced about the party and the service, but never the point of it all — the sacred text. Her memory of the event was multilayered, as I should have guessed.

I’ve been thinking about sacred text lately, following New York City’s Feydeau-ish attempt to designate a book that everyone in the Big Apple can read at once. There have been read-a-thons all over the country; last year Chicagoans read "To Kill a Mockingbird."

But the New York project is caught between "Native Speaker," by Chang Rae-Lee, which features a Queens city councilman; and "The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother," by James McBride. Neither book satisfies everyone.

That’s because, I guess, after Sept. 11, people are less interested in ecumenical relief than words that engage the soul, an experience with sacred literature. That’s not what they say, of course. Even intellectuals knock the desire for spiritual challenge.

"I don’t like these mass-reading bees," said Harold Bloom, author of "The Book of J," which posits that a part of the Bible was written by a woman. "It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once," he was quoted as saying in The New York Times.

Bloom termed the act of reading itself, "too private an experience for such municipal orchestration."

Surely Bloom knows better. As my daughter and I can attest, much more happens when we read sacred text together than can be derided as a "reading bee." Having everyone on the same page creates civic engagement, intragroup respect and generational commitment, the very goals that, I believe, are inspiring these various city read-ins. Jews had the idea of the joint read, the chevruta, 1,000 years ago.

I guess it’s too much to hope that America’s cities will take up studying the Torah, the Christian Bible and the Quran, though that is precisely the kind of spiritually satisfying feast that we require these days. In the meantime, we in the Jewish community might at least savor what we have. The Los Angeles Board of Rabbis, in its own effort to share the reading spirit, encourages us to share "Who Wrote the Bible?" But as Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben told me, "Of course our goal is to have everyone read the Torah itself."

What happens to Jews who read Torah together?

Not for nothing is reading Torah together considered a mitzvah. When two Jews discuss Torah, God is among them, the sages say. Otherwise, it’s a wasted opportunity.

What happens next is magic, far more than merely learning the law. Through Torah we learn how to ask a question, how to hone the imagination, and how to measure time.

There is no past, no present, no future in Torah, the sages teach. We learn that our most brilliant ideas were considered long before us, and that we’ll be both courageous and lucky if our children will carry them on.

When I first began reading the weekly sedrah, my secular Jewish friends thought I was nuts. They were still unified by what author Moshe Waldoks called the sacred text of the Borscht belt: Henny Youngman’s "Take my wife, please."

But as Andrew Silow-Carroll writes in last week’s Forward, jokes, even Jerry Seinfeld’s, have lost that power of memory. We need to read text again, to knit the group memory, whether or not we agree on what that text might say.

I have read Torah week after week, year after year. I’ve read it as a young mother; an ardent feminist; with Orthodox, secularists and people who never saw the text before. Somehow or other, my daughter came along for the ride.