Having retired from the full time pulpit rabbinate a few months ago, I am once again becoming accustomed to something I haven’t done for about 40 years: going to shul on Shabbat morning with no professional responsibilities.
The most significant challenge for me has been to train myself to sit in my seat as opposed to wandering around the sanctuary and going up to the bima to make announcements or give sermons or explanations. I think I am doing fairly well with that aspect. I do occasionally get up to go greet a friend I haven’t seen for a while but that is something all of us should do at appropriate times. Honestly, I’ve enjoyed sitting in my seat even more than I thought I would.
There is, however, one additional aspect of life “in the pews” that I am thoroughly enjoying and finding tremendously meaningful.
I especially love the weekly reading of the Torah.
I have always loved the reading of the Torah but I am loving it in a different way now and it is a way I actually spoke about on Yom Kippur evening several years ago.
My sermon that evening was about the importance of listening. I spoke at length about how critical it is that we listen rather than only talk, concentrate on what others are saying rather than consider our own response and truly listen with all of our concentration and attention.
These are critical issues for our lives today and certainly worthy of discussion from the pulpit.
But, as I do with any sermon, I came to the topic of listening from perspective of Jewish tradition.
My starting point in the sermon was this question: What is the purpose of the Torah service on Shabbat morning?
The easiest answer, of course, is that we read the Torah on Shabbat morning in order to learn Torah.
But, as is often the case, the easiest answer is not really correct.
The reading of the Torah on Shabbat morning is not primarily intended to give us an opportunity to learn Torah.
I say this for two reasons. First, we are supposed to be studying Torah every day. While the commentaries in the Hummash are meaningful and thought provoking and rabbis love to see congregants discussing a commentary during the reading, there are six other days a week to study this way. Certainly it is better to study during Shabbat morning services than not to study at all but it still is not the ideal time.
And that is because this is not how Jews teach or learn Torah. We don’t teach by standing up in front of a group of people reading the words from a scroll or a book. We learn by engaging, discussing, challenging, responding.
This “frontal”, one directional ritual couldn’t be seen as an example of Torah education.
So, if the Torah service is not intended to be a time for study, what is it intended to be?
The public reading of the Torah on Shabbat morning is intended to be a re-creation of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. It is a public ritual in which we commit ourselves to the words which our ancestors committed themselves to at the foot of the mountain. As they listened to the words of the Torah, without responding with their own interpretation, without asking for clarification and without argument, so, ideally should it be for us.
Without any intention to encourage a “fundamentalist” reading of Torah or denigration of centuries of inspirational and necessary rabbinic interpretation, the ideal behavior during the reading of the Torah is to sit quietly and listen to the words of Torah.
I know that to do so is antithetical to so much of who we are as contemporary Jews but, presuming we have taken the time to study Torah properly at another time during the week, the emphasis of the Torah service should be to listen, to hear, the words of Torah.
So, after 36 wonderful years of standing on the bima and acting as gabbai,carefully following each word in the hummash, I can now have the experience of sitting during the Torah reading with the book (and sometimes, my eyes) closed and hear Torah. I have the experience of hearing the beautiful, poetic, inspiring, challenging words of Torah, saving my own interpretations and those of our honored teachers for another time.
As I have written many times, those years on the bima were so meaningful and I look forward to future opportunities to lead services in various settings.
But, I also look forward to each Shabbat morning sitting in my seat and hearingTorah.
It is a marvelous and inspiring experience and one which I encourage everyone to try.