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BBC Radio 2 Vanessa Feltz Show
BBC Radio 2 Vanessa Feltz Show
What to do if you don’t like all the Simchat Torah frolics
Simchat Torah is an emotional day, concluding the Tishri Yomtov season and ending the entire festival sequence that started with Pesach. As its name, Joy of the Torah, indicates, it’s a day focused on the Torah, when we complete the annual cycle of Torah reading and begin it all over again amid singing, dancing and communal festivities.
Yet lovely as it sounds, some are at best ambivalent towards Simchat Torah, others even regard it as an annoyance. Some of my most loyal congregants, among them daily attendees, arrive very late on Simchat Torah and others fail to turn up at all. And I’ll admit that in the years before I was a communal rabbi, on Simchat Torah I attended a “naughty boys” minyan that completed the hakafot — dance-circuits — in 15 minutes and had me home for kiddush by soon after 10am.
Of course, by the time Simchat Torah arrives, people are shuled out after a long and gruelling Yomtov season and nothing less than a day off shul will satisfy them. And it’s also obvious that no experience, however exciting, can work for everyone. Nonetheless, some aspects of the way we celebrate Simchat Torah should be re-examined in the hope of making it more attractive.
I am not a member of the “more is more” club. If dancing on Simchat Torah for an hour is enjoyable, it does not follow that two or even three hours’ dancing is more enjoyable. In fact, it can easily turn into a drag. In some shuls, Simchat Torah celebrations are even longer than Rosh Hashanah services and are chaotic experiences, major disincentives to participation, especially when, as this year, Simchat Torah falls on erev Shabbat.
The Torah reading often takes far too long (there are ways of speeding it up) and long before it’s over, people have lost interest and wandered off to the kiddush. Shuls should publish clear timetables and have enjoyable hakafot that are not too long and allow people to get home at a reasonable time.
This leads inexorably to the subject of excessive liquor consumption on Simchat Torah. There is no basis for the drunkenness that prevails in many shuls: Simchat Torah is not Purim, the only day in the year on which inebriation is sanctioned, even then in the very limited context of home feasting.
The spectacles of adults sneaking whisky bottles into services and intoxicated teenagers staggering from shul to shul are hardly among the most edifying of the Jewish year. And while there is no harm in adults having a glass of wine or the odd lechaim (it’s actually a mitzvah to drink wine in moderation at Yomtov meals), what has evolved in some places is a Simchat Torah that is too much simchah and not enough Torah, akin to barmitzvah celebrations that are too much bar and not enough mitzvah.
For many women, much of the Simchat Torah service is boring and frustrating. While some are entirely comfortable watching their menfolk sing and dance, others would love to dance with the Torah themselves, in celebration of their connection to Jewish life and learning. Many shuls have recognised this need as part of the extraordinary transformation of women’s Torah study that has taken place in recent decades and make separate provision for women’s dancing with Sifrei Torah on Simchat Torah.
And what about those — men or women — who for whatever reason, don’t dance? Some are physically unable to dance and others simply dislike dancing. And some can’t dance but don’t know it (always the fellow next to me).
The Torah itself reminds us that it is the “heritage of the community of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4), the legacy of every member of the Jewish people, irrespective of age, gender, state of health or competence at dancing.
For those seeking an alternative, some shuls provide learning programmes to coincide with the dancing and Torah reading. I think there is room to expand this to include family programming and introductory Torah classes, as well as encouraging private study. And while these shouldn’t detract from the main event in shul, they should be professionally run and of a high standard rather than a lifeless alternative for those who can’t be bothered to dance or do anything else.
We may take as the role model for brief hakafot and alternative modes of celebration no less a figure than the Vilna Gaon (died 1797). It is said that on Simchat Torah he would emerge from his private study to dance with tremendous passion for a short while and then return to his learning. If you currently feel disenfranchised by the end of Yomtov, these relatively small changes might just restore the simchah to Simchat Torah.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle
Several people have asked me what I've read during the summer holidays, so here is a list in no particular order:
The Addictive Organization, Wilson Schaef and Fassel
What Is History?, Carr
Joke: Making Jewish Humor, Wisse
The King Of Schorrers, Zangwill
Defence Of History, Evans *
Anti-Judaism, Nirenberg *
Curable Romantic, Skibell
Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change, Beck and Cowan
The Definitive Book of Body Language, Pease and Pease
* Thanks to Daniel Hochhauser for these recommendations
Sermon Notes 17/08/13 - Ki Taytzay 5773
This week’s parashah includes more mitzvot than any other in the Torah – somewhere between 70 and 85, depending on how they are counted. They cover the entire range of human activity – from marriage and divorce to business ethics; from warfare to the correct treatment of animals; from hygiene to public safety and purity – and they appear to be assembled somewhat randomly.
Yet Devarim is a single text – Moses’ great valedictory sermon – and as such, forms a cogent whole, which means that the order of the mitzvot in this parashah is significant. The rabbis interpret some of the juxtapositions quite creatively; two follow.
The parashah begins with three consecutive mitzvot: a) how to treat the beautiful woman captured in war; b) the prohibition of disinheriting the son of a hated wife in favour of the son of a beloved wife; c) the elimination of the rebellious son. The rabbis comment:
The Torah speaks only to the evil impulse, for if God does not permit the beautiful captive, he will marry her anyway. Yet if he marries her, he will come to hate her and will eventually father a rebellious son with her. (Rashi to Devarim 21:11, paraphrasing Midrash Tanchuma Ki Taytzay 1)
The parashah ends with two mitzvot: a) the requirement to have honest weights and measures; b) the obligation to wipe out the memory of our arch-enemy Amalek. The rabbis comment:
If you deceive people with weights and measures, you will worry about the assault of the enemy. (Rashi to Devarim 25:17, paraphrasing Midrash Tanchuma Ki Taytzay 8)
These explanations may seem a little far-fetched and devised solely to explain away the juxtaposition, but I believe they are underpinned by a profound, yet simple, psychological message, one that is certainly germane to the upcoming Yom Tov season.
A common Chassidic interpretation of the ‘war’ with which our parashah begins is that is refers not just to an external war against a physical enemy, but to the internal war that each of fights with our own demons. Going ‘out to war’ is a symbol for the inner struggle that constitutes a good part of all of human experience. And if we don’t win the battle against crass desires, selfishness and the tendency to exploit others, we risk transporting the unresolved demons into relationships that could fail, and, in turn, dumping the problems on to our children. This is the meaning of the juxtaposition of the three mitzvot at the start of the parashah. Similarly, when we exploit others by robbing them with dishonest weights and measures, we should recognise (and fear) that we have really fallen victim to the demons within – the Amalek that prompts to behave selfishly and destructively.
The fact that the Torah worries not just about how we behave, but also our motivation, is illustrated by the final phrase of the mitzvah of restoring lost property, also in this parashah. Having told us that we must not pretend that we haven’t seen the item, rather attempt to return it to its owner, the Torah says:
לא תוכל להתעלם (Devarim 22:3)
This phrase is usually translated as ‘you shouldn’t hide yourself’, or similar, but it really means ‘you should not be able to hide yourself’ – i.e. you should not be capable of turning aside when you encounter an item that has been lost by another.
So the Torah regulates how we think – in this case, about a lost object –
but this is only illustrative. We need to
understand what motivates us: why and how we think about things, and to try to
uncover what unarticulated needs or desires prompt us to act. Only then can we avoid pernicious chains of
experience in our lives and the lives of those we love.
Sermon Notes 20/07/13 - VaEtchanan and Tu B'Av
With Tisha B'Av behind us and a delightful cluster of weddings this year, today affords an opportunity to discuss a little-known day in the Jewish calendar: Tu B'Av, the 15th of Av.
Said Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel: there were no festive days for Israel like 15th Av or like Yom Kippur, on which the daughters of Jerusalem went out dressed in white and danced in the vineyards. What did they exclaim? Young man, please direct your eyes this way and decide what to choose for yourself. (Mishnah Ta'anit 4:8, paraphrased)
It is remarkable that the Mishnah places Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year and Tu B’Av, a day completely forgotten until modern times, side by side. And equally remarkable is the unexpected dedication of Yom Kippur, a fast day usually associated with introspection and abstention, to matchmaking.
Yet putting each of these days into its original historical context will explain their connection and unexpected focus. Yom Kippur is of course, the anniversary of the day on which God finally forgave the Israelites for making the golden calf, hence its selection as the annual day of national atonement. But the origins of Tu B'Av are more obscure. The Talmud (Ta'anit 30b) offers a number of possibilities, one of which is that it was the day on which those condemned to die in the desert 'stopped dying'. Rashi (ad loc.) cites a midrash which explains that each year on the evening of Tisha BAv, the anniversary of the fiasco of the spies, some of those doomed to die in the desert would lie down to die. But on Tisha B'Av of the 40th year, no-one died. Assuming that they had miscalculated the date, they tried again the next night, and the next, but again, no-one died. Finally, when they saw the full moon on 15th of the month, they knew that the decree had expired and all those remaining could now enter the land.
So both Yom Kippur and Tu B'Av are days of affirmation - festivals of survival. Either the sin of the calf or the debacle of the spies could have ended the Jewish people there and then, yet we survived and thrived. In that sense, Yom Kippur and Tu B'Av are, indeed, the greatest moments of the Jewish year.
And when we affirm our survival, sometimes against all the odds, how do we celebrate? By creating opportunities for singles to meet, to create loving, happy relationships and build new families. We refute the prospect of our demise by making shidduchim.
In our community and across the Jewish world, it has never be more difficult for singles of all ages to meet each other. Many live increasingly busy, atomised lives and create complex personal realities that are difficult to match with others. Yet most would dearly love to meet someone with whom to share their lives and despite all their professional and personal accomplishments, cannot.
There are many events in the Jewish community designed to bring people of all types together - dinners, trips and classes as well as agencies and individuals geared to this purpose. Some are well established, others, like the shidduch.im initiative, are new. (Don't assume that matchmaking is only for the very observant - singles from across the spectrum can benefit from a sensitive introduction). All deserve our support and encouragement, and with God's help will facilitate many matches.
But I remain convinced that the best way for singles to meet is round your table, at your social event, through your introduction. By which I mean that everyone in the community ought to be creating opportunities and comfortable spaces in which those who would so like to meet a life-partner can get together. It's the responsibility of all of us, one that represents the greatest and most powerful affirmation of the Jewish future and our way to ensure that everyone has a chance to dance in the vineyard.
Full Programme - All Welcome
Tisha B'Av 5773