A Personal Torah Service: A Seder for Opening Mind and Heart to the Teachings
“Torah” includes the teachings inscrolled in The Five Books of Moses, The Prophets, and The Writings. Our Rabbi’s of Blessed memory teach that Torah includes The Oral Tradition revealed to Moses on Sinai along with The Written Tradition. The Oral Tradition finds its first redaction in The Mishna and then in The Talmud. The Talmud is commentary, Law and lore.
Commentary on the commentary is called “Talmud Torah.” The commandment to study is set forth in the Laws of Talmud Torah. We are to study at all times. Study even excels the doing of God’s Commands. This elevation of study is not mentioned in the Written Torah and is an invention of the Rabbi’s. This elevation is good news for moderns estranged from organized religion. If study is equal to all the Commandments the very act of studying fulfills a Torah obligation, and becomes the essence of rabbinic tradition.
The Modern Torah Service
Franz Kafka wrote to his father about his experience of the Torah service
at their synagogue. Franz was bored ,and amused only by his own thought that the opening of the Ark in the synagogue reminded him of the penny arcade’s shooting gallery with a moving progression of targets one shot at in hopes of hitting the bulls eye and claiming ones prize. The only prizes in the Ark opening were the Torah scrolls within which reminded the young Franz of headless dolls.
Kafka expresses for the first time what becomes the experience of many moderns in the synagogue. The Torah service becomes “a joke-not even a joke” and concluded that” the only devout action was never to return to services.” This is reinforced by Kafka’s Bar Mitzvah on June 13, 1896, which he describes as a “ridiculous memorizing.”
While Kafka’s negative experience hits the bulls eye on the modern Bar Mitzvah, which is most often simply a dance around a golden calf ,it did not stop Franz from private study of his religion and seeking a personal path at the end of his short life.
I am reminded of a congregant I never saw more than three times a year, who was to be given an Aliyah on Rosh Hashanah. When the Gabbai approached him to give him the honor they seemed to be arguing. The congregant was shaking his head no, and the Gabbai was aghast. Finally we heard the congregants stage whisper: “I will donate ten grand if you do not call me to the Torah.” Franz Amschel Kafka shared this dread, and experienced it first.
Kafka confesses to only one prayer;
Dear Lord I will give anything not to be called to the Torah. I beseech Thee, no Honor no Aliyah.”
Since Franz Kafka was the first modern and the first modern Jew we comment on his commentary.
The Torah service for knowledgeable Jews is a reenactment of the revelation on Mount Sinai and an exercise in Talmud Torah. The service is at the heart of Sabbath and Holyday worship. Franz is the first to confess his personal estrangement . Not knowing Hebrew the recitation of the Torah reading was meaningless. This is the common experience today. Kafka’s Bar Mitzvah was a meaningless recitation,
Franz Kafka did not turn his back on tradition until the follies of his synagogue also infected his home. The Passover Seder became a narrative of exile within exile when all the words were recited in Hebrew with no study or explanation. The four questions were never answered. Kafka would wait to the end of his life to return to Talmud torah.
In the end he turned to “In the beginning” and most of his Talmud Torah insights are based on his study of Genesis with his love Dora Diamont.
Open to other religions, Kafka taught all a new dimension in understanding our expectation of the coming of the Messiah. Kafka also points the way to a shift from public to personal study. When will the Messiah come? When the most unbridled individualism becomes possible. This opens the graves
by the resurrection of once dead texts and practices.
Either/ Or in an Old Desk Drawer
I am not saying, based on the experience of Franz Kafka that Talmud Torah is an either/or. Both the public reading and private study may be excellent
ways to learn knowledge wisdom and understanding. I am suggesting to a generation of Kafka’s that you must express your individualism and Judaism by study. This wisdom is all on a need to know basis. I agree with Victor Frankel that religion must be personal. You do not need to leave your personal library. The Torah is your Passport to unbridled individualism. Our dark garbed power brokers insist we saddle ourselves like asses or oxen with the “yoke of the kingship of heaven” but for moderns the concept and image hold little interest. The authority of the Torah and Rabbi are no longer a given. With no hierarchy and Jewish centers that cannot hold, our spiritual world is worst than a level playing field, it is an anarchy. One bad experience and people are ready to walk away from tradition forever.
If the Messiah is not one person, but all people, we must first save our own life. The public reading of Torah is meant to be Talmud Torah for the people as a community. The system works when individuals are prepared. The weekly portion has daily readings to be studied by individuals every day so by the time we arrive at the synagogue we are prepared for the revelation. Every Sabbath the prophet appears to complete the message of the Torah reading. Our minds are assaulted by the prophets demand that we live by the teachings. Also, beyond either/or the prophet opens the door to the individual finding redemption in community.
Is the Torah service inherently dreadful? God forbid! The liturgy of the Torah service and the melodies of tradition are as great as any opera.
Opera is not for everyone, and often Torah services feel like opera performed by seventh graders. More Bar Mitzvah students will return if we recreate the liturgy into a musical. When the music stops the Talmud Torah
Dimension of the Torah service means Midrash will be created during every Aliyah. Every Aliyah is an ascent and a revelation.
My understanding of the Halacha(rules) of the public service include:
Comprehension. All Hebrew is translated, as at the opera, into the vernacular.
Quality not quantity. Choose twenty one verses and study in depth rather than every word read for the sake of reading.
Call groups of people for an Aliyah.
Designate a Chair for Elijah the prophet to welcome the prophet to appear for the Haphtarah. The prophet always gets the last word at the Torah service. The prophetic reading “completes” the Torah reading.
Remember the Torah service is the heart of worship and at the heart of the service. The Torah service is a study that becomes a prayer. When we pray we speak to God. When we study God speaks to us. Do the Torah service during private study as a praylude to the public Torah reading. Use the liturgy below and be ready for your Aliyah as a true ascent and revelation.
My heart opens as The Ark
Of the Covenant, I call You. O Lord
To your Aliyah
Take my name
As I take yours
The key to Zion
Is the Peace of Jerusalem,
Peace our only power.
At her gates we await you to
Judge the nations
To beat swords into plowshares
Spears into pruning hooks
Then nation shall not lift sword against nation
They shall never again know war, in this
A Mystical Prayer Inspired by the Zohar:
O Lord we sing and proclaim
That essentially ,Mercy is your Name;
And Shalom, Shalvah, Sealah, Shlamut.
Peace in my heart
Peace in my home
Peace on Earth
As it is in Heaven
The Peace of perfection
The Tablets whole
The Torah scrolled
To the greatest teaching:
The Crown on creation
The Holy Temple of Zion
Lord and God One
Israel One, building
Isaiah’s House of Prayer
For all people
Where we proclaim;
As for me
My service of my heart
Is to understand
I am working
On my ethic
I bow only to your superior wisdom
Not the doctrines of man
Or the smooth angles of angels.
In God I trust
God of Truth
Whose Torah is truth
Whose prophets are truth
Whose essence is goodness and truth.
In God alone we trust
God’s Holy Name
Bay, Bay ana rachetz
V’lesahmay kadesha kadesha yakerea
Ana amar tushbechan
My heart opens
A holy ark
Circumcise the scrolls
For those reborn in your teachings
Weaned from doctrine
Sons and daughters of the Mitzvah
Inscrolled in your words.
Listen all who struggle with the One
So near and yet so far
Together we make great
Acquire a partner
And make yourself
And Gods Torah
Yours then is
Strenghth of Peace
Beauty of balance
Victory of non-violence
And The Hod
Praise of the peaceful princess.
For this is all that is heaven on earth
Holy mother in her home
All the earth holy ground.
The secret is in the Ascent
For from the Arête we see
An end to the chronicle of history
Of spear and sword
And The Zohar dawning
Of God’s final word.
Shalom from The North
Shalom from The East
Shalom from The West
Shalom from The South.
Let the study begin.