Nine years ago, while attending the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly (GA) in Chicago, I had the privilege and pleasure of hearing Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herman Wouk — known for bestsellers like “The Caine Mutiny,” “Marjorie Morningstar,” and “The Winds of War” — address the opening plenary. What many do not know is that Wouk is a yeshiva-trained Orthodox Jew who studies Talmud daily.
In his address to the GA, Wouk described the way people who haven’t seen one another for a long time typically greet each other. “How’s your family, how’s your health, how’s your business?” — these are some of the typical greetings, Wouk told us.
“Let me tell you about the world that I come from,” Wouk said. “I come from the yeshiva world, where people bond through the study of Torah texts, and friendships are shaped based on learning together. Therefore, if one bumps into an old friend or rabbi from yeshiva, and they haven’t seen each other for many years, the greeting we typically exchange is ‘What are you learning?’”
So, what are you learning?
If you haven’t thought about this question, now is the perfect time to do so, as we celebrate another New Year this coming weekend. Simchat Torah is our intellectual New Year, as we conclude and then immediately kick off another annual cycle of weekly Torah readings.
What is Simchat Torah? It’s a lot more than a “So You Think You Can Dance With the Torah” celebration. It’s the opportunity to renew our commitment to the central expression of Jewish life, the one that brought us the title “People of the Book” — Torah study.
Maimonides teaches: “Moses established a system for the Jewish people, that they should read from the Torah in public on Shabbat, plus every Monday and Thursday morning, so that they should never go for three days without hearing words of Torah” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer, 12:1).
This system of public Torah readings gave birth to the weekly parasha, or Torah portion. The Torah was divided into units that were read in full on Shabbat, and partially on Mondays and Thursdays. In Israel, the units were smaller, resulting in the completion of the entire Torah scroll in three to three and a half years — the length of each separate unit varied depending on the communities.
In Babylonia, rabbinic authorities thought it would be nicer to complete the Torah in one year, so with obviously longer units (called parashiyot), the annual cycle of Torah reading became the established norm for communities around the Jewish world. This Babylonian system of the annual cycle gave birth to the holiday of Simchat Torah, celebrating the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle.
But whether the Torah was completed in three years or annually, what was the original purpose for weekly Torah readings in public? The public Torah reading was established to facilitate an opportunity for the entire community to study Torah. Weekly prayer gatherings in synagogue on Shabbat seemed like the ideal opportunity to study Torah together as a community. The Torah portion was both read and translated in public, and the rabbi would teach the meanings of select verses. All of this resulted in the synagogue experience on Shabbat being one of study in addition to one of prayer.
In turn, this gave birth to one more beautiful aspect of personal Torah study — the study of the weekly parasha all week long, with translations, commentaries and explanations in preparation for the Torah reading on Shabbat. Whether at home, in organized classes, on thousands of Web pages, via e-mail or with our children around the Shabbat table, the study of the weekly parasha has become the standard text that intellectually and spiritually binds Jews all over the world. The vast choices and genres of commentaries to the weekly parasha — from Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra and Sforno, all the way to Hirsch, Hertz and the JPS Commentary — remind us, like French philosopher Rabbi Marc Alain Ouaknin said, “We are not simply the ‘People of the Book.’ We are the ‘People of the Interpretation of the Book.’”
In his closing remarks to the 5,000 GA delegates, Wouk said, “So let me put my aspirations for American Jewry in one visionary image. In some not-too-distant day, at gatherings such as this, Jews will be greeting each other with, ‘What are you learning?’”
What are you learning? If you are searching for an entry into Wouk’s question, how about starting in the most logical of places — “In the beginning….”
Daniel Bouskila is the rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, a nondenominational, modern/traditional Sephardic synagogue located in Westwood. You can read his blog at rabbidanielbouskila.blogspot.com.