D'var Torah

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A D'var Torah (Heb: דבר תורה), also known as a Drasha in Ashkenazic communities, is a talk on topics relating to a parashah (section) of the Torah – typically the weekly Torah portion.

The weekly Torah portion, popularly just parashah (or parshah /pɑːrʃə/ or parsha) and also known as a Sidra (or Sedra /sɛdrə/) is a section of the Torah (Five Books of Moses) used in Jewish liturgy during a single week.

Each weekly Torah portion takes its name from the first distinctive word in the Hebrew text of the portion in question, often from the first verse. Public Torah reading mostly followed an annual cycle beginning and ending on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, with the divisions corresponding to the lunisolar Hebrew calendar, which contains up to 55 weeks, the exact number varying between leap years and regular years.

Different sorts of Judaism

Different sorts of Judaism

Shabbat in Succot 5782, 15th October 2022

Last week I had an interesting conversation about what makes a kosher succah.  According to the Talmud, it cannot be made from plants which grow from the ground, such as vines.  But the Talmud based its view on very little.  On Succot morning, we read from Leviticus the command to dwell in succot. All it said was ‘you shall dwell in succot’.  We know the word ‘Succah’ comes from the Hebrew for a covering, but that is all we have to go on. From this verse, the Talmud built up its rules about what makes a succah kosher.

In the same way, only two of the four species mentioned in Leviticus can be clearly identified – the willow and the palm. After the discussion about the succah I came across an article about how the Karaites observed Succot.  They did not have a lulav and etrog at all as we have them.  Rather, they used the branches of palms and willows and other trees, as described in the book of Nehemiah:   leafy branches of olive trees, leafy branches of oil trees, leafy myrtle branches, leafy palm branches and leafy branches of a leafy tree.

The Karaites were Jews who opposed the Rabbanites, Jews who followed rabbinic practice as described in the Talmud. Their name comes from the Aramaic for ‘scripture’ and they interpreted the Torah more literally.  They were widespread from the 9th century CE for several centuries, possibly making up 40% of the Jewish community at one time, and there remains a small community near Los Angeles.

Rabbinic Judaism eventually won out, possibly because they were more lenient in some ways:  for example they permitted the lighting of a fire before Shabbat so that people could keep warm throughout Shabbat, whilst the Karaites forbade this.  However, there have always been different movements within Judaism.  Before the advent of Rabbinic Judaism, which became dominant after the compilation of the Mishnah around 175CE , there were many sects, including early followers of Jesus, as well as the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the sect based at Qumran. When the Chasidic movement began in the 18th century it was seen as heretical and bitterly opposed by the Mitnagdim, which literally means ‘opponents’.  Gradually, the Chasidim became accepted and in turn became less radical.

Progressive Judaism, when it emerged a century later, was also labelled as heretical.  Yet, despite Orthodox opposition, we have flourished.  The World Union for Progressive Judaism is now the largest movement world-wide, partly due to the dominance of Reform Judaism in the United States. 

History has taught us that we cannot tell what form of Judaism will flourish in the future.  The Karaites were at one time numerous and influential, but they faded away. Progressive Judaism has continued to flourish but what we might call ultra-Orthodox Judaism, which includes both Chasidim and non-Chasidic movements, is the fastest growing branch of Judaism because of its high birth-rate. What has kept Judaism alive through the centuries is its variety.  That has given it an ability to adapt to changing circumstances.  It has also meant that different denominations appealed to different people and those who might have been lost to Judaism have been able to find a form of Judaism which felt right for them.  Progressive Judaism provided a pathway for Jews who wanted to join in the life of the society around them but still observe Judaism in a way that seemed realistic and meaningful.  Equally, some Jews who were brought up in the Progressive movement have found meaning in Orthodox Judaism.

The Succah is a symbol of inclusion.  It offers shelter to all who seek it. One interpretation of the lulav is that it represents different types of Jew who come together in unity. Judaism should be a shelter for all those who wish to be part of it.  Yet, too often in our past, and in the present too, Jews have expressed hatred of those who do not share their view of what Judaism should be.  The most vivid examples are seen at the holiest site of Judaism, the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Every Rosh Chodesh, the Women of the Wall gather there in the women’s section with a Torah scroll in order to celebrate the New Moon. Every Rosh Chodesh, Orthodox men and women shout abuse at them and spit at them.  Prayer books, which contain the name of God, are ripped apart. Their actions are a chillul hashem, a desecration of the Divine name, both literally in their tearing of prayer books, and figuratively in that they publicly demonstrate the worst aspects of Judaism. 

In Birmingham, as in other smaller communities, although the situation is not perfect, we have learned to live and work together across the denominations. There is respect amongst the congregations and the rabbis.  Because we are a small community, we realise that we have to include everyone and only in this way can we survive, let alone thrive. 

We cannot know what the future will bring and what form Judaism will take in a century or more.  All we can do is practice Judaism in the best way we can, in whatever form seems right to us, making it meaningful and relevant to the world.  At this festival of Succot, let us rededicate ourselves to a vision of inclusion and commitment so that future generations will be able to enjoy the beauty of Judaism as we do today.