Simhat Torah: A lot to celebrate

In the human realm, Torah study waxes and wanes. We are currently living through a renaissance of Torah study and therefore have particular reason to celebrate Simhat Torah.

 INTEREST IN Torah study is growing among non-observant Jews. (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
INTEREST IN Torah study is growing among non-observant Jews.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

Simhat Torah is an annual celebration upon completing the cycle of weekly Torah reading. For over 3,300 years, Torah portions have been recited each Shabbat. When the Torah was given on a desert mountain, the will of God, which previously had been confined to Heaven, was finally delivered to a human audience.

History would never be the same. The delivery of the Torah launched a large-scale religious project that has evolved over thousands of years. Since that seminal moment at Sinai, humanity has studied God’s will, attempting to fashion their lives and craft society upon a divine template. The advance of religious experience wasn’t always smooth, as humanity sometimes denied God and failed to accurately apply His will. The process, however, is ongoing and will culminate with a clear and unmistakable appreciation of God and an uncorrupted application of His will.

Torah is the eternal word of God, but it still ebbs and flows through human history. There are moments of greater interest and periods of diminished attraction. In the human realm, Torah study waxes and wanes. We are currently living through a renaissance of Torah study and therefore have particular reason to celebrate Simhat Torah.

A renaissance of Torah study

Firstly, the sheer volume of Torah study in our era far surpasses any point in history since the First Temple era. Modern technology has made Torah study available to huge swaths of the population who previously were precluded from a direct encounter with the word of God.

Much of the spectacular spread of the Torah has been facilitated by Israel, which has provided direct and abundant economic support for Torah scholarship. Additionally, it has created financially friendly socio-economic conditions for communities that dedicate themselves to full-time Torah study. In our ideologically and politically charged environment, this fact is often overlooked.

Israeli jews dance as they hold a Scroll of a Torah during Simhat Torah celebrations at Habima Square, Tel Aviv. The worshippers are marking the end of the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah and the beginning of the next cycle. October 10, 2020. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90 (credit: REUTERS/TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)Israeli jews dance as they hold a Scroll of a Torah during Simhat Torah celebrations at Habima Square, Tel Aviv. The worshippers are marking the end of the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah and the beginning of the next cycle. October 10, 2020. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90 (credit: REUTERS/TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

In addition to economic support, Israel has provided a cultural spark plug for this impressive Torah renaissance. As Torah is integral to national identity, any time Jewish pride is reinvigorated, Torah eventually flourishes. Israel has strengthened Jewish pride and has restored komemiyut (sovereignty) for Jews across the world, and this has driven the expansion of Torah study. Without Israel, it is uncertain that Torah would enjoy the renaissance we are witnessing.

The phenomenal worldwide growth of Torah study is even more incredible given our historical context. Just eighty years ago, our people faced a genocidal attempt to eradicate anything and everything Jewish. Among the millions of Jewish victims were innumerable Torah scholars. Logically, it should take a few generations for Torah study to regenerate, yet it has happened in a lightning-quick fashion. The meteoric turnaround proves the obvious: Torah is the divine word of God and hovers above history. Efforts to destroy Torah will always boomerang and lead to its prodigious growth.

As Torah study increases, it is fascinating to witness it morph into modern shapes and new incarnations. As the Jewish historical trajectory shifts, Torah study is taking on a new form. For thousands of years, Torah study served as a hedge against cultural encroachment. It preserved national and religious identity by keeping a hostile and religiously predatory culture at bay. It was, in part, a separatist experience, meant to shield the Jewish community from the moral malaise of general society. Torah study was intentionally severed from the surrounding culture.

We finally live in a Jewish state which we hope to infuse with the spirit of the Torah and the will of God. In this new reality, Torah study has transformed, ironically, by reviving an ancient model. It has been close to 1,900 years since the fall of Rabbi Akiva’s rebellion, that soldier-scholars have defended our land while studying God’s will. I feel indescribably blessed to teach in a hesder yeshiva, which combines advanced Torah study with dedicated army service. History is literally unfolding before our eyes, as the past is revisiting the present.

It is also fascinating to watch Torah expand into unlikely sectors of the population. Throughout Talmudic times, a debate raged about teaching Torah to people of a questionable religious character. Some sages, such as the elder Shammai and Raban Gamliel, discouraged it out of concern that the sanctity of the Torah would be compromised by unsuitable students. Others, such as Hillel and Rebbi Elazar ben Azarya, endorsed broadly teaching Torah to all, confident that the inner wisdom of the Torah would have a salutary effect even upon religiously indisposed students.

The latter model of extending Torah to all students is undergoing a revival, as interest in Torah study is growing among non-observant Jews. Evidently, for many Jews, the encounter with Torah wisdom is, at this stage, easier than their relationship with God or even their belief in God. In an empirical world of science that dismisses belief in anything beyond the limited reach of ration, many have lost their faith in God. Likewise, many lost their faith under the crushing tragedy of the Holocaust, as they remained unable to believe in a God who allowed the genocide of six million Jews. As troubled as their relationship with God may be, Torah still draws at their Jewish hearts, not in a religious manner but in a cultural fashion. It is hoped that the best lights of the Torah will, one day, lead people back to God.

It is not just the actual study of the Torah that has been rehabilitated but also the glory and pride of the Torah that has been restored. I remember first visiting the famed Altneuschul in Prague, expecting to encounter a palatial building to match the lore of this legendary synagogue. I was shocked to discover a dank and dark hovel-like building. In many lands, Jews were banned from constructing magnificent houses of worship or of study. In societies of imposed religious hierarchies, churches and cathedrals were meant to be towering and magnificent, while Jewish religious sites were meant to be run down and depressing. This was all part of the psychological warfare waged against the infidel Jews whom history had abandoned. If Judaism was a fallen religion, its religious sites must similarly be decrepit.

Well, things certainly have changed. Beginning primarily in the 19th century and continuing into the modern era, we have begun to construct majestic synagogues and grand halls of Torah study. This process has accelerated in our homeland, and we are finally affording Torah the architectural prestige it deserves but was denied for so many centuries. For this, as well, we celebrate on Simhat Torah.

Often, people ask the following question: How do we know? How do we know that our return to Israel and our resettlement of this land is a divinely inspired moment rather than a historical hiccup? In many ways, the answer to this question is, as the famous trumpeter Louis Armstrong remarked, “If you have to ask why, you will never know.” However, if we are looking for signs that our return is part of some larger divine plan, we must look no further than the incredible spread of the Torah.

History is unfolding before our eyes, and our celebration of Simhat Torah must reflect these changes. ❖

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.