Simchat Torah (literally "Rejoicing Over the Torah") is the festival observance that marks the conclusion of Sukkot (and by extension the fall Jewish holiday season). It is a relatively late innovation in Jewish observance. There is no mention of the holiday in either the Bible or the Talmud.
In summary: Simchat Torah is the moment on the Jewish calendar when we complete one year's reading of the Torah (with the end of Deuteronomy) and then embark on the new year's reading immediately (with the beginning of Genesis). The continuity of the Jewish people, and its devotion to the reading (and study!!) of Torah is cause for celebration, and thus the joyousness of the holiday. It is an incredibly important holiday, in terms of expressing some of the most central ideas of Judaism. Its just not a very complicated one, thus we'll spend almost zero time discussing the logistics of the holiday in class. You can read more on your own about it here, here, and here.
It is fitting, during this class, to consider the definition of "Torah." In class we'll see how the term goes well beyond the first five books of the Bible...to encompass the whole of Jewish religious literature. This will give us the chance to spend a few minutes learning the basic building blocks of the Jewish library. The best one volume to read on this essential stuff is Barry Holtz's "Back to the Sources."
Given that Simchat Torah is the holiday on the Jewish calendar that celebrates Torah and Torah study, this is the natural time to discuss the importance of education in Jewish life. We'll touch on it briefly in class. Many communities have an umbrella organization that sustains Jewish education. Our's is called the Agency for Jewish Education. Check them out - especially their Makor online guide to Jewish adult learning opportunities throughout the county.
What I'm really interested in doing with our session, though, is more deeply exploring the question of how we (liberal Jews) study, read, understand, and respond to Torah.
As a committed liberal Jew myself, this question occupies a great deal of my time and energy. It is a pedagogic question (in terms of teaching and learning), but it is also a theological one. Each of us brings all sorts of presumptions to the table when we study text. Presumptions about the nature of Scripture and its authorship. About the (non?) existence of God, and of God's nature. About the role/authority of Scripture in our everyday lives, and - more particularly, in our daily Jewish observance.
Needless to say, IMHO there are not necessarily any right answers to any of these big questions. But I do believe that it is so very, very, very critical that we be engaged in thinking about the questions. It is, in my opinion, a pre-requisite in terms of being able to adopt a certain lifestyle that include some kind of (semi) regular Torah study.
There won't be any handout for the class, because we'll be occupying ourselves primarily with three primary source texts from the Torah. (It would take all the fun away if I showed you the texts now.) Suffice it to say: they will be coming from Genesis, and the series of narratives telling the biography of Abraham (and his wife Sarah), and their son Isaac (and his wife Rebekah).
Our conversation will seek the intersection between questions concerning Biblical authorship and the larger question of Jewish theology. There is an array of suggested reading in both of these areas.
In terms of Biblical authorship, you might consider checking out:
- "How to Read the Jewish Bible" by Marc Zvi Brettler
- Anything by Robert Alter for an excellent treatment of the Bible "as literature" (especially his two "Art of..." books)
- "Heavenly Torah" by Abraham Joshua Heschel - for a high-level survey of the authorship issue in Talmudic and Midrashic literature
- "The Chumash (Stone Edition)" - this is the standard English anthology of traditional (i.e. Orthodox) Torah commentary. Although it does not include any kind of comprehensive essay on authorship, it is the obvious "go to" place for the Orthodox explanation for the Torah's "text issues" (like the one we'll be looking at in class). The Reform and Conservative movements have published their own commentaries, which come, of course, with their own respective ideologies.
- "The Book of J" by Harold Bloom...the noted Yale literary critic posits that a big chunk of the Torah was written by a woman! OK...I'm not sure it's realistic to buy into the hypothesis....But his comments on how to read text are outstanding.
- The predominant theory surrounding the human authorship of the Torah is called the Documentary Hypothesis. The most popularly accessible recent rendition of it can be found in Richard Elliott Friedman's "Who Wrote the Bible?". His approach is brought to life in the companion volume of the Torah (color-coded by author!) entitled "The Bible with Sources Revealed."
- Begin with the very accessible "Finding God" by Sonsino and Syme.
- Graduate from there to "The Way Into Encountering God in Judaism" by Gillman.
- If the subject still interests you, then the one volume anthology of primary sources entitled "Contemporary Jewish Theology" should keep you busy for years to come!