...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Simchat Torah, take two

Note: This is copied and pasted, with a few minor revisions, from an email I wrote to a Jewish friend. Because of that, I don't explain some things, like what Jewish Renewal and Simchat Torah are. If you don't know, I encourage you to Wikipedia them.

P’nai Or, the Portland's Jewish Renewal congregation, meets at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church (which they call “St. Mark’s Shul” on their website—I love that) down the hill from campus. Chris and I left walking to get there a little before sundown at 6:11. We got there in plenty of time but the only people at the church were there for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the community room. The sanctuary was completely dark, with the pews all in order, a big cross at the front, and the altar set up as though for communion, with the chalice and a loaf of bread; it didn’t look very Jewish to us, but then, religiously both of us are WASPs (she’s Episcopalian, and I’m Congregationalist…yeah) with a lot of theoretical knowledge about Judaism but almost no practical knowledge, so we thought we might be mistaken. Chris called her Jewish friend and he told her that the 6:11pm on the website calendar was probably just to inform people of the proper time to light candles at home, not that there were actually services at that time at the shul. We walked back to campus pretty disappointed. (I’m just glad we didn’t assume that the AA meeting was the P’nai Or congregation and join them—our mistake would be pretty immediately apparent, I think, and it would be incredibly awkward to leave in the middle of an AA meeting.)

According to the calendar on their website, though, Saturday they were definitely celebrating Simchat Torah at the shul. We talked about whether it would be inappropriate to go to P’nai Or for the first time on a holiday, but their website said they welcomed people of other faiths and people who knew nothing about Judaism, so we decided to just show up for the service and hope for the best. I’m so, so glad we did. I almost don’t even have words to fully describe how much I loved it. Everyone was so friendly and welcoming; the rabbi introduced himself to us and welcomed us; they were cool with us not being Jewish and not knowing any of the prayers or the liturgy or the traditions.

The service opened with the lighting of the candles and prayers sung in Hebrew, everyone (there were maybe 25 adults and ten kids there, but I’m bad at estimating group size, so who knows) standing in a circle around the Torah table. The rabbi directed four men to hold up the chuppah and said that we were going to sing to the Torah and welcome it as though it were a bride—the bride of the Jewish people, I guess. We all got into two lines, with an aisle down the middle; a woman holding the Torah walked down the aisle to the chuppah while everyone sang. After a break for dessert and conversation we all went back into the sanctuary and the rabbi explained that we were going to circle the room seven times with the Torah, each time dedicated to a different sefirah. (As far as I understand it, according to the Zohar, one of the principle texts of Kabbalah, the ten sefirot are envisioned as different emanations or energies of God, with each one corresponding to a different body part, color, gender, etc. They’re also arranged hierarchically from the female Shekhina, the sefirah that accompanied the Jewish people into exile up to the male Keter, the crown, which leads to the Ein Sof, or most holy and pure expression of God. Wikipedia can probably explain that way better than I can). As we circled the room we sang a song dedicated to that sefirah and were supposed to meditate on its influence on our lives. The sefirot songs tended to be slower and were sometimes in English—I recognized a verse from Isaiah, and the 23rd psalm; they were more like chants than songs. After making each rotation we stopped and began clapping hands and singing a fast-paced, joyous song in Hebrew while someone danced in the center of the circle with the Torah. The scroll was passed from person to person; whoever was dancing would leap and twirl with the scroll, stomping their feet, cradling it as though it were a baby, eyes closed, joyous, while on the edges we all clapped and stomped and sang and swayed. After the sixth rotation we processed outside the church into the parking lot, with the Torah under the chuppah; while cars slowed in the street to try to figure out what was going on, we sang and danced in a circle around the chuppah. We went back into the sanctuary for the last rotation, then a couple people unrolled the scroll and the rabbi talked about the importance of endings and beginnings and read the last Torah portion, simultaneously and seamlessly translating it into English, explaining its historical significance, and interpreting it. His interpretations definitely seemed to draw on Kabbalistic and Hasidic thought, but were grounded in a decidedly non-literal reading of the text—that combination is unique to the Jewish Renewal, as I understand it. After reading the last Torah portion he rolled back to the beginning and read the very first portion from Genesis.

The service lasted about three hours all in all. By the end my feet hurt from standing for so long and I was hoarse from all the singing, but happier than I’d been in long time. There was something about the celebration that was so pure and joyous, and transcendent and true—it was almost a mystical experience; the kind of experience I would have called liminal until reading Durkheim and Victor Turner made me doubt my usage of that word. I don’t know how much of that is a function of the Jewish Renewal-ness of P’nai Or, or if Simchat Torah is always like that, regardless of the kind of Judaism, but I’m definitely planning on continuing to attend services there.