Some tidbits of context
As I’ve noted, Simchat Torah (literally: ‘The Joy of the Torah’) is the final holiday of the Jewish High Holy Day season in Israel that begins with Rosh haShannah (literally: ‘The Head of the Year’).
As somebody who lacks the basic tenets of faith that underlie the theological intentions behind the holidays, it’s hard for me to attend prayer services, but I do encourage our daughter to attend the children’s service. To be somewhat more precise, I present the children’s service to her as something that she might enjoy; but I never insist that she must attend it.
We’re very open with one another about this dynamic, and she knows that I don’t believe in God in any traditional way. She also knows I am convinced that my insisting that she do something (in this case: attend services) would be counterproductive more often than not. So, whenever the two of us walk to shul (synagogue) together, it’s always at her initiative.
Prominent traditions on Simchat Torah
The holiday of Simchat Torah marks the end of the annual Torah (Pentateuch) reading cycle, and, as such, the traditions associated with this holiday mostly revolve around the Torah scroll, which is essentially the holiest object in Jewish religious life.
Reading from the Torah
It is traditional to give every member of the community an opportunity to be called up to the Torah at shul and recite the blessings over the Torah reading, which is then chanted in their honor.
In traditional Orthodox communities, “every member” actually means: “every male member who is at least thirteen-years-old”. In more progressive communities (including progressive Orthodox communities), “every member” includes female humans too.
Our shul is a progressive Orthodox shul. As such, Torah readings for both men and women are held on Simchat Torah, and this gave the person in charge of the children’s service an idea: why not hold a separate Torah reading for the community’s children?
So, a month-and-a-half before Simchat Torah, the children began learning to read and chant correctly from the Torah scroll; and our daughter decided that she wanted to participate. Every week, she and I either attended the children’s service to practice with an experienced, adult Torah reader, or else we practiced by ourselves at home.
Finally, the long-anticipated holiday of Simchat Torah rolled around; and the two of us came to shul on Monday morning for the children’s Torah reading service.
To put it mildly, our daughter did a wonderful job reading her Torah verses directly from the Torah scroll; but, honestly, that wasn’t what brings me the greatest measure of happiness. Rather, I care more that our child feels comfortable being at the synagogue and participating; and that she feels the Torah belongs to her, rather than being a foreign, weird concept that she cannot relate to.
The children’s Torah reading was a very empowering experience for all the kids who participated – and it was very, very cute – an absolutely resounding success.
Dancing with the Torah scroll
As I tried to relate in a recent poem, I am not into dancing around with the Torah scroll, which is a major part of the Simchat Torah festivities. Actually, as it happens, my wife isn’t either.
Nevertheless, I care a lot about being connected to a Jewish community, and participating in Jewish communal traditions is a central aspect of belonging to a Jewish community, regardless of how I may personally relate to them.
That’s why I decided to give our daughter the opportunity to dance around in a circle with other Jewish families on Simchat Torah and celebrate our holy Torah. Before having dinner, the two of us went to shul to see the dancing and potentially participate – she knew that it would be her decision.
Many children sit on their fathers’ shoulders as they dance around; and this is what she and I had done several years ago on Simchat Torah before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. She had enjoyed it back then. However, when I offered to put her on my shoulders for the dancing, she happily declined, suggesting instead that we go indoors to play a card game before dinner.
To be honest, I was not at all disappointed that she decided not join the dancing because I don’t enjoy it myself; and I also felt that I had done my duty as a Jewish father – I had brought her to shul for the traditional communal Simchat Torah dancing and let her decide whether or not she wanted to join in. As it turned out, she wasn’t much into the dancing; and, obviously, that’s entirely legitimate.
The lightbulb went off
One last moment that I’d like to share took place at shul during Simchat Torah, but it had nothing to do with the holiday, per se.
After the wonderful children’s Torah reading, I was speaking with the organizer of the event; I thanked him for taking the initiative and following through on his lovely idea, and we got onto the subject of Jewish education more broadly. He had once been a teacher at my daughter’s school, which is one of very few in Israel that has a mixed student body, comprised of both “Orthodox” and “Secular” Jewish students.
Without belaboring this point, my daughter’s school teaches all of its students (both “Orthodox” and “Secular”) traditions and traditional texts just like any standard “Orthodox” Jewish school in Israel; but it does not attempt to advance any particular religious worldview. Given my and my wife’s way of relating to Jewish tradition and theology, this is perfect for us.
Anyway, during my conversation with this retired educator, we were discussing my daughter’s school’s approach to Jewish education; and her school happens to be called Keshet (literally: bow, or rainbow); and the school’s insignia is a rainbow.
The school is called “rainbow” precisely because it welcomes a broad, “rainbow” range of Jewish views and practices; and I had thought that this would be fairly self-evident… Except, apparently, for my seven-year-old child, this was not self-evident at all, even though she has been attending school at Keshet for more than a year now.
Suddenly, as she stood there at shul, listening to and processing our adult conversation about Jewish education, my daughter exclaimed, “OOoooh!! So, that’s why they call it ‘Keshet’!” Even now, I remain both incredibly amused and pleased at her unexpected realization.