During the week leading to Simchat Torah, I can never resist looking at the now-famous entry in Samuel Pepys diary of October 14th, 1663. He and his wife are guests of the tiny synagogue Shaar Hashamayim, the forerunner to Bevis Marks which opened formally in 1701. He describes himself as completely aghast at the joyous scene before his eyes.
… my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, [went] to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall,
I remember being similarly amazed by the dancing in the street with Torah scrolls, Sifrei Torah, in Cambridge, Massachusetts where I was for my Master’s degree. Growing up in modest UK it was anathema to me and pretty extraordinary to witness such confident and joyful expressions of Judaism – in the street no less!
Whilst I have to work hard to feel the abandon that the festival of Purim asks for, I love Simchat Torah. As a religious Progressive Jew, I do indeed live my life intricately involved with Torah and love nothing more than its ability to speak to our lives here and now.
We are celebrating the ending and beginning of Torah this Friday and Saturday – Shabbat and Simchat Torah 5784 happily combine – and we are honouring seven pairs of FPS folk as we do so. The Midrash on Numbers (BaMidbar Rabbah) says Torah has 70 faces – everyone has their own personalised message from it. 70 years of FPS and 70 faces of Torah. Join us to celebrate and enjoy the seventeenth century take on Simchat Torah as well.
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