By Harriet P. Gross
Jews have always discussed and disagreed — debating seems to be in our DNA. Our great texts were born of sages pitting intellect and ideas against each other. Much of what we are today came from prior collisions of intelligent minds. But I wish we’d argue more today. Chances to challenge each other run every week in our TJP. But where are the Letters to the Editor?
A rare one recently appeared at the bottom of a back page, and I was especially thrilled to see it because I take exception to its premise. The writer railed against the practice of Torah dedications, equating them with buying the privilege of naming something, anything, in a synagogue.
I think very differently. Brick-and-mortar congregations long ago learned that “selling” the premises — putting a price on something, and putting the buyer’s name on a plaque in or near that something — is good for finances. But a Torah is not a social hall or a classroom or a water fountain. It’s our life, and it’s never for sale.
A personal story: my beloved Boubby the Philosopher and her husband, my Zeyde, were charter members of a little shul, one of many “affinities” founded by early 1900s immigrants who came to the same places in America from the same parts of Europe. They were so devoted to their congregation, that when neighborhood demographics changed and the shul moved to a new location, they moved their own family near it. The original social hall, classrooms, water fountain were left behind; that’s what happens to brick-and-mortar institutions as populations shift. But the Torahs went with them. One had been given to the shul by my mother and her siblings in recognition of their parents’ abiding loyalty to that congregation, wrapped in a mantle saying those two founders were being honored by their children with this gift.
Almost a century later, all the little shul’s original members had long since died and the Jews of their city were once again moving away. Only a few old folks were still clinging to the neighborhood, so the congregation’s directors — my Boubby and Zeyde’s youngest son was one of them — reluctantly decided to close their doors. The building was sold to strangers, but the Torahs were given to family members of the founders for rededication in their own congregations. No money was involved when the Roth Torah, named for my beloved grandparents, came to live in the ark of my own congregation here in Dallas.
I suspect that our TJP letter-writer was referring to the recent dedication of a new Torah by another local synagogue because some money was requested here, but it was not to purchase the Torah itself. Rather, it was to offer something truly priceless to any Jew who wanted it.
A family or a synagogue may decide to recognize one or more of its own or to mark a very special occasion with the precious gift of a newly-written Torah to the congregation. And the writing of a new Torah also offers the opportunity to fulfill the last of our 613 Commandments, which enjoins all Jews to write a Torah within our own lifetimes. Of course we’re not all scribes, but we can touch the tip of a scribe’s quill pen as he writes, which symbolically allows us to fulfill that commandment.
Although we are asked to give something to the congregation for this essential privilege, nobody is “selling” that Torah, or “buying” a part of it: Rather, this is a kind of quid pro quo through which every Jew may benefit.
My own synagogue’s first Torah is named for the prominent local businessman who donated it when the congregation was just forming and had none. Among its others are one given by a man in memory of his wife, one given by parents in memory of a child, one given by a couple to honor their own young children. Only one was newly scribed, presenting us with the great opportunity to partake in that final commandment. And the mantles of all our Torahs bear the names of those who will be remembered and honored forever, long after the social hall and classrooms are vacant and the water fountain has run dry, because the holy scrolls will be transplanted to new Jewish venues, as so many rescued Holocaust Torahs have been.
So Judaism goes on, and so should exchanges and explorations of opinions and discussions. Hooray for Letters to the Editor! Let’s have lots more of them!