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Simcha in Torah

Simchat Torah is not merely the day where we celebrate our own joy in Torah, but commit ourselves to empowering it and allowing all Jews to find their own personal Simcha in Torah.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and holds the Kaufman Family Chair in Jewish Philosophy. He is author of the Boundaries of Judaism, and Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. His latest book, Who are the Jews and Who Can We Become, was a 2023 Jewish Book Council Award Finalist.  Donniel is also the host of the award-winning podcast For Heaven’s Sake, together with his colleague Yossi Klein

I love the name Simchat Torah. It is both descriptive and prescriptive. It challenges us to make Torah a source of Simcha. Simchat Torah is distinct from Shavuot. On the latter, we celebrate God’s giving of the Torah, when according to the rabbinic tradition, God held Mount Sinai over the heads of the Jewish people and declared, either accept the Torah, or here will be your place of burial. On Simchat Torah, on the other hand, when we commemorate the completion of the cycle of our reading of the Torah, we celebrate the Torah being ours. It is referred to as a day of Simcha, because Torah is only truly ours if it is accompanied by Simcha, if one is able to feel a personal identification and affiliation with it. Fear of God creates loyalty. Love of Torah creates joy.

Each one of us can identify particular chapters or pages of Torah by virtue of which we feel it is ours, which fuel the deep, personal affiliation, creating the possibility to have Simcha in Torah. In my life, there are three such sections, without which I would not feel that Torah is really mine. Without them, my Jewish life would lack Simcha.

The first section is the famous statement of Hillel, “What is hateful unto you, do not do unto others. That is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary. Go and study.” My ability to experience Simcha in Torah begins with the belief that it is committed to the primacy of the ethical. The ethical does not exhaust my religious life. Faith, ritual, tradition, and culture are all essential to who I am as a Jew and to what I love about Judaism. I can be committed to them, however, only because I know that they have no authority to undermine or contradict what I know to be morally required and my primary obligation to it. If they do, they are not truly Torah.

The second is the rabbinic statement, “These and these are the words of the living God.” This Torah that I am committed to and on the basis of which I live my life, is not singular or monolithic. The words of God which are present in Torah, are not merely capable of diverse interpretations but themselves embody multiple meanings. Torah is not a Shulchan Aruch, a confined space wherein all souls are served the same meal, which must satisfy everyone’s needs. Rather it is a cacophony of ideas and teachings which allow for different intellectual and spiritual understandings and commitments to be expressed. Torah is a Simcha, because it can hear me and speak to me, and my voice can claim a space within the words of the living God.

The third foundation of my joy in Torah is based on the rabbinic statement: “It is not in Heaven.” On Shavuot, we commemorate the Divine origin of the Torah. But while the Torah might have come from Heaven, it did not stay there. It was not merely given to us to read and follow. It was given to us to interpret and develop. Torah is eternal, not because of its Divine authorship, but because of it being an ever-evolving Torah, shaped by those who take the time to master it and developed to meet the needs and advancements of an ever-evolving human society.

Simchat Torah is not merely the day where we celebrate our own joy in Torah, but commit ourselves to empowering it and allowing all Jews to find their own personal Simcha in Torah.

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