Just as the Torah text, which tells the story of the Jewish people from our very beginnings, is at the heart of Judaism as a religion, as a culture, and as a force in the world, so is the reading of that text at the heart of each religious service in which it figures.
And just as the Holy of Holies was at the center of the Temple, which was in the center of Jerusalem, which was in the center of Israel, which is the center of the world, we are told, so is the Torah scroll itself, the black ink, stark on the parchment, which has the irregular markings that show that it came from a living being, wrapped around two wooden poles, carved and polished where they protrude from the parchment. The parchment is tied in velvet and then cloaked in more rich fabric, and it is crowned and garlanded with silver and bells.
When the Torah is taken from its ark, it is paraded reverentially through the aisles, and people reach out to touch it, and turn to follow it as it passes by.
But once the Torah returns to the bimah, is carefully unwrapped and unrolled, and the reading begins, in many shuls people’s attention begins to wane. Often, as the reading continues, they talk to each other. Often they sleep. Sometimes they snore.
Most Jews do not understand biblical Hebrew; in fact, throughout our long history, most Jews have not understood biblical Hebrew. The impetus to come up with some way of helping them connect to the reading is an old one.
Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Congregation Bnai Israel in Emerson led services with her mentor, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the influential California-based Jewish Renewal innovator who died last year, for 15 years. He would read Torah using the usual trope — the melody encoded into the text — and then, using that trope, he would translate. “There was a world of difference between people sitting around, waiting for the Torah reading to be over so they could get to something engaging, and people actually hearing the Torah being read,” Rabbi Orenstein said.
“The Torah service is meant to be the most meaningful part of the service. It is revelation. It is revelation that is supposed to happen in the service every Shabbat.” It was that revelation that Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi’s innovation helped make more possible.
Of course, his innovation was not entirely new. It’s foreshadowed in chapter 8 of the book of Nehemiah, where Ezra reads the newly rediscovered Torah to the people, and the Levites translate it into Aramaic, their vernacular. Later, a meturgeman would translate the Torah into the vernacular as it was read aloud at services. “So this way of reading is living out in the modern context what happened before in Jewish history,” Rabbi Orenstein said.
Now, she has taken that tradition one step further. She reads a verse or two in Hebrew, translates it into English, using the same trope, and then adds some commentary, again in the same trope. “It is as old as Ezra, and as new as the 21st century,” she said. “I am both baal koreh” — the Torah reader — “and the meturgeman.”
“They’re all interwoven,” she continued. “I always give the translation before the commentary, and at times the border between translation and commentary isn’t entirely clear.” Of course, to some extent translation always is commentary, as a look at siddurim that offer very different translations of the same text makes clear.
Rabbi Orenstein does not prepare the translation in advance, “but I usually have a thought or a theme in mind about the aspect of the text I want to bring out that day. Sometimes I am surprised when things come out that I had never thought about; there is the spontaneity of the moment.”
Revelation is inherently spontaneous, she said; “By definition it cannot be anticipated. It is something new.”
One Rosh Hashanah, she said, when she read the passage about Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac, she focused on the word “makom,” which means place. “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, to the place” — hamakon — “that I will show you,” God tells Abraham in Genesis 22. But “Makom” also is one of God’s names. “Maybe Abraham saw the all-present God in perspective,” she said. “If you look at just the moment it is horrific, but maybe not if you look at it in perspective…” That is a thought that she pursued in her translation and commentary. “You can use words and puns,” she said.
Storahtelling, the concept invented and implemented by Amichai Lau-Lavie, is similar although not identical to Rabbi Orenstein’s, and “I’m sure that there are other rabbis who do similar things,” she said. “And Zalman had many students, so I am sure that many of them are doing it across the country and around the world. My hope is that the trend will grow.”
Rabbi Orenstein grew up in South Orange, where her father, Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein, became the rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El after a 35-year career there. “When I first began reading Torah this way, my father used to call it California Judaism,” she said. “And I was concerned about that. But the more I did it, the more I realized how helpful and useful it is.
“I get such strong positive feedback about it, even in places that are very traditional. It’s meaningful for people, because we want to understand Torah, and we want to hear it fresh. We want to listen better and understand it in a new way.
“I used to sit with my grandmother in shul, and she had a habit, during the Torah reading, of leaning over to me conspiratorially, elbowing me in the ribs, and saying, ‘You know, we read this last year.’ And you know what? We did!
“If the way you hear it somehow is not opened up from year to year, then it’s just rehearsal. Rehearsal of something holy is not bad, but it is not everything that it could be.
“It is the only way that I read Torah but it doesn’t have to be the only way that Torah happens in my synagogue,” Rabbi Orenstein said. Many congregants also read — something she encourages, and in which she delights — and they do it the conventional way. “But I hope that this way of reading Torah will spread.”
Jay Weinstein of Hillsdale is a member of Bnai Israel, and like Rabbi Orenstein a lifelong Conservative Jew. “It was so amazing, the way that she reads from the Torah,” he said. “Not only with the English translation, but the way she infused insight — and did it all to the trope.
“It was transporting. It drove home a lot of the meaning of the service. It was illuminating, it gave me goosebumps, and it made me well up with emotion,” Mr. Weinstein said.