For those members of our communities who attend services regularly, the annual cycle of Torah reading is a marker of movement through the year, as we revisit the same narratives to find new meaning and new points of connection. Even for these members, however, the way in which our Torah and Haftarah readings are selected may be opaque.
In this essay, Rabbi Reuven Silverman of Manchester Reform Synagogue (Jackson’s Row) who for many years has compiled our “Calendar of Readings” discusses the ideas and values behind how we choose which pieces of Torah and of the Prophets to read.
One of the biggest mistakes in the history of Judaism was to change from a triennial to an annual cycle of Torah readings. Fortunately Reform Judaism revived a triennial system.
In ancient Israel the entire Torah was read over a three-year period. The sidrot (54 weekly Torah portions) were then divided into smaller sections (approximately a third of a current portion), and one of these smaller sections was read each week. Thus the whole Torah was read from beginning to end over three years. In Babylonia this was changed so that a whole sidrah was read every week, and the whole Torah each year. The Babylonian method became the norm, as it is in Orthodox communities to this day, whilst the Israelite system died out, until a version of it was revived in the 19th century by Reform Judaism. This move was in line with keeping services from becoming too long hence too rushed. Brevity is said to be the soul of wit. It can also be the soul of wisdom.
What died with the Triennial cycle, and in Reform Judaism was resurrected, is the practice of translation. As we know from the Book of Ezra, the tradition of reading the Torah publicly began after the Babylonian exile. The Levites, ‘read the text clearly, translating’ for the people from Hebrew into the Aramaic they were used to. The meturgeman (translator) would give free-style paraphrases, targumim. By the mid-first century CE, targumim appeared in written form as standard Aramaic translations. Every translation is an interpretation, and the meturgeman would sometimes liberally expand on the text. Talmud references show that public translation occurred. Reform Judaism continues this practice. Verse by verse translation died out in all but Yemenite communities, where an additional Arabic translation took place together with the Aramaic.
The demise of reading Targum in public may have been due to its disuse as a spoken language, though it continued to be practised in private. Most probably the change to the annual cycle would have been an important factor. It trebled reading time and translation would have redoubled it. Reform judiciously uses the time saved by providing the means for making readings as comprehensible as possible. This may include explanations in addition to, or in place of, a literal translation and sometimes discussion with the congregation is encouraged.
Every effort is made to make meaningful a body of literature which is highly challenging. Selections occur within the three divisions of each sidrah, to make for more edifying reading, omitting passages which contain for example, long lists of genealogy, or details of sacrifices or of the furniture of the tabernacle, which could become like searching for spirituality in the telephone directory, a cookbook or a builder’s instruction manual.
Some important changes have been made, particularly in festival readings. Sacrificial texts for festivals are traditionally read from a second scroll. An example is when Shabbat coincides with the New Moon, (Rosh Chodesh). We have substituted the verses from Genesis about the creation of the sun, moon and stars. On Yom Kippur afternoon, the traditional reading is about forbidden sexual unions, incest and consanguinity. Hopefully our substitution of a passage from Deuteronomy urging general ethical consciousness resonates more widely than with those affected by the traditional one.
A challenge arises from the calendrical discrepancy posed by second-day festivals, observed by Orthodoxy in the Diaspora but not in Israel and not by Reform. If a second day festival occurs on Shabbat the reading is for the festival and this interrupts the sequence of weekly readings, thus putting the Orthodox one week behind, (or Reform one week ahead). Our Assembly of Rabbis, who produce a calendar of recommended readings to guide congregations, were placed in a quandary for years. It was decided to keep in step with Israel rather than the Diaspora Orthodox. Consistency and Reform Zionist identification were the values overriding local expediency.
We have introduced a special Shabbat preceding Yom Ha’Atzmaut, (Israel Independence Day), heralding rather than celebrating it in advance, for which an additional scroll reading was chosen and a haftarah appropriate to the occasion.
The haftarot pose special challenges. Traditionally they are supposed to be consonant with a theme of the weekly sidrah. This may not be so with the ‘traditional’ haftarah every year if the theme is not reflected in the third of the sidrah that is being read in our communities on a given week. The same may be true for the haftarot of particular festivals. In such cases the Reform haftarah will be taken from another part of the Prophets (Nevi’im) or even from the Writings (Ketuvim) section of the Bible. Some communities are even taking haftarot from Rabbinic Literature. These are radical innovations, requiring appropriate alternative versions of the blessings to be composed for the purpose. Creativity in Hebrew prayers is a lost fine art judiciously revitalized in this context.
Presentation of the readings is key; the medium is the message. Torah is sometimes read, sometimes chanted, depending on the abilities and preferences of the officiant, and occasionally the forbearance of his or her audience. A translation may be given beforehand, or else a d’var torah or summary. Some people have taken to offering a phrase by phrase, freestyle translation, an opportunity for them to show off their grasp of the language but not always their empathy for the concentration skills of their listeners. Story-telling techniques and even playreading styles, or as I call it, ‘Sidramatics’, are an exciting innovation, pioneered in the USA (where it is called ‘Storahtelling’) and used to some extent in the UK. In its simplest form, stories and even prescriptive passages are put into an imaginative contemporary, historical, biographical, or other narrative form. There is scope too for discussion, even debate. Acting short scenes is impressive, demanding a lot of preparation, yet paying dividends, updating the tradition of midrash in a vibrant way and breathing new life into what must be one of the longest running, regularly practised and universal story-telling traditions on earth.
In his essay, Rabbi Silverman explains the logic behind the choices of Torah and Haftarah readings in most Reform synagogues. This is driven by strong ideals – that engagement with Torah should be thoughtful, with understanding, and that we should privilege texts which are of moral resonance over those which are alienating.
Are there costs to such a model? What does it say about our relationship with Torah when there are sections that we never read in community? How do we engage with Torah when we do not read it from beginning to end, but jump between passages? Are there other, innovative, ways that we could now read Torah and Haftarah?