Whenever I start feeling anxious and unsure about this path to Judaism I'm exploring -- which happens far more often than I had anticipated it would -- the surest remedy is to go to a Saturday morning Torah study. (Friday night is good, but not as reliable a remedy.)
And what makes Saturday morning so darn good is Torah study. And I say this as someone who has never found reading the bible particularly inspirational or whatever.
But there is something so delightful to a person of my sensibilities about a group of people sitting around really digging into a text, arguing about it, comparing translations to the original language, asking questions, willing to change their minds -- it's pretty much my idea of the Best Time Ever.
And it all works quite differently in my current Jewish synagogue than I ever experienced it in any of the Christian churches I attended for so many years of my life. Now, I don't know how typical or otherwise my synagogue is, but here's how a Saturday morning Torah study works there:
- About ten or so folks gather in the rabbi's study at 9:00 a.m. and start noshing on bagels. (Do you like that use of Yiddish there?) So clearly only a small minority of the congregation attends this Torah study, and it's usually the same faces; I'm glad I'm becoming one of those "same faces."
- We sing a couple of songs to get everyone in the proper mental space. Typically, we sing the "V'shamru," a custom that I really like except that everyone but me knows it by heart, so there's no written music. I know the melody but am still learning the words, which means that I mostly hum while everyone else sings. I find this awkward, but no one gives me the stink eye or anything.
- Then we collectively say the blessing for Torah study. I know most of this (because blessings all start with the same six words, so I've got those down) but mumble the last three words because I can never remember them.
Just a quick note to point out one of the motifs here, which is that I, as a newcomber, am sometimes out of it when it comes to parts of the tradition that "old-timers" know by heart, especially those parts that are in Hebrew. This is less of an issue during worship services when we have the siddur in hand, in part because my rabbi is great at giving the page number where everyone should be, but there's no doubt about it that there's a real language barrier to face in converting to Judaism.
- Then, the Torah study gets underway. There's a specified portion (parsha in Yiddish, parashah in Hebrew) to be read and studied each week -- much, much longer than the scriptural portions specified in the Revised Common Lectionary that many Christian churches use, so I find that there's a greater sense of ongoing scriptural story than I had in my years as a Christian. (Plus, of course, the Hebrew scriptures tend to be more narrative than the New Testament anyway.) The assumption is that everyone's been reading along with the parsha schedule and/or already knows the text pretty well because it's read every single year, so usually we focus on just one chapter. Someone reads it aloud.
- Everyone has a Torah in his or her lap and follows along, and there are always multiple translations so that we can note differences. The various Torah editions all include the Hebrew as well as the English translations, and there are always several people, not just the rabbi, who know Hebrew well enough to talk about the original text. I'm not one of them, of course, but I like having the original text as something that's accessible to people in the group.
- The rabbi always has some element or theme that he wants us to talk about, and he always has a handout on which he's compiled what various Jewish thinkers have said about this Torah portion over the centuries. We spend about an hour talking about the one chapter we're studying and the various Talmudic and modern commentaries on it. The rabbi usually gives us commentaries that disagree with one another, which gives us plenty to sink our teeth into.
- We have to wrap up by about 10:15, since the morning worship service starts at 10:30. We stand up and together say the Hebrew blessing for after Torah study ... and for this there is a written script, because apparently no one remembers this one!
I find all of this study really exhilerating. Even though I mostly sit quietly and try not to be noticed during group gatherings of Jews -- I feel very aware of my outsider status, even though folks are always welcoming -- I always find myself compelled to speak up during the Torah study. After all, this is about critical reading of texts, which is definitely my thing!
This Torah study with the rabbi happens every other week during the school year, and I have missed some of them because of other obligations, but even on that schedule, I've done more serious study of scripture in the year I've been sporadically attending than I have in all of my years in Christian churches.
And whenever I leave on Saturday morning after Torah study, I feel absolutely convinced that these are my people. That faith may waver in the two weeks in between, and there have been a couple of times that I haven't gone to Torah study because I'm having an episode of "I don't belong anywhere, so there's no point in even trying." But whenever I can overcome that feeling and make myself go, I gain a renewed sense that there is in fact a place for me and that I've found it.