Simchat Torah: The joy of the Torah and how music and dance can change lives

The Jewish community world-wide has just ended the annual New Year and Atonement Days of Awe with the joyful festivals of Sukkot, Shemeni Atzeret and Simchat Torah. which celebrate the 'joy of the Torah'.

But what do we mean by 'joy of the Torah'? Do we mean that the Jewish people are joyful in celebrating the Torah, or is it the other way round? Is this the day when the Torah, regarded by observant Jews as G-d's partner in creation, takes joy in the Jewish people?

Wikimedia CommonsThe 'lulav and etrog' shaken as part of the Simchat Torah celebrations.

In Judaism law is personified as a woman. To observant Jews, the Torah is simply the 'boss'. And all the imagery is based around this partnership in which men appear to have the upper hand. But this is simply not the case. Because in everything they do they are led by the Torah which is unashamedly female and therefore multifaceted.

Many people have mocked the Sukkot custom of shaking the 'lulav and etrog', a combination of four species of plant which symbolise both appreciation of nature and the four different kinds of people who make up the world and are all equal in G-d's eyes.

Throughout the ages Judaism has been derided for the riotous behaviour that goes on in even the staidest of shuls during this last week of Jewish New Year, when the reading cycle ends with Deuteronomy and starts again with Genesis and the creation of our world.

The most famous put-down of Simchat Torah in history came from the famed 17<sup>th-century diarist Samuel Pepys, whose diaries are immortalised and open to view in the Pepys Library of Magdalene College, Cambridge University.

On October 14, 1663, when the Jews had only been officially back in England for less than 10 years (graciously re-invited by Oliver Cromwell from Spain and Portugal via Holland after their original expulsion by Edward 1 in 1290 ), Pepys got himself invited to the Simchat Torah service at Creechurch Lane Synagogue, London and did not mince his words about this clash of cultures when he returned to his diary later in the day.

Pepys objected to the women being placed 'behind a lattice out of sight'. He also found it odd that 'their service [was] all in a singing way and in Hebrew'.

We now know of course that singing brings out the emotions and is good for your health, and that Hebrew is G-d's own language by which, in Jewish thought at least, the world was created. And much as English is a glorious language that has given us wonderful words, Jews all over the world learn Hebrew in parallel to the language of their birth. Now nearly 9 million speak its modern version in the State of Israel, based on the Hebrew of the Bible.

So Hebrew is imbibed from babyhood onwards, and being the miraculous language it is, it is not surprising that Hebrew has remained the language of song that is used to this day in observant synagogues throughout the world.

Pepys continued: 'And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall.'

We also did this on Friday for the present sovereign (as Americans do for the President), in our own vernacular of English, as well as for the armed services of this country and of the State of Israel. We also prayed in English for the members of Jewish martyrs of history, including from the first and second World Wars, the Holocaust and the ongoing Arab wars against the State of Israel.

But Pepys ended with this diatribe against the Simchat Torah service, which has gone down in history as the Church view of Judaism:

'But Lord, to see the disorder, laughing, sporting and no attention, but confusion in all their service more like brutes than people knowing the true G-d, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. Away thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach, and set down my wife in Westminster Hall...'

But for the first time in the history of our own synagogue, on Friday a miracle happened. The lattices came down, and the curtains drawn aside so that the women of the shul were able to see first-hand exactly what went on in the men's section during this celebration of the creation of the world.

And Pepys is right. To see rabbis, doctors, lawyers, university lecturers and sober business people rollicking around, apparently drunk, in exactly the way depicted in the famous diary, was to witness chaos, confusion and the mind-boggling Jewish creation ritual of millennia being re-enacted in glorious technicolour.

But unlike the religion of Pepys, Judaism is a bottom-up religion. It starts with the physical which it then imbues with divinity. This chaotic, confused dance of joy was not brutish or disrespectful to G-d. It was all part and parcel of Judaism's appreciation of the creative spirit in all its facets, a fitting prelude to singing the first book of Genesis on the next day – Shabbat.

And in contrast to Pepys and the Christian religion as practised in England in 1663, the Muslim captors of the first Israeli POWs in the 1948 War of Liberation had a greater understanding of the creative aspect of divine service.

They permitted their Israeli POWs to celebrate the Simchat Torah service as captives in the Arab Legion POW camp in Umm-el-Jimal in Transjordan, the biblical land of Moab.

As described by former Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Shear Yashuv Cohen, who had been especially chosen, aged 20, to act as camp chaplain in that fateful year of 1948:

'One of the youngsters from the [Hasidic] Bratzlav Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem, a great expert in the Middle Eastern dance known as the 'Debka' [adherence to G-d], stood in the centre of the Sukkah and sang the following words: "He placed me in the desert, My heart was parched and they cried out to each other: Holy Holy Holy" [from the Kedusha of the Amidah prayer: Isaiah 6:3]. He sang this to a typical Middle Eastern Arab niggun  [tune], and quick as a flash, the Arab soldiers started to join in, celebrating together with us, stamping their feet, clapping their hands and having a thoroughly good time....

'And at the very heart of this simcha, in the midst of our rejoicing, we secretly hoped and yearned to return to Jerusalem so that in the future we could celebrate Sukkot there.'

And this is what happened to them the following month.

So what Samuel Pepys, an English Christian, failed to understand in 1663, the Muslim guards of 1948 did. They knew that their Israeli POWs were not simply dancing for themselves, but for the sake of the whole world. And that this is why when Jewish communities the whole world over sang the Hebrew words of, 'In the beginning, G-d created the heaven and the earth' on Saturday morning, they did not have in mind simply their own Jewish history, but the history and fate of the whole entire world – and the power of music and dance to change lives.

And now Christians and Jews also join together in Israel at this time of year to recreate the creation of the world.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.