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New Tohu Bohu series: Parshot

OK, here’s a new series of posts for this Tohu Bohu: The weekly parshah. For those who don’t know already, in the Jewish liturgy is a weekly portion of Torah reading. The Books of Moses, or the Humaish (five), are divided into portions so that we go through the whole thing every year. In the autumn, after Yom Kippur, at the end of Sukkot, we come to the end and begin again on a holiday called Simchat Torah. Remember, for the ritual we are reading not from one of those new-fangled codex things with a spine and pages where beginning again is a matter of flipping the book over, but from a good old-fashioned scroll which requires rolling the whole thing back to the front, a workout you can’t get at the YMHA. Anyway, Simchat Torah is Thursday night and Friday, which means on Saturday we’re starting all over again with parshah B’reisheet, Genesis 1:1-6:8.

Anyway, the point here is that Your Humble Blogger happened to mention during Torah discussion a few weeks ago that the great Elie Wiesel in his lectures (which have evidently been collected in a book! It must be mine!) provoked new thought by asking if the stories we knew so well didn’t have to go the way we knew them. What if Moses doesn’t hit the rock? What if Abraham told Sarah that he wouldn’t expel Hagar and Ishmael? What if Delilah doesn’t betray Samson? The point, of course, being to try to think about these stories in a new way, to get us out of the nursery habits of thought, after years and years of hearing the stories over and over again. Elie Wiesel is magnificent at identifying interesting questions, and bringing them up in a way that gets me, at least, wanting to read the story again, and think about it.

So, our Rabbi, who didn’t have the advantage of sitting in the big hall at BU listening to the gentle Carpathian voice, thought this was a great idea, and as she had been looking for a sort of theme to address the text this year, decided to adopt it. And to assign me the task of looking over the text in advance, and trying to come up with those moments when the story might have gone another way.

Help!

I’m hoping to post here every week with the parshah, some possibilities, and that link down there that says ‘View and post comments’. If you have never read the texts, this is a pretty good way to get that basic cultural stuff into your reference frame, and (for YHB’s selfish benefit) your impressions will be fresh, without the baggage of your nursery years. If you have read them, and have thoughts, then jump right in too, as that will help me as well. Then I get to pass along our thoughts to the Rabbi, my congregation gets to wrassle with them at Shul, and I get to report back.

And heck, it’ll be more fun than politics, right?

                           ,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

This sounds very nifty. As someone who didn't read (or even encounter) a lot of the stories from the Humaish until Swarthmore, I guess I qualify as having no nursery baggage.

Actually, I already have a sort of meta-question: has anyone ever written the first half of the Humaish on one side of the scroll, and the second half on the back? Would this be sacrilege for liturgical reasons, impractical for some reason I can't visualize (I've never seen one of these scrolls), or simply too much of a deviation from tradition? Since "be kind, please rewind" has been very cleverly turned into a holiday, I can't see that there's any real need for a two-sided Torah innovation; I just wondered whether it had ever been considered and officially frowned upon at some point in history.


Well, it would have to be upside-down on the back, wouldn't it?

I don't know if the idea came up, but I suspect that (a) the bleed-through would be nasty, and the thing is hard enough to read as it is, and (2) when you lay it on the table to read a column, the sacred text on the back would be face-down on the table, which would be disrespectful (and also would wear out sooner).

          ,
-V.


So you're looking for a sort of alternate-history Torah here?

...More seriously, I'm a little unclear on the basic idea here. Is the point to extrapolate how things would've gone differently if a decision point were changed? Or to see if things would've gone the same way in the end? Or to show that they couldn't have gone any other way? Or...?


Well, and my idea here is to use the trick as a way to think about the stories again, just to startle us into thinking what it means that the story goes this way and not that way. That's why I think it's more interesting to ask about the human characters, rather than about the Creator. Questions about the Creator tend to get really general really quickly.

As an analogy, albeit a weak one, take children's stories, such as, oh, the Princess and the Pea, or Cinderella. Over the last twenty-five years or so, it's become common to write different 'modern' versions. What these versions often do is point up aspects of the stories that people didn't notice, usually their misogyny or racism or whatnot. This is almost the reverse of that; by looking at how the story might have gone but didn't, we can look at (an aspect of) what the story means.

Does that make more sense?

          ,
-V.


What "if the stories we knew so well didn’t have to go the way we knew them" ?

Cool. I think I came across an analagous variation: What if our interpretation of the story were backwards? An illustration (foggily remembered): some discussion I had... with Bhadrika? years ago? about Dan Simmons' Hyperion? brought up the Abraham sacrifice story... and interpreted this as Abraham testing God (was this a worthy god to worship) rather than God testing Abraham's trust & faith.


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