The Deeper Meaning of the Hakafah

Sermon given April 26, 1996, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

There is a saying in Hebrew, which is also a cute rhyme, that goes: al ha-ta’am v’al harayach, ayn mah lehitvakayach. I know that the rhyme is lost on those who don’t know Hebrew, but the meaning won’t be. The teaching is that there is no point in having an argument about matters of taste.

For example, there is a certain restaurant in town which Toni adores and I detest. We may disagree about whether to eat there, but there is no point in our arguing about whether it’s good or not. She will tell you it’s wonderful. I will tell you that the food is lousy and the service, worse. Even though I’m right about this, and she is wrong, neither of us will ever change the other’s mind. So I occasionally consent to eat at this terrible restaurant. After all, I’m not violating my integrity by doing so. And Toni agrees not to go there as often as she would prefer, since liking that particular restaurant is not an important principle for her. There is, indeed, no point in having arguments about matters of taste.

So it is with the hakafah, or Torah procession, that we have introduced at some of our services. Tonight was one such occasion, as David and I carried the scrolls through the congregation. Prior to this spring, the hakafah was an annual event in our Temple. We marched with the Torah scrolls only on Simchat Torah, the festival when we are specifically enjoined to rejoice with the Torah. For the last several months, though, we have designated one Friday night each month for a service with both guitar and organ music, as well as a hakafah.

We do this once a month because some people are moved by the ritual, while others are not. There is no decisively principled reason why this Temple, as a Reform congregation, ought to have a hakafah or ought not to have one. The truth is that, for most of us, it’s a matter of taste.

Some can’t stand it, because it smacks of an orthodoxy they have thoughtfully decided to reject. Others love it, because it evokes the warmth of a traditional Judaism they embrace. Still others find the hakafah distasteful, for it is a departure from the established decorum of Reform Jewish worship. There are also those who welcome what they view as a new ritual, bringing Reform Jews closer to the Torah scroll than ever before. Among Jews who hold these differences of opinion, there is no grounds for an argument. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t argue. Each of us understandably wants the service to reflect our own taste. And yet, in the end, most of us must admit that we have no principled reason to embrace or reject the hakafah.

Some, though, beg to differ. They urge us to abolish the hakafah. It was, they say, never part of Reform worship. To march around with the Torah is to abandon Reform Judaism. They are correct that few if any Reform congregations ever had Torah processions prior to twenty or thirty years ago. However, Reform Judaism has always held that rituals ought to be practiced or abandoned based on whether or not they are meaningful and spiritually uplifting. Therefore, if the hakafah is moving, it is a legitimate Reform Jewish ritual.

There are others whose principled argument in favor of our newly-introduced hakafah is equally specious. They claim that the hakafah is a traditional Jewish ritual. They say that Reform Judaism ought to embrace ancient Jewish practices, unless we have a principled reason for rejecting them. The truth is, though, that our Friday night hakafah isn’t at all traditional. Orthodox and Conservative Jews don’t even remove the Torah scroll from the ark on Sabbath eve, let alone parade it through the aisles.

There are, however, two valuable and instructive comments about the hakafah that really are based on sound principles. One is in favor of the Torah procession, and the other against. How we respond to each will determine the deeper meaning of the hakafah for us.

For some, the hakafah smacks of idolatry. The ritual focuses our attention on a specific symbol. We turn to face the Torah. We kiss it. Are we worshiping the Torah? Are we lavishing upon the Torah scroll a level of adoration that ought to be reserved only for God? Are we venerating the Torah as a physical object, while ignoring the Torah as God’s teaching?

These questions raise serious issues that go deeper than the theoretical. In recent years, Reform congregations have embraced increasing numbers of traditional Jewish rituals. In some congregations, rituals have taken precedence over good works, which used to be the primary focus of Reform Judaism. If the introduction of the hakafah and other traditional rituals focuses us exclusively on our religious observances, if we consequently ignore our duties to humanity, then the scroll of the Torah will have defeated the will of God.

The principled argument in favor of the hakafah, though, answers this challenge directly by claiming that a ritual that venerates the symbol of God’s word may actually inspire us to do God’s word. Several of you have told me that you are moved by the Torah procession, because you had never previously been so close to the Torah scroll. Many others have been near the Torah before, but wouldn’t get so close so often if we didn’t have a hakafah. Coming close to the Torah scroll places us in the commanding presence of God’s word, which may inspire more of us to do it.

The hakafah may respond to a criticism that has often been leveled at modern American Jews. There are those who say that Jewish lay people have left their Jewish obligations to be done by rabbis alone. Instead of doing the mitzvah of bikkur holim, visiting ill and infirm members of our Jewish community, congregations have enjoined rabbis to do this task on their behalf. Instead of observing the commandment to study Torah, to be knowledgeable Jews, congregations deputize their rabbis to know the Jewish tradition for them.

We may certainly dispute this charge. More than a few members of our own Temple do take their Jewish obligations seriously. Moreover, since most congregants must attend full-time to school, work, and family demands, none can be expected to spend as much time as rabbis do attending to the requirements of Judaism. After all, this is our full time job.

Be that as it may, though, who would dispute that there is room for growth? As the Torah scroll is carried off the bimah and through the congregation, we affirm that the word of God is incumbent upon all Jews, and not on rabbis alone.

Rabbis are expected to be masters of the Jewish tradition who teach the Torah and interpret its commandments for the people. Rabbis are not priests, who intercede for the people before God. Each individual Jew is empowered to pray to God directly, requiring no intermediary. Each individual Jew is required to do what God demands in the Torah. By bringing each congregant into close proximity with the scroll of God’s word, the hakafah symbolizes the direct relationship between the people and God.

That relationship is one of the historic insights of Judaism. Last month, at the rabbinical convention that the Stahls, Toni and I attended, I had the opportunity to study with Dr. Jeffrey Tigay of the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Tigay is an expert in the religion and sociology of ancient Israel and the Middle East. Through his studies, Dr. Tigay has learned that Judaism was unique among ancient Near Eastern religions in teaching that lay people should study and do God’s laws.

Dr. Tigay reminded us of the selection from the Book of Nehemiah, which we read as the Haftarah on Rosh Hashanah morning. In it, Ezra the scribe reads the Torah to all the people of Israel, women as well as men. This passage has no parallel in other ancient Middle Eastern religions. Their scrolls were read and studied by kings and priests exclusively.

A mosaic, discovered by archeologists in Dura-Europus and illuminated for me by Dr. Tigay, paints the picture clearly. It depicts a Babylonian king, holding his legal scroll, rolled up, closed, in the firm grip of his hand. After all, the teaching of his Babylonian god applied only to him. Since he already knew what it said, he had no need to open it. That same mosaic also depicts an ordinary Jew. He is holding the Torah, and it is open. The teaching of our God belongs to every Jew. There is more in it than any among us can ever hope to know, so we must keep it open, keep it in our midst, and study it.

The hakafah, then, imposes a double responsibility, for both rabbis and lay people are included. We rabbis must impart what we have learned, and help our community to know the tradition that is ours to do. As we carry the scrolls into the congregation, we recommit ourselves to this task. You, our congregants, as you turn to kiss the Torah, brought close to you more often than ever before, must also embrace God’s word in your hearts. We invite you to receive the hakafah as a symbol that you share the responsibility to study the Torah with us, and to do the mitzvot.

Should we continue to have a hakafah at our Friday evening services once a month? Should we do this more often, or less frequently? To a large extent, that depends on our taste. If you have one, please make sure that Rabbi Stahl and I know what it is.

But, if the hakafah has a deeper meaning for us, our principles may prevail. If the Torah procession gets us hung up on rituals, to the exclusion of our Jewish responsibilities, it must be abandoned. On the other hand, if the hakafah inspires us to share our Jewish responsibilities, then we may embrace it. As always, Rabbi Stahl and I are eager to know what it means for you. Amen.