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The Worst Festival of the Year

October 16, 2011 – 12:38 pm36 Comments

Arak - usually eventuates in remorse

By Alex Kats

After the dread of shule choices for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have passed, I turn to the loathing that I have for the festival of Simchat Torah. If there was one day from the Jewish calendar that I could expunge, it would certainly be that one. Some people might think that it is strange that I loathe a festival, particularly one that has the word simcha (joy) in its name, but my distaste for the festival stems from the fact that the happiness is misplaced, and the real joy that should be associated with the festival is often lacking. Allow me to explain.

At its essence, Judaism is all about the Torah. Without it, all that we know about being Jewish would be entirely different. The expected morals, ethics, laws and rituals of Judaism as well as the morals and ethics of monotheism and of the three major monotheistic religions come from the Torah. The English translation of the Old Testament of the Bible that we call the Torah is still the highest selling book of all time. The Torah in Judaism ought to be our spiritual compass and our guiding light.

Simchat Torah, as described in some of the liturgy, is an independent festival tacked onto the end of the week-long celebration of Sukkot. It signifies the end of the annual biblical cycle, whereby the weekly reading of portions of the Torah in the synagogue each week comes to an end. The tradition according to the sages is to then roll over the Torah and start reading again from the beginning. Simchat Torah therefore is the celebration of the conclusion of the cycle and the immediate start of the next cycle. Yet this festival, which was inaugurated to celebrate the Torah and make it joyous, has become corrupted.

Today, Simchat Torah and Purim can easily be confused. Both have become the festivals of drunkenness and disorderly behaviour. But whereas on Purim such actions might be warranted or at least justified in some circumstances, should they really be acceptable on Simchat Torah? My biggest issue with the day is during the part of the synagogue service in the evening and morning known as Hakafot. At its minimum, this is a time when all the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark, and a procession is conducted with various members of the congregation carrying the Torah scrolls seven times around the bimah. After that, the final portion from the Torah is read, immediately followed by the first portion. It sounds like it should be a swift and respectable part of the service, but in most synagogues it has become anything but.

To start with, although the procession need only go around the bimah seven times, as a means of injecting so-called simcha, in most synagogues this procession can take two or more hours with an innumerable number of circuits. Each circuit is often accompanied by a monotonous Hebrew song or prayer extract, and as the circuits progress, they often get faster, louder and more chaotic. Moreover, for some unknown reason, alcohol is often added to the mix. Many shules sanction the provision vodka or whisky shots just before or during the Hakafot, and even in the shules that declare themselves dry, someone usually produces a flask or two of vodka. Considering this happens during the Hakafot – one of only very few times when all the Torah scrolls are out of the ark – the consequences are sometimes disastrous.

I have heard of cases of severe injuries during the Hakafot and I have personally seen in Melbourne and elsewhere, circumstances where some of the people dancing with the Torah scrolls would otherwise be too inebriated to legally drive, but somehow are entrusted to carry G-d’s words around the bimah. On one occasion, in the middle of the Hakafot and with Torah scrolls all around him, someone who could barely hold himself upright, swore and screamed very loudly when a guy danced passed him and accidentally stepped on his foot.

Even if the people holding the Torah are not the ones that are that drunk, is there really a place for drunkenness and such behaviour in the synagogue and in front of the Torah? It is fair to say that as a result of all this, Hakafot have become an approved form of synagogue anarchy, and that the focus is much more on the simcha than on the Torah. It is a particular shame because this festival comes at the end of a month of festivals, and right after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we vow to be better in the upcoming year, but so often Simchat Torah brings out the worst in some people.

Apart from all the other issues, the Hakafot as practiced in most orthodox shules, also alienate the women. While the men dance and get drunk on their side of the divide for close to two hours, the women either look longingly at the action, or leave the sanctuary altogether. That certainly isn’t inclusive and hardly seems joyous. One solution, to solve that issue at least, even in orthodox circles, is to give one of the Torah scrolls to the women and to allow them to do their own Hakafot in another part of the shule. But to me that sounds like an afterthought or temporary fix to a greater problem. On top of that, even on the men’s side, as the Hakafot drag into their second hour of chaos, and as a dish or a window invariably gets broken in some part of the synagogue, the children usually leave because they have come to the end of their tether, and only a hardcore quorum of men remain to finish off the circuits. Eventually everyone returns for the actual Torah reading, but by that point most people are either delirious, exhausted or simply over it, and the Torah reading – which should be the highlight of the festival and is the reason why everyone is there in the first place – becomes an uninspiring and lacklustre footnote to a crazy day.

My usual way of dealing with Simchat Torah, or at least the Hakafot element, is to visit as many shules as possible during this time, thereby avoiding participating in Hakafot at any of them. And as a result of all this, if I had the opportunity, I would cancel Simchat Torah entirely. Of course, that is impossible, so what I really would like to do is redefine and reinvigorate the day. In my utopian world, the service would be made more joyous by an understanding of what the festival is all about, and by an infusion of joyous tunes that everyone could sing along to. The alcoholic Simcha would come after the service and would never enter the synagogue. Each person, male or female, would have the chance to hold a Torah and then participate in a reading with translation, interpretation and real comprehension. This would become the real highlight of the service, and it would mean that each person would leave the service with a greater understanding of what the Torah is about and how it is relevant to them. If that is not joyous in a religious sense on a day like this, then I don’t know what is. Everyone, without exception, would then be invited to a joyous meal where each person would be made to feel special, worthy and joyful.

All of this may not ever be possible because the way Simchat Torah is celebrated these days is unlikely to change anytime soon. But I did hear of a group of people last year in New York who are as fed up by the festival as I am and for a few years now have been leaving the city for Simchat Torah and celebrating it much like I have described above. This year I will certainly try to find a shule that is more inclusive and joyous without the need for alcohol, and hopefully over time, if other people here and abroad also feel that Simchat Torah has descended into something that it ought not to be, then maybe they will join my cause.

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