The Sukkot festival, like Tisha B'Av, is slowly being erased from the diary of the secular public. Sukkot has become simply another week of holiday time. But if there is one festival that the secular public has really deserted, it is Simhat Torah - the festival marking the conclusion, and new start, of the reading of the Torah - which falls on Saturday. This is a festival for which, if one wants to celebrate the holiday, it is usually necessary to go to synagogue. For secular people who have been turned off from going to synagogue due to religious coercion and others telling them to return to the faith, this festival simply means nothing.
The times have passed when one could see children in the streets of secular neighborhoods holding flags on Simhat Torah. The times have passed when secular children knew there were flags for Simhat Torah. The majority of the secular population votes with its feet and wants no part in the holiday (even if this is a shame).
But from the point of view of the festival's content, the secular public is not the only group alienated from Simhat Torah. Were the ultra-Orthodox honest with themselves, they would be happy to be celebrating not the joy of the Torah but rather the joy of the Gemara, and they would not be dancing around holding the decorated Torah aloft, but rather with the Babylonian Talmud (since the Talmud is the Gemara). This is because the Shas - the six sections of the Mishna (in spoken Hebrew, studying the Shas usually refers to the study of the Babylonian Talmud) - rather than the Torah, is the most important book for the ultra-Orthodox public.
And from this point of view, the name of the Sephardi party list, Shas, is much more accurate and honest than that of the Ashkenazi party list, United Torah Judaism. When the ultra-Orthodox say that the yeshiva students kill themselves studying Torah, they really mean that they sit and debate issues (sugiyot) in the Talmud day and night. There is a (new) festival that reflects the most important book of the ultra-Orthodox and it is not Simhat Torah. It is the festival marking the conclusion of the reading of the daily page from the Shas, and it is celebrated in mass festivities once every few years. The ultra-Orthodox claim that they live according to the Torah, but the truth is that they live the life of the Gemara. Even the Torah sages are really the Gemara sages.
And why is all of this important? Because the principle underlying ultra-Orthodox society is that which states that "something new is forbidden by the Torah." This principle, which is one of the pretexts for not changing their clothes from those that were worn in eastern Europe, was not set down in the Torah but by the Hatam Sofer, the famous rabbi from Bratislava, some 200 years ago. It is clear that the scholars who wrote the Gemara did not believe that nothing new is permitted by the Torah since, on the contrary, they made many innovations and additions and changes. They were Reform, and Conservative and Reconstructionist.
The ultra-Orthodox also observe religious precepts and prohibitions which it is doubtful the Jews during the time of the Torah would have brought to mind. Thus, for example, it is forbidden to steal according to one of the Ten Commandments. But in the ultra-Orthodox world, the prohibition against turning someone over to the authorities, including turning over thieves to the Jewish police, is much more severe and stronger than the prohibition against stealing. No ultra-Orthodox newspaper would explain what the president, Moshe Katsav, is suspected of, since the public has a right not to know. But the Torah actually believes that the public has a right to know exactly what Shechem, the son of Hamor, did to Dinah, the daughter of Leah.
That is why it would be appropriate if the ultra-Orthodox would show a great deal more reticence toward the new and innovative streams among the Jewish people. It is the right of people in secular places of learning to interpret the Torah in their own way, a right which in no way is less than that of the sages who wrote the Talmud. In Jewish secular organizations, there is discussion about writing a secular Talmud, or a Tel Aviv Shas. Those who write a secular Gemara have the same right to do so as both those who wrote the Jerusalem Talmud and Babylonian Talmud.
Only if the Jewish secular organizations succeed, only if Judaism in the spirit of secularism breaks out of the houses of study and the colleges and is accepted by the general public, is there a chance that secular Jews will once again discover Simhat Torah (the joy of the Torah). This will be the joy of a tolerant and egalitarian Torah, a Torah that treats different opinions with respect, treats women, foreigners, converts, Gentiles, and deviants with respect, and respects the freedom of individuals. For something new is not only not forbidden by the Torah, it is essential in order to preserve the Torah and to rejoice in its joy.
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