Who kisses the Torah: Kids? Adults? And who studies Torah? -- Parashat Bo, 5776 / 2016

Perhaps you have noticed that ours is a relatively child-friendly Jewish community!   You may have seen evidence of this when, every Shabbat morning, as we put the Torah scrolls away, we invite young children up to the bimah to kiss the Torah scrolls as they are put in the ark. (or rather, to kiss them by proxy, by touching them and then kissing one's hand.)

Every so often, I am reminded that this is something distinctive about our congregation, when visitors comment that their experience here is different from some other synagogue communities where children are not made to feel as comfortable.  A few times, I have had people come up to me and say, "I have never seen that before, where you have all the kids come up and kiss the Torah scrolls."  Sometimes they add, "It was so moving for me to see," and I know that they liked it. Sometimes they say, "It was so…interesting," and I know they were a little less fond of it.

I have been asked, “is that really a traditional Jewish thing to do, to invite children up to the bimah to kiss the Torah?” The answer is that this is actually a time-honored custom, described in the 13th Century Viennese compendium of Jewish law and custom called Or Zarua.  The author writes, “After the Torah is read, the leader goes and sits on the bimah, and all the young children go and kiss the Torah scroll while it is being rolled.  This is a nice custom, to teach and instruct the children about the mitzvot.”  (Or Zarua, Shabbat, 2:48). Apparently, the only innovation in our community is having this ceremony take place when the Torah is safely in the ark, rather than at the precarious moment when the Torah is being rolled.)   So the next time you see our kids coming up to the bimah to kiss the Torahs, you can know that they are taking part in a tradition that is at least 700 years old!

The central role of young children in a Jewish community is also affirmed in the Torah reading that we read this Shabbat, from Parashat Bo, towards the beginning of the Book of Exodus.

We may sometimes forget that, according to the Torah, whenever Moses was approaching Pharaoh, Moses was not simply saying "Let my people go free!"  Rather, Moses was saying, "Thus says the Lord of Israel:  Let my people go free to serve me in the wilderness." Moses was asking for a one-week furlough from their servitude.  He was asking for permission for the Israelites to journey for three days into the desert and make their offerings, and then – ostensibly – to return to Egypt. But Pharaoh says no.  Perhaps he just doesn't want to grant them this vacation. Or perhaps he realizes what is obvious throughout the story: that once the Israelites taste freedom, they're not going to want to return, and that letting them go into the wilderness is tantamount to releasing them.

After the seventh plague, Pharaoh finally relents and gives the Israelites permission to go into the desert, but he says that the Jews are conducting a religious ceremony, so the women and children don’t need to go -- just the men. Moses and Aaron respond, “Bin’areinu u-vizkeineinu nelekh” – "We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe the Lord's festival." (Exodus 10:9)

This phrase – bin’areinu u-vizkeineinu nelekh, “we will all go, young and old,” – became a rallying cry for the involvement of all people across the age spectrum in the Jewish community.  A community that does not provide for its young, or its elders, is not fulfilling Jewish values. This quotation is often used to justify prioritizing Jewish involvement of the youngest people in a community, because without the younger generation, a Jewish community has no future.

However: surprisingly enough, the Talmud addresses the question of what a family should do if the family does not have enough resources to enable both the parents and the children to study Torah. The Talmud indicates that the parent should take precedence over the child in the event that there are not enough resources for both to learn.

Rabbi Howard Gorin, who was a high school teacher of mine, is today one of the most important American rabbinic liaisons with the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda. Years ago, the Abayudaya community posed this very question to him:  if we have only enough resources to arrange for Jewish education for adults, or for children, which should we prioritize?

Rabbi Gorin’s wise advice is at odds with the conventional wisdom in the American Jewish community.  He writes:  “The Talmud tells us that, while it is an obligation of the parents to educate their children, when there are only enough resources for either the education of the children or the education of the adults, the adults take precedence. I saw the wisdom of this when I visited Russia in the late 1980’s. Most of the resources – funds, books, and teachers – were dedicated to the education of the adults. Children’s education took second place.  The theory was that, if the adults learned about Judaism and practiced what they learned, the children would learn from their example – while if the children learned about Judaism but saw that their parents and other adults were neither learning about Judaism nor practicing it, these children would conclude that Judaism is for children only, that it is a phase that one grows out of, and that once a person becomes an adult, the practice of Judaism can be relegated to a position of secondary importance. Regrettably, this latter is what plays out in Jewish communities throughout my country.  For example, Bar Mitzvah, instead of being the entrance into a rich, adult Jewish life, is often the exit point from Judaism.  Our community suffers because of this.”

We are fortunate to have created programs for children’s Jewish education here at USH that are welcoming and inviting, but we must ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of creating “pediatric Judaism,” giving the impression that Judaism is fundamentally for kids and is something that adults outgrow.   We are fortunate that excellent adult Jewish educational opportunities are available to us – whether here at USH, or throughout the New York metropolitan area, or through web sites, podcasts, and distance learning (contact Rabbi Scheinberg if you don’t know where to begin!) The Jewish future cannot thrive without the involvement of young children – but it also cannot thrive without adults of all ages demonstrating an adult-level engagement with Jewish learning and tradition.


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