Black fire on white fire. That’s a talmudic description of the Torah. It’s far from the physical reality of a sefer Torah — a parchment made from the skin of a kosher animal, sewn together with sinew, the text written painstakingly in black ink on the parchment according to rules that govern its placement precisely.
The Torah, in other words, is an object that embodies the paradox that is Judaism: rigidity and passion combined in a form that manages to be both ancient and constantly recreated.
Which brings me to Temple Emanu-El in Edison, which dedicated a new Torah scroll on Saturday, Dec. 1. The service was the climax of months of preparation to welcome the scroll, donated by Joan and Barry Ellen of Metuchen in memory of Joan’s parents, Doris and Warren Elias. The Ellens, who have been Emanu-El members since 1974, also dedicated Shemot (Book of Exodus) in memory of Barry’s parents, Betty and Samuel Ellen.
I was there because my son-in-law, David Vaisberg, is the shul’s new rabbi. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been welcomed to Emanu-El officially under the same heavy, quilted, poleless huppa that many strong-armed congregants now held over the new scroll.
Services that morning began with the electricity of anticipation. The sanctuary was almost full, and the light came through the many colors of the stained glass behind the bima and rainbowed on the floor.
We went through the service as usual; after Shaharit, Dave gave a short drash. Then he went to his office, where the new scroll had been lying under a tallit, and carried it to its new home. The Torah service began, then came the Torah processional — and then we danced.
There usually is live music at Emanu-El. Cantor Jacqueline Marx has a gorgeous voice; both she and Dave, who also sings beautifully, play guitar during part of the service. There is often at least one musician on hand as well.
That Shabbat, there were three musicians — a pianist, a woodwind player, and a drummer. They played simha music as we all rose from the pews, held hands, and moved around the sanctuary and back into the social hall.
Yes, it was awkward at first. Dancing on Shabbat morning isn’t exactly a staple of suburban Reform Jewish life. But the music was infectious and the joy pervasive, and it worked. We snaked, we made new circles inside old ones, we broke off into dizzying whirling pairs. The emotion was real.
After the dancing ended, and we returned panting to our seats, the new scroll was opened and the reading began.
“We had gotten a refurbished Torah about seven years ago,” Joan Ellen said, “and it seemed to be constantly in need of repair.” So, when she and her husband realized that they wanted to give a significant gift to the congregation, they discussed it with Rabbi Deborah Bravo, Dave’s predecessor, and Dara Winston, the temple’s office manager, who made the suggestion. It made perfect sense to the Ellens, so they donated both the scroll and the colorful mantle that covers it.
“A Torah is something that is passed from generation to generation and touches every Jewish life,” Joan Ellen said.
It is also a mitzva for a Jew to take part in the writing of a Torah at least once in a lifetime. That mitzva can be fulfilled in many ways, including financially. Community members were able to pay for letters, crowns, psukim, parshiot, and books, so although it was the Ellens’ gift, it also was a gift to the shul from its members.
This Torah scroll was made by a sofer, Rabbi Moshe Eisenbach of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He is Orthodox, which means that he will allow women to touch neither the scroll nor him. That issue was finessed — he came to Emanu-El twice to give people a sense of collaboration as he filled in some of the final words. During one visit, Dave put his hand on Eisenbach’s arm as the scribe wrote, and then a community member put his or her hand on Dave’s arm. There was no direct contact between the scribe and any woman, fulfilling the scribe’s requirement; there was no difference in the way men and women were treated, fulfilling the temple’s.
Education was very much part of the Ellens’ vision. “Not only did we want the temple to have the Torah, we wanted Rabbi Eisenbach to come and teach Torah,” Barry Ellen said. “That was part of the commitment.”
The scroll is notably legible; its letters are large and crisp. It is big, so the letters do not have to be crimped. And it is beautiful — and aesthetics matter. Now that the shul boasts a sefer Torah that is novice-friendly, “We are going to encourage more people to learn to read it,” Dave said. “This scroll is perfect for us, and it is supposed to last us for a very, very long time. We will be able to honor Torah in the way it should be honored.”