Coursework at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism has taken me a variety of places within New York City’s intricate cultural patchwork. One class in particular — Ari Goldman’s “Covering Religion” course — brings me closer to one of the most personal facets of peoples’ lives; worship. Here are some of my observations from an afternoon of Torah study and Hebrew songs.
Pointing at Parsha
It’s Saturday evening at the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation on the Upper East Side. The cantor, Marc Hazan, begins singing in Hebrew, marking the day with Minha and Arvit, the afternoon and evening prayers. His voice lilts in tones not unlike the Muslim muezzin who calls Islamic faithful to prayer. This is not surprising considering that for much of their history, Sephardic Jews inhabited parts of the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula dominated by Islamic cultures.
Congregants fill the long, narrow sanctuary as the last rays of sunshine disappear over the horizon outside. At certain points along the stream of singing and chanting, others join Hazan. Most of the men crowd around a heavy wooden lectern in the center of the room, facing toward the large, curtain-covered cabinet in which the Torah scrolls are housed — the hekhal, or ark. Now and again, fleeting glimpses of the tops of women’s heads can be seen over the high rail of the balcony overhead.
When the singing seems to have reached its critical mass, three men move toward the hekhal, pausing in front of it as the ornamental curtain covering its doors is pushed to the side. Singing continues. With the doors swung open, one of several velvet-caped, silver-crowned Torah scrolls is selected from inside the cabinet, and the trio of men slowly parade the sacred text around the room, giving everyone a change to kiss it, or reach out with a hand and touch it so that the hand may be kissed. More singing. After another brief pause in front of the desk facing the hekhal, there is a brief silence. The highlight of the service has arrived. Removing first the Torah’s crown and then its heavily embroidered cape, the scroll is unsheathed and held vertically in the air. What happens next only lasts for a few seconds, but time seems to stand still. The two ends of the scroll are rolled slightly to the side, revealing a long, narrow strip of intricately-penned Hebrew characters. One man from the processional trio extends his hand toward a specific point in the text, little finger extended toward the week’s portion, or parsha. Suddenly, everyone in the room has a pinkie finger zeroed in on the parsha. Feminine pinkie fingers, arms, and faces retreat from their hiding place behind the balcony’s rail. For a moment, the sanctuary resembles a picture of a magnet surrounded by long, slender iron filings.
Almost as soon as it happens, the moment disappears, but the image is indelible. With the Torah passage thus highlighted, reading begins in earnest, bookending another week’s Sabbath.
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Saturday, the Sabbath, was jam-packed with opportunities to learn and pray. During the day, worshippers at the Manhattan Sephardic Synagogue — west of Central Park in New York City — pored over verses from the Torah, the Talmud, and various other scholarly works. Songs were sung and the Torah scroll read from. Now, sunset is long gone and the congregation has moved upstairs for the edible portion of this weekly celebration. Two long tables stretch the length of the narrow room, the men at one and the women at the other. Prayers are recited, bread is broken, and people break off into small, chatter-filled groups. This being a Sephardic group, some of the congregants are from Morocco, France, and even Iraq. There is no shortage of Francophone conversation. Some find a quiet corner in which to scour a prayer book alone.
Slowly, a distinguished-looking older gentleman disengages himself from a lively conversation and makes his way to a lectern at the front of the hall. He clears his throat, but much of the conversation continues. He begins speaking in a soft, patient voice, and eventually gets everyone’s attention. All eyes are on him as the room quiets down. This is retired New York Supreme Court Judge Jerome Hornblass, and he will deliver the D’var Torah, a talk connecting the week’s Torah portion to everyday life. The topic for this week, taken from the book of Exodus, is law and justice. Who better to discuss law and justice than a judge?
Hornblass zeroes in on the topic of capital punishment. Although not currently in vogue in New York State, the practice has made a resurgence in other states. The judge points out that in Jewish law, which the book of Exodus spells out in detail, capital punishment is only possible under certain conditions. There have to be two kosher (which is to say credible) eyewitnesses to the crime. The perpetrator must have been warned before he commits the punishable act, that what he is doing will lead to his conviction and execution. No circumstantial evidence is permitted. In this way, explains Hornblass, every reasonable doubt can be expunged. Otherwise, the death penalty is not allowed — under Jewish law.
Moving his narrative from the biblical world to the current one, Hornblass compares the Jewish law with the ones used in modern courts. Devices are in place to protect the innocent from wrongful conviction, but not to the extent seen in Jewish law as interpreted by Talmudic rabbis. Thus, he says, can Jews be a light unto the world, serving as an example to all its other people. Hornblass ends his lesson by comparing the Torah with the U.S. Constitution — an immutable framework upon which life is based.
With a slightly amused look on his face, the wise old judge retreats from the lectern, leaving congregants to resume munching and chatting. More singing and praying is in store before everyone retires to their homes for the evening. Hornblass will be back next week to share his wisdom of Torah and world.
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