This post is about books. Sort of. It’s about The Book. Yes, That Book. It’s not about religion per se (at least not in the way one might be thinking.)
I am having my second Bat Mitzvah on the 23rd. It’s a quadruple adult Bat Mitzvah – to be truly grammatically correct, it’s a B’Not Mitzvah. What’s a second Bat Mitzvah and why am I having one? Didn’t the first one take?
It did. I had a very usual Bat Mitzvah the first go-around. I’m going to go ahead and assume my library peeps are worldly enough about cultures that I can forego an explanation of what it is, if that’s all right. When I was 12, I had been through five years of Hebrew school twice a week, learned all the prayers, gotten a new dress, had a cake and a party and gleefully cashed in my numerous gift certificates to Camelot Records (pretty sure you can all figure my current age out now!) and bemoaned the number of trees that had been planted in Israel in my name by my less-cool aunts and uncles. And it stuck: I continued going to synagogue on the days of obligation, had my wedding performed by a rabbi and now I have two little boys who are on the same path. Which leads me to why I’m having this second Bat Mitzvah.
When I was young, Hebrew instruction was notoriously terrible: it was disorganized, torturous and ill-suited to the task. I am very good at languages, but still needed an expensive and unpleasant round of tutoring just to get me to limp through my passage of the Torah. My mother wondered aloud to the rabbi what the deal was, and even he didn’t have an answer. I made, it, but even seeing printed Hebrew in a prayer book in the intervening years gave me a slight frisson of terror at the memory.
Fast forward 30 years. My older son is nine, and one of these days he’ll be getting ready for his turn. Hoping to spare him the agony and me the expense of the same journey my mother and I took, I signed up for a basic adult Hebrew class and decided I would be his tutor and eat the grief myself.
My older son is doing just great, because the quality of Hebrew instruction offered now is from some other planet than what I experienced. I also did just great. The women in my class, denied the opportunity for their own celebrations at the traditional age, elected to celebrate collectively. I anticipated only waving from the audience and wishing them well, but they insisted I stand up too, so here I am, nervously practicing at odd moments to prepare for next week.
And now, The Book. It’s customary to ask the Bar or Bat Mitzvah to consider his or her portion of the Torah seriously and write a short speech relating the passage to a current event, to an episode in his or her life, or in some way make a very ancient text relevant to modern existence. (That’s a tall order for a 12-year-old.)
Approaching this as a scholar, I wanted to consult multiple sources, and wanted to start with foundational texts. The canonical place to start is the Midrash, which is a collection of commentaries written by learned rabbis over centuries on the chapters of the Torah. Perfect!
Except I couldn’t find one. Surely this is a thing that would be online. You can get the entire Torah online in Hebrew and English in multiple iterations, and I found many variations of certain portions of Midrashic texts, but I was looking for the entire definitive one, to no avail. I looked in my online databases and in collections of ebooks. I looked in the collections of college libraries. Nope. Maybe it’s me, I thought. Or maybe it’s how I’m approaching the subject.
“Is it like the Egyptian Book of the Dead?” I asked the cantor at one of my rehearsal appointments. “That was varied to fit each person, so there’s no single text that’s considered the ‘right’ one to read. Is there a different Midrash for different purposes, or from different schools of thought, and I should be looking in some other way?” I was perplexed, to be sure.
“You want the Midrash?” he said. “I have one right here.” He did. It was a large hardbound book with a decorative dust jacket. Being who and what I am, I immediately opened to the second page and copied down the bibliographic information before consulting the necessary passage. (Just in case someone asks me for a Works Cited page after the service, I guess?)
It actually didn’t solve my real problem – the passage I read shed no real light on the subject I was mulling over – but it did highlight this salient fact: when in doubt, I reach for books, and moreover I aim for the most authoritative and fundamental sources on a subject. I’m not a very spiritual person, actually, but I would call that a kind of faith.