I was asked a question regarding the tradition of the Hakafah, of walking around the congregation holding the Torah scroll. The following is my response.
My Dear Friend
I apologize for the delay in my reply to your question regarding the hakafah. I looked into the feelings and views of a number of Rabbis within the Reform movement because, to be honest, I have never heard of such a debate. To be certain, debating ritual is a time honored custom within the Reform movement. Within the Reform movement, there is no Halacha (using the definition as Jewish Law) when it comes to ritual. The view has always been that when it comes to moral law, Halacha informs our choices and is timeless. But when it comes to ritual law, it is ‘times bound’, meaning the tenor of the times influences interpretation and ritual is flexible. Sometimes there has been more English in the service and sometimes less. Talit and Kipah were almost unheard of in a Reform synagogue 50 years ago. Now we find them sprinkled through the congregation. At one point, Bar and Bat Mitzvah was discouraged and ‘Confirmation’ was added. And since each congregation is autonomous they pick and choose, weaving their own path through the forest of ritual.
So what are the two sides of the argument? One side is, on the surface, rather simple. Traditionally, when we take the Torah out we bring it around to all men (now to women as well, even in Orthodox and Hasidic shuls). It is an honor and joy to make contact with Torah and there are several customs regarding the process. Some people will put their Talit or Siddur out and touch the Torah with it and kiss the item that touched Torah in the same way that people who have an Aliyah will touch their Talit to the words to be read and kiss it. Some people go further and lean in and kiss the Me’il, Torah cover. It is also a custom not to turn one’s back on the Torah that is being carried. In the same way, I have seen the custom among some Sephardim to face the Torah, bow and back out of the door when leaving a Shul and variations on that theme.
And here is what I call the Remez-Key/clue. The bowing and kissing and not turning one’s back are signs of respect pure and simple. The Hakafah gives us the opportunity to honor in a tangible and symbolic way, the Torah. We may view Torah as ‘The Word Of G,’ handed down to Moshe Rabbeinu and through him to us. We may view Torah as a compilation of the history, mythology, laws and customs of our people. I view Torah as our Sacred Guide and our Sacred Diary. But no matter how one views it, the Hakafah is our symbol of respect for the written word that is Torah.
The other side of the argument has several positions. The first is that it is not a Reform tradition. I am sorry but that is just silly. Reform Judaism is less than 200 years old. It was founded on the principle of individual choice when it came to tradition. Therefore to say that somehow the there is such a thing as tradition when it comes to Reform ritual does not sit well with the facts and the history of the movement.
The next argument is that by carrying around the Torah we are engaged in idol worship. My Rebbe likes to spell the word idol as ‘eye-doll’. And if there is a fear that people will begin to worship the Torah scroll as a god then by all means there should be no Hakafah. One could argue further that there is no need for a scroll at all. Simply use a Humash or Torah in book form. After all, there are many rituals involved in making a Torah in the traditional manner. Why not do away with them and just keep a book on the lectern?
And the last argument that I have heard is that the Hakafah is an archaic Orthodox ritual that we do not need to follow. That is, believe it or not, the only argument with which I have no argument. That argument is well within the Reform purview. Since its inception that has been part of the process that Reform Rabbis and lay people have used for change. It is not the end point in the discussion, it is the beginning. I do not know of a single Reform synagogue in which the entire Torah portion for the week is chanted. Indeed, until recently, chanting of Torah was not done at all. The change began with the statement that the ritual was archaic and that we don’t have to follow it. Then comes further discussion. By reading less of the Torah portion, a teaching could be given, a translation could be read and the service could be shortened. To be sure there were other points as well. My purpose is to point out the process not to detail each point within the process.
So the answer to your question is that having a hakafah is a Reform tradition. And, not having a hakafah is a Reform tradition.
But I have some personal thoughts on the Hakafah that I would like to share if you will indulge me. The Shoresh (root) of the word is Nun Koof Feh. As you know, in Hebrew each word has a myriad of meanings. You might expect to find meanings like; ‘surround, encircle, circuit, circumference, spread and encompass’. But there are some less expected meanings. The word also means; ‘to bring near, to bore into’ and it even means ‘to collect fruit from the crown of a tree’. Those meanings resonate deeply within me. Not just the surface meaning of ‘to bring the Torah near’ but to bring us near to Torah, our Sacred Guide. I love that the word also means to bore into and to collect the fruit of Torah. These meanings warm me and make manifold the meanings of this ritual. Indeed it points to our relationship with Torah.
And to put the exclamation point on this powerful lesson is the last definition of Hakafah that I would like to share with you. The root of the word also means ‘to strike against.’ And since I am a Rebbe, I have a story.
An elderly person came to hir Rebbe after services. “Rebbe, I was following along when you read Torah today, s/he said. But when you gave your Dvar Torah (sermon on the portion) I didn’t see what you said about the portion. How did you find the things you were saying in Torah? I didn’t see them there.”
The Rebbe smiled. “Tell me, my friend, when you strike flint against steel what happens?”
The confused congregant replied: “Sparks, of course.”
“And tell me,” the Rebbe continued, “Where were the sparks before flint hit steel!” Answering his own question, the Rebbe declared; “They were lying dormant in both flint and steel. My friend, Torah is steel and we are the flint. In order to create the sparks of light, of enlightenment, we have to strike ourselves against Torah. And that is how I discovered my Dvar Torah for this portion.”
The Hakafah is a ‘reminder ritual’ as all rituals should be. The Hakafah reminds us to strike ourselves against Torah, creating the sparks. It challenges us to bore into Torah to find the growth. It calls us to climb to the crown of the Tree of Life and taste that sacred fruit.
Thank you for your question, I learned a lot about something that so often we take for granted. Thank you for the opportunity to learn and to share.