Event Recap: The Kenyon Torah (Lecture and Discussion)

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Event: The Kenyon Torah (Lecture and Discussion)
Date: February 12th 2013
Location: Gund Gallery
Correspondent: Jessica Lieberman

On Tuesday, February 12th, Peter Haas, visiting professor of Jewish studies from Case Western Reserve University, presented his research on what he termed “The Mysterious Torah of Knox County, Ohio.”  This discussion of the Kenyon Torah falls under the umbrella of the year-long symposium run through the Kenyon Review and the Gund Gallery, which raises questions of Art and Identity in light of the challenges of post-Holocaust cultural ownership.  After being introduced by Religious Studies professor Miriam Dean-Otting, Haas outlined his approach to the Torah.  An anthropologist by training, he identified the various layers of complicated symbolism which lead to the object’s unique personality.

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The crux of his concerns had to with the Torah’s mysterious history.  The scroll was purchased and donated to Kenyon under the assumption that it had survived the Holocaust.  Although the Torah did in fact come from eastern-Europe and hence could possibly have survived the Holocaust, the specific narrative that had been connected with the scroll was invented by the scribe who restored it, Rabbi Menachem Youlus. However, apart from the legal and political complexities of this scandal, more interesting moral and symbolic ambiguities linger over the scroll.   This misuse of the memory and trauma of the Holocaust raises serious questions as to how to treat both the scribe and the Torah.  That is, in the Judaic tradition, the Torah scribe (the sofer) is granted great respect for his dedication to G-d and his teachings (the text of the Torah).  The job is not a glamorous one, but rather a  precise and arduous labor (it can take years to finish a Torah) that is undertaken for reasons of religious zeal and interest in the continuity of tradition.  Therefore Youlus’ misrepresentation of the holy book has inspired a kind of cognitive dissonance (in Haas’ terms) in the Jewish community at large.

However, perhaps more pertinent to the Kenyon community is the question of the Torah itself and how, if at all, its meaning and sacrality have been altered by these events.  Haas approached the question of the Torah’s nuanced meaning through a sort of stratigraphical mapping its symbolism.  He began by explaining the symbolism which surrounds all Torot.  The Torah is both central and essential to the Jewish tradition.  The object is the most sacred in the religion and the contents of the scroll constitute the core narratives and values of Judaism.   The next layer that Haas urged the audience to consider was the symbolism created by the Torah’s purchase.  Despite the developments which would come out later, the Torah was purchased and received under the understanding that it had survived the Holocaust.  That gesture in itself speaks volumes to the commitment of its donors to Judaic history and practice.   Thus, Haas argued that rather than viewing the Torah as tainted by the profanity of human-wrong doing, we should appreciate it as having a complicated engagement with a human history that is flawed.  From this perspective, Haas argued that we should approach the events surrounding the Torah as a teaching moment, a notion which couldn’t seem more appropriate to me, given that the word Torah itself is commonly translated as “teaching,” and that the text puts forth a definition of Judaism that holds the struggle for identity through narrativizing at its very core.

1 comments on “Event Recap: The Kenyon Torah (Lecture and Discussion)”

  1. While the subsequent scandal is disheartening, I will always treasure the memory of the arrival of the Kenyon Torah in Gambier. It was my first opportunity to collaborate on a community ceremony outside of our usual five (Convo, Commencement, et al). It gave me the opportunity to get to know Marc Bragin better, to learn an incredible amount about Jewish ceremony, and to see first hand the overwhelming number of people who turned out for its dedication. We were in the Horn Gallery when the Torah joined our community and hoped – as this was something completely new – that we might have 40 or 50 people turn up. In the end, I have no real idea of how many people where there – I was quite literally standing in the last square foot of space by the door, opening it slightly to whisper, “I’m sorry. There’s no more room! We’ll open the folding doors when it’s time for the reception!” It was so full, the caterers couldn’t get in to set up – people were standing in the kitchen, sitting on the floor, standing along the wall, standing down into the stairwell. All of senior staff, innumerable students, faculty, and staff, the Chamber Singers, and both of the Episcopal bishops who sit on Kenyon’s Board of Trustees came to participate – it was an unbelievable turn out! A woman from Knox County and her elderly mother stood next to me on the stair landing, unable to see the actual events, but singing along with the traditional Hebrew songs. At one point I murmured, “I’m so sorry you can’t see anything!” With tears in her eyes, the woman whispered back, “We’re just so excited to be under the same roof with this Torah!” More people began to gather outside, waiting for the reception when the doors would be thrown open and they could come in a see the Torah themselves. My student, Jessie, the daughter of a Rabbi, carried the Torah while circling the chuppah. Her eyes were closed in reverent joy as she circled the canopy representing the Torah’s new home. Although I’m from a Protestant background, I was fascinated and really honored to be involved with this tradition that is the ancient root of my own. Our Kenyon Hillel doesn’t have a chuppah, so I made one for the occasion from a serendipitous remnant I found – the perfect size and bright, Kenyon purple! Since the Torah’s dedication, I’ve had the joy of seeing two of my students married under that chuppah here at Kenyon! I can’t imagine forgetting Professor Dean-Otting’s absolutely effervescent joy the whole day the Torah was finished and blessed. Colleagues and students from myriad cultural backgrounds had the opportunity to add a letter to the finishing of the Torah – an incredible experience. And, I won’t soon forget the great celebration we had when two Gambier artists (and professors’ spouses), Jack Esslinger and Audrey Fenigstein, finished and presented the college with the absolutely gorgeous Ark – carved inside and out to represent the tree of life – that resides in the archives and holds the Torah. Whatever may have happened (or not) *before* it arrived, the Torah has been a sincerely received and appreciated gift in Gambier – and maybe that’s the true gift. =)

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