Opening and the Ark

What does it mean to open the Ark?

In my experience the Torah service exhibits more diversity than any other part of a Jewish service. Reading length varies across denominations. General approach ranges from informal circles embracing Torah to formal, long-standing choreography. And the Torah service is one spot where women’s absence on the bima, in congregations without egalitarian practice, is the most obvious. Moreover, it is one of the few moments where division of Jews into Kohen, Levite, and Yisrael is still obvious in Orthodox and Conservative congregations (where a kohen [priest] is called to the first aliyah [“going up” Torah honor] and a Levite to the second).

How much is shared across this variety? And what do the variations mean? — Are they matters of custom, preference, and leadership style, or theology? Which one(s) work for you and why?

The Torah service is not the only point when the Ark is open. But the beginning of the Torah service presents a prominent opportunity to contemplate what it means to us, individually and communally, to open the Ark… to approach Torah and have Torah brought into our midst.

Here is a prayer of my own, based on words commonly recited as the Ark is opened. Below that are links to the prayers that inspired mine — B’rich Shmei and Anim Zmirot — and more thoughts on opening the Ark.

What is your prayer for approaching the Torah?

To what are you opening?

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New “Ball of Fire”?

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary — published in 2008 by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) — includes full English and Hebrew Torah texts interspersed with commentary; introductory essays; and an overview, poetic “voices” and “another view” for each weekly portion. It encompasses the commentary of 100 authors, from across the spectrum of Jewish practice and belief, and incorporates the work of 140 poets. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is attractive and useful, but it is unclear whether it does — or should — meet its creators’ expectations.

I find this publication situation a bit reminiscent of the 1941 Cooper/Stanwyck movie, “Ball of Fire”:  Professor Bertram Potts and fellow lexicographers are about to publish their long-researched dictionary when Potts realizes that language usage has changed — “cats” are spending “dough” — while they’ve been in their study. Much has changed between 1992, when the URJ commentary was conceived, and 2008, when it appeared — and those years are not clearly reflected in the new volume.

I was similarly struck when Alison Lavie spoke at the conference, “This is My PrayerVa’ani tefillati: Jewish Women in Prayer,” on March 1 (2009). Her comments centered around her personal discovery of women’s prayer traditions from various points in Jewish history. To some Israeli audiences, “Why didn’t I know about the women’s traditions of my ancestors?” might have been a reasonable refrain; to a U.S. audience — one self-selected for an interest in prayer, and women’s prayer at that — the question drew many puzzled looks and mutterings long the lines of, “Good question. Why didn’t you know about women’s traditions?”

Various compilations of Jewish women’s prayers have been available in English for nearly 20 years. And, while Lavie’s recent English publication, A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book, was a welcome addition, it was not “groundbreaking” for U.S. readers — and her remarks were not news to many in the conference audience.
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