Simchat Torah – A complex journey
Yes, I’m Jewish, but truthfully, for most of my early life I had no idea what Simchat Torah was. I grew up in a secular Jewish home in Northern California. I was raised with what I thought were a fairly normal set of “Jewish” values – values of social consciousness, inclusion, a fairly progressive outlook on life. But for our family, religious values…well, those were a little more complicated.
Growing up I was taught that the Bible was a set of myths. They were our myths and wonderful ones at that, but myths just the same. The story went something like this: during ancient times Jews were a wandering people in the Middle East who lived in close proximity to other wandering peoples. Like other Middle Eastern peoples, Jewish people had their sets of oral traditions. Stories were told; stories were embellished. Eventually those stories were written town and compiled into written form and after a few sets of editing processes, we have today what is the Torah.
Though intellectually interesting, this explanation was hardly something to be overjoyed about.
I know this is the usual fare for college level “Bible as Literature” classes, but for me, this standard narrative about how the Bible came to be would take an interesting twist. My encounter with Jesus and the New Testament would have some very interesting implications as to how I would come to see the Bible and to understand the holiday of Simchat Torah.
Simchat Torah means “Rejoicing in the Torah.” It’s the celebration of the Torah—the first five books of the Bible—and the marking of both the end and the beginning of the yearly cycle of Torah readings. In the synagogue, the central point of the service is the reading of the Torah aloud, and over the course of the year, the entire Torah is read.
When I came to believe in Jesus at age 18, I had a deep and immediate sense of bifurcation. So was I now a Christian? Yes. Was I still Jewish? Yes. I threw myself into both aspects of this new life I had. I began attending a Baptist Church and the local synagogue. I began to learn about the Bible from the perspective of those who believed some different things than I was raised to believe. I heard people talk about the Bible from a place of confidence and faith rather than doubt. And I discovered that Simchat Torah was a holiday that developed out of the prescribed set of weekly Bible readings in the ancient Babylonian Jewish community – the community I descend from. Even my name, Sofaer, means scribe. At some point in the past my family would likely have been ones who copied and preserved the Torah scrolls.
It’s been over 25 years now since I came to believe in Jesus as Messiah. It hasn’t always been an easy journey, but one that has brought me back, time and time again, to the Scriptures. I can now truly rejoice in the Torah, and in all of the Bible. I’ve come to see that it’s not a set of myths. It is the word of life itself.
Josh Sofaer is the leader of the Los Angeles branch of Jews for Jesus. He is one of four boys, but no one else in his immediate family have come to faith yet. Josh previously led the organization’s New York branch and pioneered their children’s program on the East Coast. He received his theological training at Western Seminary. He and his wife, Annette, have two children, Eliana and Taliah.