Strange Atheist: Candy Apples & Drama
Last year, my birthday fell on the same day as the Jewish High Holiday of Yom Kippur, which I discussed in “Strange Atheist: Reconciliation.”
This year, it’s festive Simchas Torah, another one of this atheist’s favorite holidays. At sunset tonight, Jews will gather to mark the end and yet another beginning of the cycle of Torah readings.
The celebration includes much rejoicing, singing, and dancing. In fact, there is a good deal of dancing with open Torah scrolls… an exciting endeavor even for the atheists in the crowd.
As an atheist, I don’t put much stock into any sacred text. I believe that bibles and other texts are man-made didactic tools: origin and meaning-of-life myths; cautionary tales; examples of exemplary behavior; and even entertainment (feats of strength–that sort of thing).
Like all tools, these texts can be used for good or evil. For mindless control or for benevolent guidance. For immovable mental rigor or for dynamic examination of philosophy.
It’s a lot like the internet.
And Judaism is like any other religion: it uses it’s sacred texts in different ways depending upon the congregation and its leaders.
But if I don’t put a lot of stock into the Torah itself, why do I like this holiday?
First, candy apples. Yes, the gleaming red ones that require you to smash through their hard candy shell with your front teeth. The ones that make mothers and dentists wince.
When I was very young (maybe four years old?), my father took me to a Simchas Torah service at a big Orthodox synagogue in New Jersey. It was loud and festive, and near the end, someone handed me a candy apple the size of my head. It was the best thing I had ever seen. It was the best thing I had ever eaten. As far as I was concerned, it was the best night of my entire life.
They don’t do candy apples at my current temple. Something about them being too sticky. It’s enough to turn someone atheist. (Not really.) But the holiday brings me right back to my first Simchas Torah experience: wide synagogue doors, unrestrained revelry, and giant, sticky, crunchy, heaven on a stick.
Second, drama. Let’s loop back around to the myths part of sacred texts. I was raised in a Conservative shul with a healthy respect for the Torah both ideologically and physically. Though my perspectives on both have changed, I still know, in that bodily way you *know* superstitions to be true, that if a Torah scroll hits the ground, bad things will happen.
You are not supposed to drop the Torah. You can’t even drop a prayer book without having to kiss it when you pick it up. No, I’m not joking. So imagine the Torah itself hitting the floor!
Everyone would gasp. I envision a small child beginning to cry without even knowing why.
People would want to scramble to get it off the floor, but hold on – each Torah is hand-written on parchment. There’s no room for Torah yanking just because some reveler has sweaty palms. So people would hold their breath while a couple of people very gently lift and re-roll the scroll.
Next, the fast would begin. The dropper of the Torah would need to fast for 40 days. Yes, a biblical punishment for a biblical user error. Some people say that the rabbi has to fast even if someone else drops the Torah. My guess is that changes from rabbi to rabbi.
And then everyone in attendance would relive that blunder every Simchas Torah for the rest of their lives. Maybe every time they saw a Torah handled. Who knows?
So there you have it: this atheist’s fascination with Simchas Torah: candy apples and a potential disaster scenario.
And here I’ll admit my Jewish leanings: L’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, my ancestors have arranged their lives around the Torah. It marked the passing of time, the passing down of traditions (some good, some not so good). It represented something holy, something better than our petty, temporal concerns.
So there’s something nostalgic about holding it up and celebrating another year of survival…. whether one believes in its origin or teachings is another matter entirely.