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Learning To Chant The Torah Has Changed My Life As An Observant Woman

It was a Thursday evening in the winter, and the sun was sinking as I waited at a bus stop in Givat Shaul, practicing to chant my Torah reading from photocopied sheets of paper.

Moses was late in coming down the mountain, and the bus was late in coming to our part of Jerusalem, so I went ahead with the golden calf.

Although I was chanting very quietly, almost inaudibly, I nonetheless managed to catch the attention of the two Haredi young men who were waiting with me on the street corner.

“Listen to her,” one of them said to the other in Hebrew. “I have heard there are girls who do that! Weird, weird. Can you believe it?” I lowered my voice even more, conscious that once again I had become a curiosity (not to mention a girl).

It is not just among Haredi men that I am regarded as “weird” for my dedication to reading Torah. Anyone who has ever lived with me (including my Catholic college roommate, who knew how to read Torah herself after four years of sharing a suite) has inevitably asked me, at some point or another, “Why do you do that? Why spend so much time going over the same thing again and again? What’s the point?” I understand the question, and yet I can’t imagine a life with chanting from the Torah. If not for leyning— the Yiddish word for “reading,” and a term used to refer to chanting from the Torah — what would be the point?

I have been leyning from the Torah since I was about ten. I learned by sitting in synagogue, following along with my finger as the Torah portion was chanted by others. After nearly three decades of leyning, I have come to appreciate how reading Torah structures my life, attuning me to the rhythm of the Torah reading cycle in the same way that prayer times attune us to the cycle of light and darkness.

V’higita bo yomam valayla, Joshua charges the people (Joshua 1:8) – you should recite Torah day and night. When I practice a few verses from the Torah each day, I ensure that the words of the weekly Torah portion are always running through my mind. As a result, I find myself quoting verses that suddenly become relevant in other contexts, making jokes that invoke the parsha, and even occasionally choosing what I will eat on Shabbat based on which foods are mentioned in the coming week’s reading. This, for me, is the true way of following Rav Ami’s interpretation of Proverbs 22:18, which states that words of Torah should be “in your belly, that they be set together on your lips.” Explains Rav Ami, “When do you preserve words of Torah in your belly? Whey they are set together constantly on your lips (Eruvin 54a).

By leyning, I have been able to preserve and remember Torah. We remember best what we sing, which is why it is easier to recall song lyrics than to recite a poem from memory. The cantillation marks serve to infuse the text with human breath, much as God created the life force in Adam.

Once I learn how to chant a passage from the Torah, the verses come alive, as if the letters of the scroll have suddenly arisen from their fixed places and begun to dance, gaily waving their crowns. I feel like I am not leyning the Torah, but that the Torah is leyning me, carrying me along for the ride.

Leyning Torah is also a way of ensuring that Torah is a constant presence in my life. I practice chanting not from a bound hardcover Tikun —- a training manual for Torah readers — but from photocopied pages of the manual which I collected and organized in a loose-leaf binder. Each week I pick out the pages for that particular parsha and carry them with me wherever I go.

As someone who lives in horror of wasting time, carrying around my leyning on photocopied pages has served me well. I’ve discovered that xeroxed leyning is the perfect reading material to bring to a wedding or a party, where entering with a book might be taboo. But who would notice a couple of folded sheets of paper tucked beneath my arm? And who would notice if I slip away to the corner for a few minutes to practice, chanting in an undertone below the din and reveling in words of Torah?

Of course, there are some aliyot that I enjoy chanting more than others. I have my favorites, and generally they are other people’s favorites as well, so I don’t always get to read them. The most desirable aliyot are generally the most dramatic narratives where I can relive the intensity of the storyline each time I practice: The temptation in the Garden, the binding of Isaac, the rape of Dina, the seduction of Judah, the revelation of Joseph, the night of the Exodus, the splitting of the sea, the golden calf. Would that I could leyn them all!

But when winter sets in, and the Torah reading cycle brings us to hibernate in the wilderness and construct the tabernacle, the competition dies down. No one else seems to get excited about cubits and curtains and breastplates and bells. But I love leyning the vast tracts of tabernacle text. Leyning this material is a bit like reciting the Temple service on Yom Kippur – the recitation becomes a reenactment. Just as the prayer leader on Yom Kippur symbolically reenacts the rituals performed by the high priest in the Temple, so too does the individual who chants the verses about the tabernacle symbolically reenact the building of the this structure.

This is why the portions about the tabernacle, more so than any other section in the Torah, must be chanted flawlessly. The early medieval commentators disagree about what to do when a Torah reader makes an error – must the whole verse be repeated? What if it is merely a grammatical error with no semantic significance? Each time I leyn, I try to avoid error – not because I fear sin, but because words of Torah construct verbal edifices.

Torah is the blueprint God used in creating the world (Genesis Rabbah 1:1), and so, the way we read Torah determines the way we construct the world. If we mispronounce even one syllable of Parshat Vayakhel, if we read, say, forty cubits instead of fifty, then the entire edifice could come tumbling down. The Talmud relates that Rabbi Akiva found meaning in every instance of the word “Et” in the Torah; mustn’t we therefore be sure to pronounce each one properly? Consider how many insights and commentaries hang on every word of the Torah — if not every letter; if not every tip of the yud. We who leyn are playing with fire — were not the words of Torah given in fire on Sinai?

Chanting from the Torah is a weighty responsibility, but it is also a great source of pleasure. Each time I leyn, I discover new puzzles in the text. I muse on why a particular syllable is stressed, or why a specific injunction is repeated twice over. These questions inform my writing and thinking all week, and carry me into Shabbat. But even beyond Shabbat, the Torah I have leyned stays with me –if I were ever locked in a jail cell without anything to read, I could probably occupy myself for several long hours chanting all the Torah I remember. Thanks to a lifetime of leyning, Torah is inscribed in my heart, a world unto itself waiting to be breathed into life each time anew.

Ilana Kurshan is the author of If All the Seas Were Ink, a memoir of Talmud study published in 2017 by St. Martin’s Press.

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