Separating the performance from the mitzvah

I chanted Torah at Shabbat service this past Saturday … and let’s just acknowledge that I didn’t do so particularly well.

I’ve only been Jewish for three years, and I did not grow up hearing these melodies or studying Hebrew, so I find it all quite a challenge. I’ve now chanted Torah five times (including at my adult Bat Mitzvah), and only one of those could be counted a success. I have shed many tears along the way, including slipping out of the sanctuary to go cry in the bathroom after the total debacle of my second time leyning. After that low point, a Jewish friend reminded me that leyning was a mitzvah entirely aside from how well I pronounced words or hit the right notes, and ever since then I’ve been trying to separate the performance from the mitzvah.

This of course is not a universally held belief; as explained by Joshua R. Jacobson’s Chanting the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud includes the following admonition: “Rabbi Shefatiah further said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: If one reads Scripture without a melody or learns the Mishnah without a tune, of him the Scripture says (Ezekiel 20:25), ‘Do they think I gave them laws that were not good?’” (318). There is always an expert reader standing nearby with a Torah in codex form (which I’ve just this minute learned is called a chumash as opposed to the Torah sefer, which is the scroll), and I had always assumed that this person was there to help along the non-expert chanter. But apparently in some temples that person is there to correct any mispronunciations, and a friend said to me last week that she thinks of that person as standing by in judgment. This had never occurred to me and fortunately is not the spirit in my synagogue. Before my shaky leyning on Saturday morning, I said to the rabbi, “I’ve been working really hard, but I’m probably going to need help in some rough spots,” and she immediately replied, “I’m there for you, babe” … which indeed she was!

Okay, back to the point I was making, which is that my friend reminded me that chanting Torah in a worship service is a mitzvah in a way that is entirely separate from the quality of my chanting, and her comment inspired me to work toward separating the performance from the mitzvah. The former is so much about my ego and how I hope to be perceived by others. But my shaky chanting is not meant as disrespect for G-d; it is rather about my ongoing learning. Every time I’ve chanted, I’ve learned something new; for example, this past time was my first time using my new “Torah reader’s compendium” that includes pointed Hebrew (with vowels) and Torah Hebrew (with no vowels and all sorts of crowns and decorations that are really hard for a newbie reader!), and by the end of my studying, I could find my place relatively easy in the Hebrew, which was a huge advance for me. So is G-d honored more by my struggling to learn to chant Torah in Hebrew or by my refusing to chant because I won’t do it that well? I’d argue for the former.

After Shabbat service, I went home and took a nap — chanting Torah is exhausting! — and then I went off to school that evening for the annual freshman talent show. I really don’t care for talent shows as a rule; I am given to second-hand embarrassment from poor performances, which are inevitable in any talent show. So this is not my favorite student event of the year, to say the least. But the day before, a colleague had commented at lunch, “You know, it’s great to work at a school that encourages 9th-graders to take a risk on stage in front of a packed audience.” Hmm, food for thought.

So as I was sitting in the audience, watching some great acts and some not so great, I was thinking about my own assertion from that very morning that the quality of the performance is not equal to the value of the performance. This freshman event is important because it gives students the opportunity to work together to create something larger than any one of them; it creates esprit de corps in the class and gives many students a new confidence. So maybe how well any one kid sang or danced is really not so important.

When I used to teach at a Roman Catholic college, the freshman seminar professors were required to teach Dorothy Sayers’s 1942 essay “Why Work?” One of her arguments is that only good craftsmanship can honor G-d: “No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. … No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie. … [The church has forgotten] that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church; that a painting must be well painted before it can be a good sacred picture; that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work.” Students always got really mad about this statement and almost universally disagreed with Sayers.

As do I … and yet, I do believe that good work is worth doing well. There’s a Jewish principle of hiddur mitzvah — enhancing a mitzvah through attention to aesthetics. On the one hand, I find that lovely; on the other hand, the Protestantism of my youth means that I get uncomfortable with too much liturgical ornamentation. (I vividly remember the first Episcopal church service I attended; when the priest processed into the congregation holding up a gold-bound bible, and everyone turned toward said bible, I got very agitated about bibliolatry! You can imagine that the silver Torah crowns cause me some uneasiness every week.)

All of which is to say that I’m of two — or three, or four — minds about my own claim of separating performance from mitzvah. I’m probably quite inconsistent logically on this point. But what I do know is that this separation is what’s allowed me to even embark on the project of learning to leyn, and my 9th-grade students to embark on singing and dancing and acting on stage. And maybe the results of this doctrine are valuable enough to warrant holding on to it, even if I prove inconsistent in its application.

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