A Tale of Two Torahs
The fascinating story of Oregon Hillel’s new Sephardic Sefer Torah
By Vida Behar
Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, Oregon Hillel, which serves students at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University, recently received a Sephardic Sefer Torah. Prior to receiving the gift, Oregon Hillel had only one Torah, so the donation will help with holiday readings that require multiple Torahs.
The addition of the Sephardic Sefer Torah will also serve as a beacon of welcome to Sephardic students, offering a tangible connection to their cultural practices regardless of how near or far they are from their home community. “The Sefer Torah is central to our tefillah (worship services). The new Sephardi Torah will be used in conjunction with our existing Ashkenazi one to proclaim, unequivocally, the central text and covenant between the Jews and God,” said Rabbi Meir Goldstein, Senior Jewish Educator at Oregon Hillel, who notes that the Torah covered in blue on the left is the Sephardic Torah. “Our new custom of including Torah scrolls adorned in different traditions will embody the diversity of the people Israel, both in our unique histories and in what unites us as one people.”
It's interesting that the Sephardic Sefer Torah landed in Eugene, Ore., where Oregon Hillel serves about 1,600 Jewish students on the 24,000-student University of Oregon campus and reaches out to 400 Jewish students on the 35,000-student Oregon State University about 50 miles away in Corvallis. Even the University of Washington Hillel in Seattle – with the country’s third largest Sephardic population – can’t lay claim to a Sephardic Torah in its collection.
The donated Torah was written in Tzfat, Israel, approximately 50 years ago. Each Torah must be created with very specific methods, from the kosher animal hide used for parchment down to the type of quill. Halacha dictates that every Sefer Torah consist of identical words and letters. Despite all these ordained uniformities, the Torah does vary between different Jewish cultures. Traditionally, Ashkenazic Torah scrolls are typically stored in soft velvet cases, whereas Sephardic scrolls use a hard, ornamental cylindrical case that latches open. Rabbi Goldstein explains there is a difference between which silent letter is used at the end of a single word in Deuteronomy 23:2 between the Ashkenazi rite and the Sephardi rite.
According to Seattle Sephardic community leader Al Maimon, there are three small textual differences as well as differences in calligraphy and page layout that set apart Sephardic Sefer Torahs from Ashkenazic ones.
Prof. Devin Naar, Sephardic Studies Program Chair, Isaac Alhadeff Professor of Sephardic Studies at the University of Washington, said he hopes the new Sephardic Torah raises the level of Sephardic involvement for students at the Oregon universities. “Does it come with an interest in trying to incorporate reading the Torah in the Sephardic way into their curriculum and their practices, or is it a symbolic gesture? It seems like a nice gesture, but the question is, is it beyond a gesture? If so, what are the next steps to make it a more sustained and respectful engagement with Sephardic tradition and practice?”
Based on Rabbi Goldstein’s statement that the new Sephardic Torah will be primarily used for holiday readings that require multiple Torahs, this usage does not constitute fully engaging with the Sephardic Torah as a cultural object, and may have a limited impact on his stated goal of welcoming diverse Jewish communities to the Oregon Hillel.
While he welcomes the symbolic power of this new acquisition, Naar said he doubts whether the scroll will be fully activated to its potential, particularly because the clergy at Oregon Hillel are not trained Sephardic Cohanim. “It’s really nice that they’re trying to have a symbolic material representation of diverse Sefer Torah practices. I see it as a first step. My hope would be that if they have such a special Sefer Torah that they would be able to activate it in a Sephardic way. In other words, if they’re reading a Sephardic Torah Ashkenazically, then have they accomplished the goal? What does it mean to have such an important piece of material culture? Can it be activated and brought into conversation with Sephardic people who might value it in a different way? As we all know, Sephardic expressions of Judaism tend to be less represented and integrated into general Jewish practices. It sounds like they made a great start here, and I hope it’s not the end.”
The Sephardic Torah’s potential future integration into tefillah might be the catalyst to help Oregon Hillel realize its mission to empower students of diverse backgrounds to live the Jewish lives they desire.