ON OCTOBER 14, 1663, the English civil servant Samuel Pepys decided to pay a visit to the Jewish synagogue in London's Creechurch Lane. Jews were a novelty in Restoration England. They had been expelled from the realm nearly four centuries earlier, and it was only in 1656 that they had once again been permitted to live on English soil. Pepys, knowing nothing of Judaism, wasn't aware that his excursion happened to coincide with the most euphoric day in the Jewish calendar — the festival of Simchat Torah, or "rejoicing with the law."
What he saw bewildered him.
"But, Lord!" he recorded in his famous diary, "to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this."
What Pepys had unwittingly walked in on was a celebration of the oldest love affair in history — the infatuation of the Jewish people with the Torah. In Judaism, there are no saints to adore or icons to venerate. Rather, there is a book to study and teach: the scroll of the law, the Torah given by God to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the essential text with which Jews have engaged intellectually and been sustained emotionally for more than three millennia.
That book is "our most cherished possession," writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the noted British theologian and member of the House of Lords. "We stand in its presence as if it were a king. We dance with it as if it were a bride. We kiss it as if it were a friend. If, God forbid, one is damaged beyond repair, we mourn it as if it were a member of the family." If a Torah scroll is accidentally dropped, everyone who witnesses it is expected to fast in penance. When a synagogue is burned, whether by accident or by arson, there is an immediate, palpable anxiety to know whether the Torah scrolls were saved or lost. . . .