This recent post, with its focus on the minutiae of the Torah reading cycle, reminded me that I still have one stock Jewish rant that I haven't blogged yet. Otherwise, one reason that I haven't been blogging much of late (even though I'm now on vacation until August 28, 2008) is that I'm out of ideas. (The Republicans continue to suck in new ways, but there are other blogs covering this better than I ever could.) So I'm taking requests.
This post is about the "triennial cycle" of Torah reading.
Background: Back in the day, the annual cycle with which we are familiar, in which the Torah is completed in one year, was standard in Babylonia, while the land of Israel used a triennial cycle, completing the Torah in three years. The old triennial cycle had no relationship to the annual cycle; a section of the Torah (on average, 1/3 as long as the average portion in the annual cycle) would be read one week, and then the next section would be read the next week, etc. Thus, both cycles involved reading the whole Torah sequentially. As Babylonia became the center of Jewish life, the annual cycle (starting and ending on the "holiday" of Simchat Torah) became standard across the Jewish world, including the land of Israel as Jews returned there.
Fast forward to modern times. For various reasons (which we'll ignore for now, but address later in the post), many liberal Jewish communities have decided that they would rather read a shorter Torah portion on Shabbat. The (AFAIK) universal way of doing this is by saying "This week's portion is Parshat Devarim", identifying the portion from the annual cycle, but then reading a subset of this portion. There are two different ways of selecting this subset.
One way (common in Reform congregations) is for the rabbi or congregation to select a chunk of the portion to read each week. This is often considerably less than 1/3 of the parasha. For a given parasha, the same chunk might end up being read every year (because it is perceived to be the best part), or the community might have minhagim to ensure that different parts of the parasha are read in different years. In either case, many parts of the Torah are never read in public in these communities. One can infer from this that these communities do not hold reading the entire Torah in public as a value. Though I would disagree, that's not the subject of this post.
The other way of selecting a subset of the Torah portion to read (more common in Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations) is the so-called "triennial cycle" that is the subject of this post. The basis for this is that these communities want to remain in sync with the annual cycle, while reading less per week than the annual cycle and reading the entire Torah. So they're on a 3-year cycle, which is intended to evoke the original Palestinian triennial cycle. In the first year of the cycle, they read the first third of Bereishit one week (while communities on the annual cycle read all of Parshat Bereishit), the first third of Noach the next week, etc., and then they loop around and read the second third of Bereishit, the second third of Noach, etc., and so on until the whole Torah is completed. The Conservative movement and the Reconstructionist movement each have standardized divisions of the Torah into thirds and into aliyot, each conforming to the rules (from Masechet Megillah) of how to split the reading into aliyot. (These charts differ not for ideological reasons, but simply because two different people sat down independently to hammer them out, and didn't have ruach hakodesh working for them the way the translators of the Septuagint did. Likewise, the two movements are on standardized schedules for their congregations that use the triennial cycle, but two different schedules: the Reconstructionist movement is currently on year 2, and the Conservative movement is on year 3.)
The traditionalist case against this practice is fairly obvious, so I'm not going to make that argument here. (That traditionalist argument could, of course, also be applied in response to the other style in which a small chunk of the parasha is selected each week, and would be even stronger but also less convincing, because if one doesn't agree that reading the entire Torah is a value, then there's not much to say.) As the subject line says, I'm going to state the liberal case against the triennial cycle.
First of all, let's agree that any connection between the modern triennial cycle(s) and the original one is purely superficial, and any attempt to use one to justify the other is a laughable shell game. They have the same periodicity, but completely different structure. Now that that's out of the way, let's examine the modern triennial cycle on its own merits.
Really this gets down to the difference between liberal Judaism and half-assed-Orthodox Judaism (whether of the "The synagogue I don't go to is Orthodox" variety or of the variety found in many liberal Jewish communities). What they have in common, of course, is that neither adheres to Orthodox practice, but they shouldn't otherwise be confused with each other. Robust liberal Judaisms seek to minimize the gap between belief and practice. Individuals and communities should act in accordance with their Jewish values, which should be internally coherent even if they clash with values held by other Jews. In contrast, the half-assed-Orthodox Jew believes that Orthodox practice is the most authentic way to practice Judaism (and that it's a darn good thing that there are still Orthodox Jews doing things the right way), but does not practice this way him/herself, and thus believes him/herself to be "less observant".
That's not to say that there is anything about the annual cycle (i.e. reading the entire Torah in one year) that is inherently Orthodox or antithetical to liberal Judaism. (In fact, I prefer it.) But if for some reason your community wants to read the entire Torah and believes that a shorter weekly Torah reading (~1/160 of the Torah each Shabbat rather than 1/54) is the way to go, then stand by the courage of your convictions and go on the original triennial cycle, which is suited to shorter readings and is internally coherent. Reading the first third of Bereishit, the first third of Noach, the first third of Lech Lecha, etc., has no internal coherence. (God has just finished creating the world, then immediately decides to destroy it! What changed all of a sudden? Then, as soon as the flood waters dry up, God starts talking to Abram. Who's Abram? And so forth. Not a problem if you see the role of public Torah reading as just presenting the highlights, but communities that use the triennial cycle have the public reading of the entire Torah as a stated goal.)
The only way it makes any sense at all is if there are communities elsewhere operating on the annual cycle. When someone says "The Torah portion this week is Parshat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22), but we're just reading the last third (2:31-3:22)," what does s/he mean by "is"? On what metaphysical level "is" the Torah portion Parshat Devarim? The implication is that the Torah portion this week is Parshat Devarim in some kind of Platonic ideal, but we're living in Plato's cave and just experiencing a shadow of the ideal. Thus the communities that use the modern triennial cycle are broadcasting the message: "The communities using the annual cycle are more authentic, and we are choosing to live in their shadow."
Yes, I understand that Kelal Yisrael may be a value that motivates wanting to be in sync with other Jewish communities. But as liberal Jews, our commitment to Kelal Yisrael must not come at the expense of our own independence or sense of authenticity. We cannot carry out a practice that leaves us dependent on other Jewish communities that we perceive as more authentic. If we can't find authenticity in our own practices, then we should reconsider them.
Those are the main points. Now I'll question some of the assumptions taken for granted above. If these challenges stand, then the case for the modern triennal cycle is even weaker.
Assumption 1: A community using the modern triennial cycle can stay in sync with communities using the annual cycle.
In what sense is this really true? If community T uses the triennial cycle and community A uses the annual cycle, then a person from T can visit A for a Shabbat and hear everything s/he would have missed at home and still hear the entire Torah during the designated period (3 years in this case), but the reverse doesn't work: if a person from A visits T, then s/he won't hear the entire Torah during the designated period (1 years in this case). The only people who can visit T and vice versa with full compatibility are people from T', a community that uses the same triennial cycle. Indeed, this is probably why the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements have each standardized their triennial cycles. But if the triennial cycle is really going to lead to full compatibility only with other communities on the same cycle, then why don't all the communities using triennial cycles decide together to go on the old Palestinian triennial cycle instead?
Assumption 2: Reading a shorter Torah portion is sufficiently desirable that it is worth sacrificing either Kelal Yisrael or (much worse, IMHO) internal coherence.
The most common stated reason for wanting a triennial rather than an annual cycle is "The service is too long." This is an aesthetic judgment that can't be argued with. But let's look more closely at this claim. Obviously, all things being equal, a shorter Torah reading takes less time than a longer Torah reading. But all things are not equal. Maybe I'm spoiled by Hadar, but communities that use the triennial cycle tend not to actually have shorter services (or even shorter Torah services) than the communities I'm familiar with that use the annual cycle. If the goal is to make services shorter, perhaps they should first look at other places where they can shave off some time. I'm not talking about cutting anything substantive (singing, divrei torah, etc.), I'm talking about pure inefficiency: long awkward pauses between aliyot while waiting for someone to come to the amud or figuring out who's getting the next aliyah; a separate mi shebeirach for each aliyah; unnecessarily verbose announcements during the service; "This week's portion begins on ....... anyone have the page in the Hertz?"; etc. Instead of cutting the Torah reading first, there are plenty of other areas that the community can cut first, and then decide whether the service is still too long.
Another reason for a shorter Torah reading, to which I am much more sympathetic, is that Torah reading is very preparation-intensive, and the community may not have enough available person-hours each week to do the full annual reading (let alone to do it well). That's understandable. But then frame your decision to do a triennial reading in practical terms (such that this decision could be reversed if the supply of person-hours were to increase) rather than as an ideological decision that you think makes you more progressive. And if it's only possible to prepare part of the Torah reading, it's always possible to read the rest from a printed book, which requires no preparation. While reading from the scroll is preferable, reading from a book is still better than nothing. This past Shabbat I visited Fabrangen, where they read a small piece of the Torah portion from the scroll (chosen, I believe, based on the topic of the devar torah and discussion) but then read the entire (double!) parasha from a book in English, showing that they weren't going to put themselves in anyone's shadow. (I would have preferred Hebrew, since every translation is an interpretation, but if the community isn't all proficient in biblical Hebrew, then English can be a more effective means of limmud torah in the short term.)
A third reason is that the community is unfamiliar with Hebrew and doesn't want to be subjected to a long reading in a language they don't understand. Then see above: reading in the vernacular is a (short-term) possibility, and is clearly a better use of everyone's time than listening to 7 mi shebeirachs in Hebrew.
Postscript: Using the triennial cycle for ad hoc nondenominational gatherings makes no sense (even less than using it in general). When a permanent community goes on the triennial cycle, it is making a commitment to complete the Torah over the course of 3 years. When a group of people gets together for a single Shabbat, there is no such commitment. Let's unpack the statement "We're in year 2 of the triennial cycle", which someone might make in the context of such a gathering. Who's "we"? "We" weren't together for this parasha last year; we were all at home in our own communities, where some of us read the whole parasha, some read a third of it, and some read less than that. So how can "we" have reached year 2 already when we haven't done year 1 yet? And what's "the" triennial cycle? There are at least two in wide circulation, each identified with an institutional movement, and this is a nondenominational gathering. Are "we" identifying ourselves as part of the Conservative movement by placing ourselves in "year 2" because many Conservative congregations did year 1 last year?
Of course, there is rarely this much analysis going into the decision to say "Let's do a triennial reading. What year are we in?", but I think there should be.