Rabbi Vanessa M. Harper, author of Loaves of Torah: Exploring the Jewish Year through Challah, offers a preview of the book and reflects on how to creatively engage with Torah.
The most important preparation I had for the rabbinate (aside from my training at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, of course) came from my experience as a preschool teacher. And one of the most important things I learned in that role is that play and the exploration of different creative languages—like clay, paint, movement, song, cooking, etc.—are not only vital to our development when we are children, but that they open up entirely new pathways of thinking, learning, teaching, and experiencing the world even when we are adults.
One of my soul’s creative languages, as it turns out, happens to be challah dough. This discovery gave rise to @lechlechallah—an Instagram-based project of interpreting Torah and Jewish tradition through intricate challah designs and accessible commentary—which in turn gave rise to a book of Torah commentary, Loaves of Torah: Exploring the Jewish Year through Challah.
Loaves of Torah is, at its heart, an invitation to engage with Torah differently. As with @lechlechallah, the first thing you see when you open to a chapter is the image—a shape made from what is recognizably (in most cases!) challah dough, but not in the typical form we’ve come to expect; and each one an interpretation or teaching of Torah, though again, not in a form we typically expect Torah to take. It’s playful and serious, contemporary and traditional, immediately accessible and requiring interpretation all at the same time—much like Torah itself!
The images invite one into the written commentary, which expounds upon the same verse as the midrashic challah image; the commentary is intended to be fresh and accessible to students of Torah at many levels. The really good stuff is what comes next: the questions for further study and the prompts for exploring the themes of the parashah or holiday through a creative medium or approach of your choosing. These are the invitations to the reader to take Torah into their own hands—not just to look at my response to the text, but to use it as inspiration to create a response of their own, in whichever language they wish to express themselves, whether it’s in words or a different creative medium (pro tip: there are a few years’ worth of Torah study discussion questions and classroom activities in here). And yes, there is a challah recipe, as well as instructions for how to shape the basic building blocks of my challah designs, for those who want to try their hand at making their own interpretive challot.
During the Revelation at Sinai, we read of the Israelites’ experience that “all the people saw the voices (ro-im et hakolot) and the flames and the voice of the shofar and the mountain smoking” (Exodus 20:15). That the Israelites saw sounds at Sinai is already interesting, but that they saw kolot, voices, is especially so. The Rabbis expound on this phenomenon in Sh’mot Rabbah, teaching: “Come and see how [God’s] voice would go out among Israel: each and every one according to [their] strength….Since the manna, which was one type, changed to many types according to the need of each and every one, all the more so, the voice…would change for each and every one” (5:9). The Rabbis teach that God spoke to each Israelite in a different voice at Sinai—hundreds of thousands of individualized voices of God speaking at once, using the precise language that each soul would best understand. Every person standing at Sinai that day experienced the same Revelation, but no two people experienced God’s voice in the same way. So too, all of us, whose souls were also present at Sinai, carry a different divine voice within that reveals a unique facet of Torah.
Each of these pieces of revelation is precious, and each comes with a different divine voice. A person’s Torah, therefore, is only revealed when we create space for the language that their soul speaks to flourish. My deepest hope is that Loaves of Torah creates some of that space for new Torah to be revealed by inviting more languages, more voices, into our Jewish learning and living spaces, as we continue to shape the collective Torah which we will pass on to the next generation.
Rabbi Vanessa M. Harper is Senior Director of Adult Jewish Living at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Reform Rabbi in Residence at Gann Academy. She is the author of Loaves of Torah: Exploring the Jewish Year through Challah (CCAR Press, 2023).