The Anthropomorphic Lives of North African Torah Scrolls

Event time: 
Thursday, November 30, 2023 - 12:00pm to 1:00pm
Yale Graduate Club () See map
155 Elm Street
New Haven, CT 06511
Free, but register in advance
Open to: 
General Public
Event description: 

Join us for a lunch talk with ISM fellow, Dr. Ilana Webster-Kogen. RSVP to by Monday, November 27. Seating capacity will be limited and given on a first-come, first-served basis.

Jews across the world refer to the Torah as the “Tree of Life” (Etz Khayim), a vivid metaphor for the life-giving properties of the sacred word. However, it is immediately apparent to anyone participating in the ritual life of North African Jews that the description of a living Torah scroll is more than metaphor, and that the scroll itself is more than a ritual object. The Torah scroll exudes life-force and, through its display and public performance, narrates a history of trauma and displacement for North African Jews. When it is chanted from, the Torah scroll becomes a bridge across centuries, reconnecting integrated French-speakers with rural and non-literate ancestors. In considering the veneration practices of North African Jews in France (and, to a lesser extent, in Israel) today, I argue that its liveness is the key to understanding the ways that Moroccan and Tunisian Jews (and in historical context, Muslims) perceive the Torah scroll’s power. Adopting an ethnographic approach and drawing from modes of analysis practiced in Ethnomusicology, I argue that the Torah scroll is anthropomorphized in ritual practice in ways that draw from disparate threads of Jewish thought. This talk focuses on the complete life cycle of a Torah scroll, identifying key moments of celebrating its birth, annual renewal, and death. These rituals demand engagement with Kabbalah and theories of magic, and postcolonial and diaspora theory, and illustrate why chanting from the Torah continues to have a life-giving and identity-affirming power over experts and amateurs alike. In exploring the anthropomorphized lives of North African Torah scrolls, I consider the semi-personhood of Torah scrolls through an ethnographic re-reading of Jewish ritual, Jewish sound, and Jewish-Muslim intimacies in North Africa.  
Ilana Webster-Kogen is the Joe Loss Reader in Jewish Music at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. She is the author of the award-winning book Citizen Azmari: Making Ethiopian Music in Tel Aviv, and her work appears in Ethnomusicology Forum, Contemporary Jewry, Musica Judaica, Journal of African Cultural Studies, AJS Perspectives, and other journals. Through the Jewish Music Institute who support her post at SOAS, she is a frequent contributor to public discussion in the U.K. about Sephardic Jewish culture. For 2023-24, she is a research scholar at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and visiting associate professor in the music department.