From the 16th to the 18th of April we held a conference on the Torah Scroll in Bologna. It was a huge honour and privilege to have two world class professors speak about the Torah Scroll – both it’s history and amazing rediscovery after almost 300 years being forgotten (and misdated) in the Bologna University Archives, and the significance that the Torah has for our city and our lives.
Professors Mauro Perani and Daniel Block presented Thursday evening, and hebrew teacher Ahronee Namiel and myself also gave presentations.
I am especially thankful to Dr. Daniel Block who traveled from Wheaton to be with us in Bologna, contributing both to our impact in the city of Bologna, as well as to serve our local church, Nuova Vita.
Here is the introduction (translated) that I deliver on the first evening of the conference:
The Torah and Bologna
Good evening and welcome. My name is Mark Brucato. I am one of the pastors of Nuova Vita Church, and a teacher of biblical studies. We are very glad to have you here this evening, for the first seminar in our conference “The Torah and Bologna.” Tomorrow we will host the second seminar in the Jewish Museum of Bologna at 10:00am.
To welcome us this evening, and to open our conference, I have been asked to read a letter from our Mayor, Viginio Merola. [read letter]
Just two years ago, the words “Torah” and “Bologna” would have sounded like a very strange pair. Now no longer. The bond between our city and ancient text, between our city and Scripture is consolidated (indeed, this conference and your presence here this evening, is a small evidence of this). In fact, this tie is not only a contemporary reality (something neuveux), but ancient; and the rediscovery of the scroll that we are going to talk about this evening reminds us of this, and moreover, it invites us to re-examine not only the scrolls history but also its contents. This evening we will seek, at least in an introductory way, to do a bit of both. We are on a quest, “to rediscover the message of the Torah.”
But to do this, we must initially take a step back, we must break with our culture (if that were possible), and break with our world of thought, which is all too often impersonal and commercialized – industrial production pushes us to a rampant consumerism of standardizes products; mass-media inundate our minds with information with no apparent or coherent lens of interpretation (immediacy and brevity may be the only contemporary standard); and technology, which is suppose to make us better communicators, fragments life exponentially in an increasing separation between means and message.
Then we find a scroll; an ancient scroll, which come to us from another world. We stop. We are called to evaluate, non only it, but also ourselves.
In fact, when I was thinking of a title for these seminars, in a burst of creativity (which I don’t have all too often), I thought of a heading: “Twitter or Torah, a clash of character!” Just think of it. A scroll 36 meters long compared to the 140 characters of a tweet! Absurd. I think if the scribe would have known about twitter he would have pulled his hair out with frustration. But then, reflecting some more, it dawned on me that Hebrews would actually be a good language for twitter since the absence of vowels saves all those characters spaces. J
As silly as this comparison may be, we recognize how strong an impact our technology has on us, and on our capacity (or incapacity) to read and ancient text, especially a text in another language. But it is precisely this language (this ancient text) that preserves and communicates the ideas, values, experiences, traditions and wisdom of its own world and culture – and now this text intersects (and sometime contrasts) our ideas, experiences and traditions.
Therefore we must travel to a Bologna of many years ago, a medieval Bologna, to better understand this bond between city and scripture. And before we take this trip, I want to provide (much like a tour guide) two words of instructions, which can function as lenses through which to interpret what we are going to see. And these instructions, these words of guidance, come from two people, very different from each other but connected by a key theme that we will be discussing this evening.
The first person was a philosopher (maybe better to call him an exegete), a rabbi (nagid) and a famous Spanish medical doctor – we know him as Maimonides (Moshe ben Maimon). Maimonides lived in the twelfth century, wrote numerous books and tractates, of which Mishne Torah. Much of what he wrote had enormous influence during his lifetime, and well afterwards. Of his many works, he wrote one entitled “The guide of the perplexed”, which is a three volume letter which he wrote to one of his favorite students. In this letter, Maimonides describes this students as one who “circled around the realm of the Sovereign searching for an entrance.” This image is poetic and powerful: “looking for an entrance to the realm of the Sovereign”. If Maimonides had been from Bologna, this would be like calling up to the open window, “dammi il tiro” (“buz me in”). But now we are forced to ask ourselves: “where is this entrance?” and “how do we get access into the dwelling of the Sovereign?”
This brings us to our second person, and we step even further back in time. Our second comment comes from one of the most important prophets in the history of Israel: Isaiah. In one of his first prophecies there is a vision, a promise, of amazing glory for the nation. Isaiah prophesied an era of future glory, a restoration for Judah and Jerusalem, that would be characterized in a specific way by the Lord’s direct instruction of the people, which would produces praise and an invitation to the nations:
Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
So here we see the connection between Isaiah and Maimonides. Where is the entrance to the realm of the Sovereign? It’s through the revealed word: the Law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. In fact, it’s not an entrance at all, but and exit – the word, the law (Torah), proceeds from Zion, and it will be revealed from this place to the nations, reaching all the way to Bologna.
This revelation, for the ancient Israelites, was supremely the Torah – which would have not only been the moral and ethical guide for the nation, but knowledge of the Sovereign himself.
Ok, now back to us. This evening we have the privilege of hearing from two professors (not Maimonede and Isaiah), but people who will be able to guide us on this rediscovery. First we will hear from Prof. Mauro Perani, professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies in the department of Cultural Heritage at Alma Mater Studiorum University of Bologna. He will explain to us the scroll itself, its history and specific textual features. His presentation is entitled: “The history and characteristics of the Sefer Torah found in Bologna: A rare example of scribal tradition and Babylonian paleography.”
Following this, we will hear a presentation from Dr. Daniel Block, who came to us from the USA, where he is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. Prof. Block will help us reflect on the Torah itself, its message, and will help us reflect more broadly on its significance in history and for our lives.
We are very honored and thankful to have these two world class scholars with us this evening, so lets turn our attention to Prof. Perani for our first presentation.