Thursday dawned wet and dreary, but it might as well have been Christmas for MU’s Hebrew department. As soon as people filed into the JCA Student Center that morning, they saw the reason: A 16th-century Torah scroll lay partially unfurled on stage, offering the crowd an enticing glimpse into the rich history of biblical transmission work.
MU president Dr. Craig Williford commenced the Torah Dedication Chapel by introducing the donors, Ken and Barbara Larson, who had flown in from Florida that morning.
“We can feel your enthusiasm in the air,” said Barbara. “We’ve been impressed by your faculty and students, and we’re excited for what this Torah will do for the school.”
The scroll, which is durable enough to be used frequently for decades to come, will provide countless learning opportunities for MU students.
“We intend to use the scroll as an object of study in and of itself,” said Biblical Languages Chair and Hebrew professor Dr. Karl Kutz. “We can learn about scribal work, the transcription process and more.”
MacKenzie Williams and Chad Woodward are two students who will benefit from using the Torah, and they expressed their gratitude to the Larsons during the dedication.
“Thank you for this opportunity to grow as a Hebrew community,” said Williams. “This means a great deal to me.”
The gift meant a great deal to Kutz as well.
“You can imagine I’ve been anticipating this moment for some time,” he told the crowd. The scroll, he said, represents many things: history, centuries of faithful copying, transmission work, and the enduring faith of God’s people. But most importantly, he noted, it represents an appeal. “This Torah is an invitation to a relationship with the living God,” he said. “An invitation to me and you.”
After the dedication chapel, the scroll was swaddled in cloth, tucked into a padded suitcase and transported to Bradley Hall for a colloquium with Ancient Manuscripts Expert Dr. Scott Carroll.
Four long tables, each draped with a black tablecloth, lined the stage. As the Torah was carefully unrolled, it crackled and popped, creating stiff waves along the tabletops.
The 89-foot scroll, Carroll said, was composed somewhere in Eastern Europe during the Reformation. Constructing the parchment for such a Torah is no small feat — the artifact is comprised of 50 calf skins. Vegetable components were used for ink and goose feathers for writing. It took a scribe an entire year to create the manuscript.
“If this Torah could talk to us, imagine what it could say and what it’s seen,” said Carroll. “It was preserved through the Enlightenment and the Holocaust. Through a wonderful turn of Providence, it’s in your community now.”
Listeners were invited on stage to get a firsthand look. Some gently touched the scroll’s edges — smooth on top, suede on bottom. Others bent over the relic, iPhones poised. A few scanned the impeccably centered lines of text, their eyes searching for familiar passages.
Carroll then asked everyone to encircle the room so the scroll could be completely unfurled, a scene you might witness in some synagogues during the Jewish festival Simchat Torah. Young and old, seasoned Hebrew scholars and novices alike held the Torah together. It was the first time the scroll had been fully unraveled.
Hebrew student Thomas Belcastro was euphoric. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “When I came to Multnomah, I didn’t expect I’d ever see a 500-year-old scroll. I actually get to study it on Monday.”
The Torah is on display nearly every day in MU’s Mitchell Library.