Learning to love yeshiva learning, egalitarian style

Participants in the Beth Shalom Yeshiva Experience weekend in Seattle broke up into small groups to learn. (Morris Malakoff)

Participants in the Beth Shalom Yeshiva Experience weekend in Seattle broke up into small groups to learn. (Morris Malakoff)

SEATTLE (JTA) – It’s nearly 11 o’clock on a Saturday night in the octagon-shaped sanctuary of this city’s Congregation Beth Shalom, and some 100 people are huddled around dark wood tables poring over pages of complicated Jewish texts: the Talmud, its commentaries, rabbinical exegesis and modern-day interpretations.

It’s no yeshiva scene from "Yentl."

Instead of bearded men clad in black suits reminiscent of 18th century Europe, here there are men and women of all ages wearing everyday clothes and studying Jewish texts directly, some for the first time.

Yeshiva-style learning, with its chevruta partner study and dialectic debate, has long been a mainstay of the Orthodox community, even trickling out of the classic yeshiva setting to more informal environments such as synagogue programs and yearlong post-high school seminaries in Israel.

But recently Jews of all denominations and ages, who once connected to Judaism by attending synagogue, celebrating holidays and sending their children to Hebrew school, have begun to yearn for something more: studying Jewish texts, yeshiva-style, but without the traditional yeshiva.

Now a plethora of programs across the country — Hartman, Limmud, Melton and Wexner, as they are informally known — offer text-based learning in a pluralistic and non-denominational environment.

Some are longer programs, such as the Florence Melton’s Adult Mini-Schools two-year curriculum. Others, like the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Global Beit Midrash, offer a monthly study at 14 locations in the United States. Some programs, like the popular Limmud, which began in England 25 years ago and crossed the Atlantic in 2005, offer four-day intensive sessions that run the gamut from text-based study to lectures on meditation and kabbalah.

At Seattle’s Conservative Beth Shalom congregation, it’s a one-shot deal: a full Shabbat weekend of intense community study meant to submerge participants in a yeshiva environment and turn them onto learning.

“Are non-Jews created in the image of God?” Rabbi Ethan Tucker asks the late-night Seattle audience.

Tucker, the co-founder of Mechon Hadar, a full-time egalitarian, non-accredited yeshiva in New York, has set up this “Beth Shalom Yeshiva Experience” with the synagogue’s rabbi, Jill Borodin. He is introducing the evening program of self-study, “Grappling with Troubling Texts: Rabbi Yisrael Lifshitz’s Struggle with Universalism and Chauvinism,” a nine-page handout he prepared with Sara Labaton, another Hadar faculty member who came to Seattle for the teaching weekend.

Gathered in groups of five or six, the Beth Shalom participants read through the pages of Mishnah, Talmud and commentaries from the medieval commentator Rashi and the 19th century Rabbi Lifshitz trying to decipher texts. The question of the evening is whether the non-Jews can be called “adam,” which generally means human being, but in this case might mean children of the biblical Adam.

“Adam is particular to Jews because they, like Adam, were born into an adult relationship — they were given the law rather than struggling by themselves” says Diane Douglas, one of the five people reading the text aloud in a group.

“Gentiles had to make it on their own because they weren’t given this on their own,” she adds, trying to understand the texts.

“This name adam is only appropriate for Israel,” Marilyn Meyer says.

The group reads aloud more texts, translated into the English, and for the next hour ponder what exactly the rabbis meant when they tried to distinguish Jews from gentiles and what it could mean today.

“It seems he wants everyone to be created in the divine image, but he wants the term ‘adam’ to be applied to just Jews,” says Steve Perlmutter, Douglas’ husband.

“He [Rabbi Lifshitz] defines it as Jews got Revelation and non-Jews did not,” Douglas says, “but I don’t know how many people today would be comfortable with that explanation.”

The comfort level of those studying varies, both in deciphering the complex texts and understanding the broader implications. And although Tucker wraps up the study session ("’Adam’ doesn’t mean human being, but who experiences the mode of Adam”) the bigger question is whether people who are new to Torah study should learn such complex and problematic texts.

“I always come to those difficult text with apprehension. You always lose some people when you do hard-hitting topics,” Tucker says later. But that won’t stop him from teaching those topics.

“Overwhelmingly, those are the conversations that people want to have,” he says, referring to issues like relating to non-Jews or keeping kosher or gender issues, which were all topics of discussion over the weekend. “Those are things on peoples’ mind, so you can either dumb it down or paint it pastels, or you can actually go to knotty issues that form Jewish identity.”

While some are bothered by the content, they appreciate that they are getting to learn such subjects.

“I’m at a point in my life that when I learn something that challenges what I think, I wonder if there is something I can learn from it,” says Jim Mathieu, a non-Jew who is married to a Jewish woman and raises his children Jewish. He is interested in learning more about the conversion process.

“What does it mean to study Talmud and study Torah?" he asks. "I haven’t really been exposed to that process."

So even when difficult topics arise, such as Jew vs. non-Jew, Mathieu wants to understand the intent.

“Even if I’m uncomfortable with it, I may see wisdom in it,” he says.

While traditional yeshivas may teach years of non-practical topics, such as Talmudic tractates about sacrifices or other obsolete rituals, most of these pluralistic programs focus on timelier topics.

At the Hartman’s Global Beit Midrash, which gathers monthly via videoconference at 14 North American locations, this year’s topics include “Who is a Jew: Questions of Ethnicity, Philosophy and Solidarity” and “The Boundaries of Membership: The Jewish Outsider.”

In these sessions, too, participants gather while a lecture is delivered by a teacher at the institute in Jerusalem, and study texts on their own, chevruta style. Then they ask questions via videoconference — students in Washington, for example, can hear students in Los Angeles.

Although the video is grainy and the sound perhaps 30 seconds behind real time, the participants are still connected.

“It creates a virtual community of 300 people learning together,” says Rabbi Alfredo Borodowski, executive director of the American Friends of the Hartman Institute.

The Hartman lectures, like the one in Seattle, sometimes end inconclusively.

“We specialize in a pluralistic approach — we are not going to tell you what Judaism says,”  Borodowski says.

Hartman, like many of the new yeshiva-style learning programs, does not offer an overt ideology.

“We give a broad perspective, present the participants with different points of view — all within the Jewish position — in order to generate relevant discussions,” Borodowski says.

And although one might not leave a Hartman lecture with a clear answer on “Who is a Jew”  — the way one might after leaving a more traditional lecture — “many people want a more sophisticated and more open-minded, pluralistic approach," he says. "And we believe that’s what Judaism is: a tradition that’s based upon debate of different approaches. People appreciate and grow from that.

“This is not for everyone — some people say, ‘Tell me what Judaism says.’ But this is not what we do.”

Many students appreciate the approach, especially those from a more traditional upbringing.

“Coming from my background, it was an eye opener to know that there are different ways of looking at things still based on halachah [Jewish Law]” says Elaine Apter, who studied the Melton Mini-School curriculum in Rockland County, New York, from 2005 to 2007.

Apter, who was raised Orthodox and is now Conservative, likes to understand the context of the laws.

“We were learning about ketubot [Jewish marriage certificates] and I said, ‘It’s such a sexist thing!’ but the rabbi explained that at the time it was the most progressive document in the world," she recalls. "I had never seen it from that perspective.”

Apter also enjoys learning directly from the text, which she hadn’t, for the most part, at a girls’ yeshiva high school in the 1960s.

“I love to study this way," she says. "It’s a puzzle which I can make the connections and see how they got from one place to another.”

That would have made Florence Melton proud. As a longtime supporter of Jewish education, Melton worried about the state of Jewish education.

“Unless the parents of these children are educated themselves, they won’t be able to be Jewish in any way” was Melton’s thinking, according to Judy Mars Kupchan,  director of the Melton Mini-Schools of North America.

Melton persisted through some initial resistance, and through her husband Sam’s connections at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in 1986 she began a pilot program with three sites in North America.  Melton’s programs are now held at 62 locations in North America.

“It’s fascinating to look at her original proposal — so many of the things she began so many years ago have come to fruition,” said Kupchan, noting the tremendous growth and interest over the last decade. “I attribute it to a strong interest of searching that adults have — they want to understand what part Judaism plays in their lives. They are on a Jewish journey.”

For some, that journey takes place over a two-year period. For others, like those at Beth Shalom, it may start with only a weekend.

“How can we capture the ethos of the yeshiva experience?” Tucker asks, acknowledging that it cannot be done in 48 hours. “But you can empower people to enter a certain conversation but not give them all the skills.”

Tucker hopes the weekend participants will continue learning at the synagogue’s adult learning program, which 100 people attend throughout the week. But for the big picture, he hopes that programs like this are not a one-shot deal.

“Our dream is that just like you can find a minyan on every corner, you can find those Jewish conversations wherever you go,” he says. “We’d like to ignite a passion for Jewish learning to be the center of our lives.”

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