Tucsonans get taste of Talmud during Global Week of Jewish Learning

(L-R) UA students Meryl Press, Rachel Pergamit and Karin Finkelstein study ‘shmirat haguf’ (protecting the body) with Hillel Program Director Laura Etter.

In classrooms, auditoriums, restaurants, libraries and conference rooms, more than 600 Tucsonans marked the first Global Week of Jewish Learning as they studied a variety of Jewish texts on everything from miracles to Kristallnacht. This community-wide program, held Nov. 4-11, was based around the Global Day of Jewish Learning on Nov. 7.

The international highlight was a live Internet feed from Jerusalem, as Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz completed his 45-year translation of the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of rabbinic discussions on Jewish law and ethics. The siyyum (completion) ceremony, which marked the conclusion of Steinsaltz’s translation from Aramaic and ancient Hebrew to modern Hebrew, was broadcast to 400 communities in 48 countries. In Tucson, people gathered at the Tucson Jewish Community Center and at Temple Emanu-El to study Talmud and view the live broadcast from Jerusalem.

Steinsaltz described the Talmud as a book of learning — not wisdom, knowledge or holiness — and talked about its centrality in Jewish life throughout the generations. As he completes the Hebrew translation of each book, his students have been translating it into other languages, including English, German and French. His goal has been to unlock the Talmud and make it accessible to everyone; in his words, to “Let my people know.”

Moshe Garfein participates in a Talmud study group at the Tucson Jewish Community Center on the Global Day of Jewish Learning celebrating Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s completion of his Talmud translation.

“The Talmud is foremost a book that promotes and creates sanity,” Steinsaltz said. “We need to keep it alive.”

Before viewing the live video, 25 participants at the JCC studied Jewish texts on leadership, examining two theories about what makes a leader (are leaders born or made?) and discussing a tractate from the Talmud. “I enjoyed the different perspectives. The two views aren’t incompatible, when we get into it a little deeper. Our own texts support both of those views,” said Heather McLaughlin, who came with Rabbi Shafir Lobb and a contingent of students from Congregation Kol Simchah’s adult learning group.

At Temple Emanu-El, 50 participants studied Talmudic approaches to the environment, miracles and tzedakah (charity). According to Rabbi Samuel Cohon, some 200 people of all ages watched the live broadcast of the siyyum, which was shown right after religious school. “This was a wonderful affirmation of Jewish learning and the exciting, ongoing dynamism of Torah in the best sense,” said Cohon.

Thirty-three classes were offered over the week, as six synagogues and the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation partnered with the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Coalition of Jewish Education.

Miracles were the topic at a Congregation Or Chadash dinner on Nov. 4. Rabbi Thomas Louchheim led a discussion of some of the miracles that appear in the Bible, the Reform movement’s take on “miraculous narratives” as opposed to miraculous events, and whether miracles still happen today. “It’s about looking at things in perspective. There are still miracles out there. It’s all about how you look at them,” reflected Scott Krasner, one of the 20 participants.

The burning bush might be perceived as a miracle, but during a class at Congregation M’kor Hayim on “Angels and Demons: The Jewish View,” Rabbi Helen Cohn cited it as one example of an angel, working as a messenger to deliver God’s word to Moses. Using textual references from the Tanach (the Jewish Bible) and Talmud, five adult learners explored the concepts of angels as messengers of God and demons as invisible instruments of evil fortune, discussing why God needs messengers, the physical descriptions of both angels and demons, and how they are depicted in the texts. The description of demons as “more numerous than we are” led to a comparison with bacteria. Participant Holly Harper noted, “The rabbis took what they knew from the Torah and used it to make sense of the world.”

Bacteria were, indirectly, a focus of a text studied at the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation’s “Our Bodies Brunch” on Nov. 10. In this text, the sage Hillel describes bathing as a religious duty, because we are caring for the human body, which is created in God’s image. Hillel Program Director Laura Etter and 16 students contrasted this concept of shmirat hagu (protecting the body) with media images of the ideal body. UA senior Karin Finkelstein said the discussion opened her eyes to a new way of viewing fitness. “Every day I struggle with health issues. I saw health as the typical definition in magazines — going to the gym, pumping iron, eating healthy foods. I learned that we’re all made in God’s image and that there’s more than one path to take to be healthy.”

To watch a video of the siyyum ceremony in Jerusalem, go to www.theglobalday.com.

Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a freelance writer living in Tucson.