The ‘Perplexed’ Turn To The Talmud
Wed, 05/29/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Scenes from Alma, Ruth Calderon’s secular yeshiva, where participants exchange ideas. Calderon is at top with microphone.
Scenes from Alma, Ruth Calderon’s secular yeshiva, where participants exchange ideas. Calderon is at top with microphone.

A small group of students sits around a table in the ground-floor room of an unassuming building on a quiet street in the heart of Tel Aviv. They are studying Talmud; some follow along in their copies of the Steinsaltz Talmud, others on their tablets. But what makes this daf yomi, page-a-day Talmud class in this urban “shtiebel” different is the makeup of the group.

They are a mix of men and women, ranging in age from young adult to retirement.

Most of them are non-observant, but occasionally you can catch a glimpse of a knitted kipa. Some are actors, artists, musicians, businesspeople. And they come together, Sundays through Fridays, to enjoy an hour of “Laid-back Talmud” with popular Israeli musician and author Kobi Oz, at Alma, the Home for Hebrew Culture.

Alma founder Ruth Calderon, in her maiden speech in the Knesset earlier this year, told her fellow lawmakers that she started Alma in Tel Aviv in 1996, after founding Beit Midrash Elul in Jerusalem, to respond to the needs of “tens and hundreds of thousands of Israeli students still studying in institutions which don’t outline for them how to be a Jew or the way in which they can make the Torah their Torah for life.” (See a transcript of the full speech on page 12.)

The current interest of secular Israelis in the Talmud and other sources — something most considered until recently a “diaspora” preoccupation — can be traced to the feeling that these ancient texts contain the values needed to reclaim Israel’s moral center and put the country back on track.  

Calderon said she was convinced that the study of the major books in Hebrew and Jewish culture “are essential to the creation of a new Hebrew culture in Israel. The Torah, she emphasized, “is not the property of one movement or another, it is a gift which we all received, and we have all been given the opportunity to refer to it when faced with the reality of our lives.”

Now, she said, “the time has come to return and claim what is ours.”

Her feelings are echoed by Oz, a secular cultural icon who doesn’t consider himself a traditional teacher.

“Six year ago, I read an article by [Israeli author] Asaf Inbari,” Oz said, sitting barefoot in the classroom. “Inbari said Israelis only have an idea of the last 120 years of history. We are not a part of the big history of the Jewish people.” 

Oz approached Calderon, who asked him to enroll in Alma’s creative artist’s beit midrash program for scriptwriters, one of many programs the facility runs for the creative community. There he discovered what he considered the real Israeli treasure: values from the Talmud and other Jewish historic sources that secular Zionists largely ignored, but which he is using to create social change 

Alma runs two fellowship programs for Israeli artists, writers and performers, each lasting two years and with 30 participants. Uri Ellis, head of Alma’s School for Applied Hebrew Culture, said Alma’s mission is to make a social change in Israel by “opening people” to Jewish content.   

“Non-religious people, especially in Tel Aviv, don’t see themselves connected to Judaism,” Ellis said. “They’re even scared to touch Jewish issues and ceremonies. We believe artists are the best agents of social change, and we try to bring them here to expose them to the texts, to be influenced by the texts in their creative process. Some of them take these studies and put them into creative work,” Ellis said.

Kobi Oz understands this very well. Inspired by his six years of study at Alma, he recently released his latest CD — “Mizmorei Nevuchim” (“Psalms for the Perplexed”) — a fusion of traditional Jewish, Mid-eastern and modern music. The disk has received both public and critical acclaim.

The success of institutions like Alma and Elul in reaching the culturally “perplexed” has inspired other educators and programs to reach out to similarly unaffiliated Jews looking to reclaim their Jewish historical values. Ellis estimates that more than 30 groups and institutions in Tel Aviv sponsored all-night tikkunim (learning sessions) for Shavuot this year. Thousands of participants attended sessions in venues as varied as the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, cafés and street corners. Alma’s tikkun program, alone, had 2,000 participants.

But this is not merely a popular trend among Tel Aviv’s café society. One recent entry, Yeshivat Talpiot in Jerusalem, also sees itself as an agent of change, but takes a different approach.

Started about two years ago, Yeshivat Talpiot is looking to open up the world of Torah scholarship to an egalitarian audience. Its founder, Shoshana Cohen, a former student of the late David Hartman, a pioneer in pluralistic, traditional Jewish education, together with an egalitarian group of educators who studied Talmud together, decided to reach out to a larger audience.

“The idea,” Cohen said, “came from a world view of social commitment and Torah scholarship that’s typical of what exists in the southern Jerusalem,” with its large population of committed Jewish activists. “But ironically, the pressure to start this really came from our students themselves.”

Yeshivat Talpiot is a place where men and women can study in an intensive environment on a high level. It’s a place where learning and a wide array of religious practices coexist, unlike Alma and Elul, where religious observance is not required.

Cohen also highlights another key difference. “Talpiot is academic.  Our ultimate goal is to have students sitting for long periods of time in a beit midrash, mostly Talmud but other texts as well. We also want to cater to a young audience. We’re pretty nerdy. We’re looking to build an intellectual elite.”

According to its director, Rabbi Danny Landes, the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, a pluralistic learning institute of Zionist Torah study, began as “a niche industry.” But, he said, “it is growing” as more and more Israelis are looking for programs that invite their participation without being judgmental. “People with little or no background come into Pardes all the time to ask about our programs,” says Landes.

Like many of the other small programs, Talpiot is partnering with other institutions to find study space and share educators. And like all pluralistic learning programs, the goal is empowerment through open exchange, leaving lots of room for dialogue.

Kobi Oz’s daf yomi class is a good example.

“I come from a learned family,” said Tamar Orvell, a writer and educator who moved to Tel Aviv from Atlanta and has been a regular daf yomi participant since it began two years ago. 

“We were knowledgeable Reconstructionist Jews, and for me, reading Talmud is like reading Mother Goose,” she said, describing her comfort level. “But If I’m not a fully respected member of a group I don’t feel safe. Our group says come with your answers, come with your perspective, and be open to other perspectives as well. Dialogue and diversity are welcome, and so is freedom of thought.”

But this kind of freedom does have its price.  

Yosi Leibowitz, an Orthodox teacher of Talmud in a religious high school in Ra’anana who joined the daf yomi workshop about a year ago, was attracted to the group out of love for engaging the text, like the other members.  

“Participants are free to express themselves, which is something I haven’t experienced anywhere else,” observed Leibowitz.

“But when other participants would attack a rabbi because they didn’t like his opinion, I felt I was drawing their fire as the only Orthodox Jew in the room. Times like that made me feel uncomfortable.”

Fittingly, Oz put the search by secularites to engage with Jewish texts in a decidedly artistic vein: “When you study with composers, you get to hear the beat of the text. When you study with artists, you get to see the narrative in all its colors. The text comes to life when interesting people discuss it. We swim in the seas and enjoy looking at all the creatures. We are here to learn, not to judge.”   

editor@jewishweek.org