Deep inside Pittsburgh’s most historic synagogue, participants leaned over pages of classical teachings as their teacher stood above. Aided by texts, treats and coffee the students delved into the topic of Talmudic civil discourse. On this night, like they have been for more than 20 years, the members of Rodef Shalom Congregation gathered to discuss and debate the teachings of the Talmud, a collection of Jewish laws and legends dating back before the fifth century CE.
While adult education is paramount at Rodef Shalom — among its current offerings are regular sessions on contemporary Jewish lessons, lectures on the history of Reform Judaism and Christian-Jewish dialogues — the singularity of a Talmud course was recognized by participants.
“I think that some people are curious why at a Reform congregation we have a class on Talmud, because Talmud isn’t really a part of the Reform canon,” said Peter Longini, who joined the class approximately two years ago.
Whereas the Talmud retains a prevailing place within Orthodoxy and much of the Conservative movement for comprehending the nexus and application of halachah, he explained, its primacy and purpose in other denominations differs.
“This isn’t the old fashioned thing where you learn the laws and follow the laws. This is a more modern appreciation of where we have come from in Jewish civilization,” said Fran Lefkowitz, perhaps the group’s longest standing member.
Lefkowitz initiated Rodef Shalom’s Talmud class more than two decades ago.
“It started off in my dining room,” she explained.
Then under the leadership of Rabbi Mark Staitman, the class grew to around 20 students.
“We had to move the class into Rodef, because there was not enough room in my dining room,” recalled Lefkowitz.
The objective at that time, as is now, was to approach the Talmud through cultural and historical lenses.
“We weren’t studying Talmud because we wanted to obey Jewish law,” said Lefkowitz. “The purpose of studying Talmud was to understand Jewish culture — where did we come from, how did we differ from the cultures around us?”
But even as a historical document, the Talmud provides modern lessons, said the students.
“The Talmud covers a huge amount of real estate but what I’m particularly interested in are the practical things that are still ongoing concerns like how do you pay somebody for work when the work is in effect a frustrated contract,” said Longini.
“It gives me not only a background in faith but very often practical means of living life today,” added Don Simon, who also joined the class more than two years ago.
For example, Simon noted the topic of lashon harah (evil speech) as having contemporary significance.
“It’s something we should all be aware of today,” he stressed.
Similarly, Talmudic civil discourse could teach us all a thing or two, suggested Rabbi Paul Tuchman of Temple B’Nai Israel, who has taught the course at Rodef Shalom for the past four years. (His students describe him as an “excellent teacher,” “humorous,” “accessible” and “learned.”)
Looking at both difficult and harmonious relationships among rabbis who disagreed with each other has relevance, he explained, because “the tone of political discourse in our country, and not just recently, has been increasingly harsh and divisive, and I think our politicians are giving us very poor role models about how to disagree agreeably.”
Along with acknowledging their instructor, Rodef Shalom’s Talmud students praised the classical study experience.
“It’s interesting, it’s fun,” said Longini. “I like having intelligent give and take with the rabbi and my classmates, and I found it worthwhile and I plan to continue.”
“It’s a very enlightening class,” echoed Simon. “It’s in our tradition, [it’s] rooting ourselves in what the sages discussed and debated. It’s a different way of looking at life.”
The Talmud course, which is supported by the congregation’s brotherhood, sisterhood and rabbi’s philanthropic fund, has other benefits, said Longini. “There are no prerequisites, there is no out of class reading or writing or other assignments that are given. Everything that happens in Rodef stays in Rodef, [and] the door is always open to new participants in the class.”
Rodef Shalom’s Talmud Class with Rabbi Paul Tuchman meets the first Wednesday of each month in the Krause Conference Room at Rodef Shalom Congregation from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.