with Rabbis Zwerin and Kaye
“Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
Welcome to Temple Sinai’s inaugural Torah study group, founded by Rabbis Ray Zwerin and Steve Kaye in 1985. Now celebrating its 28th year, the class welcomes everyone regardless of Torah literacy or Hebrew fluency.
Torah study meets from 10:40 a.m. to noon on Saturday mornings in the chapel. When each session concludes, conversations frequently continue in the chapel, the foyer, out in the parking lot and even over lunch.
There is only one requirement: no reading ahead. “You don’t need to know anything,” Zwerin says. You start wherever you drop in, and you don’t have to talk if you feel uncomfortable. You participate by showing up.
“All you need is half a brain, an interest in Torah and a desire to learn the contemporary aspects of what the Torah is trying to teach us.”
Participants include doctors, lawyers, writers, housewives, widowers, kids on college break, grandparents and childless pet lovers. The woman next to you believes in God. The man across the circle is an atheist. Agnostics abound.
“People bring their professional and personal experiences to the conversation,” Zwerin says. Differences beget fascinating exchanges. Energy bounces like a tennis ball. But no one has ever challenged an opponent to a duel.”
One woman walked into Torah study for the first time in 1997 and hid in the back row. She had just missed the fireworks — the Exodus from Egypt. Rabbi Zwerin was reading a passage on bitter waters made sweet. She dipped her toes in the sweetness. It has made all the difference.
Passing by Temple Sinai’s chapel between 10:40 a.m. to noon on Saturday mornings, you’ll hear paraprosdokians (like the above), Jewish humor, conversations, questions, segues, intense debates and multiple opinions.
Rabbi Zwerin initiates each session with jokes and humorous quizzes assembled from the Internet. If someone mentions an unsettling event in the US or Israel, a discussion inevitably follows.
“We study Torah one word at a time. Sometimes we finish a phrase or a sentence, or brusquely shoot through two sentences.”
After 28 years, the class is reading Numbers. Even the youngest group members freely acknowledge they won’t finish Deuteronomy in their lifetime — and that’s fine.
This unique approach to Torah study dismisses the general model of focusing on the parsha of the week, Zwerin says. “That’s great. In 25 years you get to go through the whole Torah 25 times. But so what? We take a different track.”
About eight people showed up at the first Torah study in 1985. The word spread. “Hey, there’s this amazing Torah study group you should try.” Today there are 25 regulars and lots of irregulars who come whenever possible.
“The mainstays who have passed away are truly missed,” Zwerin says. “But their spirits hover.”
Why Study Torah?
The Torah did not envision the future: cars, TVs, computers, the Internet, cell phones. “Unless you were a rural farmer or a priest in the Tabernacle, I don’t think you could use the Torah as a guide to living your life today,” Zwerin says. “It’s not an urban book, like the Talmud.”
What unites these 21st-century Reform Jews is the search for meaning, which is the essence of Torah study.
Says Zwerin, “What the Torah can do is elucidate the universal aspects of the human condition. Its insights are ongoing through the centuries and the millennia. How we live our lives has changed radically over the course of time. The essence of the human condition hasn’t changed.”
BYO, Borrow Ours, Call Your Sister
You can bring your own copy or borrow one of several donated for this very purpose. Because people use different versions, it takes a minute or two to find the exact page.
Zwerin reads every line in Hebrew and translates it into English. “But my book says this!” a person interrupts. “Well, mine says something else!” another says. Disparities exist among the various translations.
Others who possess a detailed knowledge of Hebrew flip through dictionaries (paperback or online versions) to question a word, which entirely changes the meaning. Recently a native-born Israeli called his sister, who lives in Tel Aviv, for her input during class.
Mark your calendars for Saturdays, 10:40 to noon in the chapel. We meet from the High Holidays until late May or early June and disband for the summer.
Meaning doesn’t have an expiration stamp. And newcomers won’t feel new for long.