What does Queen Esther, the Haggadah, intermarriage, and prayer have in common? Well, nothing. Except these were some of the diverse topics explored in the annual Torathon, held on April 30 at Congregation Beth Ohr in Old Bridge.
The subjects covered were as dissimilar as the 10 rabbis — affiliated with Chabad and the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Traditional movements — who led the learning sessions held throughout the afternoon.
The variety of topics, and the range of religious scholars leading the classes, was intentional.
“Judaism has always prided itself on the intellectual satisfaction that comes with learning,” said Joel Mishkin, rabbi of Beth Ohr, who conducted sessions on Korach’s rebellion against Moses. “In fact, we believe that one of the most direct spiritual connections we can have to the Divine is through the study of Torah.”
The annual day of learning was launched in 1983 by Beth Ohr’s former rabbi, Matt Futterman. It went on hiatus after 2009, but was revived last year by Mishkin with a grant from the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey.
Linda Benish, who has chaired the program from the outset, said it has been “a labor of love.” Her husband, Allan, a board member at the Conservative synagogue, said that in previous years there were requests for more sessions, so they upped the number of rounds from three to four.
Rabbi Ira Grussgott of the traditional Freehold Jewish Center-Congregation Agudath Achim noted that the title of his sessions, “Please Don’t Call Me Conservadox: or How This Hasidic Boy from Brooklyn Deals with his Past-Post-Meta-Trans-Multi-Non-Denominational Community,” encapsulates his life and the sometimes confusing denominational divides in Judaism.
“The synagogue has always been a house divided,” said Grussgott, who has Orthodox rabbinical ordination. “I can tell you in Israel today there can never be one shul,” but said denominational common ground can still be found in such events as a Yom HaShoah commemoration for Holocaust victims.
Rabbi Eric Wisnia of Reform Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction said there is a practical reason for“ taking Torah seriously, but not literally.”
“English is a precise language with a vocabulary of about a million words so we have a way of saying things with nuance,” he explained. “With biblical Hebrew you’re lucky if you have 50,000 words.”
He gave an example: If someone were to ask him how many people attended services the previous night and he responded, “about 100,” it would be clear that he wasn’t sure “because I gave you verbal cues, a round number.” Had he answered with a precise number, like 83, “You would know I counted.” Similarly with Torah, said Wisnia, who also conducted a session on how prayer changes people, it is up to those studying to flesh out those nuances.
Heroines were topics examined by two rabbis. Rabbi Nathan Langer, manager of Jewish hospice services for the Visiting Nurse Association Health Group of New Jersey and former religious leader of Congregation Anshe Emeth in South River, took a close look at Esther, the star of the Purim story.
“Are people born inherently evil?” he asked. “In my opinion, that is sometimes true. Hitler and Haman were born evil. Esther was born inherently good.”
Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner, chaplain at the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living in Somerset, discussed the Torah’s “unsung hero,” Serach, Jacob’s granddaughter, who appears only twice in the Bible.
So as not to risk the elderly patriarch’s death by shock upon hearing that Joseph was alive, Serach was chosen to subtly break the news to Jacob by including the words in the lyrics she sang to him as she played the music on a lyre. Serach also played an important role in identifying Moses as the redeemer who would deliver the Israelites from Egypt and, said Kinzbrunner, “became the female equivalent to Elijah in Jewish lore and tradition.”
Examples of other sessions include an exploration of the Hagaddah as a guide to Judaism led by Rabbi Benjamin Levy of the Reform Congregation Etz Chaim-Monroe Township Jewish Center. Rabbi Robert Pilavin, of Traditional Congregation Sons of Israel, Manalapan, explored interpretations of the Leviticus injunction, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.” And Rabbi Eliezer Zaklikovsky, of Chabad Jewish Center, Monroe, discussed the power to choose and the meaning of free will.
Several of the 150 people in attendance told NJJN that they were pleased with the program.
“All the rabbis had a way of making this very interesting, said Ellen Gasior of Old Bridge, a member of Congregation Sons of Israel. “They all knew what they were taking about in dealing with some very heavy subjects.”
Jane Pomerantz of East Brunswick, a member of Young Israel of East Brunswick, said she thought it was “wonderful.”
“Each rabbi gave their own perspective on the subject,” she said. “They were all well-researched and well-versed. It’s wonderful when all parts of the community from all over central New Jersey can join to get a taste of various perspectives.”