All Talmud, all the time

At Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union this week, the halls are alive with the sound of Talmud. Sometimes the study sessions grow so animated, nearby professors complain about the noise.

It’s all part of GTU’s winter beit midrash, a two-week course in which interfaith students team up in traditional chavruta (study pairs) to learn Talmud from the masters. If they’re doing it right, their passionate arguments should shake the rafters.

Says Naomi Seidman, GTU’s director of Jewish studies, “We wanted to give our students the experience of traditional Jewish text study, which means immersion in rabbinic sources in the original languages, but in a progressive interfaith environment.”

It also meant bringing in a trio of top Talmud scholars: Sergey Dolgopolski, Ilana Foidman and Benay Lappe. The latter is one of the few openly lesbian rabbis in the Conservative movement and founder of Svara, a yeshiva for “queer Jews and straight allies” (as the brochure describes it).

The class began Monday, Jan. 3. So far, Lappe has thoroughly enjoyed the experience of teaching at GTU.

“I don’t think learning Talmud in this way, with people of different faith traditions sitting around the table, has ever happened before,” she says. “We have seminarians, Lutherans, those studying for the Catholic ministry, rabbis, doctoral students. It’s a very queer environment in every sense of the word.”

Lappe’s curriculum for the winter beit midrash (house of study) is based on a single page from Tractate Eruvin. She lectures in the morning, sends the chevrutot off to ponder the meaning of the text and then, she says, “we come together in group discussion and try to unpack it. What were the rabbis getting at? What are the implications for the world outside the beit midrash?”

One of Lappe’s ground rules is that students must study the text in the original Hebrew and Aramaic, regardless of their proficiency in the ancient languages. How does she manage that?

“I teach them how to use the traditional reference works, guides and dictionaries, and show them how to parse words and roots,” she says. “They work methodically word for word.”

Because GTU is emphatically nondenominational, the beit midrash students include a mixture of Jews and non-Jews, about 35 in all. Seidman thinks this fosters a healthy way to study traditional texts.

“The non-Jews tend to be very interesting people,” she says. “Our best Talmud student is non-Jewish. In Orthodox yeshiva it’s taken for granted that there’s an unbroken line between what the sages were doing and what students are doing today. Here it’s not such a clear line. This is a whole new way of thinking about Jewish identity.”

This marks the third time GTU has presented the beit midrash. Thanks to a grant from the Koret Foundation, the institution has been able to bring in high-caliber scholars like Lappe, Dogopolski and Foidman.

Next time she stages the beit midrash, Seidman hopes to expand the interfaith connection, with Jews, Christians and Muslims all studying and learning from each others’ sacred texts.

Meanwhile, she and her colleagues have their hands full with the ongoing winter course. And if a few neighboring professors don’t enjoy the students’ noisy discussions in the hallways, then too bad. Says Seidman: “It’s what Jewish learning is supposed to sound like.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.