Talmud in one hour? Yes, it can be done

In the time it takes to cook a baked potato, one Bay Area rabbi can teach students how to identify all 24 books of the Bible and its ancient commentaries.

Or so he claims.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan will putting his theory to the test next month when he teaches five free, nighttime sessions of “Speed Talmud” around the Bay Area.

The idea is to demystify in one fell swoop the many categories of ancient texts in the Jewish tradition, especially the Talmud.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan shows off his need for speed.

The breezy course description humorously pitches the class as an antidote to “Talmudic Reference Dysfunction (TRD), an embarrassing condition that can cause shame and humiliation” when others around you are discussing and quoting the Talmud.

“Speed Talmud will give [you] the confidence to engage in Talmudic repartee and put the bounce back in your step and a smile on your face,” the Web page continues.

The class’s full name is “Speed Talmud: On One Foot, In One Hour.” It is run by Lehrhaus Judaica, a Berkeley-based Jewish studies center for adults where Wolf-Prusan serves as senior educator. It’s part of a more extensive network of classes and learning opportunities called the Bay Area Community Talmud Circle, which Wolf-Prusan runs.

The title’s reference to “on one foot” comes from the query Rabbi Hillel once received: A man wanted to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot. The great sage replied: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”

In a similar vein, “Speed Talmud” is designed to quickly boil down the essence of what the Talmud is: a redaction of several hundred years of rabbinic musings on the Mishna, which became the foundational document of Jewish law.

But the course also aims to give thumbnail descriptions of the Tanakh, the Midrash, the Zohar and more. Don’t know the Chumash from the Gemara? Or the Jerusalem Talmud from the “regular” Talmud? Maybe this class is for you.

Wolf-Prusan said his goal for “Speed Talmud” is to orient people, not to try to convey the Talmud — which is traditionally studied over a seven-year period — in a single hour.

“It is not possible to reach an understanding of the scope of the Talmud in an hour, or in anything less than a lifetime,” he said. But, “like an ocean, it can be appreciated while standing in it toe-deep gazing at the endless horizon.”

Wolf-Prusan, who claims to be the only student to have earned a degree in experimental art from Hebrew Union College, describes his teaching as performance art.

“Like ‘Mr. Science,’ I show, tell, share and have the students react and replay the demonstration,” he said.

One of his main techniques is to line up a few students at the front of the room, each one representing components of the Bible and the Talmud. He then arranges and re-arranges them to show the inter-relationships of the various texts.

“He’s not afraid to get silly in the name of learning,” said Tracy Harding, a synagogue youth activities coordinator who took a Talmud class from Wolf-Prusan in San Francisco. “When he found out early on that a couple of us were science fiction fans, he brought in science fiction references. In the end we bought him an apron with a lot of Star Wars characters on it.”

The volume of material might seem overwhelming for an hour’s work, but Wolf-Prusan said that adults who “would look dazed and confused by the mumbo jumbo” come out on firmer ground.

“People know a lot more about Jewish texts than they think they do,” he said, “but they just don’t know how to organize it.”

“Speed Talmud: On One Foot, In One Hour,” June 3 in Los Gatos, June 10 in Marin, June 11 in Palo Alto, June 12 in San Francisco and June 13 in Berkeley. 7 p.m. Free. www.lehrhaus.org or (510) 845-6420