Feast of Jewish Learning returns will focus on the art of Jewish dispute

If the old “two Jews, three opinions” adage is true, what happens when hundreds of Jews gather for a workshop on the art of the argument? You do the math.

The popular Feast of Jewish Learning is returning to the Bay Area after a one-year hiatus. The three-hour free event, sponsored by Jewish LearningWorks, will take place Feb. 20 at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

The theme this year: the role of argument in Judaism.

David Waksberg

“This ‘Feast’ is very much a South Peninsula community event,” said David Waksberg, executive director of S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks. He and his staff have been organizing the event with rabbis in the region. “It’s open to everyone and we hope people will drive from near and far to come.”

As always, the “Feast” brings out the cream of the intellectual crop. Noted rabbis, scholars and other learned people will lead breakout sessions covering every conceivable aspect of machlochet, a Hebrew term loosely translated as “argument.”

“The root is chalet, which means piece or segment,” Waksberg said. “That conveys a sense that each of us only has a piece of the picture. Engaging in machlochet is like a big jigsaw puzzle, and each of us has one piece.”

Officially titled “Holy Discord: The Art of Jewish Dispute,” this year’s event will have 26 one-hour sessions led and co-led by dozens of speakers, such as Congregation Kol Emeth Rabbi David Booth, Hillel at Stanford Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, Silicon Valley Beit Midrash director Shani Gross and Stanford University professor Gabriella Safran.

Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman

In addition, there will be sessions conducted in Russian and Hebrew, and the theater ensemble from the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco will perform scenes from a recent production.

Waksberg will co-lead one session with Zack Bodner, executive director of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. Though both are passionate supporters of Israel, the common ground stops there.

“We have really different perspectives on all things related to Israel and how American Jews can best connect to Israel,” Waksberg said. “It‘s possible we’ll debate, and if we do, we’ll do it in a respectful way. But I’ll be disappointed if someone leaves thinking they saw a debate. The point of machlochet is we present our disagreement so that we hear and learn from each other.”

It wasn’t always so benign. A session at the “Feast” led by Rabbi Amy Eilberg will focus on a sorry moment of Jewish history, the 9th of Adar, commemorating the first century BCE slaughter of hundreds of acolytes of Rabbi Hillel at the hand of zealots loyal to Rabbi Shammai, with whom they apparently disagreed strongly.

“Machlochet is actually embedded in creation,” said another of this year’s session leaders, Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman of Congregation Emek Beracha in Palo Alto. “It’s part of the way we are supposed to work. It’s supposed to be when you put something in front of two people they will automatically come up with two different views. It depends on whether [disagreement] is for the sake of heaven or pursued for purely divisive ends.”

Feldman, who calls machlochet a “bread-and-butter topic,” has taught at many previous Feasts of Jewish Learning. He said he loves that this event brings together all streams of Judaism, as well as unaffiliated Jews who prefer viewing (and listening) from the sidelines. “This gives them license to hear a different kind of voice,” Feldman said.

The “Feast” was not held last year due to funding issues, but community demand spurred Waksberg and his colleagues to make it happen in 2016. He says the staging of the “Feast” has undergone a few tweaks but that it is essentially the same as in years past, especially regarding the diverse crowd that turns out.

“Historically it’s been called a night of Jewish unity,” Waksberg said. “One interesting thing is the way the entire community comes together across all political, religious and cultural lines.”

Feast of Jewish Learning, 7-10 p.m. Feb. 20, at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills. Free. www.jewishlearningworks.org


A sampling of session titles

“Not a Joke — Two Jews, Three Opinions is Part of Creation”

“Knife Fight at the Beit Midrash: When an Intellectual Dispute Becomes Personal”

“Cultivating and Celebrating Holy Disputes”

“Rising Above:  A Torah Guide to Emotional Mastery and Anger Management”

“The Machlochet on Your Doorpost: Today’s Design Thinking Applied to Ancient Disputes”

“Mindful Speech: How Should Jews Talk?”

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.