Torah study goes way outside the box at each year’s Torahthon. This year, at Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation’s seventh event, they are going to need an even bigger box.
Learners can take in political sessions like “Israel’s Settlements: Fulfilling God’s Will or Leading to Disaster?”; social justice topics like “The Immigration Debate: 1914 and 2014”; eco-sessions on “What’s Jewish About Jewish Environmentalism”; or traditional prayer subjects like “The Kaddish: What is it and Why?”; and even personal development modules like “Jewish Criticism: Must I Tell You When You Are Wrong?”
But don’t stop there.
There will be wider opportunities this year to expand your mind with topics like “Southern Rabbis and Civil Rights” or “Sex: What is the Jewish Perspective on Pleasure?” Going further out, how about “The Jewish Virgin Mary,” or even “Breaking Bad and The Yetzer HaRa: Morality Tale or Moral Relativism?”
Of course, there’s plenty of traditional and analytical text study, too, which is why the variety of teaching at the event has enough to satisfy questions that many Jews probably haven’t yet thought of.
“A record number of teachers approached us, without having to be asked, and offered to teach,” Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, senior rabbi at Herzl-Ner Tamid told JTNews. “We tried not to turn anyone away. We had more offers than we could accommodate this year — a wonderful problem to have.”
During his teaching, Rosenbaum will examine the male-female duality of the Shechinah, the Hebrew word for God’s feminine qualities. If God is one, posits Rosenbaum, than both male and female must operate simultaneously.
“For example, on the High Holidays, I quoted thinkers who believed that women are better at relationships than men,” Rosenbaum said. “Do we agree, or is that sexist?”
Rosenbaum cited the Talmud, the compilation of Jewish law and legend, which says that when two people study together the Shechinah is there, too. This “presence,” Rosenbaum said, embodies “receptivity, acceptance, listening, and relationship.”
On the continuum of an individual’s tendency to focus on the self, Temple De Hirsch Sinai’s senior rabbi, Daniel Weiner, will take on the subject of the yetzer ha-ra, or the “evil inclination,” which according to Weiner, the rabbis say we all have but probably don’t manage very well.
Through the lens of Walter White, the cancer-plagued former chemistry teacher who decides to sell crystal methadrine in AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” Weiner told JTNews that this often rejected or hidden part of our personalities can also be used as a force for good, even when it seems so “bad.”
“It has opened a window into the soul of our cultural moment, as many of us were both horrified by his descent and rooting for his success,” wrote Weiner in his course description.
But, without giving it all away, Weiner told JTNews that we also have the ability to transform this part of ourselves.
“Remember, the rabbis also teach that the yetzer ha-ra is necessary for a healthy ambition,” said Weiner. “A channeling of the yetzer ha-ra is what is advised. There’s no way to extinguish it.”
Shirah Bell, the senior teacher at The Mussar Institute who directs its core program, Everyday Holiness, may be able to help with that. Bell’s central mission is to guide individuals toward turning their daily schedules into spiritual opportunities.
Her session, “Guilt-Free Parenting! Mussar Principles for Raising a Mensch While Becoming More of One Yourself,” could transform a parent’s daily routine of car trips to and from the market and school into a personal growth class.
“Interactions with our children give us ample opportunities to see where our behaviors and attitudes are poor reflections of our pure soul,” Bell told JTNews. “Rather than ‘fixing’ our children or our spouses, we can use the difficulties to get to work repairing ourselves.”
Bell also holds local Mussar classes and mentors individuals in Mussar and spirituality.
“As a parent we can treat our children as seeds that are sprouting,” said Bell. “They can sprout on their own, but our job is to guide the direction of the growth. We can do that most effectively if we improve our own character while we guide our children in improving theirs.”
Other courses will bring in out-of-town guests such as Alan Elsner, J Street’s vice president of communications, and Dr. Alon Tal, founder of Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.
Torahthon 7 is being co-hosted by Temple De Hirsch Sinai and supported by grants from the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, the Alfred & Tillie Shemanski Foundation, and several other local co-sponsors including synagogues, Jewish schools and university programs.