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Talmud Torah as Spiritual Encounter

Sefirat HaOmer 2004


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Learn About the Program


Learn About the Scholars

As inheritors of the Western philosophic tradition, we tend to draw rigid distinctions between "scholarly"and "spiritual" endeavors, assuming that they are mutually exclusive domains. Our Sefirah Study program this year, "Talmud Torah as Spiritual Encounter" will seek to renegotiate these boundaries by exploring how rigorous text study might be experienced as an encounter with the Divine.

This Sefirah Study is available for individual or chevruta study. The scholars' pepared course materials will be emailed to you as Adobe Acrobat documents for study. Linda Thal will introduce and conclude the Sefirah study as well as weaving together the three two-week units (see schedule below). The Sefirah Study follows a Monday/Thursday schedule (holidays permitting): each week on Monday, we begin our study of a new text, and on Thursday, the scholar of the week will provide his/her thoughts on the text. Comments and questions will be emailed in digest form to the group as they arrive. (For courses with live or recorded presentations, please see our Mini-Courses or Mahaloqet L'Shem Shamayim Programs.)

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Learn about the Program

For more info about each unit, see below.
Linda Thal
Special Introduction
(Weeks 1 & 2)
Norman Cohen
"Surviving the Journey Through the Desert" - R. Yehoshua and R. Eliezer
(Weeks 3 & 4)
Eitan Fishbane
Zohar and Hassidut: "Doorway to the
Divine Presence"
(Weeks 5 & 6)
Elsie Stern
Ezekiel and Ruth:
Kriat ha-Torah and Ignatian Experiential Reading
(Week 7)
Linda Thal
Program Conclusion

As a participant, you will receive an introduction from Dr. Linda Thal prior to Passover which will introduce the program's themes (click here to see an excerpt from Linda's Introduction). Then the course itself begins on April 11. For each of the seven weeks, you will receive a weekly text study and a weekly text study conclusion.

The text study introduces a text and the approach or discipline of the week's scholar: it includes background exposition, the text, and study questions. For Thursday, the text study conclusion provides some of the scholar's own insights into the material for your review after you have studied "Monday's" material. We encourage you to study with a chevruta or small group of colleagues.

Throughout the course, you will have a chance to interact with your colleagues and our special presenters via the email discussion. This is a chance to explore the material in greater depth and ask any questions you might have.

Unit 1 - Weeks 1 & 2 with Dr. Norman Cohen:
Participants will first focus on an engaging Biblical text, which comes from a section of the Exodus narrative following Shirat HaYam, when Moses led Israel away from the Red Sea into the desert. The Biblical passage frames the essential challenge for the Israelites and for all of us: how to survive the journey through the desert of our lives. Then, through a close literary, structural analysis of a Mekhilta passage, each student will hopefully come to appreciate how the passage as a whole, and the controversy between R. Yehoshua and R. Eliezer in particular, embody the basic tensions within which each of us lives and searches for meaning.

Unit 2 - Weeks 3 & 4 with Dr. Eitan Fishbane:
In this two-week segment we will explore the ways in which Jewish mystics understood the Torah to be a multi-layered reality and a contemplative doorway to the Divine Presence. In the first week, we will consider classic passages from the Zohar – the masterpiece of medieval Kabbalah – that present Torah study as a process of unveiling the outer garments of Scripture in search of the divine mysteries that are hidden within. In the second week, we will examine selected texts from Hasidic mysticism on the experiential and devotional character of Torah study.

Unit 3 - Weeks 5 & 6 with Dr. Elsie Stern
In this segment we will explore two of the lectionary texts for Shavuot: Ezekiel 1 and the Book of Ruth. We will use these texts as case studies for exploring two traditional strategies for doing Talmud Torah as spiritual practice. The first, a central Jewish practice, is Kriat ha-Torah, the ritualized recitation of designated texts in the synagogue at particular moments in the Jewish calendar. The second, which derives from Catholic tradition, is the Ignatian practice of experiential reading, which asks readers to imaginatively experience the biblical text and use the experience as a means to come closer to God. During the segment, we will explore the usefulness of these two models for our own spiritual practice.

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Scholars' Bios

Dr. Linda Thal is a Jewish educator working in the field of adult learning and spiritual development. In addition to teaching and consulting, she has a practice in spiritual guidance and is co-director of Morei Derekh, a national program for the training of Jewish spiritual directors.

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Norman J. Cohen is a Professor of Midrash at HUC-JIR/New York. He has served as the Provost of the College-Institute since 1996 after completing an eight-year term as the Dean of the New York School. Norman received his Ph.D. from HUC-JIR in Midrash. Norman's publications include: The Way into Torah (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2000), Voices from Genesis: Guiding Us Through the Stages of Our Life (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998), and Self, Struggle and Change: The Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and their Healing Insights for Our Lives (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1996).

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Dr. Eitan P. Fishbane is Assistant Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, and specializes in the study of medieval Jewish mysticism. Among his research interests are the following topics: types of kabbalistic prayer and mystical techniques; contemplative experience and confessional writing; the literary style and poetics of the Zohar.

Dr. Fishbane has published articles in The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy and The Jewish Quarterly Review, and further articles are scheduled to appear in The Journal of the American Academy of Religion and The Journal of Religion. He is currently working on a book entitled: Techniques of Mystical Practice: Isaac of Acre and Kabbalistic Contemplation.

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Dr. Elsie Stern is currently the Assistant Director for Public Programs at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (http://www.cjs.upenn.edu/). She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1998 and was Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University from 1998-2003. Dr. Stern is the author of the forthcoming monograph, From Rebuke to Consolation: Exegesis and Theology in the Literature of the Tisha b'Av Season. Her primary area of research is the interpretation and transformation of the Bible in liturgical and communal contexts.

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