Does taking out a life-insurance policy hint at a lack of faith in God, and does it somehow betray the belief that God is both all-powerful and benevolent?
Did Abraham's servant somehow violate Judaism's prohibition against sorcery or witchcraft when he asked for, and received, a kind of sign from God while he sought a wife for his boss's son, Isaac?
Rabbi Mordecai Wecker, head of school at Stern Hebrew High School in Northeast Philadelphia, delved into these issues and more during a recent informal class on the weekly Torah portion.
But the lesson didn't take place at the school, or even in a nearby synagogue. The location?
Holy Land Pizza on Castor Avenue on a recent Wednesday evening. The program's alliterative title? "Parsha and Pizza."
And the organizers insist: You don't have to be a Torah scholar to follow along.
"It's very convenient and a very relaxed atmosphere," said Sandy Kalish, 59, a Rhawnhurst resident who regularly attends the weekly shiur, or "lesson," at Holy Land. She said that it gives her a chance to do some informal learning, catch up with friends -- and she also gets a night off from making dinner.
The program is the brainchild of Reuven Slurzberg, a founder of JCOR (Jewish Community of Rhawnhurst), an independent organization that seeks to build community and programming for Rhawnhurst's Orthodox community. At least six Orthodox synagogues fall under JCOR's auspices.
The parshah program, which is open to any interested party, even those unaffiliated with a shul, began in the spring of this year and takes place every Wednesday at 7 p.m., not counting interruptions due to holidays.
Roughly 20 to 25 people, virtually all Orthodox, attend each program, said Slurzberg. Each class is led by a different speaker. The pizza is free; drinks and extras, like falafel, are not.
Slurzberg, 57, noted that he's always looking for ways to get members of different synagogues to do things together.
Ultimately, his goal is to grow the community and help make it more attractive to observant families from outside the area.
"We want more people moving in than moving out," he said. "God willing, this program will go on for a long time."
Love at First Sight
As the class starting time approached, participants sat down at two long tables: men at one, women at another. Slurzberg explained that this isn't mandated, but it "just kind of happens that way." He did acknowledge that there's a custom for men and women to separate while learning Torah.
Several pizza pies were strategically placed at the two tables; they didn't last very long.
Wecker jumped right into that week's parshah: Chayei Sarah.
Abraham's servant, who's unnamed in the Torah but is identified in the Midrash as Eliezer, stood at a well. He proclaimed that whichever unmarried woman not only offered him water, but water for his camels as well, would be the one to marry Isaac. Sure enough, Rebecca followed suit and, according to the text, her meeting with Isaac was love at first sight.
Did that request hint that Eliezer didn't have enough faith in God to take care of future events? Did such a coincidence suggest that he somehow manipulated events supernaturally or used a spell?
Wecker said that the consensus is no: Eliezer is generally venerated in Jewish tradition. But there have been some, including Maimonides, the 12th-century Torah scholar, who thought that Eliezer's actions weren't entirely "kosher" -- that asking for a sign smacks of superstition.
The discussion at Holy Land Pizza then shifted from the incident with Eliezer to the concept of trust in God.
Wecker noted that many Jews with absolute belief in God "either have faith that everything will work out fine or have the attitude of, 'Whatever will come, will come.' "
So, reverting back to an original question, is a life-insurance policy somehow a slight to traditional faith?
Wecker said that he's always been taught that a policy is simply a practical way to insure the well-being for one's family in case of tragedy.
That answer sat well with Kalish, in particular. It just so happens that her husband sells life insurance.