Sharpening Their Skills

The conference room buzzed with a focused kind of chatter as dozens of rabbis and rabbinical students from the Philadelphia area and beyond discussed, analyzed and debated the talmudic passage at hand.

Taken from a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, this particular text raised an age-old question: Is it okay to tell a white lie in order to spare somebody's feelings? For example, should you tell a bride on her wedding day that she's gorgeous even if she's not looking her best? The answer: The bride is always beautiful in the groom's eyes, so no lie there.

The recent study session, held at the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City, was a welcome opportunity for participating rabbis to engage in textual study with their colleagues and future colleagues.

"How often do you have a Yeshiva University-trained rabbi study Torah with a student from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College?" posed Rabbi Ira Grussgott of Congregation Kesher Israel, a traditional synagogue on Lombard Street in Philadelphia.

The morning session that addressed issues surrounding the rabbinical concept of lashon hara — the sin of speaking ill of a person, even if what is uttered is true — was just one part of a three-day inaugural conference run by the newly created Institute for the Continuing Advancement of Rabbis.

To be known as ICAR, it is a joint project of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

More than 60 male and female rabbis from across the denominational spectrum attended the conference, along with roughly 20 rabbinical students from RRC; the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and Yeshiva University, both based in New York City; and the Union for Traditional Judaism in New Jersey.

According to Rabbi David Gutterman, executive director of the Vaad, the purpose behind ICAR is two-fold. One is to afford rabbis from different backgrounds the opportunity to have a break from their daily duties and study Jewish texts together — study simply for its own sake. The other is to offer training on a wide variety of skills that are often not taught in rabbinical schools, including fundraising and organizational dynamics.

The plan is to hold similar conferences twice a year here, according to Gutterman, who added that the goal is to help participants further develop into "21st-century rabbis" who can better serve their communities.

Yet another goal is to foster a greater sense of pluralism.

Many of the discussions at the program were led by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, an Israeli-born teacher and scholar known for translating much of the Talmud into English, as well as for books such as The Essential Talmud and The Thirteen Petalled Rose.

Steinsaltz, with his flowing white beard and an accent that sounded more Eastern European than Israeli, told the group that he decided to address the concept of lashon hara because figuring out just what is appropriate to say is something that everybody deals with, including rabbis.

It doesn't matter if it's in a Reform temple or an Orthodox shul, he insisted, "the patterns of lashon hara are common."

Steinsaltz spoke for nearly two hours after the rabbis finished their study session.

He added that ethically, it's okay to reveal damaging information on a need-to-know basis — for instance, bringing to light relevant information on a political candidate — but he suggested that Judaism's perspective on "need to know" differs from that of newspaper editors, who decide all the time to publish information that might tarnish a person's reputation.

"Just imagine," the rabbi continued, "a newspaper that writes only about good things — how many people would buy it?

"I have to remember that I am not allowed to tell lashon hara, but I am not permitted to mislead people either."

As it so happens, one participant at the conference, 46-year-old Michael Ross, had thought a great deal about the ethical balancing act described by Steinsaltz. Ross, a third-year student at RRC, also served as a former editor at The Oakland Tribune in California.

"He raises great questions because he lives inside those questions," said Ross during a break for lunch.

His classmate at RRC, 53-year-old Ari Hendin, said that the gathering provided her with the rare chance to learn directly from one of the world's great talmudists, namely Steinsaltz, and to feel like a colleague among the region's rabbis.

The longtime professionals felt likewise.

Rabbi David E. Straus, religious leader over at Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood, said that the Talmud study at the ICAR meeting provided a vibrant form for pluralistic dialogue because "we all share not only a commitment, but a love for the text."


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