34th Annual Torathon This Weekend

a hand hovers over a Torah scroll
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By Sophie Panzer

Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El will hold its annual Torathon on Feb. 1, with the event featuring speakers from the Philadelphia Jewish community and beyond addressing diverse topics in Jewish life.

“We invite people from various walks of Jewish life and scholarship to discuss issues in the Jewish world,” said Adena Potok, who co-chairs Torathon with Susan Schmidt. “We’ve had people speak on the origins of the Torah, Israeli politics, Jews in theater and the arts, Jewish communities and cuisine from around the world, and many other themes.”

The evening is divided into three sessions, and guests can choose among four or five lectures available in each. Refreshments are provided between sessions to ensure learners have the opportunity to socialize and exchange ideas.

While the size of the audience varies from year to year, attendance usually hovers around 100.

“Torathon is a great way for people interested in Jewish learning to sample topics of interest and decide which ones they would like to pursue further,” Schmidt said.
Beth Hillel-Beth El’s first Torathon took place in 1987, and the tradition has continued ever since.

“The idea of the Torathon was created by Rabbi Moshe Edelman at his synagogue, the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson, New York,” said Jeffrey Tigay, emeritus A. M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Professor Saul Wachs and I heard about it and thought it would be a wonderful thing for Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El to adopt.”

The congregation aimed to present a celebration of Jewish learning covering a wide variety of topics, ranging from traditional Jewish texts to music and intermarriage.

This year’s classes will include Rabbi Noah Gradofsky’s “The Simpsons Talmud” and Joe Loewenberg’s “Jews and the Labor Movement in the U.S.” Husband-and-wife instructors Rabbi Alan Iser and Sharon Liebhaber will present “Abortion from a Jewish and Secular Legal Perspective” and Rabbi Richard Hirsh will connect the stories of Biblical heroes with contemporary discussions about sexual assault in “Re-Reading Esther and Ruth in the #MeToo Moment.”

Rabbi Neil Cooper, who leads the Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El congregation, will give a presentation entitled “The Middle Road: Judaism and the Art of the Compromise.” This will be Cooper’s 29th year teaching at Torathon.

“We’re going to be looking at a variety of rabbinic sources, all of which deal with resolving some controversy or conflict,” he said. “Disagreement is part of human nature and who we are as Jews, and I’m going to try to connect these texts to Israeli politics today, particularly the Israel-Palestine conflict and peace plans.”

Talya Fishman, an associate professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, will teach “A Radical Medieval Jewish Perspective on the Formation of the Torah’s Texts.” Her presentation will focus on the work of Abraham Ibn Ezra, a 12th century Jewish scholar who noted that the two mentions of the Ten Commandments in the Bible are slightly different. He suggested that where Moses changed the wording of the original Commandments, he did so to make them even more accessible to the Israelites.

“Many modern Jews struggle with the idea that every word in the Torah came directly from God, and it is reassuring to know that pre-modern Jews also grappled with this issue,” Fishman said. “This is a liberating and heartening story for people of faith who also want to use their intellects and analytical skills to understand Judaism.”

Cooper described the event as a staple in the synagogue’s adult education program.
“I hope people will be exposed to something new — maybe a different take on a topic they’ve thought about before or a new idea entirely,” he said. “I hope people will be encouraged to continue studying and enjoy the friendly atmosphere.”

Sophie Panzer is a freelance writer.


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