Molly Zatman | Intern
A Torah-study group led by Rabbi Jonah Layman of Shaare Tefila just finished the Five Books of Moses after nearly three decades of study.
Most Friday mornings since 1994, the group at the Olney-based synagogue has been going verse by verse through the entirety of the Torah, studying both the text and the traditional medieval commentaries.
The group began 28 years ago as part of Layman’s vision to expand the synagogue’s adult-education offerings when he first became the Conservative synagogue’s rabbi.
Laymann said “I thought this would be an interesting class. It’s essentially Chumash with Rashi, but it’s more than just Rashi. It’s Rashi’s contemporaries, other medieval traditional, rabbinic commentaries found in the traditional edition of the Torah known as Mikraot Gedolot.”
Even though some verses of the Torah may be considered more “important” than others, the class delegates time to each portion of the text based on interest, not perceived importance.
Along those lines, “we were just as in-depth with verses dealing with sacrifices in the book of Leviticus as we were with the very profound Ten Commandments,” explained Layman. “We spent weeks on the few verses that make up the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus, just as we spent weeks on a particular understanding of skin rashes from the book of Leviticus.”
The group reviews about five to 10 verses, along with their respective commentaries, during the average class, according to Layman. This gives them time to break down small passages and accounts for potential tangents in conversation.
‘It’s what I do on Friday mornings’
In his 20-plus years of attending the class, Barry Louis Polisar was inspired by the depth and analysis. He wrote a book, “Retelling Genesis,” which explores 13 stories from Genesis written from perspectives of untraditional characters.
“You get Eve’s side of the story, you get Noah’s wife’s side, you get lesser-known characters from Genesis telling their side of the story or telling the same story but from their point of view,” said Polisar. “That was inspired by this class.”
In addition to exploring traditional stories, Polisar also feels the class has become a part of his “psyche.” It gave him a consistent connection to his Jewish identity, in addition to becoming a solidified part of his routine.
“It’s just what I do on Friday mornings,” he said. “On the days the class doesn’t meet for whatever reason, I find myself doing my own readings.”
Attendance has become easier, according to Layman, because the class moved from in-person sessions to Zoom during the rise of the coronavirus pandemic and has since stayed online. Other Maryland residents have been invited to participate now that it has moved beyond brick and mortar.
“One of the original members of the class moved down to Florida before coronavirus,” said Layman. “Now, since we’re on Zoom, she has been able to rejoin the class.”
Members of the class are primarily retirees, ranging in age from 60 to 93.
“I’m a self-employed writer and songwriter. I had the ability to come in on a Friday morning at 9:30, when most people worked a regular 9-to-5 job,” recounted Polisar. “I made jokes that the class was me and all the retirees because who else would come?”
The group has already decided that once they finished Deuteronomy, they will move on to study Joshua, the sixth book of the Tanach and the first book of Nevi’im (“Prophets”).
Polisar, who has already read parts of Nevi’im, is excited to study them in a class setting.
“It will be nice to read them again in a group,” he said, “with the classic commentary and with fellow congregants who can comment on the text.”