Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt was asking for a show of hands.
“Do we have any kohanim?” he said, using the Hebrew word for descendants of the ancient priestly caste. None of the 17 congregants at Weinblatt’s Torah study class at Congregation B’nai Tzedek raised a hand.
“Do we have any Levites here,” he asked. Three hands, for descendants of those who served in the ancient temple.
“And how about Israelites? That’s the rest of us I guess,” he said.
With the Torah open to the 33rd chapter of the book of Deuteronomy — this is where Moses blesses the 12 tribes of Israel — Weinblatt was leading the class at the Conservative congregation in Potomac in a discussion in Jewish lineage.
For more than two decades, Weinblatt has led a Thursday morning Torah class. Congregants have worked their way forward through the Five Books of Moses, sometimes spending a session on a single line in the Torah. Members have come and gone, lost spouses and found ways of connecting with Judaism.
What began with Genesis is ending with Deuteronomy.
And on Feb. 1, the group is expected to finish its two-decade, five-book sojourn with a siyyum, or celebration of the completion of study. There will be cake, Weinblatt said, and recitation of the Kaddish d’Rabbanan, which blesses teachers and scholars of Torah.
At last week’s class, Potomac resident Amanda Bergman said she was confused why Jewish lineage went through the father in the Torah, but generally goes through the mother today.
The reason, Weinblatt said, is “because one knows who their mother is but not necessarily their father. In the time of the Romans, when Jewish women were being abused and raped, instead of excommunicating them from the community, the rabbis decided that as long as you have a Jewish mother you are part of the Jewish community.”
Bergman, 51, is the mother of two adult sons and one teenage son. Two were preschoolers when she was studying Genesis and one was not yet born. Now she discusses the lessons from her Torah study with them.
“I’ve used the creation story to discuss the creation theory versus the Big Bang,” she said. “My boys are very science-oriented, and now that they’re older we can talk about how things are metaphorical. Just because you’re a science guy doesn’t mean that the Torah means nothing.”
Natalie Spickler, an 85-year old Rockville resident, said she attended the sessions regularly with her late husband, including when he was terminally ill with leukemia.
“Even when my husband was alive and needed chemo, we always made sure we were here Thursday morning,” she said. “I try to come every Thursday morning, hell or high water.”
Marvin Menick, 87, said he was a “two- or three-times a year Jew” until he joined the study group six years ago. In addition to learning Jewish history, he appreciates the social bonds he has formed in class.
“There’s a certain warmth I get from participating in the synagogue and Torah study,” he said.
Now that they’re reaching the end of Deuteronomy, is that the end of the class?
Weinblatt said no. He plans to take the class into the next book of the Bible, Joshua. And then the class will move on to Judges. That should take them through the High Holidays, when the rabbi will decide what to do next — keep moving forward or circle back to the beginning.