It’s 9:15 a.m. on a Wednesday and most of the students are in their seats as the teacher shuffles in.
This is Rabbi David Kalender’s weekly Mishnah class at Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax, and it’s one of the ways the Conservative synagogue emphasizes challenging adult study — the opposite of what Kalender calls “pediatric Judaism.”
“For those who need it, we have that Judaism 101,” Kalender later says. “But we also need to offer Judaism 301, 501, and even on to independent study.”
Today the class of 27 adults — mostly retirees — is tackling Mishnah Ketubot, which ostensibly covers the wedding contract but, as is typical for the second century compendium of Jewish oral law, travels afield.
“Two women were taken captive,” the chapter text begins. “One says, ‘I was taken captive and I am pure,’ and the other one says, ‘I was taken captive and I am pure’ — they are not believed. But when they testify regarding one another, they are believed.”
The text jumps to the case of two men. “[If] one says, ‘I am a priest’, and the other says, ‘I am a priest’, they are not believed. But when they testify about one another, they are believed.”
The reading addresses the purity of a captured woman and the status of men claiming to be priests, but why the Mishnah cares and how the text applies today garners plenty of discussion.
The Mishnah was compiled in the aftermath of the Second Temple’s destruction, when the main institutions of Judaism had collapsed. The way it endeavored to set rules and structure society clearly connects with the students at Olam Tikvah. They, too, are living in a time when long-held traditions and beliefs are being left behind, Kalender says.
But why did the Mishnah care about these men claiming to be priests, asks Manny Solom, an 83-year-old retired chemist.
“Were there special things that the kohen benefitted from?” he asks, using the Hebrew word for priest. “It seems to me to be some concern either for the future or the present.”
“Because they thought the temple would be rebuilt,” a classmate responds.
The exchange allows Kalender to get to the meat of the whole course — why it is that over two millennia since its writing, the Mishnah is still an important text to study in 2017.
“It’s like today’s questions of identity. We’re asking all sorts of identity questions on an individual level and also how those play out in a communal structure,” Kalender says. “That’s what makes Mishnah so incredibly important and interesting. Our world is in flux in so many ways of things we thought were universal, or at least normative. And this world was in flux and they were trying to figure out what was universal, what was normative, or what was up in the air.”
Kalender came to Olam Tikvah in 1998 and started the class two years later. At that time, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism was promoting reading a chapter from the books of the Prophets per day.
Kalender wanted to build a group study around the initiative, but it was too much text to cover in a single weekly meeting. So he turned to a chapter of Mishnah a week.
Kalender runs things like a seasoned college professor holding a literature seminar. He mixes humor with probing questions and tangents. His zeal for even the text’s minutiae reveals his passion for the material. But students say the class also a great community-builder.
“I come because I learn things, and I come because of the fellowship,” says Lisa Friedman, a 64-year-old psychotherapist after class. “As my peers have retired, more and more people have come. And for the many years I’ve come, I’ve really learned more about what it is to be a Jew.”
Kalender insists that the synagogue has more than enough on offer for those — particularly children — still learning the basics of Judaism. But he thinks there’s more of an unmet demand for this kind of serious Jewish learning than many congregations realize.
That’s why Olam Tikvah also offers Talmud study on Sundays. In addition, if a congregant wants do one-on-one study, Kalender or Rabbi Evan Ravski will oblige. The synagogue has even overhauled its conversion process, eschewing group classes for individual or two-candidate meetings.
Solom says the Mishnah class has reinvigorated his intellectual passion for Judaism. His religious education effectively stopped after his bar mitzvah, and his Jewish identity was simply a reflection of his family and the people around him.
That human connection has again brought him to the synagogue, but this time he’s really engaging with what he finds here.
“I always said that I was Jewish because it was the least repugnant to my intellect,” Solon says. “Sometimes we don’t remember: we’re the people of the book. We might have some answers.”