Don’t sugarcoat anything. That’s how a class at Kol Ami Congregation in Northern Virginia decided to approach its study of the Hebrew Bible. Four years after beginning their study, the class last month celebrated its conclusion of all 24 books.
The Bible, or Tanach, can be discomforting to modern sensibilities, the class’ teacher, Marcel Infeld, said at a Shabbat service at the Reconstructionist congregation celebrating the group’s achievement.
The scripture “imposes severe punishments for minor infractions [and] God’s rage is frequent and uncontrollable,” Infeld, 76, said during his remarks.
But he concluded by saying that the appeal of the Bible lies in how its imperfections “reflect the human condition,” and that the Bible incorporates contradictory views from which people can choose.
“It’s up to us each of us to make sure that the compassionate side [of the Tanach] prevails,” he said.
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, the leader of the Reconstructionist movement, was on hand at the celebration.
“They engaged in a fundamental way in what I call God-wrestling and tradition-wrestling,” she said. “They saw how our ancestors answered questions in ways that can be challenging, and they didn’t look away.”
One challenge the class faced was the volume of material it had to cover. The class read between 15 and 25 chapters every month in preparation for class, and Infeld joked that he had to be a “tough taskmaster” in order to keep things moving fast enough.
Over four years of study, students remained committed and numbers in the class were generally a consistent seven to 10. One student, Carolyn Gray, was so dedicated that she continued to participate by phone after she moved to Cape Cod.
“When I moved, felt a little bit like I had deserted the group,” she said in a phone interview, explaining why she continued to take the class. “It was really important to finish what we started.”
Gray said that sometimes the text was “magical” and other times “the class couldn’t get through it fast enough.” She credited Infeld with establishing a tone in the class that enabled them to take on the most morally challenging passages.
“When we were dealing with the most difficult parts, we just ventilated as a group and Marcel created an environment where we could express ourselves and our own opinions,” said Gray.
Infeld grew up in a chasidic family in Belgium and is a Holocaust survivor. He said that the traditional Jewish education he received didn’t spend much time focused on the two latter sections of the Tanach, the Prophets and the Writings. This sparked his curiosity to learn more about them.
Infeld, who retired from a career in healthcare administration and real estate, also teaches classes on Hebrew language and Torah chanting at Kol Ami.
Another Tanach student, Richard Ruth, a psychologist, credited Infeld with
creating a constructive environment in the class.
“Marcel’s approach was to say, let’s stay with the plain meaning of the text, but also with a warm, huge and open heart,” Ruth said. “And we absolutely lived that together for four years.”