Torah Study: An Intentional Space for Growth and Community

A Special Article in Preparation for Shavuot

by Colleen Morawetz

Every other Thursday evening since January, I’ve been doing something I never seriously expected of myself – group Torah study. Our nine intellectually curious and emotionally intelligent participants take turns leading the discussion on the week’s parsha and, until March, hosting the group at their home.

Our study group is diverse in terms of age, life experience, theological inclination, and even Jewish identification. The majority of our participants met and began our group learning through Living Jewish Wisdom, a multi-denominational informational course led by many talented teachers, including our own Rabbi Miriam. The course serves different functions to different people – for some, a way to explore an interest in Judaism piqued by familial connection or a Jewish partner; for others, a step in the formal conversion process. For myself, a hopeful Jew-by-choice, and my husband, who grew up steeped in the Montreal Jewish community, the class both skimmed the surface of a variety of fascinating historical, theological, and cultural topics – informed by each teacher’s background and expertise – and provided us with a new community of Jewish learners and friends.

At the end of our formal course in December, several of our group participants – many of whom are DJC members – started exploring the idea of continued learning together. Torah study seemed like the perfect extension of the course; we had discussed disparate textual portions during class without the luxury of time to appreciate the full context, and, on the practical level, it gave us a ready-made roadmap to offer shape and content to our learning process.

And so, the project began, with some welcome new additions to our group roster. As with any new group, hammering out the logistics took up much of the discussion in the early days – how often would we meet? What would be the general format of our discussions? Would we bring in traditional or modern commentaries, or focus more on a close read of the text itself? But there were also deeper questions that we are still figuring out as a group – what kind of biblical scholars within the broad liberal Jewish tradition do each of us want to be? Are we examining the text as literature or a cultural-historical artifact, as an ethical framework with direct application to multicultural modernity, or as something else entirely?

As a group of Jews, Jews-to-be and Jewish-curious, our diversity allows us to think through these complex and timeless questions together, in a way that makes sense to us. We have learned that Torah is meant to be studied amongst the masses, and that we don’t need a formal teacher or to have studied Torah for years in order for our interpretations to have depth, meaning and value (although I’m the first to admit that rabbinical guidance is always welcomed gratefully!). So too, the answers to our more esoteric questions – what it means to live a modern, liberal Jewish life and how that relates to Torah, how we each want to approach the text and the learning group itself when we get together to read these well-worn lines – these too are the questions that we have the authority and ability to decide for ourselves, but which we likely will continue to grapple with for as long as we learn together. And I have learned through this group the value of true collaborative learning; it is in the discussion and the grappling, with the text and with ourselves, that my most treasured nuggets of meaning have emerged.

Since March, we have been meeting on Zoom every other week. Learning with my fellow group members consistently, breathing a sigh of relief as I mentally shut the door on my uncontained office alcove, has been one of the most enjoyable, engaging and calming parts of my self-isolating era. A few weeks ago, when the parsha discussed the eternal flame to be lit in the Mishkan, I understood with new depth the importance of cultivating ritual to be a source of safety, growth, and community in a time of overwhelming uncertainty.

Join Colleen and other members of the Torah Study group on Thursday May 28th 9pm for a conversation moderated by Rabbi Miriam  – A Group of Beginners Walk into a Torah