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'A different kind of rabbi'

Hebrew College's 'trans-denominational' program trains a new generation of leaders

NEWTON -- The subject of the morning Talmud class at Hebrew College's new rabbinical school is a sixth-century text in Hebrew and Aramaic that summarizes ancient arguments about liturgy and blessings. Seated around a table littered with open books are a dozen students, most of them graying or balding.

The seemingly arcane question at hand is whether a Jew who misses afternoon prayers can compensate by praying twice in the evening. On one side is Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Haninah, who argues that the three prescribed daily prayers -- morning, afternoon, and evening -- originated with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. On the other side, Rabbi Yehoshua son of Levi contends that the prayers correspond to sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem that the Romans destroyed in the year 70. Behind this apparently obscure distinction lies a fundamental disagreement about the nature of prayer that could well exemplify the range of viewpoints in this room. The former stance favors flexibility; the latter supports the strict structure of Temple ritual.

In this parsing is the kind of painstaking study and attention to detail that suffuses a religion whose myriad laws are designed to imbue day-to-day life with the sacred. The discussion that follows embodies the essence of the innovative seminary that opened this month. Billed as a "trans-denominational" program, New England's only rabbinical school seeks to attract prospective rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum, from liberal Reform Jews to traditional Orthodox, from 49-year-old Stephen Landau, who returned to his Jewish roots after practicing Transcendental Meditation and living in a spiritual community founded by Ram Dass, to 47-year-old Hannah Gershon, who prays in a small ultra-Orthodox synagogue where women sit separately from men and are barred from the rabbinate.

"Where's the proof that that derekh" -- way -- "that we so respect and talk about all the time is working?" Landau asks the class. "I want to see the proof that five people who went through this" -- he indicates the book in front of him -- "came to that inward experience."

"Come to my shul, and I will show you," Gershon replies.

At a time when Jewish leaders worry about declining numbers and bask in a resurgence of interest among Jews who feel some connection to their tradition, the school aims to produce leaders sensitive to a wide range of Jewish expression.

"The assumptions you come to class with are often challenged," says Rabbi Arthur Green, 62, the scholar of Jewish mysticism and former head of the liberal Reconstructionist seminary in Philadelphia who is the new program's dean. "Having the experience in your rabbinic education of people who ask all the tough questions will make for a more open-minded and enlightened rabbinate across the board."

The brainchild of Hebrew College president David Gordis, the seminary finds in the burly, bearded, avuncular Green a progressive thinker who is an expert on the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic movement. Coming to the seminary from Brandeis University, where he still teaches part time, Green's concern about rabbinic training dates back to 1968, when he was a newly ordained Conservative rabbi founding Havurat Shalom in Somerville as both a nondenominational seminary and an informal community for prayer and study. The seminary was short-lived, lasting long enough to provide a few draft deferments during the Vietnam War. The community, however, persisted, and Green is considered the father of the Havurah movement.

"Art has certainly been there from the beginning of this new spirit of innovation in Jewish life," says Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. "I can't think of anybody better suited" to head the new seminary.

The rabbinic school opens with 17 students, including five who are enrolled in a preparatory year to improve their Hebrew before embarking on a full-time, five-year program that combines Western-style academics with the yeshiva tradition of wrestling with religious texts with a study partner. The students range in age from 23 to 61. They include lawyers, librarians, Jewish educators, an international microfinancier, a home builder, a homemaker, and a college teacher. Two converted from Christianity. Half are women. For all of them, studying here is as much personal quest as professional training.

The Talmud class ends as it began, with singing the "ya didi die die" of a niggun, or wordless tune. Moments earlier, James Morgan had said, "One of the reasons I find this text so radical is it asks the question: What really matters when we pray?" Now, he closes his book and shuts his eyes and chants with his classmates.

Morgan, 35, is a former professor of Russian literature who grew up Episcopalian, converted to Judaism in 2000 when he married a Jewish woman, and enrolled in this program after many years of being dissatisfied with academic life.

"I was relatively religious as a young teenager, but I wasn't Christian. I thought about the Episcopal ministry, but I didn't believe in the divinity of Jesus," Morgan says. "I can point to my conversion as being the first moment I opened a text to study Judaism. It's a process. It's not a point.

"It's a journey of growth and spiritual discovery. I look at it as a journey of making meaning of the texts of the tradition and the transmission of the tradition. It's about handing it off in all its fullness to the next generations."

The seminary opens, Shrage says, at a time of change in Jewish synagogues, when institutions once thought of as places to pray, often only a few times a year, and as places to educate children are being asked to do more.

"Today the function of a congregation is really to transform the spiritual and ethical lives of everybody who passes through," Shrage says. "That requires a different kind of rabbi."

The new school joins existing seminaries in the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism and another, the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, which has run a nondenominational rabbinic training program for almost a half century. The Hebrew College program is part of an institution that's earned a reputation for innovation, that tripled its space when it moved from an old mansion in Brookline to the campus of the Andover Newton Theological School 18 months ago and is already out of room.

"David Gordis took what was a rather sleepy Hebrew College and turned it into a very vibrant center of adult Jewish education," says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis. "If he can do the same with this rabbinical school, it will be his crowning glory."

In each class in the new seminary, Gershon, her graying hair tucked under a black beret, sits next to the professor. If a fellow student at the other end of the table speaks too softly, she quietly moves closer. Whatever limited hearing Gershon has is thanks to the cochlear implant she got seven years ago. Her faith helped her cope when, between the ages of 30 and 32, she went deaf.

"I come to this thinking God gave this to me as a gift and something to use," she says. "What I see in other late-deafened adults who aren't religious is that it's a huge loss. I see a lot of anger and depression. I thought I would maybe show people the spiritual side."

Still unreconciled are what Gershon calls "the gender issues." The self-described "radical feminist" suggests that a classmate who translates the Hebrew word "adam" as "man" use "human" instead. She has also not lived outside the Orthodox community since she was 12.

"It's just a way of life for me. I probably harbor some biases that it's the right way," she says. "I wanted to be a rabbi when I was 12, but I always just accepted that women can't. It was losing my hearing that gave me a reason to override that.

"Even the people at my shul who support me think, `Oh, she's going to be a teacher of the deaf, not a rabbi.' I haven't worked that out for myself yet. If someone asks me to perform a wedding, am I going to do that? Right now I wouldn't. I don't know what I'll say five years from now."

In an afternoon class on the philosophy of prayer, it's Landau's turn to make a personal presentation. He chooses Mary Oliver's poem "The Summer Day," in which the poet asks, "What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" A friend gave Landau the poem when another friend died of cancer almost two years ago. For Landau, the answer was: become a rabbi.

Landau, a former home builder who grew up in a nonobservant home, had turned to a variety of Eastern traditions before meeting Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish renewal movement, in a spiritual community near Taos 18 years ago. The rabbi taught Landau how to wrap his arm and head in the leather straps and boxes of tefillin, phylacteries containing small scrolls of Torah text.

"I proceeded to weep uncontrollably for 15 minutes. I didn't know what happened. In retrospect I considered it my initiation," Landau says. "I'm in the active process of learning about and assuming the obligation of more of the mitzvot," or commandments.

"When you're learning to play a violin, it feels completely foreign in your hands," he says. "It hurts your fingers. You try to play and it sounds like a cat left out in the rain. Then you practice for years. You learn music theory. You learn the scales. One day, you realize you're making music. That's what I imagine following strict Jewish law is like."

A new week begins with a morning service characterized by the background hum of people praying softly while a leader chants the liturgy in Hebrew and punctuated periodically with a spirited wordless tune. The men, and virtually all the women, wear the tallis, or fringed prayer shawl. The men, and several women, don tefillin. Gershon does neither. She has never been called to the Torah. "I'm scared," she says. "I don't know how I feel about it. I don't know if I can do it."

In the month before the Jewish new year, which begins tomorrow evening, Jews blow the shofar, the traditional ram's horn that calls the people to prayer. Landau lifts a curved horn to his lips, inhales deeply, and joins a small chorus of rabbinic students and their teachers who fill the room with the instruments' discordant summons.

"This is about locating myself in the stream of Jewish history," Landau says, "all the way back to all of our teachers and all the way forward to those who come after me."

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