Teaching Talmud in Moscow

Published: 
July 27, 2010
 
Rabbi Judith Hauptman. Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes of her experiences in teaching an introductory course in Talmud to students at Moscow State University for the Humanities. The course, given in English, revolved around Talmudic texts in three themes— Shabbat, Passover, and Jewish marriage.
 
Even though the teaching assignment was academic and not “religious,” knowledge of these subjects would give the students information on how to live Jewishly, should they ever choose to do so. To help them understand the texts, Rabbi Hauptman brought to class items such as Shabbat candles, Havdalah spices, a miniature Torah, and a copy of a ketubah. 
 
As a result of teaching these texts in English translation, she covered much more ground than she does at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where they study them in Hebrew and Aramaic. This was good, because the more text the students see, the better a sense they get of Talmud and of Jewish ritual practice. These students, who had never heard Havdalah recited at the end of Shabbat, were able to follow a debate between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai about the order of the Havdalah blessings, and then a debate among later rabbis as to what the Houses actually said, and finally a debate among even later rabbis as to which opinion to accept  (Bavli, Berachot 52b).
 
She concludes:
 
"…we have not lost the Jews of Russia, … there is a chance that we can still rescue them, often one at a time, and with great effort. The students I taught may rediscover their own Jewishness, or may, if they someday teach courses on Judaism at a university, help others come back to the fold. I returned to the United States full of hope."
Updated: Aug. 22, 2010
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