On Feb. 16, Congregation Beth Israel welcomed the first of four renowned Jewish scholars in a made-for-Zoom series, The BI Scholars. Canadian-born Dr. Henry Abramson, dean of Touro College in New York and a specialist in Jewish thought and history, kicked off the series with a talk entitled Becoming the People of the Byte: The Internet, Talmud and the Future of the Jewish People.
His discourse looked at how Jews, over time, and to this day, use and relate to new information technology, and how it changes our modes of learning and disseminating texts. Abramson explained that Jews are generally early adopters of technology, beginning in the second century CE when, under the guidance of Judah Ha-Nasi, we moved from an oral tradition to the documentation of the Mishna in manuscript form, a big change that encountered significant resistance along the way. This was followed by the era of the printing press and, now, digital technology.
These communications technologies allow for significant democratization, and Abramson pointed out the value of the internet in that learning is available to all, whereas “treasured texts were previously not accessible to 50% of the Jewish community – namely, women.”
However, technology also presents dangers in terms of knowing the authenticity and authority of texts. It is our job, said Abramson, “to discover what we can trust and what we can discard.”
One of the female scholars about whom Abramson speaks is Ilana Kurshan, who has completed a remarkable feat of Talmud study – finishing the whole Talmud in seven-and-half years, Daf Yomi, a page a day. Kurshan will speak at the March 9 instalment of the Zoom series about her award-winning memoir If All the Seas Were Ink, which takes readers on a guided tour of the Talmud, while detailing her personal stories of love, loss, marriage and motherhood.
It is, indeed, one of the most unique Talmud commentaries ever written, as she explains: “The memoir is secondary. The way I happened to write this commentary on the Talmud is through my life.”
During her years studying the Talmud, Kurshan, a rabbi’s daughter from Long Island, N.Y., came to discover the terminology to understand her own daily experiences. “Talmud speaks to the human dimension of experience and, in many ways, that does not change,” she said. According to Kurshan, you cannot divorce the human experience from one’s own experience. “Just as the Talmud is a commentary on life, my life became a commentary on Talmud.”
On April 20, Dr. Benjamin Gampel, the Dina and Eli Field Family Chair in Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary, will speak on the topic Riots, Inquisitions and Expulsions, and the Emergence of the Sephardic Diaspora. Gempel is a specialist in medieval and early modern Jewish history.
The series ends with Yuri Vedenyapin from McGill University, whose topic is The Adventures of a Yiddish Teacher. An actor and a singer-songwriter, his areas of academic interest include Yiddish language and culture.
All BI Scholars Zooms start at 7:30 p.m. To register, visit bethisraelvan.ca/happenings/adult-programs/bischolars.