Rabbis from every denomination joined more than 70 people at David Schechner’s Tuesday Talmud class on Feb. 23 to celebrate his 87th birthday and 22 years of the class, which he started in his West Orange law offices.
The class, which regularly attracts 30 people, now meets on a weekly basis at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, where the event was held, at noon, the class’s usual time.
Schechner said he believes the class is the largest independent Talmud group in the United States and one of the few to bring in all segments of the Jewish community.
“Not a day goes by that at some time during the day I don’t come to a stop and think of something I learned in the class,” he said. Thanking the participants through the years, he added, “By coming each week, you remind me of the importance of learning and what joy comes from studying together.”
The first class was held April 5, 1994. Schechner still has a copy of the initial invitation he sent out, signed with his Hebrew name, on March 30 of that year. He keeps the letter in the red binder that accompanies him every week.
The luncheon included presentations and commendations, but ultimately focused on a section of Talmud, led by Rabbi John Schechter of Congregation B’nai Israel in Basking Ridge. Schechter is one of the 14 or so rabbis from across the denominations who teach the class on a rotating basis.
Apparently, it’s no easy task.
“We really have to prepare for this class,” said Rabbi Shalom Lubin of Shaya Ahavat Torah in Parsippany and the Chabad Jewish Center of Madison, a regular on the roster. “It has the greatest minds picking your brain.”
Another regular teacher, Rabbi Efraim Mintz, who comes from Brooklyn for the class, quipped, “They should make it mandatory, before a rabbi is ordained, to teach this class. If they come out intact, they’re good to go.”
The group, made up mostly of lawyers, regularly parses intricate legal questions. This occasion was no exception. But if the study was serious, the text selections — and comments — were rife with lighthearted references to Schechner.
Because Schechner has a home in Bradley Beach, Schechter delivered plenty of nautical references, which apparently had been entirely missing from their studies to this point.
He opened with a quotation from the late British scholar, Rabbi Louis Jacobs: “The Talmud is like a vast sea, requiring expert navigation….”
Schechter duly suggested that perhaps it is because Schechner has no proper navigational instruments to carry the group through the Talmud that there have been no “salty stories.” And he then distributed handouts featuring historical navigational instruments from several collections, including the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University, where Schechner’s daughter Dr. Sara Schechner is the David P. Wheatland Curator.
Schechter then chose a mishna from the fifth chapter of Baba Batra, discussing the sale of a ship on the water, which raised questions like: What is included if the seller has not specified? How is the sale completed? What signifies the completion?
Sara, who is also an artist, created a tapestry and presented it to her father to mark the occasion. She based its design on a 13th-century woodblock print depicting four men studying a text together. She added a woman to the configuration, not only because she is a scholar in her own right, but also because making the Talmud relevant in the 21st century is an integral part of the class.
On a table in the room, index cards and notebooks created by Schechner’s grandfather, Samuel Schwarz, were on display. They offer quotations from Jewish texts — often Pirkei Avot — organized by topic. Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom referred to them, and the family’s longstanding attachment to Pirkei Avot — an aphoristic collection often referred to as Wisdom of the Ancestors. He quoted: “Do not ever say, ‘When you have leisure, you will study’ — for you may never have leisure, and you may never study.’”
“David has embodied the commitment to regular study in the life he lives…,” said Cooper. “It’s one thing to pore over the holy books in isolation, by yourself,” which the text regards as a virtue. “To draw others into the study of Torah with you — well, that’s a double if not a triple virtue.”
Clergy who joined the group at the luncheon included Rabbi David Greenstein of Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, Cantor Rikki Lippitz of Oheb Shalom, Rabbi Lisa Vernon, Rabbi Mendy Kasowitz of Chabad of West Orange, and Rabbi Mendel Solomon of Chabad at Short Hills.
After the luncheon, Harriet Rosenthal recalled how David brought her in, in the early years of the class. She was in the office building in West Orange on a Tuesday and bumped into him. “He said, ‘Come with me.’ I said, ‘I can’t. I’m busy.’ He said, ‘Come.’” She went, and she’s been learning with the group ever since.
Schechner’s son, also named David, acknowledged that he too takes a Talmud class during the week in Boston, where he lives. “It’s ingrained in our family. That’s what my father taught me.”