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Torah lishma: Study group marks 50 years
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Torah lishma: Study group marks 50 years

Founders’ kin carry on a tradition of inquiry, debate, and laughter

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

It was an unusual day for the Bible study group at the Millburn home of Renee and Kopel Burke. Rusty Pusin, whose parents were among the group’s founders, read an edited version of a paper her father wrote nearly 50 years ago offering a psychological analysis of Abraham and, get this: No one interrupted.

The congenial, intellectual, and very well-read group has been meeting in members’ homes for 50 years, discussing, debating, and, well, arguing over various aspects of Jewish text in the spirit of Torah lishma — learning for its own sake.

Members — there are about 15 — come from at least four different synagogues in the area, and have at times included clergy from across Essex and Union counties. Everyone in the group is expected to deliver a paper at least once a year.

“We’re really self-selecting,” said Sybille Anbar. Recent talks have covered covenantal relationships in the Torah, accounting concepts in the Bible and Apocrypha, and biblical women and the women who write about them.

On Nov. 17, they celebrated the group’s golden anniversary over a brunch of bagels and lox, fruit and cake, coffee and tea, and, of course, conversation about the paper, and plenty of laughter. The group is not afraid to laugh at itself.

No one sitting around the table this particular Sunday has been part of the group for all 50 years. The founders were Frieda and Dr. Max Pusin, Rabbi Dr. Max Gruenewald, Esther and Israel Therin, and Vivian and Sam Steinberg — all of whom have passed away.

(Thinking about the founders, Renee Burke said it was just possible that Frieda Pusin was among the group in spirit. “When Frieda was here, there were no interruptions. Especially if Max were speaking.”)

But like all those who came before, they elaborated on the terse Bible stories — in this case, about the relationship between Sarah and Hagar — discussing how becoming a concubine might have changed Hagar’s status in the family and therefore the dynamic; how in the Koran, Hagar is considered Abraham’s first wife and Ishmael his primary heir; and how, with the birth of Isaac, the family dynamics change and ultimately mirror the politics of the countries surrounding Israel.

They also noted that many of the stories of a woman’s infertility in the Torah also involve a male character who, perhaps euphemistically, opens his home to these women. (After some laughter, Dan Anbar turned to a visitor to comment, “Our discussions are usually on a higher plane.”)

Before departing to teach at a nearby synagogue, Rabbi Helaine Ettinger commented on a section of the Pusin paper describing how Lot could be viewed as a substitute son for the childless Abraham, and how their relationship mirrors similar modern relationships.

“It had never occurred to me that Lot could be seen as a substitute son for Abraham,” said Ettinger. “But it’s so obvious, once it’s said. It absolutely explains some of the dramatic tension in the story.”

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