Learning another perspective on Jewish beliefs

Posted Friday, Feb 4th, 2011
Cleveland Jewish News

Special to the CJN
Published: Friday, February 4, 2011 1:06 AM EST

As a Reform Jew, I thought taking a six-session course with the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) – the “educational arm of the worldwide Chabad Lubavitch movement” – would require my fending off proselytization while focusing on course content. What I found instead was a remarkably open atmosphere that welcomed secular as well as halachic points of view.

Although my love of Judaism has not been grounded in formal Jewish learning, I have always been curious about the traditional and contemporary answers to questions of “what do we, as Jews, believe and why?”

So when I received one of JLI’s eye-catching mailers about 18 months ago, I decided to risk putting myself into what I thought would be an uncomfortable environment because one of the course offerings particularly intrigued me. Set in the time that the rise of Rome spelled the fall of Jerusalem, “Portraits in Leadership” would examine six sages of the era. This combined my general Jewish interests with a particular interest in ancient history. I had read a lot of fact and fiction pertaining to the Middle Ages and feudalism, and I could now travel back centuries earlier through a Jewish perspective.

I walked into a room at The Mandel JCC, having armed myself with defenses I never needed to use. Immediately I was put at ease by the accepting nature and candor of our instructor Rabbi Yossi Marozov and by the openness of my fellow students. I also was taken with the dialectic approach to our topics – an ideal milieu for a trial lawyer who is hardly a wallflower.

Rabbi Yossi, who often responded to challenges with “Those are valid views and criticisms,” made an ancient period, the insights of our sages, and tenets of our faith all come alive. We learned about Rabbi Akiva, who sacrificed his life for the Torah; the teachings of Hillel; and Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai. Totally new to me was the story of Rabbi Yochanan, who had the wisdom to put the preservation of the Torah before the preservation of the First Temple – understanding that our people could survive without the Temple but not without Torah.

After that course, I paid more attention to subsequent JLI mailings. Meanwhile, I had started to pursue a master’s degree in bioethics at Case Western Reserve University after decades of specializing in medical legal issues as a trial attorney. So by the time “Medicine and Morals” was offered this past fall, I was looking for ancient and modern Jewish perspectives on issues I was studying in my master’s program: in vitro fertilization, abortion, organ donation, end-of-life decisions, euthanasia, putting one’s life at risk for another.

And I had another compelling reason to delve deeply into “Medicine and Morals.” I had recently been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Suddenly, my secular and Jewish curiosity about current bioethical issues took on new meaning. Despite my heavy regimen of cancer treatments (now successfully concluded), I did not miss a class. I was motivated to understand halachic and secular perspectives studied in each week’s topic. I learned that much comes down to morality … and that those principles have not changed much over time.

I consider the JLI courses a gift each of us should try for our own edification and because they deserve our support. The classes are well constructed, and the instructors are exceptionally well prepared. The students offer disparate points of view. With 300 communities around the world offering the same classes simultaneously, you can be on vacation in Orlando or London and take the class you’d have taken in Cleveland.

So often we support wonderful Jewish causes and programs without drawing a direct, tangible benefit. When you take a JLI course, you help perpetuate an outstanding program while personally reaping an intellectual and spiritual reward. Perhaps the description of the first course I took phrased it best: “One part biography,
 one part history,
 all parts inspiration.”

Ronald L. Rosenfield is a practicing attorney and a student of bioethics at the CWRU Medical School.

WHAT: JLI’s “Towards a Meaningful Life”

WHEN: Six-week course starts Mon., Feb. 7, or Tues., Feb. 8, at 7 p.m.

INFO: www.myJLI.com or 216-377-3000

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