An Open, Pluralistic Beit Midrash For All

Sipping on coffee and munching on pastry, a group of Bar-Ilan University students and workers and adults from the neighboring community convene weekly at Greg's Café on campus to explore existential issues from a Jewish perspective. Sitting in a circle, the two dozen participants of varied ages and backgrounds examine texts guided by the guest lecturer and engage freely in discussion. Since the inception of this novel, open Beit Midrash in winter 2011/2012, the topics have run the gamut: "The Search for Meaning," "Is Hinduism Pagan Worship?" as well as "Newton and Solomon's Temple," "Human and Divine Attributes," "Prayer," "The Divine in Hebrew Language" and "The Search for God in Man and Nature." The lecturers are chiefly BIU scientists and scholars from diverse disciplines: Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber, President of the Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies, Prof. Yuval Garini (Nanotechnology), Dr. Moshe Hellinger (Political Studies), Dr. Isaac Hershkowitz (Philosophy), Dr. Israel Belfer (Science, Technology and Society), and Rabbi Dr. Michael Abraham (Midrasha), to name just a few. A prominent Israeli journalist and literary critic has also addressed the forum, which was founded at the initiative of students and with the assistance of the Campus Rabbi's Office. Greg's offers the venue as well as the complementary coffee and light refreshments.


The forum is extracurricular, and hence, no academic credit is given, yet participants say they gain a great deal from this pluralistic Beit Midrash, which is designed for secular students as well as traditional and religious adults.  


"I feel enriched every time I attend," enthuses Tali, an MA grad in philosophy, who will soon be starting her PhD. "I like the format, that everyone shares their thoughts. People do not hesitate to ask questions and talk freely." Raised in a secular home, she has recently moved closer to observance. "People have a thirst to learn more about Judaism," she says. Tali, who is confined to a wheelchair, was very moved by the session focusing on the prayer for the ill and the foundations of prayer – much of which is  modeled after the impassioned supplication of the barren Chana, who later became the mother of the prophet Samuel.


Malka, a local schoolteacher who regularly attends with her husband, relates that "the subjects are fascinating and open a window to a very different world. I enjoy the discourse and brainstorming with all types of people, and the interaction is great."


A clinical social worker who recently retired from BIU's Maria & Joel Finkle Student Counselling Center, Clo eagerly returns to campus each week for "spiritual enrichment." The forum, she says, is "multigenerational, with people in different stages of their lives, and from differing walks of life." Defining herself as traditional-minded, she enjoys examining her Jewish roots and "the in-depth study of subjects that I never read about, such as the Jewish concepts of freedom and liberty, and Sir Isaac Newton, the noted English physicist and mathematician, who wrote extensively about the Temple of Solomon." Applauding the level of tolerance and understanding that characterizes BIU's open Beit Midrash, she relays, "I've been looking for this kind of open dialogue, where there is no coercion." 


A law undergrad and former yeshiva student, Noam finds the lectures intriguing and refreshing, and enjoys the diverse blend of people and outlooks, not to mention the free coffee and danish. He was particularly impressed with the sessions on "Free Will" and "Kaddish," which, like the other subjects, are geared for an Israeli academic audience. "The lecturing scholars know their audience, and how to best present their topics." 


Truly a Beit Midrash for all, the forum creates an open learning community for people of all ages and backgrounds. How apropos that it convenes on the variegated BIU campus, where students motivated to pursue their existential quest and further their Jewish knowledge may additionally avail themselves of Bar-Ilan's broad repertoire of Jewish heritage courses.


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