Friday, April 1, 2011

The Man in the Black Hat

A young man adorned with a black hat, a prayer shawl, and phylacteries offers up his morning prayers in the same library where I study the laws of Passover with my erudite Talmud teacher.

Every Monday morning I infuse my mind and spirit with the laws and insights of the Babylonian Talmud. Three Orthodox male lawyers and me (a post-denominational female rabbi) find delight in analyzing the legal codes associated with voluminous pages of detailed conversations and arguments the rabbis have over a word, a passage, a legality, or ethical dilemma.

This Monday morning I am the teacher’s only pupil. I concentrate on reading the Rashi script (a special typeface named after the outstanding Biblical commentator of the Middle Ages, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki). I enter into the world of Hebrew hieroglyphics as I haltingly decipher the semi-cursive letters.

The man with the black hat paces back and forth in front of the room as he choreographs his prayer dance before God. He moves with quiet determination while he places his black and white
tallis (prayer shawl) over his shoulders. He wraps the tefillin (phylacteries) around his arm and on his forehead. He adjusts his black hat often and deliberately. I see him focusing on his paperback prayer book, but I cannot detect any audible sound.

My teacher, oblivious to the young religious man’s presence, continues to expound on the first
sugya (Talmudic passage). What can we eat the hours before the first seder begins? Why must a poor person drink the four cups of wine at the seder? What is our responsibility towards the poor person? How are we equal on this night of freedom for all?

The man with the black hat is my distraction. Was he offended that a woman and a man were studying holy texts together? If so, why didn’t he take his prayers to another place? Was he eavesdropping on our learning while concentrating on his blessings? Did he find it interesting? Or amusing? Was he surprised at my agility with the Hebrew text, or had he succumbed to the beauty and the brilliance of my teacher’s Talmudic treatises?

I longed to tell him my Yentl story.

My father, an Orthodox Rabbi, had no sons to whom to transmit his passion for Torah learning. Instead, when I entered rabbinical school at the age of 40 and took my first Talmud class, I realized a dream. Every night after class, my father and I studied the subtleties and the incongruities of the Talmud. The intimacy of our reflections opened up more than the secrets revealed on the written page. I immersed myself in the wisdom of my father, the greatest gift of my life.

The thrill of those intimate discussions flashed like lightning into my heart space as I held the Talmud in my hands and ingested the instruction of my intelligent tutor
We have many teachers in life. Some remind us of other teachers not by what they know, but by how they transmit what they know.

The attendance of the man with the black hat solidified the devotion and the dedication that the three of us sustained in the room filled with the books of our people. How could he not have stayed? He soaked up the deliberations of the Talmud just as I had done decades before with my father at my parents’ kitchen table in the Bronx.

Is it permissible to begin your morning prayers while the study of Talmud between a man and a woman is already in motion? According to the man with the black hat, it is permissible and precious.

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