More than 100 people turned out on a rainy Sunday afternoon, March 27, to join members of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association for three hours of study sessions as eclectic as the rabbis teaching them.

The 22 sessions at the ARA’s Yom Iyun (Day of Torah Study), organized by Pam Rosenthal, were led by Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Sephardi rabbis on topics ranging from healthy, holy eating to guns and self-defense. The hard part was choosing just one of the seven or eight classes available during each learning block at the Weber School.

My only regret in my selections — “Sephardic Jews: Not Just Rice on Passover” with Congregation Or VeShalom Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla, “Who Wrote the Torah?” with Congregation Beth Shalom Rabbi Mark Zimmerman and “It’s Never Too Late to Study Torah: The Legacy of Rabbi Akiva” with Young Israel of Toco Hills Rabbi Adam Starr — was that I missed the opportunity to learn with some of the bright female rabbis in town. Maybe next time.

There should be a next time much sooner than next spring. During a brief wrap-up gathering in the Weber cafeteria, attendees were nearly unanimous in supporting the suggestion that the ARA should hold such days of study two, three or more times a year.

Here are a few snippets from the classes I attended, each with about 12 to 15 other students:

  • While we Ashkenazi Jews tend to think of our Sephardi cousins in terms of their cuisine and to a lesser extent their language, Rabbi Kassorla argued that their most important distinguishing characteristic is their approach to Jewish law. (That’s with the rabbi’s caveat that it’s wrong to portray anything as the Sephardi way because the culture is so diverse, based on geographic origin.)

Rabbi Kassorla said the Sephardi approach to Jewish law is to look in a person’s eyes first, then turn to the books. Thus, for example, even though halacha seems clear that a husband should not be in the room where his wife is delivering a baby, Rabbi David Halevy ruled that it could be the right thing to do in this modern age if the absence of her husband would cause the mother-to-be extreme stress.

Rabbi Kassorla pointed out that Sephardi Jews don’t have the rigid denominations of Ashkenazim because of the desire to be flexible within the limits of Jewish law.

“This approach to Judaism is in great danger,” he said, but it’s also needed now more than ever to extend a welcoming path to the Jewish future.

  • Rabbi Zimmerman didn’t deny the divinity of the Torah but did argue that the content makes it impossible to believe that Moses received all five books intact at Mount Sinai. He noted that the Torah says Moses came down the mountain with two tablets, not lengthy scrolls, and that Samuel’s resistance to choosing a king makes no sense if the people could have turned to the Deuteronomy we have today to provide support for an earthly monarch.

“The whole process of Torah is more complicated than we think,” the rabbi said.

That process also is not new, going back to when the early rabbis recognized that revelation at Sinai included an oral as well as a written Torah and used that double revelation to justify such non-Torah innovations as lighting Shabbat candles over the objections of the literalist Karaites.

  • Rabbi Starr not only delved into the fascinating life of Rabbi Akiva — who the Talmud indicates didn’t even know the alefbet when he started studying with his 6-year-old son in the ancient equivalent of kindergarten — but also drew a parallel between Rabbi Akiva’s brutal death at the hands of the Romans and the terrorist-caused death of Rav Eitam Henkin.

Rabbi Akiva was a Torah scholar so great that even Moses couldn’t keep up with him, according to one midrash, but his reward was to be flayed alive. Rav Henkin at age 30 had already achieved impressive scholarship, including demonstrating how the different stories of Akiva’s early life form a cohesive whole, but his reward was to be gunned down with his wife while driving last Sukkot.

“Sometimes we just don’t have the answers,” Rabbi Starr said.