Beauty and ugliness engage learners at sixth Global Day

Posted on: November 30th, 2017 by tgregory

By Kathy Carlson

Rabbi Michael Hattin used a visual approach to learning Talmud. PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK FREEDMAN

Nashville’s sixth annual Global Day of Jewish Learning took place at its first venue – Akiva School – and drew some 90 participants to share and grow their understanding of classic Jewish texts on beauty and ugliness.

Visiting scholars Rabbi Michael Hattin and Rabba Yaffa Epstein, of the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem and its branch in the United States, offered different approaches to the Talmudic materials. 

Rabbi Hattin, who teaches Tanakh and Halakha, earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture, and this background informed his presentations on aesthetics of the Menorah at the Temple in Jerusalem and its meaning for Jews today.

Rabba Yaffa Epstein helps learners explore the many possible ways to view one story. PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK FREEDMAN

Rabba Epstein, back in Nashville to teach at Global Day for a second year, used paired partner learning or chavruta to help students grapple with a parable with frequent and ambiguous references to a single “he.”

Rabbi Hattin took a meticulous walk through the many layers of meaning in the design of the Temple in Jerusalem, showing how its rectangular form embodied a journey: a walk along the length of the Temple during with fewer and fewer people – ultimately, only one high priest – completed the walk to the Temple’s ultimate treasure, the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, the holy of holies, could be reached only by the high priest, he said, and only at one time during the year, Yom Kippur.

Also in the Temple was the Menorah, painstakingly crafted from gold and representing through its ornamentation an intellectual and spiritual Tree of Life for the Jewish people. The Menorah and the Temple are ideals, and the Temple signifies restoration of the Garden of Eden and the possibility for humans to move forward through life.

Rabba Epstein engaged her students through both paired study and informal large-group discussion, exploring the many nuances that can arise in study. 

Before she began, she talked about her upcoming Talmud study series, which will run from December through April. She said she realizes people can be intimidated at the prospect of learning Talmud.

“I want to allay those fears,” she said. “I didn’t grow up learning Talmud. I came to Talmud later in life. The questions I was asking had been asked for thousands of years. It was empowering to see these were eternal questions and to see how Jews were dealing with” them.

With Talmud, she said, there’s not one perspective – there are many.

Discussions of texts on beauty and ugliness bounced back and forth between contemporary notions of beauty and how beauty was regarded in the days of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs.

Hattin and Epstein summed up their takes on beauty and ugliness in a joint teaching session at the end of the day: They expressed their thoughts differently, but both were wary of beauty’s hold. •