Coming home

Coming home

Scholar in residence to teach at her childhood congregation

Dr. Alyssa Gray
Dr. Alyssa Gray

When Dr. Alyssa Gray visits Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley from March 13 to 15 as scholar in residence, she will feel perfectly at home.

Her family had moved to Westwood in the 1960s, and “we were members from the time I was a child,” she said. At the time, the synagogue, now in Woodcliff Lake, was in Westwood; and the religious leader, now Rabbi Loren Monosov, was Rabbi Andre Ungar.

“My family joined and became active,” Dr. Gray said. “I had my bat mitzvah there, and attended until I went to college, and even beyond.” What’s more, her mother, Miriam Gray, was the shul’s chief educator for nearly half a century.

“It was very formative for me,” said Dr. Gray, who now holds the Emily S. and Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman Chair in Rabbinics and is the professor of codes and responsa literature at HUC-JIR in New York. She received her Ph.D. with distinction in Talmud and rabbinics from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and also earned an LLM in Mishpat Ivri (Jewish law) from the Hebrew University Faculty of Law.

Recalling her earlier years and her first rabbi, she added, “I loved Rabbi Ungar.” In fact, she joked that when people would speak positively about their own rabbis, she would think, and I paraphrase, “Well you should see my rabbi.

“All my memories of interacting with him are fond memories,” she said, describing him as a rabbi, leader, and activist. “I was edified by listening to his sermons. I can still remember what he said.” Dr. Gray, who now lives in Sunnyside, Queens, is the first scholar in residence to be brought to the congregation under the auspices of the Scholar in Residence Fund in Honor of Rabbi Andre Ungar. “It’s a wonderful program to honor him, and I’m very honored to be the inaugural scholar for this program,” Dr. Gray said.

Her interest in Talmud developed early. “My mom always had textbooks around,” she said. “I remember a Jewish history book by Deborah Pessin. Volume 2 dealt with the rabbinic period and had a facsimile of a page of Talmud. I remember staring at it. When I was 9 or 10, I asked my mother to study with me. We studied Pirke Avot.

“I was always interested in Talmud,” she continued. Although she went to public school until high school, she went to The Frisch School later on, “where I had an opportunity to study rigorously. At Barnard, I majored in Talmud. It stuck with me.”

Dr. Gray researches and writes on the development of talmudic literature and the history of Jewish law. She is the author most recently of “Charity in Rabbinic Judaism: Atonement, Rewards, and Righteousness” and “A Talmud in Exile: The Influence of Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah on the Formation of Bavli Avodah Zarah.”

Asked if becoming a talmudist was harder for her as a woman, Dr. Gray said, “I can’t claim that I encountered many obstacles,” unlike certain of her Orthodox women colleagues “who have more of a challenging time.” Still, she acknowledged, in certain situations, “I’m tested in subtle ways,” having to prove the depth of her knowledge.

While her upcoming teaching weekend at Temple Emanuel will not be her first appearance there as a professional, it is the first time she will be the featured scholar. “On one occasion,” she recalled, “I was on a panel with Danny Nevins and Ben Sommer” — both of whom grew up in the shul as well. Rabbi Nevins is now the Pearl Resnick Dean of the rabbinical school and dean of the division of religious leadership at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Rabbi Sommer, who lives in Teaneck, is the professor of Bible and ancient Semitic languages at JTS.

The topics of Dr. Gray’s forthcoming lectures at Temple Emanuel are both diverse and intriguing. “I want to show the diversity of Jewish teachings, and to show that Talmud and Jewish tradition can speak to us in very many ways — what we think, what we believe, and where we find ourselves in life,” she said. “There are multiple points of entry.”

On Friday night, she will talk about “God: A Talmudic Biography,” asking such questions as “What does God do all day? What does God do all night? What does God think about? What does God think of us?

“There are various stories in the Talmud describing what God does during the day and night,” Dr. Gray said. “It intrigued me. They present a picture of God that is different from the images we get in the Bible.” She pointed out that the stories come from a genre within the Talmud known as aggadah. As opposed to halacha, Jewish law, aggadah is “non-legal material.”

Saturday’s presentation will be on tzedakah, the topic of her latest book. “The point is about the theologies of charity; that is, charity in rabbinic Judaism, not about how to give and how much to give. It’s got a divine element. It’s not necessarily only for the poor; it may also be for the giver.”

But, she went on, “Great Jewish scholars in, and later than, the Talmud don’t deny divine reward but don’t see it as that important.” In her talk, she will explore the debate between those who say it does something for the giver and those who choose not to focus on that but rather on what it does for the world.

On Sunday, Dr. Gray will offer a session on “A Civil War in the House of Study: A Talmudic Tale and Its Implications,” looking at a dramatic story in Tractate Berakhot describing the plot to unseat the autocratic Rabban Gamliel, head of the house of study.

“I know the culture at the synagogue and I want to do that on Sunday morning,” Dr. Gray said. “The minyan is a more intimate group so I want to take the talmudic text itself, study it, and use it as a springboard” to look not just at the deposing of Rabban Gamliel but at the various other decisions made on that day. “The discussing and debating was very productive,” she said. “They came to various decisions, showing the Jewish value of argument and debate, using various perspectives to get to the answer.”

Who: Dr. Alyssa Gray

What: Will be scholar in residence

Where: Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, 87 Overlook Drive, Woodcliff Lake

When: March 13 to March 15

What is planned for that weekend:

Friday, March 13, in the evening

6:30 – Friday night service
7:30 – Congregational dinner
8:30 – “God: A Talmudic Biography”

Saturday, March 14, in the morning
9:30 Shabbat morning services — presentation on tzedakah

Sunday, March 15, in the morning
9 minyan — “A Civil War in the House of Study”

And also: For information and to learn about sponsorships, call (201) 391-0801

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