Unpacking Samuel

Unpacking Samuel

Salon Tiferet offers layered readings of biblical texts to grown-ups

The two books of Samuel tell rich, textured stories of a world both similar to ours and radically different.

They describe people whose motivations are recognizable to us, although their actions might not be; they place those characters in a world whose governance is constantly under discussion. They look at power and powerlessness, at prayer and action, at faith and strategy; they are written in language that is supple and nuanced. They are multifaceted and evoke strong emotion.

And many of us know simply what we’ve known since childhood or from listening to haftarah readings. We know little vignettes of Hannah praying silently for a son, of Samuel in the Temple, of David fighting Goliath, of David and Jonathan devising a pact of safety together. But many of us have not read them as adults, through an academic lens or even through adult eyes.

Salon Tiferet, a project of Englewood’s Minyan Tiferet, hopes to offer people a sophisticated understanding of the books of Samuel, as seen through the tools of three disciplines – psychology, political science, and literary analysis. The salon will meet four times; the first one will be an introduction offered by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, chair of SAR High School’s Talmud and rabbinics department and leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck. In each of the other three, prominent academics will apply the tools of their separate fields to the text, and Rabbi Helfgot will lead a discussion with each of them.

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot

Minyan Tiferet is a partnership minyan – it allows women to lead the parts of the service that do not require a quorum, including reading from the Torah. It meets in members’ houses on the East Hill in northern Englewood or southern Tenafly on Shabbat every six weeks or so.

“It is a vibrant community of people who are focused on creating a spirited prayer community that encourages the active participation of all its members,” a former chair, Evan Hochberg, said. “And we always have had a commitment to being a learning community. We have a lunch and learn, and every service has some learning component – and there always is the component of having women learn to lead and read Torah.

“The goal of Salon Tiferet is to ramp it up – to create a learning community that is also open to the broader community. We have a real thrust for intensive learning. Many of us – especially those of us with young children – wish that we had more time for Jewish textual study.

“And when we do have the time, we want to be sure that the program is of tremendously high quality.”

To that end, Mr. Hochberg and the rest of the five-member committee in charge of the salon recruited Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Blanchard, Clal’s director of organizational development, to apply the psychological framework; Dr. Suzanne Last Stone, a university professor at Cardozo, to use the tools of a political scientist; and Drisha’s Rabbi David Silber, who will look at the books of Samuel as literature. Each will apply to the text the methods and assumptions he or she uses on other works.

“One of the things that we hope will make the program unique, aside from the excellence of the speakers, is that each of the presenters will be transparent about the way he or she approaches the text,” Mr. Hochberg said. Rabbi Helfgot will help ensure that transparency in his role as interlocutor.

“Each participant will come out of the sessions not just with a body of content knowledge, but also with at least two new tools in her or her interpretive toolbox,” Mr. Hochberg said.

Such an approach demands much of its students, including active participation in discussion. That’s why the committee chose to call the course a “salon.”

“It’s both because of the intensive engagement with material, and because it captures one of the minyan’s key values – participation,” Mr. Hochberg said. “We want to create a learning environment where everyone’s view is important; where people are not just passive learners but are participating actively.”

Mr. Hochberg, who is a lawyer, was a Berrie Fellow in the leadership training program run by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. One of the program’s demands is that graduates “take back what we learn to the community.” He and another Berrie alumn, Harley Ungar, “had just been through a very intensive Jewish educational experience, and we wanted to make sure that we have other similar opportunities, and that others would as well. We were very fortunate because the staff of the program was very helpful in conceptualizing the idea.

“And we got funding from the Dorot Foundation,” he added. He is an alumni of that Jewish nonprofit agency’s fellowship in Israel. “They fund alumni projects,” Mr. Hochberg said. “That is why we are able to get the caliber of speakers that we have.”

Rabbi Helfgot said that the salon will give participants, many of whom are kept busy by the demands of young families, a chance “to learn this material in a sophisticated manner, and to spend time together with fellow travelers who want to challenge each other to think about important issues in our Jewish society. Leadership; the relationships within a family and between a leader and his flock; the use of power; the question of meaning – these are major questions that often emerge from the rich study of a text.

“This text has tremendous narrative drama, a lot of characters interacting with each other, a lot of character development, a lot of conflict. It has characters trying to make their way through life; it looks at issues of leadership, of relationship to family, to friends. It looks at loyalty.”

For example, he said, Saul has to navigate many tangled relationships, and it is not clear how he or anyone else should handle them. His son is loyal to David – but Jonathan and David are rivals. Whose future should he consider? His son’s? His protégé’s? His people’s? The complexities – and the tragedy – might evoke a comparison to King Lear.

“And what is the ideal form of government?” Rabbi Helfgot continued. “Does the Bible have a specific form in mind? People constantly throw that idea around, from the left and from the right. The biblical texts always are used as a resource – the Bible is seen as socialist and as capitalist. Does the book of Samuel have a clear-cut view of the idea of government? Is nationalism a good thing?”

Those and other questions are likely to come up in response to the text, he said.

The salon will meet in private houses, Rabbi Helfgot added, and that will contribute to their appeal. “It’s a little more intimate,” he said, and that intimacy will create the kind of trust that will let questions, answers, and discussion, all in reaction to a very old text, fly.

What: Salon Tiferet offers four sessions with a multidisciplinary look at the books of Samuel

When: Sunday, September 14, October 19, November 16, and December 14, from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Where: The first session will be at 207 Chestnut St.
in Englewood. The locations for later sessions are still to be decided.

Why: To apply the lens of psychology, political science, and literary analysis to Samuel I and II.

Who: Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, the moderator, will be joined, after the first session, by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Blanchard, Dr. Suzanne Last Stone, and Rabbi David Silber

How: The cost is $10 per session or $30 for all four sessions

For information or to register: email minyantiferet@gmail.com or go to minyantiferet.com and click on the Salon link at the top.

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