17 years of Rashi

Rabbi Laura Geller is well known as a woman who does not shrink from a challenge. A senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, she stands as a pioneer among women rabbis, the third women ordained in the Reform movement and the first to lead a major metropolitan synagogue. In 1996, Geller was in Israel studying with Rabbi David Hartman at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. During a lunchtime discussion about Jewish education, Hartman made the statement that unless a person has read the whole Torah with Rashi, that person can’t call himself or herself an educated Jew. Geller, who had studied the medieval commentator but had never read the whole of his Torah commentary, was haunted by his words. She returned to Los Angeles determined to fulfill Hartman’s requirement. And because Jews always study together, she also invited her congregants: “Join a discussion with the greatest of classical commentators, Rabbi Shlomo Ben Yitzhak, aka Rashi.”

To her surprise, this “discussion” continued with meetings almost every Sunday for a full 17 years. Geller and her congregants studied Torah and Rashi’s commentary, verse by verse. And at Shabbat morning services, on April 6, about 20 members of the class, some who had been there from the start and some who had joined as recently as this year, gathered in the chapel at Temple Emanuel to mark the completion of their task: The group, in its many incarnations, had read all of Rashi’s Torah commentary. Members of the group led all of Emanuel’s congregants, broken into small groups, in a final teaching from Deuteronomy followed immediately by the opening line of Genesis and Rashi’s exhortation: “This verse says nothing but ‘talk about me!’ ” 

Rabbi Shlomo Ben Yitzhak, whose Hebrew initials spell Rashi, is probably the most widely read biblical commentator. He lived in France in the 11th century, and his Torah commentary was the first Hebrew book to be printed mechanically, even before the Bible itself. In it, he focused on the plain, or pashat, meaning of the text, based on his own extensive knowledge of rabbinic teaching. In traditional yeshivas, students today study Rashi’s interpretations as soon as they begin to learn the Torah.

The Rashi class at Temple Emanuel included doctors, lawyers, homemakers, historians and scientists, many of whom had in common a Reform Judaism more often associated with social action than with study of an 11th century commentator. Yet, within two years, they expanded Geller’s class from a religious-school schedule to a year-round gathering. Additional facilitators stepped in when Geller wasn’t available, and the group turned to several translations, including Jewish Publication Society and Art Scroll, which they kept open on a table as they worked. For the past 10 years, the group was grateful also to have the guidance of Chaim Plotzker, a teacher from the Orthodox tradition. 

When these students talk about what kept them coming, Sunday after Sunday, they talk about community, conversation across the table and across centuries and the way lived experience naturally becomes part of any Torah discussion. 

In a pamphlet created for their class siyyum (celebration of completed talmudic study), Ann Goldman wrote, “I was surprised to find I became part of conversations that have been going on for thousands of years, conversations with men and women, ancient and contemporary, who nourish my heart and soul.” 

Gary Mozer, who spent two years in the group, wrote, “The Rashi class is what Judaism means to me. … Instead of being told what to do or how to live, we read, discuss and in the end, it is up to me to take what I want.” (Geller herself says the class disagreed with Rashi more often than not.)

 “We Jews do not take vows of silence,” Victor Gold, dean of Loyola Law School, observed. Gold has been in the group for 16 years. “We find God in relationships with each other.” 

“This small community became a family to all participants,” David Silber said of his 16 years in the Rashi class. 

Some joined the group and left. Together the group shared celebrations and losses. At least once, the class met at the bedside of student Charlotte Behrendt, when she was terminally ill. Plotzker fell in love and married. 

Steven Mandel, a physician who has been in the class for a decade, wrote, “These 500 Sunday mornings have sharpened my awareness of choices, especially where my wife and family are concerned. … I’m still no Moses, but I’ve become a much more complete and tranquil person.” 

 “The questions we asked of the text were tied with the questions of our lives,” wrote Gregory Dubois-Felsmann, a physicist whose contributions to discussions of Genesis and the big-bang theory delighted Geller. He quoted from Deuteronomy 30:11: “It is not too difficult for you, nor too far off.” 

At the April 6 morning celebration, Plotzker also talked about these verses from the conclusion of Deuteronomy: “No, this thing is very close to you, in your mouth and on your heart” (30:14). Plotzker taught that words cannot be put into the heart, but instead rest on the heart; so, in unexpected and holy moments, they will be close at hand, and, when the heart is open, they will sink in. 

Opening the heart was a topic that might have surprised the medieval commentator, but to Geller it is an essential goal of study. Rashi’s practice of questioning teaches students to question, she said. And when people pose the questions that are important to them, they listen for the answers. And in taking in the answers, they open their hearts to make the stories their own.  

Geller said she was able to tell Hartman about her promise to read all of Rashi, but he died on Feb. 10 of this year, before she could tell him the goal had been accomplished. This Rashi conversation Geller initiated across the table, the generations and the streams of Judaism seem a most fitting way of keeping her promise. 

And, as is always the story for such undertakings, the very next morning, with the Book of Ruth, the class began again.