'Talmud not only for women' a lecture series in Budapest with a subversive title is introducing Talmudic discourse to the wider audiences.
With over 15 Talmud-study events and more than 21 speakers in the past year and a half, the initiative has built an ever-growing audience. It's founder, Borcsa Lemberger-Lakos tells us more about the thoughts, and support, behind it.
JEU: How did it all start?
Borcsa: [Studying at] Paideia was the first time in my life that I started to engage with Jewish texts, having come from a very secular Jewish community. Previously, I was involved in my community as a volounteer and later as a professional, but I lacked [Jewish] education, so wanting to better understand my work and provide for my community, I decided to enroll at Paideia.
After studying the Talmud for eight months - which obviously isn’t enough to learn all there is - I decided to bring that [back to my community].
And so it started in Summer of 2014. We hung out in a garden of a bar, drank some Spritzer...I must have been very excited about Talmud when I came back from Paideia - one of my friends, who also never studied any Jewish texts, told me ‘Wow, Borcsa, I really want to study Talmud - even on Saturday morning, I will wake up, just organise it, please, I would even pay for that.’ Well, she has never shown up yet... however we’ve had over 15 events with more than 300 participants altogether.
JEU: So what makes 'Talmud nem csak nöknek'?
Borcsa: The project consists of text-study sessions once a month, led by two lecturers, usually one male and one female, in Budapest.
The location always changes, and so do the topics and the lecturers. The only thing that is constant is the Talmud.
I provide the topic, sometimes the audience members suggests it, or we choose it together with the lecturers - it’s always something relevant to the 21st century or the Hungarian society in a certain way. It can be something relating to an upcoming or previous holiday, or (and I rather prefer these) social issues such as the refugee issue, which has been of great importance during the last year.
JEU: And what is the story behind that title?
Borcsa: The name of the initiative ‘Talmud not only for women’ - is obviously a word-play. Traditionally, Talmud is intended for the study by (religious) men, and that belief still exists today, so one day this name just came to me, meant subversively as a way of opening up the space [to all].
Although there are some who are confused by it, and ask if it’s ok for men to attend as well. I realised that my target audience would be people who may not be even involved with the Jewish Community, or if involved, they might not have studied the Talmud at all. Perhaps they are afraid of the word as well. So I keep this series title, but each session has a catchy title [based on the topic].
JEU: The project has been quite successful, attracting a crowd of 20-50 participants every time. What are the things that make this possible?
Borcsa: There are so many factors of a successful event. What does success mean at all? I am not sure...but I know that the number of participants is just one measurement.
To be available to experience the thinking of Talmud and studying the content of Talmud is one of the goals of the program series. Having around 100 participants [at the session] last April was a great success. On the other hand, passing the knowledge of Talmud and chevruta, is almost impossible to achieve in such a big group. So there are many ways of measuring the success of this project. One of the goals of Talmud not only for women is to create a pluralistic platform where everyone is welcome, regardless of affiliation. So last time even though we had around 40 participants in the JCC (Bálint Ház) on Sunday evening, for me it was much more meaningful to realize how dialogues can start after the event.
For example, to see that the only Hungarian female Rabbi who was in the audience, officially met for the first time one of the lecturers, who is the spiritual leader of one of the Neolog communities.
I have lots of supporters and enthusiastic people around me which helps a lot to prepare the events. It’s also important to mention that I couldn’t realize my idea without the help of Paideia and MiNYanim, supporting me from the beginning financially. A year ago Mozaik Hub started to provide me with mentorship, financial support as well as providing me with a co-working office. All this help and support and belief in ‘Talmud not only for women’ makes it possible to dream bigger and realize a structured Talmud-based text study series and discussion forum in Budapest on the long run.
JEU: And who are your lecturers?
Borcsa: I try to involve as many lecturers as possible, and try to think out of the box - I encourage them to leave their comfort zone a little bit. So I invite community members, leaders, activists, volounteers, professors… whoever is an expert in a field that we can combine with Talmud.
There are few people who are really experts on Talmud as a whole [in Hungary], but there are different chapters or topics that a number of people can reflect on or give a talk on. We give them 45 minutes each, depending on a question, so it basically takes up one and a half hour, once a month.
The most important thing is the lecturer - such as was the case with the director of the Jewish Community Centre - Zsuzsa Fritz - she just appeared at one of the events, and I thought, let’s invite her - she’s a great educator, [although] she is not an expert on Talmud. We talked about the topic and she said that if it’s [flexible], she’d love to give a talk on Jewish education. Half a year later, we managed to arrange the time and the topic, and she came with another community educator.
JEU: What is it that is meaningful about Talmud today?
Borcsa: This way of approaching text through interpretation in Judaism is quite unique. Learning in pairs and [understanding] the texts through questions it’s still relevant today.
What is important to me is passing on the meaning of Talmud - I want people who attend to have an idea of what Talmud and the talmudic reasoning are.
So I always ask the lecturers to define in one or two sentence what Talmud is, and what Talmud means to them. That is the basis from which we then start the conversation, but [I think] it can be useful to understands the origin of these texts; to [situate] them in space and time etc…
Though, the most important in my mind - and the aim of ‘Talmud not only for women’ is to raise attention to the importance of questioning.
In the Jewish tradition it can be obvious because it has been part of Judaism for a long-long time. In a post-communist country such as Hungary - where still today very typical to think that the teacher has right always and this is the only one truth - asking is not natural.