How to talk about Judaism in an inter-religious environment? Rabbi Tanya Segal has showcased her mastery in this area at the World Student Christian Federation / European Interfaith Network seminar “Who is my neighbour. Migration and Xenophobia in Europe” finished last week in Italy.
Tanya was born in Moscow and “came back” to Israel in 1990 as she says. “I was not a religious person. I had a secular family. We lived in a very poor area, I knew that we were different” Today she is the rabbi of a progressive Jewish community in Krakow. At “Who is my neighbour?” Tanya took part in a panel discussion, explained how Judaism work (not an easy task in some 90 minutes) and was answering millions of questions that people may want to ask a rabbi.
Tanya's workshop takes place in a small chalet. We sit around a table. All together “as in a Jewish school” she says. The room is not too cosy, a bit coldish as the end of October even in Rome tends to be a chilly. There are not more than 7 participants – Jewish, Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic coming from several countries. Tanya fills the space with her personality. Looking deeply in participants' faces as they introduce. “Don't keep your mouth shut as if you were in a Russian school. Be as Jewish students are, challenge me, ask questions, be curious!” Tanya wears a tight turquoise sweater, same colour nail polish. Her hair are curly and elegantly wind around face that never stays calm. She sits, suddenly she stands up, grabs paper, writes and continues talking. English is being mixed with Polish, Hebrew and Russian. A Polish guard of some 20 years and angel-like face reprimands the rabbi, that not everybody understand Russian here and almost nobody Hebrew.
It is difficult to say what is the topic of the workshop or rather discussion. We start with the meaning of religion for Jews and non-Jews. “We need to meet religion at the spiritual level, the law, the structure and development of practice is the second thing”. It is explained later on that those rules however are extremely important for Jews. A couple of examples concerning orthodox observing of Sabbath and non-Jews are laughing. “Halakha keeps us in a structure but the historical past present and future are those that consolidate” she explains. “The Torah says who the Jews are. He does not say that we've been chosen that we were great. We were stubborn. Torah gives the rules of everyday as well” further comment is coming.
A brief break, another deep look at our faces and we switch into discussion about the Ten Commandments, which allegedly should be something we have in common. “Everybody knows Ten Commandments? (nodding around) but the thing is how you approach them. How you understand them”. Tanya pauses, takes her Bible, which is both in Hebrew and Russian and reads and translates into English. “So, we have Ten Commandments. The first says that you have to remember the Sabbath. How do I remember about it? Should I remind people about it? Should I have it my mind? At some point we say <<observe>>.” With the next commandments, the issue is not that easy as translations are not that easy to make. We start discussing. People understand them differently. Tanya seems to be excited by the discussion she has started just through talking about the Commandments.
She proceeds quickly to the issue of women in Judaism. It is interesting to see the perspective of a first female rabbi in Poland. “Emancipation, French Revolution, changes in the structure of lives – women can be politicians and men can stay and raise children. It's a natural split”. Obviously, that is not all that Tanya wants to share. “Women needed to do the job and support husbands who were supposed to study the Torah. But this means that the women were excluded. We can see why it was like this. Man is studying, he is tired, he needs to eat, to sleep, to relax. Women are suppose to make their men lives easier” Is there going to be a counterargument – I am asking myself. It comes sooner that anybody could have thought. “But there is no passage in Torah that would say that women cannot perform the duties that usually men would!” Tanya explains her understanding of the position of women, which pretty much resemble what Western culture would say. Nothing about wearing wigs or being inferior to men. “In Poland there was never a female rabbi. Women were very active in education but not in spiritual life of the Jewish communities. The first female rabbi was working in the US in 1970' ”. Tanya however does not talk about her experiences as a pioneer in Cracow. Times up. Ninety minutes with Judaism is over and as always, there are more questions than answers.