Rabbis Leible Morrison and Israel Rubin

by Paul Grondahl - Times Union

It is 6:25 a.m. on a Friday, an hour when others might still be sleeping or groggily shuffling toward a hot shower. But for the participants of Talmudic Telephone, it's a spiritual wake-up call they seek. Today's discussion: a metaphorical examination of the Israelites as flexible reeds vs. rigid trees.

On the receiving end of Rabbi Israel Rubin's explication of the 2,000-year-old code of Jewish law and lore is a handful of men who forgo extra shut-eye to study the Talmud before leaving for work. They range in age from their 20's to 60's and stretch from Albany to Saratoga, but they're linked by conference call and sound as if they're all in the same living room, kibitzing.

Participants include a Schenectady architect, a mathematics graduate student in Saratoga, a doctor and a lawyer in Albany, a food inspector in Columbia County and a researcher for General Electric Co. who lives in Troy. The Talmudic Telephone hook up is conducted both at 6:30 a.m. and 9 p.m. A total of about two dozen individuals take part.

"We used to have our Talmud class meeting in one place, but as people got more spread out and more and more busy, it became very hard to get everyone together at the same place and the same time," Rubin says.

And so Talmudic Telephone came to pass.

"We're applying modem technology to the study of a 2,000-year-old text," says Ruvain Kudan of Albany, an associate system planner with the state Public Service Commission who has participated in the phone network since its inception in June. "Since the technology exists, why not use it to further our spiritual growth?"

The Talmudic Telephone concept is believed to be a first for New York, perhaps the nation.

Rubin, a rabbi who is the executive director of Chabad Outreach Centers of the Capital District, knows of taped Talmud phone lines and there are 900-number Jewish teaching services.

"But it's not the same thing," Rubin says. "I think we're the only one where there is interaction, questions, debate and socializing."

Participants tap into Talmudic Telephone by purchasing a simple teleconference option on their phone service that costs a few dollars a month. As many as a dozen people can listen in to the same discussion simultaneously. The hookup is made by one caller dialing the next in a form of telephone tag.

Rubin is a lively teacher, making the ancient Talmud text come alive. This Friday morning session begins with a mention of a bullrush.

"What's a bullrush?" someone asks.

"It's like a reed, a plant that grows on the edge of a pond," Rubin replies, before getting back to the Hebrew in his flowing, mesmerizing reading style.

Trees are tall and strong and are useful in the making of all manner of implements, someone interjects. But the bullrushes are flexible and will bend and snap back, counters another student, whereas the tree will break and fall to the ground. Plus, a reed is hollow and can be filled with ink and used to write the Torah.

"So, the bullrush could really be a blessing in disguise?" Morrison asks in summation.

"Exactly," Rubin says.

"Turn the page now," the rabbi continues. A faint shuffling of pages is heard as the students follow along with their own Talmud.

Later, Rubin explains that the Talmud is written in a Hebrew-Aramaic hybrid. The Talmud is essentially the oral Jewish law committed to prose, and was written 2,000 years ago in what today is Iraq, where Aramaic was spoken.

Much of the Talmud is technical and legalistic, but there also are sections that deal with everything from history to ethics to meteorology.

The Talmud is 2,100 pages long and the phone group covers on average 11/2 pages per week. When they complete a tractate, they throw a communal siyum, or party.

"This is having a ripple effect by bringing more people into the study of Talmud and making it part of a community celebration," Rubin says.

The Talmud appeals to a similar sense of discipline and detail that has made Matthew Granovetter of Ballston Lake a national champion bridge player and, beginning a few weeks ago, a member of the Talmudic Telephone crew.

"We got interested in Judaism through bridge," says Granovetter, whose wife, Pamela, converted to Judaism along with their two children. "They're both about discussion and arguing and intellectual detective work. They're both fun, too."

Fun, but strict, stresses Granovetter, who has recently become observant of Jewish law.

"When my wife and I teach bridge, we say the only way to learn the game is to go by the book," Granovetter says. "If you start breaking the rules at the beginning, your bridge game just flounders. We take the same approach to Judaism. The only way to learn it properly is to go by the book."

Granovetter, a professional bridge player, also co-publishes with his wife a magazine called Bridge Today and self-publishes murder mysteries with a bridge subplot.

Back to fact instead of fiction, "I'm turning the page," Rubin says and the others follow suit.

The discussion about reeds vs. trees comes to its conclusion and Rubin spends a few moments discussing Maimonides' laws concerning the Messianic Era.

Then, a man named Zev asks participants for a moment's silence to read from "From Day to Day"--pithy teachings compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. "One who is lowly and crass does not understand his lowliness and crassness."

Says Granovetter, "I like that lesson in humility. I'm going to use it in my bridge magazine."