What’s longer than a Tolstoy novel, can take 10 years to finish and leaves the reader with a deeper understanding of Jewish law, tradition and ethics?
On Sept. 20, San Francisco residents Harmon and Jorun Shragge hosted a siyyum, a celebration that marks the completion of a unit of Torah learning or talmudic study. But their siyyum was particularly noteworthy: It acknowledged the couple’s completion of studying the Tanach, or the full canon of the Hebrew Bible, which includes the Torah, Nevi’im (prophets) and Ketuvim (writings).
It took the Shragges, active members of Reform Congregation Emanu-El, a decade to reach their ambitious goal by studying once a week, every week: upwards of 500 sessions.
For the evening’s celebration, roughly 75 people crowded into the couple’s Marina District home, hugging old friends, nibbling on appetizers and dodging cheerful bunches of yellow smiley-face balloons.
“I suspect this is the first time this has happened in the Bay Area,” said Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld, who has served as the couple’s teacher and guide for the past decade as they worked their way through the Tanach. After Seinfeld moved from the Bay Area to Baltimore in 2007, study sessions continued by telephone.
“It began as an experiment,” said Seinfeld. “And then at some point — maybe three or four years ago — Harmon said something like, ‘Well, it’s been nice working with you,’ and I just said, ‘We’ve got to finish. We’re more than halfway there!’ ”
After speeches from the couple, close friends and community members — including Congregation Emanu-El’s Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe, Congregation Adath Israel’s Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz and others — Seinfeld led a discussion about the Shragges’ process, the challenges and rewards.
Learning the Tanach is an achievable, tangible goal, Seinfeld told those gathered, comparing it with “War and Peace” (the Tanach is slightly longer) and the collected works of Shakespeare (the Tanach is shorter by more than 200,000 words).
“I honestly don’t know why more people don’t do this,” Seinfeld said afterward, noting that Emanu-El has taken a cue from the couple and is establishing programming for individuals interested in home or group Torah study. Sara Bamberger was on hand to talk about Kevah, a Berkeley-based organization designed to connect people interested in study groups.
Neither of the Shragges come from especially observant backgrounds — Jorun emigrated from Sweden and converted to Judaism when she married Harmon in the early ’90s. A fellow Emanu-El congregant and close friend of Jorun’s introduced the couple to Seinfeld, who visited them at home to discuss their goals in studying the Tanach.
“I was raised with a very watered-down kind of Judaism, and I think, like so many people, I always felt Jewish but I was ignorant about what that meant. And at a certain point I got tired of that,” said Harmon, a San Francisco native who works in real estate. “I got tired of listening to other people interpret the Torah for me. There was just a point where I said, it’s time for us to learn this ourselves.”
One unforeseen benefit of the study sessions, according to Harmon: The couple’s children, 6, 10 and 14, have grown up in a home where studying Jewish text and commentary are a part of everyday life.
“I think for so many kids, religion is something your parents send you somewhere else to do,” he said. “It’s never been like that for us — they see us taking it seriously, they see us with the rabbi, they know him and get excited to see him. It’s all very commonplace to them.”
The study habit is tough to break: The couple plans to continue working through the Talmud and select parts of the Mishnah, the compilation of the oral traditions.