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Christians study Torah in Jewish style

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Every time she reads the Old Testament with a small group of friends, Pat Dodd has new revelations into her own life.

"We're digging into Scripture and we're digging into ourselves at the same time," says Dodd, a member of a local bi-monthly Bat Kol study group. "I leave not only... understanding the Torah a little better but myself better, too."

Dodd is part of a group of Christian women -- all Catholics except for two Anglicans -- who meet alternate Friday afternoons for two hours of Torah study, using Jewish sources and commentaries, following a program set out by the Jerusalem-based Bat Kol Institute.

The name comes from the Hebrew words bat kol, which mean daughter of a voice and reflect how a community can be supportive in the study of Scripture, explains the organization's co-founder Maureena Fitz, via email from Jerusalem.

"That name intrigues me: First it stands for a voice that each one must listen to in order to be faithful to one's self and second when God speaks a word, the word spoken must be feminine," says Fitz, a Catholic nun and former University of Toronto theology professor.

Founded in 1983, Bat Kol has grown into an international movement that invites Christians to study the Torah -- the first five books of the Bible -- the way Jews do. That includes learning to read the Hebrew language, the original language of the Torah, in order to better understand the meanings of the text, says Winn Leslie, part of the Friday afternoon group, one of two Bat Kol study groups in Winnipeg.

"It's not designed as much to speak Hebrew as to read it," explains Leslie, who teaches a crash course in reading Hebrew.

"None of us is very fast (at reading Hebrew) but we keep it up because it's extremely helpful for us to delve into the meaning of the Scripture."

Understanding basic Hebrew is helpful in reading the Bible the way it was written, adds Anne Morton, one of the two Anglicans in the group.

"Because wordplay is important in scripture, but it's wordplay in Hebrew, not any other language," she explains about the value of learning Hebrew. "There's just something about a group of people talking about Scripture. It's the living word of God."

Keeping up their Hebrew-language skills means devoting at least 30 minutes of each meeting reading Hebrew poems and prayers before settling down to study that week's parashat, or Torah reading. Group members take turns reading aloud in English the five or so chapters of the weekly reading, and each meeting a different person leads the study, using Jewish commentaries and other sources provided on the Bat Kol website -- www.batkol.info/

Seated in a circle in the sunny library of the St. Ignatius Church education centre, members of the group freely engage with the weekly text, sharing their ideas and interpretations with each other, first in small groups of two or three, then in the larger group of eight.

Formed in 2003, this group has a strong core of people who have studied together from the beginning, but that doesn't mean the discussion goes stale when the same Torah reading comes up year after year, says Leslie.

"Every time you encounter that parashat you're seeing it with the eyes of who you are right then," she says.

" It has really given me a love of the Jewish tradition. Part of me really wishes that we would reclaim more of our early traditions in our Christian practice," adds Norma Steven, another longtime member.

"In coming to Bat Kol, it's a way for me to recover the beauty of Scripture, the life-giving (nature) of it, and I go away saying God said something to me today."

As well as committing to 20 meetings throughout the year, most of the Winnipeg Bat Kol members have travelled to Bat Kol's headquarters in Jerusalem for month-long intensive courses led by Christian and Jewish scholars, and three members are planning trips this summer.

"That's the real in-depth experience which helps us do what we're doing, which is a bunch of Christians reading the Jewish Torah portion," says Leslie of the intensive course, which cost US$3,500.

That's exactly the goal of Bat Kol, says Fitz, who developed the idea for the institute after two years of studying Judaism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It has spread to South Africa, India, the Philippines, Australia and Canada, and the organization attracts Catholics, Mennonites, Presbyterians and members of other denominations to its study groups and intensive courses.

"It has brought many Christians back to the Old Testament. For many Catholics, the Old Testament has been a closed book," says Fitz. "It reminds Christians that reading the Old Testament does not give them a knowledge of Judaism."

As well as giving them a better understanding of the Torah, Bat Kol has nurtured a relationship between the Jewish and Christian communities, allowing people to acknowledge both the commonalities and differences between the religions, says a Winnipeg rabbi and family therapist.

"Clearly there's a deep connection that in the past had been confrontational. Bat Kol represents a part of the Catholic Church that wants to be complementary," says Rabbi Neal Rose, a retired University of Manitoba religion professor.

"This is not an adversarial relationship. It is one of mutuality. In the end, we're going to disagree, but we'll put the resolution of this issue in the hands of God."

And even disagreement is a learning experience, says Leslie, something she and other members of the Winnipeg Bat Kol group have grown to appreciate.

"The part that differs from Christianity (is that) we've picked up the idea there's one right answer," she says. "Jewish people can have one right answer today and one right answer tomorrow. I just find that fascinating and life-giving."

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2010 H13

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