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Lubavitch crash course aims to keep up with the times

The Jewish Learning Institute, which begins again in the New Year, tackles questions of legal, business and medical ethics

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    Getty Images

    The future may be with us sooner than we think. According to some reports, driverless vehicles may well hit the road within a few years. Commuters will be able to settle into the passenger seat with a coffee and laptop while their automated car negotiates the rush-hour traffic by itself.

    Computer drivers may even improve road safety. But insurers and others are already raising questions about responsibility for accidents. Take this scenario: the car turns into a road where there is an unexpected obstacle and there is no time to brake.

    If the car crashes into the object, the passenger could be killed. But if it swerves right or left, it is likely to hit and kill a pedestrian on either side. Should the computer be programmed to put its own passenger at lethal risk or endanger the life of the others?

    It is a conundrum that has actually formed a unit in a course in Lubavitch’s flagship education programme, the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. JLI has been running in Lubavitch centres worldwide for 18 years, including here. But Chabad Lubavitch UK is pushing to expand its reach this year.

    Rabbi Bentzi Sudak, chief executive of UK Lubavitch, said JLI grew out of a sense that while there was more adult Jewish education on offer than before, it was not producing a corresponding rise in Jewish engagement. 

    “We don’t believe people are actually less interested in Judaism,” he says, “they are just not interested in the way it is being offered.  There is still a lot of respect for Judaism but it is something put in the ark, behind the curtain of the shul, something you hold for special occasions when you get married or have a barmitzvah or for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.”

    The problem was that Judaism did not appear to address everyday concerns, the kinds of issues people face in their professional lives. Synagogue classes on the weekly Torah portion or Talmud might have takers but not everyone was attracted to a standard educational diet.

    When Lubavitch did a survey on its potential audience, it found that the vast majority were working in one of four fields: medicine, psychology, law and finance. So it decided to tailor courses initially to these particular interests.

    The car-crash question, for example, appeared in a course called “The Dilemma”, launched two years ago, which has proved popular with lawyers. “Another case asked whether there is an upside to crime,” he says. “Let’s say someone breaks into a person’s car to steal a laptop. Now it happens to be 80 degrees and inside the car there is a dog. By breaking the window, the thief actually saves the dog’s life. Does he get credit for that, does he get punished? Do we take into account only the intent, or the outcome of an action?”

    One rabbinic source used in the session was the example of a fisherman who broke Shabbat by going out to fish. When he cast his net, he pulled up a boy who had fallen in the water and would have drowned otherwise. Was the fisherman liable for transgressing Shabbat or did saving another life, even if he didn’t realise he was doing so, let him, so to speak, off the hook?

    Each course consists of six hour-and-a-half classes, based on a carefully designed textbook which cites case studies, passages from rabbis and other thinkers plus suggested group activities. Every course, says Rabbi Sudak, has its “Aha moment” when a student, who came in thinking one way,  now starts to think afresh. 

    One group activity involved a game of Chinese whispers to demonstrate the transmission of the Oral Law. The participants had to pass on a sentence to each other but everyone invariably got it wrong. “We showed how if you relaying things orally without a written code, you don’t remember,” he says.

    But when they tried the sentence, “the shy green lion had too much to drink and fell out the window”, with the help of a prompt made up of the first letters of each word, “t-s-g-l h2md &fotw”, the whole group passed it on accurately.

    JLI aims to introduce three new courses each year, which are taught each week in more than 300 centres across the world.  So if you happen to be away on business in Singapore, you need not miss that week’s class. 

    Next term’s new course, “Great Debates in Jewish History”, which will be available after the festivals, covers topics such as the Dead Sea Scroll sectarians and the burning of the books of Maimonides.

    In addition, tried and trusted courses such as “Life in the Balance”, which deals with medical issues such as organ donation, will run in particular centres.

    JLI has also organised shorter standalone courses such as the challenges of terror, examining the ethics of paying ransom or using torture. Plans for later this year include a five-part series on learning to read Hebrew and JLI courses for teens.

    “Everyone is looking for meaning, for relevance, for guidance. And all these things are in Judaism, yet it is not always packaged in the right way,” Rabbi Sudak says. Such initiatives as JLI, he hopes, will convey “a Judaism that makes sense to them and is not just a picture of their grandfather on a wall.”

    For more detail, see www.chabad.org.uk

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