Red River Scripture Circles with a Hebrew Rabbi


Josiah Stoll, Reporter, Columnist, Cartoonist

To understand what a Scripture Circles study session looks like, take a normal classroom and invert it. Instead of a stuffy classroom, everyone sits in a cozy living room in one of the student’s houses. Instead of sitting behind a podium and teaching from out of a textbook, the teacher, Rabbi Noah Almund, sits cross-legged on the floor and listens to the “spirit in the room”- changing the direction of the conversation as though he feels some invisible force prompting him. It’s strange, but the studies, four-hour sessions at the least, are strangely entrancing. It’s that intangible prompting, that unseen force crackling through the room, that causes people to work together every few months to bring him in to Fargo for a week or so.
“Before we start, there are two things you need to know. One, we never finish anything we start; and two, I ask a lot of questions. You’ll catch on real fast. We’ll start with these two: what is your name, and what’s one thing, a word, a phrase, anything that’s on your heart right now?”
He starts every session the same, and there’s something about the way he says it, maybe it’s his warm, Bostonian accent, maybe it’s the way that he looks at the person who is speaking, like every fiber of his being just radiates “you are important to me.” However he does it, almost from the start, this little circle of floors and chairs in someone’s living room becomes almost sacred. For the next four hours, nothing matters outside of these twenty people and the truth they’re unraveling.
One of the defining things of the entire experience is how inclusive it is. A West Fargo cop who just got off duty, a forty-something-year-old mom who’s been in a dozen of these studies before, a twelve-year-old who still has the bruises where his dad hit him, and a popular tattoo artist from downtown all have something to add and something to learn from their time here.
After everyone voices what they’re thinking about, the Rabbi finds a couple of words or passages that tie these experiences together and puts it to a vote.
“We’re probably going to touch on one of these, so I’m sorry if the one you wanted doesn’t get picked. We just don’t have enough time to cover all of the things we want to.” He summarizes each of the passages, tying them to the things that people mentioned they were thinking about. One of the verses might be something popular “God talking to Moses on the mountain of Horeb is about names, purpose, and God drawing good out of someone who didn’t think they had much good left in them.” The forty-year old and the tattoo artist, who have been in this kind of study before, share a long, knowing look with each other. One might be more obscure, like God speaking to Hagar in the wilderness. The twelve year old doesn’t know it yet, but this passage would change his life forever. A third one might be deceptively simple, like the word “Good,” which usually means it’s the most complicated.
A passage is chosen and the group starts off by reading it in its entirety. Someone might react to it, remembering that Ishmael is the great-ancestor to the Islamic prophet Muhammed. They might not react, what the group notices in the passage changes from session to session. Then Almund, the Rabbi, will begin to question the group.
The conversation moves slowly at the start. A unique facet of the Hebrew language is that the words build on themselves.
“The first time that a word is mentioned is the most important, it sets the foundation stone for how the word is used. Then, every time the word is mentioned after that, more and more of it is revealed.” the Rabbi says.
The strength of the scripture studies is in how everyone-no matter how educated they are-have something to contribute and something to take away.
The twelve-year-old attendee might notice something about the passage that the empty nester never would have. The cop and the tattoo artist might find common ground that they might never have seen outside of the circle.
It begins to speed up, everyone is more comfortable asking questions now. The beauty and power in the circle is in its equality. Everyone takes something away from the circle. By the end, everyone wishes they could stay just a little longer.
A scripture study is just like a classroom, but instead of coming into the classroom with questions and getting told answers, students come in with questions, search through the text for meaning, and come out with better, more meaningful questions.