The Essential Judaism
Rabbi Barry Leff
Temple Beth-El
Birmingham, Alabama

Click here to download a full course description, schedule, required reading list and resources. Click here for online course registration or email Lindsey in the Temple office.

Course Description
What do Jews believe about God, Heaven & Hell, the Messiah?
What’s with all the rules?
What’s Jewish prayer about? How can I feel connected to God in prayer?
How do I find meaning in Shabbat (the Sabbath) and holidays?
What does Judaism have to say about contemporary issues such as alternative sexualities, medical ethics, the environment?
Why is Israel so important to the Jewish people? What about the Palestinians?

Join Rav Barry for a series of 30 classes exploring these and other questions. The course is aimed at both Jews and Gentles interested in learning more about Judaism. Whether your Jewish education stopped with your bar or bat mitzvah and you want to develop an adult relationship with Judaism, or if you have done some learning and just want to continue the discussion and deepen your knowledge, or are just curious about Judaism, there’s something for you here.

The course is free and open to the public.
Anyone not Jewish who completes the course will have completed Rav Barry’s educational requirements for conversion if they are interested.

A complete schedule will be posted on the Temple Beth-El website. You need not commit to the entire course; people are welcome to drop-in for any class session of interest. It will also be possible to participate in the class via Skype. Classes will meet at Temple Beth-El, Tuesday evenings at 6pm, starting September 20, 2017.

The Essential Judaism Class Schedule

Class Reading Date
Introduction and Overview
1 Judaism While Standing on One Foot – the Overview 9/20
2 Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur JW 9/27
No class – Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur 10/4 & 10/11
3 Sukkot/Simchat Torah JW 10/18
4 The Jewish Prayer Service and Synagogue Rituals / Bimah Basics TL pp. 1-86, 197-214. 10/25
5 The Jewish Calendar and holiday cycle TL pp. 87-142; JW pp. 1-33; JL chapter 290 11/1
  What Jews Believe  
6 Jewish views of God KG pp. 1-90, 209-248; JL chap. 264 11/8
7 Theodicy – the problem of evil KG pp. 129-148; JL chapter 288 11/15
No Class – Thanksgiving 11/22
8 Revelation – the Written and Oral Torahs KG pp. 91-128; JL chaps. 1-4, 82-84, 245-246 11/29
9 Kiddush, Kaddish, and Kedusha – Holiness, Chosen-ness and The Role of the Jews JL chap. 261, 263, 268, 315, 328 12/6
10 Chanukah, Tu b’Shevat, Purim, JW 12/13
11 Teleology: Jewish Views of the Afterlife and the Messiah in Judaism JL chap. 283, 284; readings 12/20
No Class – winter break 12/27 & 1/3
Jewish Prayer
12 The Shema TPJ 1/10
13 The Amidah TPJ 1/17
14 How to Pray Readings 1/24
  Living as Jew – The Mitzvot
15 Halakha and commandedness JL chap. 253 1/31
16 Shabbat HTR; JL chaps. 314-317 2/7
17 Kashrut HTR; JL chap. 330 2/14
18 Judaism and Human Sexuality, Taharat Mishpacha JL chap. 279, 322; CR pp. 115-122 2/21
19 Medical Ethics – Fertility, Abortion, Euthanasia JL chap. 262, 270, 274 2/28
20 Tzedaka – Charity and Justice and Gemilut Chesed – Lovingkindness JL chap. 265, 269,  275-8, 280, 281 3/7
21 Honesty and Business Ethics JL chap. 254-260 3/14
22 Lashon Hara JL chap. 271 3/21
23 The Environment – plants and animals JL chap. 272 3/28
24 Passover/Omer/Shavuot JW 4/4
No class – Passover 4/11
Jewish History
25 History – Biblical Period and Rabbinic Periods JL chap. 2-86 4/18
26 History – Medieval – Modern Period JL chap. 85-132, 181-236, 247-250 4/25
27 History – Zionism and the History of Israel, Israel in the Heart of the Jew (Diaspora vs. Exile) JL chap. 133-180 5/2
Lifecycle Events
28 Lifecycle Part I – Birth, Bris/Simchat Bat, Bar Mitzvah CR pp. 1-70 5/9
29 Lifecycle Part II – Conversion, Wedding, Mezuzah, Divorce CR pp. 71-166; JL chap. 329 5/16
30 Lifecycle Part III – Sickness, aging, death; Honor Your Father and Mother CR pp. 167-251; JL chap. 273 5/23

CR = Celebration and Renewal
HTR = How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household
JL = Jewish Literacy
JW = The Jewish Way
KG = Knowing God
TL = To Life
TPJ = To Pray as a Jew


Introduction to Judaism 101 – annotated bibliography

Needed as soon as possible:

Kushner, Harold. To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking. New York: Warner Books, 1993. Read all of “To Life!” as an overview of Judaism; other books will take us into greater detail in specific areas.

Telushkin, Joseph. Jewish Literacy. New York: William Morrow, 1991. In many ways, Jewish Literacy is the central textbook for the course.


Additional required books, need to have before we start the relevant topic:

Donin, Hayim Halevy. To Pray as a Jew. Basic Books, 1980.

Geffen, Rela M. Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism. Philadelphia: Jewish Publications Society, 1993.

Greenberg, Blu. How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household. Fireside, 1985.

Greenberg, Irving. The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays. Touchstone, 1993.

Simon, Ethelyn, and Anderson, Joseph. Teach Yourself to Read Hebrew. Albany, CA: EKS Publishing, 1985.


Basic Home Jewish Library (not course texts per se, but things every Jewish home should have)

A Siddur—either Siddur Sim Shalom or the Artscroll Interlinear Siddur.

  • Harlow, Jules, ed.  Siddur Sim Shalom. New York: Rabbinical Assembly (United Synagogue of America), 1985.
  • The Schottenstein Ed. Siddur: Sabbath & Festivals Prayers With an Interlinear Translation – Ashkenaz. Artscroll, 2002.
  • The Schottenstein Ed. Siddur: Weekday Prayers With an Interlinear Translation – Ashkenaz.  Artscroll, 2002.

A Chumash—preferably Etz Hayim, although any Chumash is acceptable.

An English Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), preferably Jewish Publications Society.


Recommended, but not required

Dorff, Elliot. Knowing God: Jewish Journeys to the Unknowable. Northvale, NJ: Aronson, 1991.

Lew, Alan. This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. New York: Little, Brown & Company


Introduction to Judaism – Recommended Readings, Videos on Jewish Culture/History


Historical Novels

  • As a Driven Leaf, by Milton Steinberg
  • O Jerusalem!, by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
  • Mila 18 by Leon Uris
  • Exodus by Leon Uris
  • The Source by James Michener

Contemporary (relatively) fiction

  • The Chosen, by Chaim Potok
  • Sotah, by Naomi Ragen
  • Kaatterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman
  • All of a Kind Family (series, children’s books) by Sydney Taylor



  • The Long Way Home (Moriah Films, the Wiesenthal Center)
  • Schindler’s List
  • Yentl
  • Fiddler on the Roof
  • Masada (the six hour TV miniseries with Peter O’Toole)


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