Friday, December 30, 2011

The Amazing Limmud Experience

I have spent this week at the UK Limmud Conference 2011 and I think it deserves a blogpost just to talk about how wonderful it is.

I left Israel on Sunday morning, in a an elevated sublime feeling of Jewish Israeliness. Let me explain. I stepped into the taxi at the airport at 5:58 to be greeted by the recitation of the “Shema” as is broadcast daily at 6am on Israel radio. This was followed by the newscaster starting the news with the greeting, "חג אורים שמח", announcing the Hebrew date and that it was נר חמישי של חנוכה. So much Judiasm in 1 minute of radio at 6am; - It put me in a great mood.
I davened Shacharit in the airport with an eclectic mix of Haredim, messorati sephardim, a few Modern Orthodox Israelis and one very settler-looking fellow with full blown peyot, t'chelet tzitizit and a huge knit kippa. Wonderful to hear Birkhat Kohanim with the Hazzan's heavily hassidish pronunciation, answered by a pure Israeli accent. We are one people!
The beautiful end to the Jewish aspect of the journey was when the flight staff closed the flight by wishing us a חג חנוכה שמח  – as we landed in London on Christmas day. I couldn't but reflect on how fortunate we are to have our own nation state where being Jewish is natural, and woven deeply ad so naturally into the fabric of our national existence, as we live on our time, our terms, with our own dear cultural frame of reference. אשרינו מה טוב חלקינו. Yes I am a starry eyed old style Zionist. And 20 years in Israel somehow never succeeds in erasing that.

But I digress … let's talk about Limmud. This is my second Limmud in 2 months. Last month in Stockholm and now in the UK. Limmud is an organization, run by volunteers that create conferences which explore just about every facet of Judaism and Jewish life. In Limmud UK, over 5 days, over 2000 sessions were delivered. That is astounding. So many topics are on offer: Israeli literature, the current state of Israel and Zionism, Jewish community, arts and issues of the local Jewish community, women, education, policy, philosophy, Jewish texts and spirituality. You name it; its there. Moreover, everyone is welcome to come; everyone is welcome to speak. Limmud is a beautiful environment that respects every participant as a human being, a Jew, an equal. One hour, you are the teacher; the next hour, you are the student. Limmud creates a platform for people to explore and celebrate their Judaism and to learn more about it, hear new voices, gain inspiration, and enjoy their Judaism. (See a similar perspective from wonderful friends that I met at Limmud - see here and here.)

Now, in the British Orthodox (United Synagogue and rightwards) community, Limmud is shunned, certainly by the Rabbis. Several of my (British) students have asked me why I attend seeing that it “lends legitimacy to the Reform.” My Grandfather too, when I told him that I was attending Limmud, said to me: “Isn't that the Reform conference?”

One of the most forceful proponents of this thinking is Rav Hanoch Erentreu, Av Beit Din in the UK. I recall in the '80's that the Pope visited the UK. Dayan Erentreu was supposed to meet him in his capacity as Av Beit Din in Manchester. But then he heard that he would be presented to the Pope alongside the Reform Rabbi. This in his mind created an equation of sorts. He turned down the invitation. To meet the Pope was alright; to meet the Reform Rabbi was beyond the pale.

I cannot even begin to understand or accept Rav Ehrentreu's decion. To my mind this stark separation of the Orthodox community from Limmud is shortsighted and incorrect.

First, no one is legitimising anyone. Everyone who speaks is representing their own opinions, themselves. Everyone is welcome to attend or not to attend. As for lending legitimacy, the Reform, I believe, are fully aware that the Orthodox don't accept their version of Judaism. Somehow, the Orthodox feel that if they fail to associate with a Reform Rabbi, don't call him or her a Rabbi, then they will be less of a Rabbi, or if they discredit non-Orthodox denominations, that they will disappear. Don't they realise that when they discredit others , the only thing that they do is to generate disdain for Orthodoxy and alienation from it?

Limmud is the antithesis of this attitude. For five days you have thousands, yes – thousands of Jews – rushing from session to session, from shiur to political talk to historical lecture, exploring, learning, thinking, discovering more about their Judaism as they progress upon their Jewish journey. What typifies Limmud is its respect to every person, and love of Jewish learning. The warmth expressed by everyone is amazing. I believe that Limmud is as popular as it is in the UK precisely because it is so un-politicized , unlike the rest of Jewish living here.
The Orthodox rabbinate are making a mistake, because if they were there – 10, 20 50 Orthodox Rabbis - they wouldn't be recognising any non-Orthodox anything. They would just be seeing lots of Jewish people who don't want to be labelled, or judged, or looked down upon; good, well meaning Jews who wish to deepen their Judaism, as they see it. They would just see how thirsty people are to learn and to study. They would see that by respecting everyone, and taking down all our titles and divisions, we create genuine achdut, they would realize that if they can teach good Torah, a compelling Torah which is respectful and compassionate, loving and true, then people will listen and, maybe be drawn to their vision. That is why it is hugely shortsighted.

For me, at Limmud, just like at Pardes, where I teach, I am constantly impressed at the simple reality that we cannot impose our views on others; we can merely present Torah – their heritage and ours – with love. People are different – that is our divine spark. I cannot control another person's future. But I can seek to inspire, to teach, to influence, to spread the word of God to others. However, it will be best received when I demonstrate respect to the person sitting opposite me. And when I show that respect, I will probably learn something from him or her in turn.

I invite you all to join the worldwide Limmud movement. It is Achdut (Jewish togetherness) as its best.