Sometimes you have to go to Orange County to learn about Israel.
The third annual LimmudLA was held over Presidents’ Day weekend in Costa Mesa; it’s a conference run by a volunteer-based grass-roots organization that transforms an otherwise nondescript Hilton into a vibrant campus for Jewish study.
Limmud is Hebrew for “learning,” and it has also come to signify a worldwide phenomenon begun in England in 1980 that now takes place in cities in 40 different countries, including Israel. At Limmud conferences, Jews of all denominations come together to share knowledge. This year’s L.A. gathering drew close to 650 people — adults of all ages, as well as some teens and younger children — and the offerings, which were revealed in multiple conference rooms on three floors of the hotel, included religious services of all kinds and more than 250 different 75-minute tutorials on topics from the sacred to the profane.
Throughout my 72-some hours there, I returned again and again to one subject: Israel. But unlike most discussions of Israel in the United States, the talk was not of war and peace between Israel and its neighbors, but rather seeking understanding among Israel’s Jews. For there is a growing unrest between the ultra-Orthodox community and other Jews, we were told, to the point that it has led to fights in the streets and could lead to more violence of Jew against Jew. At the heart of the unrest is our different understanding of our religion and how we should be allowed to conduct our lives.
Central to these discussions was an honored guest, the Modern Orthodox Rabbi Michael Melchior, who came from Jerusalem to LimmudLA en route to meeting with the Obama administration in Washington. I attended three riveting talks by him, all based on his own experience and his vision for the future of Israel. Born in Denmark to a family that provided generations of the country’s chief rabbis, Melchior has held the title of chief rabbi of Norway since 1980. He also made aliyah and has served in the Knesset and as deputy foreign minister under Shimon Peres, among his many positions.
At Limmud, Melchior spoke of disputed conversions and of finding ways to talk to the Jews in the settlements. The Torah teaches that we should befriend those who want to be Jews, he pointed out, and yet in recent years, ultra-Orthodox leaders in Israel, adopting the most narrow and stringent standards of Jewish law, or halachah, have been annulling many conversions, even some Orthodox ones. In doing so, they have stripped converted Jews of essential rights, including the right to marry in Israel. After rabbis annulled one woman’s conversion, they also annulled her Jewish marriage, which would have stripped her of her property rights. She sued under civil law, and her property was restored. But the power of some on the religious right to disrupt lives appears to be increasing as the numbers of ultra-religious grow.
Melchior has helped create schools that bring together not only Palestinians and Jews, but also the Orthodox and secular. He told a story of his congregation in Oslo, which when he arrived as a young rabbi often had trouble attracting enough men to make a minyan. He quickly created a children’s choir, which brought in children, their parents and grandparents to grow the community, and because children were involved, he found that both secular and Orthodox Jews were willing to come together. It is that kind of union that he seeks for Israel.
In Washington, Melchior said, he will propose a theory that “no one agrees with,” to “bring religion back to the frontlines of peace.” He said polls in Israel show that 70 to 80 percent of Israelis and 65 percent of Palestinians believe in the two-state solution, which would return the country to its pre-1967-war borders.
“We know where we have to go,” Melchior said, and where we are now is “a bloody mess.” The argument that the land belongs to Israel because the Bible says so cannot be the final word. “It’s a religious motivation,” he said, “and I disagree with it from a religious point of view.”
“I have read the whole Torah and almost all of Talmud,” Melchior said, “and I have not seen one place that says we cannot concede land for peace.” It is not a question for rabbis to decide, he said, “but something for the politicians to decide.”
Melchior believes that the Likud leaders must and can seize power from the religious leaders, and he said more than once that there needs to be the “political will” to do so. But the ultra-Orthodox are gaining in strength, not lessening. I heard this again and again at the conference from others, including Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem; Uri Regev, president and CEO of a new group, Hiddush — For Religious Freedom and Equality (created in partnership with L.A. businessman and philanthropist Stanley Gold); and Ariel Picard, education director of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Be’eri program in Jerusalem.
All this was an important conversation to have at LimmudLA, where a smattering of Jews in black hats joined Jews in suits and others in jeans at a raucous Havdalah celebration, sharing the smell of spices and delighting in what we do have in common. Limmud is a model for communication; it is a place to learn about truths that aren’t always mentioned. It can be an extraordinary benefit to our lives.
Rob Eshman will return next week.