The Limmud way: My journey to the future of Judaism

Two distinct visions of Judaism played in my head at the 33rd annual Limmud Conference in England, which I attended during Christmas week. The first vision was alive and kicking at the conference itself, where, under cold and gray skies, 2,600 Jews gathered on a university campus to sample the world’s greatest Jewish buffet.
January 8, 2014

Two distinct visions of Judaism played in my head at the 33rd annual Limmud Conference in England, which I attended during Christmas week. The first vision was alive and kicking at the conference itself, where, under cold and gray skies, 2,600 Jews gathered on a university campus to sample the world’s greatest Jewish buffet. 

If you’ve never been to a Limmud conference, think of it as a Club Med for the Jewishly curious.

No Jewish subject is left behind. The conference I attended offered 1,102 classes, 25 films and 55 panel discussions touching on everything from the spiritual, cultural, religious and mystical aspects of Judaism, to the political, literary, musical and, of course, the controversial.

A major part of the Limmud adventure is learning the art of picking from this dizzying number of options. But another essential aspect of Limmud is the fact that, for several days, you live in an intensely Jewish “neighborhood” and mingle constantly with other members of your tribe.

Not too long ago in many areas of Europe, such a Jewish neighborhood would have been called a ghetto — a place where Jews were forced to huddle in the face of a hostile world. Today, we can be thankful that when Jews huddle, they do so by choice.

And if Limmud is about anything, it’s about the power of choice. The body of Limmud is learning, but its soul is choice.

Which brings me to the other vision of Judaism that played in my head at Limmud, one that was clearly not about choice. 

That vision was articulated in a hard-nosed editorial written by a prominent Orthodox Jew in a British Jewish paper, The Jewish News, which was widely distributed at the conference. Taking issue with Limmud’s pluralistic approach, the author, Brian Gordon, asserted that “the future strength of Anglo-Jewry lies fairly and squarely with the Orthodox camp.”

Freedom of choice is fine, Gordon intimated, as long as one chooses Orthodoxy.

For anyone at the conference seeing this message, it was an odd disconnect. Here we were feasting at this fabulous buffet of Jewish choice but reading that the future of Judaism resides only in one section of that buffet.

Even though England’s new Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis did show up this year, the continued opposition to Limmud among some in British Orthodoxy signifies that these two visions of Judaism — one based on choice, the other on religious boundaries — will continue to clash.   

To Gordon’s credit, he doesn’t mince words when making his case, stating flatly that “there is only one real factor that has sustained the Jewish people throughout the ages — namely adherence to Orthodox doctrines.”

He railed against a Jewish faith that is “a popular democracy based on trends,” or what he called “an ice cream parlor, where customers can pick and mix the mitzvah flavors that suit them and reject those that don’t.”

It was unsettling to read these words even as I was absorbing so much learning at this giant ice cream parlor of innumerable Jewish flavors.

In one session, for example, I learned from Joel Grishaver about God’s “brokenness,” examining Martin Buber and the Lurianic creation myth, and how “each of us is broken … and as we heal ourselves, God and the world are healed as well.”

In another session, I learned from Chicago Torah expert Shoshana Waskow about the 10 instances in the Torah when a woman “takes” something, and how, every time, something transformative happens.

In other sessions, I learned about “Torah and acting theory”; the oldest Jewish sect (the Karaites); the spiritual meaning of Havdalah; the rise and fall (and rise?) of political Islam; and I even saw a film on the once-vibrant but now vanishing culture of my ancestors, the Jews of Morocco.

One night, I skipped out of a class I found dull and stumbled onto what was, perhaps, my favorite session of the conference: “Photography That Cares,” presented by Glenn Jordan, an African-American artist originally from Los Angeles, who now teaches at the University of South Wales. Jordan showed a series of portraits of Welsh Jewry titled “Hineni: Life Portraits From a Jewish Community.”

Each portrait told another Jewish story; each face expressed the complexity of human emotion. Here was a black man from America giving a Jewish audience in England the goose bumps of Jewish peoplehood. 

As I continued to sample the multitude of Jewish flavors throughout the week, meeting Jews from around the world, debating Eliezer Berkovits’ breakthrough ideas about the existence of God, being challenged by a candid examination of King David’s series of sins, seeing an Orthodox woman perform a play imagining her burial, and attending a musical jam session of Iraqi-Israeli music, Gordon’s message was never far from my mind: This ice cream parlor is not the future of Judaism.

Was I enjoying a Judaism of pleasure that could never stick because it doesn’t make any demands on me? Would this very broad sampling of Jewish ideas reinforce my Jewish identity or water it down? And is this Judaism of choice incompatible with stringent Orthodoxy?

Ironically, it was something as silly as a colorful poster that enlightened me the most on this subject. This poster stared at me in every class I attended, and it said: “Taking you one step further on your Jewish journey.” 

That is the essence of the Limmud mission statement, and it frames your whole experience. 

Its brilliance is that it empowers everyone equally: Whether you’re a Charedi Jew or an atheist, there’s always something at Limmud to take you one step further on your Jewish journey.

By honoring individual journeys, Limmud nurtures the collective journey that its conference represents. It’s an artful move. Large Jewish gatherings are usually homogeneous — one movement, one ideology. Limmud is 2,600 attendees, 2,600 movements, 2,600 journeys.

This respect for the individual creates an unthreatening environment in which Jews feel free to explore, discover and break down barriers.

Children learning from parents, and parents learning from children, at a Limmud study session. Photos by Flix ‘n’ Pix

I met two deeply religious Jews at Limmud who embodied this very idea of breaking down barriers. The first was Rabbi Dov Lipman, a member of the Knesset in the centrist Yesh Atid Party. You listen to Lipman speak and you think: “Please, someone make him the Chief Rabbi of Israel — pronto!”

On every issue of controversy, Lipman offered moderate and compassionate views that respect Jewish law. It helps that he’s a Torah scholar trained in some of the most prestigious yeshivot, and that he holds a master’s degree in education from Johns Hopkins University.

When discussing Israel’s conversion crisis, for example, he quoted the halachic concept of zera yisrael (Jewish progeny) that would allow an easier path for hundreds of thousands of Russian Israelis seeking an official conversion to Judaism.  

What’s most intriguing about this Charedi Jew is how fearlessly and respectfully he engages with the secular world. Because he learns from them, they end up learning from him. In one of his sessions, he shared anecdotes about how some of the secular colleagues in his party often ask him, out of respect, “Is this OK with Jewish law?”

The point Lipman made was an old and timeless one. It was a point, in fact, that every Limmud conference makes: Human contact breaks down barriers.

The other religious speaker breaking down barriers was Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a  halachic scholar, philosopher, author and founding member of the moderate Tzohar rabbinical organization.

In a conversation with Limmud co-founder Clive Lawton, Cherlow explained how Tzohar was conceived after the Yitzhak Rabin assassination — a traumatic turning point that galvanized religious Jews like Cherlow to try to lessen tensions between Israel’s religious and secular communities.

In reaching out to their secular brethren, members of Tzohar wanted to go beyond simple expressions of love to do something concrete that would benefit the secular world. They started by focusing on marriage, providing a halachic alternative to the thousands of Israeli couples whom the chief rabbinate refused to marry for one reason or another.

I got to hang out with Cherlow a little during the conference. One of the unique aspects of Limmud is that everyone is on equal footing. There are no titles on name badges — just your name. Presenters and students mingle in the cafes and bars and eating areas.

If you see a presenter and you feel like shmoozing, you do so. Which is what I did with Cherlow. Beyond his obvious intellect, what I took away was a sweetness and genuine curiosity.

Rabbi Dov Lipman, a Knesset member from the Yesh Atid Party, addresses Limmud International delegates from 40 communities around the globe. Photos by Flix ‘n’ Pix

The sight of these two Orthodox scholars mingling at a pluralist Jewish event was in sharp contrast to the uncompromising attitude I read about in Gordon’s editorial.

I wondered: Would Gordon and his ilk feel the same way if they actually attended this event? Would they still be turned off by “the active presence, on an equal basis, of non-Orthodox clergy” if they had attended a fascinating Torah class by a non-Orthodox rabbi?

We’ll probably never know, because they are not likely ever to set foot at a Limmud conference (at least not until Maschiach shows up first).

Part of me gets it. When you believe in something very deeply — such as the idea that Jewish identity lives or dies on absolute observance of God’s commandments — it’s difficult to expose yourself to anything that might challenge that view.

What these tough chaps are missing, however, is the fact that Limmud itself is hardly a secular venture. For one thing, the food is strictly kosher (which might be its best feature). Limmud also offers Orthodox prayer services, and on Shabbat you might as well be in my Orthodox neighborhood of Pico-Robertson in Los Angeles.

But above and beyond its respect for Orthodoxy, Limmud caters to the individual Jewish journeys reflected in its mission statement. How does it do it? By serving up the whole Jewish buffet.

Jewish groups famously love to say: “Every Jew is welcome! Our doors are wide open!” But wide open to what?  Wide open to their own, individual expression of Judaism.

Limmud goes one crucial step further: It doesn’t just open its doors to all Jews, it opens its doors to all of Judaism.

It opens its doors to talmudic debate and Torah study, yes, but also to Jewish philosophy, Jewish music, Jewish poetry, Jewish mysticism, Jewish activism, Jewish nationhood, Jewish history, Jewish argument … Jewish everything. 

It challenges the assumption that Jewish identity can only come from one vessel. In that sense, Limmud is a movement of modern-day realism. It acknowledges that the religious Orthodoxy of the ghetto days — while proudly one of the flavors offered at Limmud — simply will not fly with everyone in this era of free choice.

It recognizes the human truth that when people are given freedom of choice, using that freedom makes them feel human and alive. So, Limmud offers a diverse Jewish context in which to exercise that freedom.

This makes sense: If you are honoring the freedom to pursue individual Jewish journeys, how can you not open up Judaism to its many delights?

This philosophy has major potential for Jewish communities around the world struggling to keep Jews connected to their tradition. They should recognize that every Jew is on a different journey and their best bet is to nourish those journeys.

They should also recognize that the extraordinary breadth of Judaism is a key ingredient to nourish these journeys. By broadening and enriching the Jewish menu, communities can essentially tell their fellow Jews: No matter who or where you are, there’s a Jewish journey in it for you.

Isn’t this infinitely better than having no Jewish journey at all?

For the faction of Orthodoxy who shun such pluralistic impulses, Limmud offers  a practical question: If you believe so fervently in your way, why not come to Limmud and make your case? 

In today’s wide-open world of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, ghettos are no longer the way. It’s counterproductive to be insular and dig in your heels, so you might as well join the conversation and put your best foot forward — just as Rabbis Lipman and Cherlow did so effectively at this year’s Limmud. 

If the anti-Limmud faction of British Jewry can swallow its pride, it may discover in Limmud a powerful outreach vehicle for its cherished Orthodoxy.

Of course, outreach works both ways.

So, here’s a word of caution to this anti-Limmud faction: If any of you ever decide to show up at Limmud, you might end up one day in a riveting Torah class taught by a woman rabbi from Chicago who is not Orthodox — and find yourself really enjoying it.

I’d call that a step forward for the future of Judaism.

To find out about Limmud activities in Los Angeles, please visit limmudla.org.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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