It is the Limmud time of year. The Christmas and New Year week on a cold, rainy, windswept campus in the middle of England, a time when most people in this country are sheltered in the warmth and comfort of their homes, are the sort of location and weather which would make many normal people almost suicidal just to look at, let alone venture into. But not here at the University of Warwick, located in the nondescript Midlands city of Coventry. Five hundred people have just experienced the warmth and uniqueness of a Limmud Shabbat, to be joined by a further 2,000 to 3,000 people during the week, who come from all parts of the UK and from around the world to take part in the Limmud learning festival and to share a unique experience of authentic Jewish multiculturalism.
Much has been written about the uniqueness and success of Limmud over the years. It is the ultimate Jewish learning experience. Bringing together Jews from almost all denominations and beliefs, from the secular to the religious and Orthodox, the young and old, those affiliated to Jewish organizations and synagogues, along with those who bear no formal affiliation. Hundreds of presenters, many of them invited by the conference organizers, but many more who propose their own topics for sessions, offer just about the widest learning fare that can be imagined, covering all aspects of Jewish life, religion, ritual, history and art in a multitude of parallel sessions which are all jam-packed, with little available seating space left for latecomers.
Limmud has grown from a relatively small grassroots organization over two decades ago to a brand in its own right. The conference program has a page listing the many Limmud conferences which take place throughout the world, from South Africa to Russia and from Turkey to Latin America, all of which have copied the successful Limmud structure, and from all of which representatives come to participate in, and learn from, the mother of all Limmud meetings, the Christmas week event in the UK.
Israel too has taken on Limmud with annual events in the Aravah, Tel Aviv and soon in Jerusalem. You may have thought that the diverse learning experience which takes place, and which has grown, in Israel during the past decade would have made Limmud irrelevant for Israel. But it has proved to be popular here as well, as it offers a space where people with vastly different religious beliefs and affiliations, and with vastly different levels of knowledge can come together, either to share a common space and dialogue with each other, or simply to come and hear a view or an analysis which they would not otherwise have heard.
Limmud provides a space, a classroom, for each and every one to be heard. Whether this turns out to be a shared space, or a multitude of parallel separate spaces, depends entirely on who comes to listen to what. But new spaces and dialogues are created, through which people come to appreciate and respect, even if they do not necessarily agree with, the views and teachings of those who they would normally perceive as being the “other.”
Limmud is not a university nor is it a university replacement. The people coming to Limmud are not obligated to receive a syllabus or to read lengthy articles in advance. They do not have to sit an examination, and the presenters and lecturers do not have to give them tests or a grade at the end of their lecture or discussion session. Some of the sessions are more formal in style, while many offer a participatory experience which requires active involvement. Not every type of presentation is right for every type of participant, but there is so much going on, from eight in the morning to long past midnight every day, that there is something, and a lot more, for everyone.
It has become so successful that the envious Jewish organizations throughout the UK and the world, and especially in Israel, have tried, over the years, to move in and take control. But to Limmud’s credit, and despite the financial problems which go with putting such a huge event together, Limmud has succeeded in maintaining its total independence, which is why it has been so successful from the outset.
A lot of this credit must go to a single individual: Clive Lawton, a maverick British Jewish educator, who was one of the initiators of Limmud back in its early years and who has accompanied its development, while insisting on its unique style, during its global expansion.
There are individual funders, ranging from the Jewish Agency to the various Israeli and Jewish institutions who now pay to bring in their own speakers and presenters, to private philanthropists. But it has always been made clear that Limmud is not a place for these institutions to sell their wares or to identify potential new members and donors for their own organizations, just as they cannot determine what is or is not a legitimate topic to be discussed at the conference. There is no blackballing of speakers or topics because of their political or religious ideas. Every topic is legitimate providing it adds something to the learning experience and the desire of people from diverse Jewish backgrounds to learn from, and about, each other, and to go away enriched.
There was the time when some supporters became enraged at the Limmud invitation to journalist Robert Fisk to speak at a plenary session. But they stood firm, he came to Limmud and participated in a large, lively and polite discussion session, and Limmud was only better for having provided him with a forum in which to present his views, face some hard questioning and to provide answers, which not all of the audience necessarily found to their satisfaction.
And there was the age-old refusal of the former British chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, to come to Limmud, despite his obvious private support of this event, because of the rigid opposition by the more ultra-Orthodox, including the head of the London Beth Din, Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu. The latter perceived the presence of Orthodox rabbis at Limmud as somehow giving legitimacy to the views and organizations with whom they strongly disagree. This belied the fact that a large percentage of the participants are strictly Orthodox Jews, many of them the congregants of those same communities whose religious leaders did not attend.
The present British chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, will be attending Limmud for the second year in succession, and it is simply no longer an issue. The United Synagogue, the UK organization which controls the chief rabbinate, now sponsors sessions and speakers at Limmud (some of their rabbis still refuse to attend, however) and many of the younger, more pluralistic rabbis among their numbers have followed Mirivis’s approach and will be attending and speaking at the conference.
It was (and still is) the declining number of refusenik rabbis who are the ultimate losers, as they throw away a rare opportunity to address and teach audiences whom they would never, otherwise, have the opportunity of reaching, let alone their own congregants who have voted with their registration fees and attendance at the Limmud conference.
Even where some of the more Orthodox, such as the South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, still refuse to recognize the authentic learning experience at Limmud, they have felt the need to create alternative learning experiences which, while the diversity of the topics may be more limited, have also brought together hundreds or participants to share alternative learning experiences.
Without acknowledging it, they have partially adopted the Limmud brand, if only in opposition to it.
I attend the Limmud UK experience once every two years, and have also attended some of their other international events. As someone who is engaged throughout the year with students, lectures and classrooms, the last thing I require is another conference or another lecture invitation. But Limmud is something different. It is refreshing and invigorating to see so many people from diverse Jewish backgrounds come together during this week that I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I am able to teach and discuss, and debate, with people who want nothing more than to enrich their lives, and go back to their homes for the New Year with a “feel good” factor about being Jewish and being part of the global Jewish community, and a great deal more knowledgeable about topics of which they were previously ignorant.
As a child and a young adult growing up in England of the 1960s and 1970s, strongly affiliated with, and active in, Jewish and Zionist organizations I could never have dreamed that the UK Jewish community could have spawned the greatest contemporary Jewish learning experience, which the much larger communities in Israel and North America are now copying and learning from. It is to their eternal credit and it is to be hoped that it will continue to expand, in its present format, for many years to come.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views presented are his alone.