Picture the scene today. It is a cold, icy winter morning. It is the holiday season between Christmas and the new year when most of the inhabitants of the British isles are tucked away in their beds, with little intention of getting up before midday. Silence is the order of the day. But in one place, on a university campus on the outskirts of Warwick in the center of England, there is action. People are eating a quick breakfast in a university refectory and are scurrying off to lectures that begin at 8 a.m. and that will continue unabated until almost midnight.
And despite this early, cold, uninviting hour, most of the lecture halls are full with people who have decided to spend the Christmas week in a program of intense, voluntary study. There will be classes on almost every possible topic relating to Jewish culture, religion, history and literature, as well as discussions and lectures on anti-Semitism, Israel, liturgy, prayer - just think of a topic and it is there. There will also be films, evening events, concerts and, for those who wish, an entire weekend Shabbat program prior to the commencement of the main conference.
This is Limmud, an annual week of learning and study which, during the past 15 years, has become the jewel in the crown of European Jewry. Some 2,000-3,000 people register (at no small expense) for the entire week, leaving the comfort of their suburban homes in London and Manchester, to stay in the student dormitories and to devote themselves to an intensive period of self study. This year the demand was so great that the entire university accommodation was booked well in advance and they had to turn people away.
The audience is a diverse one - ranging from teenagers and students to pensioners, from beginners to rabbis, judges and professors - but there are no titles at Limmud. You attend as an individual and unless you are one of the people actually giving a lecture, you are no more or less important than the person who is sitting on the chair next to you in the auditorium or dining hall.
I HAVE been fortunate enough to have attended Limmud four times during the past decade and to give a series of lectures. But for me, like most of the other lecturers I have spoken to, the joy of being at Limmud is what we do when we are not teaching. It is a rare opportunity to leave our professional world and work tensions behind us and to spend the rest of the day listening to anything from the history of English cantorial music to new textual interpretations of prayer to the world of Jewish sports participants. It is a self-learning experience par excellence, with no exams or grades at the end of the day; it is study for the sake of study and for no other purpose.
Limmud is something I could never have envisaged when I left the UK for Israel almost 30 years ago. But it has taken off from its small beginnings and has become transformed into one of the global Jewish experiences. The reason for Limmud's huge success is that it remains independent of the community establishment and official organizations. It does receive some institutional funding, but the major costs are covered by the participation fees and the fact that, with a few exceptions, Limmud is organized on an entirely voluntary basis. The moment one Limmud finishes, the next year's group is up and working, devoting many hours to organizing the event.
And Limmud is about as inclusive as any Jewish event can be. There are religious and secular participants, right-wing and left-wing proponents of Israel, members of established communities as well as those for whom Limmud is their only encounter with other Jewish groups.
THE SINGLE exception to this is the self-imposed ban on the part of the haredi community. The previous head of the London Beth Din, Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, came out against Limmud because of the fact that many of the topics and lectures implicitly gave recognition to alternative streams of Judaism. Despite the fact that all the food is strictly kosher and that there are daily prayer services and minyanim of every possible variety - or perhaps because of that - Limmud was declared to be too pluralistic, and, implicitly, heretical, in its outlook.
But most mainstream Orthodox members of these communities do attend Limmud, in blatant opposition to the opinions of their rabbis, while some of the more independent-minded rabbis also attend and give lectures. At the end of the day, it is the Orthodox rabbis in the UK who lose out. They would have the opportunity of engaging with audiences who never set foot in an Orthodox synagogue, teaching and discussing their values and beliefs to people for whom Orthodoxy may be anathema. Many Orthodox rabbis and teachers from North America and Israel do participate, and their sessions are always well attended by a diverse and engaged audience.
Limmud has also become international. In recent years, similar conferences have been organized in almost every part of the globe where there are significant Jewish communities. But the one place where it has been tried but never really taken off is in Israel. While many Israelis attend the annual event in the UK, their subsequent attempts to create similar meetings here have met with only limited success.
The idea that so many different people, professing so many different affiliations and attachments to Judaism and the Jewish world, could sit in one place and politely listen to each other, exchange views and learn from each other seems to go against Israel's non-pluralistic norm. Or perhaps it is the mistaken attitude that we in Israel don't have anything to learn about Judaism and Jewish ideas from the Diaspora. But ask any of the Israeli teachers, rabbis and professors who attend Limmud and they will all tell you what an exhilarating and refreshing experience it is.
This is an area in which we here have much to learn from our partners in the Diaspora. Where we have failed to create a widespread platform for debate about Jewish culture and values, to listen to each other, learn from each other and to explicitly recognize the immense pluralism of the Jewish world, Limmud has succeeded.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.