Borderline Views: A Jewish marketplace of ideas

Starting from a small grassroots learning experience, Limmud has grown into an annual celebration of the Jewish thirst for knowledge and debate.

Limmud backpack 311 (photo credit: Jerrold Bennett)
Limmud backpack 311
(photo credit: Jerrold Bennett)
It’s Limmud time of year again. The Anglo-Jewish annual festival of popular learning when more than 2,000 people come together on a university campus, while the rest of the country is celebrating Christmas and the new year, spending their entire time – from early morning until well beyond midnight – engaged in study, discussion and other Jewish related activities has come round again.
Ranging from the study of Jewish texts to debates about Israeli politics, from music to cookery and from community histories to philosophical debates about the meaning of (Jewish) life, it is an intense and vibrant week of a sort which could never have been imagined in the Anglo-Jewish community 25- 30 years ago.
But this year is special. It is Limmud’s 30th anniversary. Starting from a small, alternative grassroots learning experience, Limmud has grown into an annual celebration of the Jewish thirst for knowledge and debate. It has spread well beyond the shores of the British Isles, with branches taking place in almost every country where there is a significant Jewish community, with the exception of Israel, where it never seems to have taken off in the same way.
Limmud is a success story of Jewish pluralism. It is not a place for people whose views of the Jewish world are narrow and exclusive, or who are not prepared to listen to views with which they do not normally agree. The local Orthodox community has refrained from taking part, although this has not prevented hundreds of Orthodox individuals from participating or, for that matter, other Orthodox religious leaders and teachers from Israel and North America. It has, in the past, been accused of being too progressive and liberal in its outlook on Israel and the Jewish world, although in recent years the organizers, nearly all of whom are volunteers, have strived to create a greater balance in the speakers invited and the views expressed.
Striking the right balance between serious study sessions and the “feel good about being Jewish” experiences is never easy in such a diverse marketplace. Many of my academic colleagues will not come to give lectures because it is not “serious” enough, and those who do have to adapt themselves to a reality where the students are not seeking grades or reading learned papers in preparation, but have come to learn simply for the sake of selfenrichment.
It is a balance of two traditional Jewish approaches, the hassidic approach with its emphasis on emotion and feelings, and the Lithuanian approach with its focus on in-depth study and intellectualism.
With the exception of a few invitees, almost anyone who wants to make a presentation is enabled to do so, transforming much of the learning experience into a grassroots, bottom-up participation for presenters as much as audience.
The huge cost of putting on the Limmud experience has also meant that from being totally independent of the Jewish establishment there has been increased sponsorship and funding from some organizations, most notably the Jewish Agency and the UJIA. This may, in turn, have influenced the greater focus on topics such as Israel, Jewish identity, Diaspora-Israel relations and anti-Semitism – the social and the political – at the expense of history, theology and texts.
The range of opinions expressed remains as diverse as ever, and the fact that the audiences are all prepared to listen and debate in a civilized and polite atmosphere, rather than automatically trying to delegitimize the other, is itself a remarkable success story for such a large gathering of Jews.
MANY FELLOW Israelis whom I have encountered at Limmud over the years have expressed their amazement at this form of educational pluralism, bemoaning the fact that such an exchange of views, ideas and experiences could not take place in Israel. The past decade has witnessed a significant growth in Jewish learning experiences here, but these tend to focus on specific groups who have an interest in widening their knowledge, but do not necessarily appeal to the diversity of groups in one place at one time.
For Limmud, diversity is the norm rather than the exception, and it does not waste time on introspection around the questions of “what are we doing here together” and “how do we dialogue across the divide” for which Israeli discussion groups are so famous – and unfortunately often tedious and repetitive.
Pluralism is also reflected in Jewish ritual and observance. Participants can choose between an Orthodox, a Masorti, an egalitarian or a progressive service (or no service at all) held in adjacent rooms, will come together for Kiddush or havdala and, most importantly, will respect the rights of their fellow participants to observe their own ritual in whatever way they see fit.
It is interesting that one of the groups which has become so identified globally with Jewish identity and attachment, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, is never to be seen at Limmud, when one would have thought that this is a perfect place for its outreach activities. It is not only because of the reticence of the haredi community to take part, but because Limmud offers an alternative to Jewish identity and attachment which competes with the Chabad worldview. In a Limmud-type atmosphere Chabad emissaries would really have to explain what they are about, often to a highly informed and intelligent audience, rather than have the monopoly of views in a place where knowledge is close to zero.
It is a welcome break, albeit for no more than a few days, from the intensity of a university faculty, where education is increasingly measured in terms of examinations, objectives, bureaucracy, budgets, efficiency, quotas and degree certificates. People who come to Limmud pay a lot of money, in their own free time, and don’t walk away with any form of certificate or salary increment for having attended. It is a place where the titles of professor, rabbi, judge or doctor are put aside and life at the campus of Warwick University in Coventry becomes totally egalitarian.
It is unlikely that most of us could live like that all year round, but for that one week every year it helps recharge the batteries and to rekindle faith in the essential belief that we are all knowledge seekers and that there is no greater Jewish experience than study for the sake of study and self-enrichment.
In Pirkei Avot, a person is meant to have reached an age of strength at 30, but only reaches a sense of understanding at 40. So an appropriate anniversary greeting to Limmud is simply to hang in there, because in another 10 years, you will begin to appreciate what all this learning is about. It’s a long process, but a worthwhile one.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University and a regular participant and lecturer at the Limmud conference.