If Limmud is so fascinating, why do I usually find myself leaving it with such mixed emotions? What is it about this multi-denominational, volunteer-led, creative out-of- the-box experience that renders me so conflicted, whether I attend it in Nottingham or New York, Los Angeles or (later this year) Australia? The answer actually has nothing to do with Limmud, and everything to do with the country to which I return when I depart it.
Limmud is one of those places where the silos come tumbling down, where the whole point is to encounter Jews who are very much unlike us, and with that encounter, to accept and even embrace the discomfort that such encounters often evoke. Limmud forces us to acknowledge that people whose Jewish lives look very different from ours are not necessarily less passionate or committed, not less open or more fundamentalist, but rather that their experiences, intellectual dispositions, spiritual needs and search for meaning sometimes just took them to places that are different from where we ended up.
At Limmud, one almost cannot but recognize that the danger lies not with those whose teaching and learning we might disagree with, but with those who do not attend, who have no interest, who don’t want to be part of the Jewish conversation. The religious and the secular, the passionate Zionists and the Israel-questioners, the Reform and the Orthodox, the deeply respectful and the unabashedly irreverent at Limmud all have much more in common with each other than they do with those who just don’t care at all. It is always, for me, a powerful dose of optimism in a Jewish world that desperately needs it, a reminder of what we could be if only we weren’t what we are.
SO WHY does Limmud usually leave me so conflicted? Because I’m invariably headed back to Israel, where the silos stand tall, where more often than not, we manage not to meet people who construct meaningful Jewish lives differently than we do, where policy is made top-down and not bottom-up, where authority is derived from politics and not from knowledge, creativity and the passion of one’s convictions.
Yet this year, somehow, as Limmud NY wound down, I had a vague but irrepressible hope that the departure might feel different. Not because Limmud has changed, but because, though we have a long way to go, the Israeli sands are shifting.
The signs are everywhere. MK Moshe Feiglin, not exactly known as a voice of political or religious moderation, has informed us that he has decided it’s not impermissible to shake hands with a woman. And he did so in the Knesset, after his inaugural Knesset speech. Could a newly pluralistic Knesset be working its magic?
Then there was the performance of 17-year-old Ofir Ben-Shitrit, a religious young woman who appeared on the reality show The Voice, with a voice so beautiful and a soul so pure that no one who heard her was unaffected. The secular judges were no less moved when she sang an Andalusian religious song than when she sang a modern Israeli love song. And the reactions? The crowd loved her, but her school suspended her for singing in front of men.
What that did, of course, was make Ben-Shitrit an even greater sensation. Power, the school officials learned the hard way, comes in many forms. And it’s not always top-down.
And bigger than even Feiglin and Ben-Shitrit is the impact thatYair Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, is having on Israeli discourse, even before a government has been formed. Lapid, the secular Jew not disconnected from Jewish life, who’s found meaning in a Reform shul, has a haredi rabbi (Dov Lipman) as part of his team in the Knesset.
The very same Lapid gave a lecture to haredi students at Kiryat Ono College, telling them, “You won.” Because they are so numerous, such an economic power, so significant in Israeli politics, Lapid told them, they no longer have the luxury of thinking of themselves as marginalized. But with the end of marginalization, he challenged them, should come the end of fear.
“I understand that you don’t want your children to play with my children on the playground,” he said, “and I try hard not to be insulted by that. But can we not find a way to at least be able to live next door to each other?” And should he and his children defend the state, when they and their children don’t, he wanted to know.
Watch the YouTube video and look at the audience. They were listening. They were uncomfortable, but not angry. They were challenged. At long last, Israel is having a conversation. It may be slow, but the silos are cracking.
AND THEN there was the inaugural Knesset speech by Ruth Calderon, also from Lapid’s party, who had the audacity to teach a Talmudic text. It’s her right, of course. She’s got a PhD in Talmud from the Hebrew University. But she’s not part of the religious camp.
Yet, she says instructively, it’s her book, too. It’s her tradition. It’s her music. It’s her voice. And she’s not about to relinquish it to anyone else.
So with class and with grace, this non-religious woman taught a Talmudic text to the Knesset, which includes many men who have studied Talmud for years but had never heard a woman teach a single line of it. That YouTube video, as of this writing, has 150,000 views. Watch it. See the men listening, and some of them squirming uncomfortably in their seats. Witness a new conversation emerging.
And don’t miss Calderon’s line about equal sharing of the burden applying not only to military service, but to the study of Torah as well. Her point, even if unspoken? If Israel is going to survive, it needs a strong military. The haredim can’t leave the defense of the state to secular Jews just because they don’t feel like serving. But if Israel is going to be a Jewish state, then it can’t be only the religious who know something about Judaism, whose conversations are framed by encounters with the Jewish canon. If the draft needs to be universal, so does the study of Jewish tradition. So she opened a Talmud and began to teach.
Unlike in the case of Ben-Shitrit’s school, no one can suspend Calderon. But that didn’t stop certain elements from trying. The haredi publication Kikar Hashabbat (Shabbat Square), which published its editorial about Calderon under a URL containing the words “the generation of the smartphone” (whatever that was supposed to mean), understood the threat.
“They do not want to erase the Torah of Israel,” the article stated. “They do not want us to be a nation like all the other nations…. They want Talmud for everyone, and therein lies the danger.” Suddenly the enemy is the one who doesn’t hate the Jewish tradition, but loves it.
They’re right to be worried. As are the principals of Ben-Shitrit’s school, and all those others who prefer life in silos. For with any luck, all of this is no mere blip on the screen. With any luck, the winds of change are finally beginning to blow.