It's that festive time of year again. The whole extended family comes together. Everyones in a good mood. There are gifts aplenty on offer. And everybody celebrates their common culture and religiosity. Yes, Merry Limmud everyone.
Limmud has grown dramatically from its modest beginnings, now attracting close to 3,000 people from across the globe. Moreover, it has spawned numerous other Limmuds, becoming, according to a 2011 study, “an international movement comprising annual events in more than 50 locations worldwide, reaching over 30,000 individuals per year.”
It’s not for everyone — that same research showed that one in five left feeling unsatisfied — but I confess to being a fan. There is something invigorating about being somewhere where Jewish learning and debate happen around the clock, facilitated by outstanding educators and anyone else who wants to contribute. There is not much quality control, no halachic or academic bar that one has to reach to be entitled to teach, but that’s part of its charm. And the choices are vast — from a Talmud shiur to Chanukah origami, and everything in between. It’s Judaism your way, whatever way that is.
Of course, because of this, Limmud has had its critics over the years. It has been accused of deliberately blurring the distinction between Orthodox and Progressive Judaism as part of its “pluralist agenda”, or of providing respectability to defamers of Israel by giving them a platform as part of the organisation’s “politically correct” world-view.
Some have quickly dismissed all such criticism as prejudiced and anachronistic. But, at the heart of this critique, is a profoundly important question about the future of Judaism itself. The religious and political conservatives maintain that, in the contemporary world, Judaism needs to shield itself from external forces that could do it harm. We are surrounded by radical liberalism, they say, where everything is relative, established laws are broken and existing walls torn down. Judaism, in contrast, is comprised of certainties, distinctions, laws to live by and boundaries to respect. Liberal, enlightened ideas, argue the conservatives, threaten the very essence of what Judaism has always been.
Religious and political progressives beg to differ. They argue that Judaism is an evolving tradition — the idea that it has an enduring authentic form is not borne out by historical scrutiny. It has always borrowed from wider cultures, absorbing new ideas as it amended halachic rulings to respond to new realities. Rather than shutting ourselves off from the forces that surround us, say the progressives, we need to open ourselves up to new possibilities that could transform Judaism to become fit for purpose today.
Which one of these positions ultimately wins out will have a major bearing on what Judaism looks like in the future. The decisions we take either to open ourselves up to alternatives or to close ourselves off from them will create different types of Jews and Jewishness. And anyone who knows with absolute certainty which of these options will serve us better over time is probably wrong. That’s why I like Limmud. Because, while the conservatives typically locate Limmud in the progressive camp, there are many Jews who put it in the conservative one.
Actually, Limmud is both conservative and progressive. It creates a closed, collective environment where Jews are everywhere, Shabbat and kashrut are observed, and Jewishness and Judaism are essentially the only topics of conversation. You don’t get much more frum than that. Yet, at the same time, it’s a strikingly individualised space, where everyone can choose for him- or herself what he or she wants to learn, with whom and how, without anyone telling them that there is only one way to live a full and authentic Jewish life.
We need that today. We live in a world marked by rising populism and fundamentalism, where social media often serves as an echo chamber for our existing views. Having a brief opportunity, for a few days a year, to experience Jewishness in all its diversity, without judgment or prejudice, and to have our assumptions tested and challenged, is an important antidote to that. Limmud simultaneously closes us off and opens us up, giving us the responsibility to figure out who we could and should be as Jews when we leave.
In an uncertain and volatile world, that’s something to celebrate.
Jonathan Boyd is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research