February 21, 2008
LimmudLA: Chance encounters, many choices
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Religion, Silver begins, creates a sense of connectedness and gives meaning to a life that might otherwise be vulnerable to despair. If you are connected to God, who is connected to the entire universe, you feel connected to the totality of all things.
Now, this may be Philosophy of Religion 101, but Silver's elegantly constructed articulation went straight to my soul.
The next step for Silver, as an atheist, is achieving a similar level of connectedness without having to rely on the existence of a supernatural being that defies human logic -- something I, too, constantly struggle with. As a Jew, Silver connects to our shared history and culture and bonds with the rest of the world through a commitment to creating a just world for all. His reliance on tikkun olam rang a little hollow for me, but what worked was his description of how the rituals, narrative and calendar of Judaism can have meaning even without God. When he prays, for example, he is expressing his spirituality by singing with other people -- not by believing he is talking to God. He prefaces a blessing with "as our ancestors said," transforming it from a religious act to homage to his history.
Ironically -- and Silver and I talked about this later, and he wasn't displeased -- he sold me more on the idea of why having a God concept works than he did on the need to eject God from the formula.
What stuck with me most, and what would stick with me the rest of the conference, was this new way of delving deeper into an idea I thought I had down a long time ago -- the idea of connectedness.
Saturday, 10:50 a.m.
Ezra, my 9 year old, runs up to me, looking frantic, with more to say than the "Hi Mommy, bye Mommy," I've been getting since he and his friends established dominion over the hotel corridors.
"Mommy, Mommy, are we going to Limmud next year?"
"I don't know yet. We just got here. Why? Do you want to?"
"Uh, ye-ah," he answers me, as if it's the dumbest question he's ever heard.
In a flash, he's gone again.
Saturday, 11 a.m.
For the rest of the day, I keep coming back to the idea of connectedness -- my connection vertically through time, my connection horizontally to Jews everywhere. So that when Clive Lawton, one of the founders of the first Limmud in England, masterfully tells of Abraham's evolution in relationship to God, I feel connected to Abraham, to God and to Clive Lawton. With long silver hair and a British accent, Lawton evokes Gandalf the Wizard from Lord of the Rings, a part he serves well among this crowd of Limmud devotees.
Later in the day, I explore the Leviticus holiness code with Deborah Lipstadt, Holocaust professor at Emory University. In a session on the Mishnaic sages Hillel and Shammai's approach to education, Avraham Infeld, former president of International Hillel, doesn't so much teach the texts as guide us in unpacking them ourselves.
I am bleary-eyed by the end of Shabbat, but satisfied. I owned my choices.
A fear that I am missing something awesome still lingers, however, since about a dozen things are offered at once. There is an interesting psychology to this over-scheduling approach: It engenders a frantic need to get the most out of everything, because by making one choice you are giving up other equally good choices. You can't help feeling there is so much more to learn.
It also fosters connection. At the LimmudLA Cafe and in the corridors, there is one question always floating around: "So, what did you go to, and how was it?"
Saturday, 6:35 p.m.
In a chilly courtyard, drummers beat on their bongos to get the attention of the millers and schmoozers, and the guitarists begin to strum out a melody. Soon, everyone is focused, and Yehuda Solomon of the band Moshav begins Havdalah to mark the end of Shabbat. A kid holds up a multi-wicked candle, and sprigs of rosemary are passed around -- a bright light and a sweet scent to usher in our new week. When Solomon transitions into Debbie Friedman's ya-na-na Havdalah melody, everyone's arms find the shoulders of whoever is next to them. As I am pulled by swaying to either side of me, I close my eyes. That doesn't stop the tears from welling as I hear and feel everyone -- for the first time since LimmudLA started -- standing in the same place, doing the same thing, at the same time.
The kids lead us in "Eliyahu Hanavi," which they practiced all day with Solomon, and the emotion of the moment swells into ecstasy. Soon we're all singing and dancing -- the Chasid from Jerusalem, the kid with the gelled-up Mohawk, the tunic-clad vegans with nose rings and the suit-wearing lawyers.
This, I think, is what Mitchell Silver meant this morning when he talked about connectedness. It doesn't matter if it is because of God or because of people. This is a religious moment.
Saturday, 11:57 p.m.
The Peter Himmelman concert has just ended. His bluesy rock and his relentless wit as he riffed on the Limmudness of it all tapped right into the moment. He waxed sarcastic about the dignity of all, the liberal egalitarian social justice tikkun olam stuff. He prefaced half his songs with a winking, "This next one derives from a kabbalistic idea ..."
But where was everyone? There weren't more than 50 people in the large ballroom.
It was one of a few instances where LimmudLA fell victim to its own enthusiastic over-scheduling.
Peter Himmelman was preceded by alternative pop-rocker Jill Sobule and Mystic Sideshow, the alter ego of Robby Helperin of the Simcha Orchestra and Spotlight Music. While the concert was going on -- and it started and ended late -- the Israeli-Palestinian comedy troupe was performing, there was also ballroom dancing, a talk about Israel on campus, three films, a Chasidic Melave Malka sing-along and the bar and the cafe were open.