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February 8, 2012

The uncontested challenge and opportunity of Limmud

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/the_uncontested_challenge_and_opportunity_of_limmud_20120208

I am a child of a mixed marriage.  I was raised in a completely secular environment. My discovery of Judaism has been an ongoing revelation over many decades. I studied for more than 12 years in yeshivot and spent many years studying secular philosophy.  The more I study, the more I realize that Judaism is greater than I ever imagined. In truth, I believe that many Jews, whether non-religious, Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, including myself, do not know how much more Judaism has to offer. It still has scaffoldings, and many more building blocks can be added, shifted and restructured. Shabath, the dietary laws, its moral teachings and so much more suggest a world of sublime ideas that we have not even begun to grapple with yet.   

And so I love to come to Limmud. I just returned from Limmud in England, the birthplace of this everything-Jewish conference/festival. This year, more than 2,500 men and women participated for a full week in Limmud, where every day there were hundreds of lectures, panels, music and cabaret performances, all with a Jewish or Israeli theme.  Limmud is by now the greatest happening in the Jewish world. It has branches all over the world, and every year more and more countries join. I will be teaching at LimmudLA Feb. 17-19 at the Costa Mesa Hilton, as the Southern California conference convenes for its fifth year, and I will be going to Limmud in Germany, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

Over the years I have taught in many of its conventions, and every time it is an utter delight. It is the place where I get challenged, where I hear new things (including some utterly delightful nonsense), where I can fall in love with my fellow Jews, laugh and cry with them, and share my commitment to and struggles with Judaism. 

Limmud offers me the whole Jewish world in a microcosm. I hear about the death of God, the real Jesus, the rhetoric in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Jewish power of satire, kosher gospel, homosexuality and more.  As the dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, the main purpose of which is to suggest radical new ways to think about and practice “Orthodox” Judaism, I need to know what is happening in the larger Jewish world — all the struggles, the differences of opinion, the paradoxes and the pain of many of my fellow Jews who don’t fit into an easily definable box but still love being part of our great endeavor. I am confronted daily with the accusation that Judaism has stagnated, that it is terribly dogmatic, that it no longer advances bold ideas, that it offers little to the many young Jews who are looking for more spiritual lives. And, sadly, I agree. Judaism today is far too dedicated to defensive self-preservation — and to propping up sacred cows that need to be slaughtered before it is able to rediscover itself again.

The irony is that the teachings and practices that comprise Judaism were designed to avoid just such a scenario. Jewish law was originally never codified; Jewish beliefs never dogmatized but open-ended. Opposing opinions were the life force in the Talmud. In our age of human autonomy and intellectual freedom and creativity, this is of the greatest importance.

I ask myself:  Can I reformulate or, more accurately, can I help to revitalize Judaism so that it will once again represent a vibrant way of living, without letting go of what I believe are its fundamentals? I think I can, but I need Limmud to help me to hear the voices of all these searching, struggling souls.

And so I love to sit on panels where representatives of other denominations will argue with me about topics such as the divinity of the Torah, or whether halachah has still any purpose, or whether we should sanctify mixed marriages. No doubt I am able to learn a lot from their teachers while they, hopefully, will learn from me. Great controversies are great emancipators.

I want Judaism to be what it really always used to be: a tradition where ideas can be tested, discussed, thought through, reformulated and even rejected, with the understanding that no final conclusions have ever been reached, could be reached or should be reached. Matters of faith should stay fluid, not static. I want my fellow Jews to fall in love with halachah, authentic Jewish law. Not defensive halachah as developed in the Diaspora — in which we had to make sure that we would survive among a non-Jewish environment that included strong anti-Semitic overtones —  but prophetic halachah, in which the great universalistic values of Judaism become key players. After all, halachah is the practical upshot of living by unfinalized beliefs while staying in theological suspense. Only thus can Judaism avoid becoming paralyzed by its awe of a rigid tradition or, conversely, evaporate into a utopian reverie.

As Baruch Spinoza might have said: All noble things are as great as they are rare.

For more information or to register for LimmudLA, visit limmudla.org.

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