From Limmud to Lapid (Jerusalem Post)

LimmudIf 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.Limmud-Moshe Feiglin

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.

Limmud-OfirWhat 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.Limmud-Lapid

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.

Ruth Limmud-CalderonUnlike 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.

About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

17 Comments on "From Limmud to Lapid (Jerusalem Post)"

  • Mel Aranoff says

    As perfect a piece as can be. Kol hakavod.

  • Moshe Werthan says

    I totally agree with the theme of your article. I do have one question: “How many Jews do not attend Limmud because they cannot afford it?” I am sure, as you say, that many just don’t care, but for many the financial burden and time commitment may just be too much with all of the other demands on their limited resources. Of course, we all set our own priorities, but our childrens’ education, our shul dues, etc.etc. are facts of life.

  • Dr. Ben Sevitch says

    What unites Jews is NOT our religion, our politics, the irrelevant distinction between religious and secular, our gender, our food, our values, or anything else, for that matter. No, what unites Jews is the way that non-Jews view us. It, more than anything else, explains both Zionism and the State of Israel, neither of which are essential conditions for our existence.

  • Morris Goodman says

    What a beautiful, beautiful statement. I usually disagree with you on the politics-but on the cultural/religious issues you are spot-on. Todah rabbah

  • Jonathan Mohrer says

    כן יהי רצון

  • Great piece.

  • Mordechai Silverstein says

    יפה אמרת!

  • John Segall says

    Thank you for the uplifting article. It was a refreshing change to read something positive. Perhaps there’s hope yet. A little less self destruction would be a good thing.

  • Michele Lax says

    I loved this piece. Before the election I was so distressed by your email in which you expressed the opinion that the two state solution was dead. It seemed as though you lost hope, but hope and faith is what we can never loose if we want to survive. This article gave me so much hope and it was a thrill to Ruth Calderon’s speech and Ofir Ben Shitrit performance! Bravo! Todah Raba

  • Geela Naiman says

    Moshe Werthan, I understand what you are saying about the financial commitment, it made me think I could not go as well . Limmud (at least Limmud NY) has financial aid. It is clearly posted on their website and easy to request on the Limmud application. I was only able to go — and have a wonderful time! — because of financial aid. (Thank you Limmud NY!)

  • Moishe (Thomas) Goldstein Toronto, Canada says

    Hope – indispensible to our world.

    יישר כחך, Daniel.

  • Thank you for such an insightful post.

    One small note. Apparently, according the Education Ministry’s guidelines, a school cannot suspend a pupil for singing on television. Therefore, Ben-Shitrit’s parents “agreed” to a self-imposed “suspension” for 2-weeks.

    Joel Katz

  • TomSolomon says

    I (nearly) agree wholeheartedly. I believe it is every Jews obligation to struggle with their Judaism; not ignore it or leave it to the Orthodox to carry the burdens of mitzvot.
    Regarding singing on the Voice, I am vaguely familiar with it because my kids watch it. I am uncomfortable with an ostensibly religious/observant person participating, regardless of gender, because of the shows total disregard for tznuit. There seems to be no expression of sexuality that is prohibited or even in bad taste.

  • Jennifer Read says

    I have frequently found myself reluctantly disagreeing with your views, but this column I love. I hope that the events and people you describe are indeed a harbinger of things to come.

  • Yosef says

    It looks like you have a lot of fans and I suppose someone who might disagree with your article may be not in favour, but I feel that one aspect of ‘unity’ is completely missing. Torah is the only true unifier of Jews. The fact that many Jewish people feel that they are above Torah and G-d (for that matter) and do whatever their hearts desire, does not in any way change the infinite nature of Torah, which says ‘Lo Taturu Acharei Levavchem V’Acharei Eineichem.’ There were only two times in history where we were truly unified like one person with one heart; At Har Sinai and in Persia (Kimu V’Kiblu). The fact that you have Dov Lipman’s and the like trying to bring down the true lovers of Torah and consider themselves so learned does not change the fact that G-d gives us Israel and everything else only for the privilege to learn Torah. Any move or law that reduces the Torah learning in Israel only weakens us as a nation. Let the Jews Learn and G-d will protect us.

  • Tal Meiri says

    Thank you for this piece.
    As a fellow Limmudnik and future Oleh, I found myself similarly conflicted by the lack of any Limmud-like attitude in Israel.
    Power and policy that are top-down are not conducive to ‘the conversation,’ which is why it needs to start with the individuals, the families, and the institutions that are willing to push some boundaries. That will undoubtedly be met with resistance, but growth comes with struggle, and the promise of a more open, connected, and communicative nation – homeland – is certainly worth it.

  • albert nekimken says

    It would have been helpful to explain what “Limmud” is. I had never heard of it and, after reading the column, I still have only a vague idea of what it might be.

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