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Thursday 24 January 2008

Where were you for Christmas, Avraham Burg

Where were you for Christmas
By Avraham Burg

There are questions that we don't ask here in Israel. For example,
"Where were you for Christmas?" And there are replies that we don't give
here even if we're talking about an ordinary holiday, for example, "We
went off to study Judaism." But in England, they ask that question and
give that reply, too. They study Judaism on Christmas.

Thousands of Jews from England and many other places converge on Warwick
University, during the Christmas vacation, for a festival of Jewish
study, both intellectual and experiential. It's called "Limmud" (Hebrew
for "study").

Limmud began in the mid-1980s, when several young British Jews, tired of
the atrophying of Jewish spirit and spirituality in the United Kingdom,
decided to organize a weekend of study. With time, this private
initiative, first aimed at educators and Jewish activists, expanded.

Last month, some 2,500 people participated in Limmud, and it has
developed into an amazing international movement of study and
friendship, and mainly of Jewish identity and identification. Such
gatherings take place now in Russia, Turkey, North America, Latvia,
South Africa and elsewhere - all according to similar principles. The
organization is based entirely on volunteers and is open to everyone; it
is simple materially, but very rich spiritually.

The subject of sessions at British Limmud ranged from Jewish documentary
films to the involvement of Jews in Darfur, to the future of Zionism, to
contemporary literature and original commentary on the Talmud, the
Aggadah and the Jewish ethos. Nor did presenters overlook the simple
text or current events.

Such active pluralism is taking place beneath the institutional surface,
on the Jewish street, and creating fascinating encounters between Reform
Jews and atheists, members of Bnei Akiva and members of Habonim-Dror. A
tolerance for unusual study pairs like Prof. Daniel Boyarin of Berkeley
and 7-year-old Tamar Levy of Florence has forced the cumbersome
religious establishments, headed by the Orthodox chief rabbinate, to
turn a blind eye to Limmud - in this case, to support and encouragement.
Because Jewish activists in the field are demanding something the
leadership is incapable of giving: meaning without politics, study
without aggressive commitment to one of the denominations, or
unnecessary hostility.

The attractiveness of Limmud derives partly from our state of crisis,
and partly from hope. All the major ideological systems have become
bankrupt. The significant political movements of the Jewish people in
the 20th century no longer exist. The settlements are of little interest
and the ultra-Orthodox live in their own world. But people continue to
seek meaning; they aspire to connect to substance. And because the
Jewish substance is very available, it is a source of hope. Judaism
seems like the most suitable culture for this global, post-modern era.
It is an ancient culture that is still fresh, relevant. An ideological
and behavioral infrastructure that can survive and be expressed
anywhere. A world-embracing common denominator. A shared ethical
language. This secret, the Jewish DNA, was deciphered by Alistair Falk,
Clive Lawton and others three decades ago, and has been working ever since.

Limmud has no owners: It belongs to its participants and its volunteers. It
changes with the times, it has nothing fixed and no institutions, it has
no struggles for prestige and power, unless they are hidden. Hence it
can offer the Jewish seeker a place of meaning and encounter.

It is hard to tell who is who among the participants. Is that girl with
the skullcap Israeli, and is that guy wearing sandals English? Is Marcel
with the beret, from Switzerland, speaking with Simon, from Austria, in
Hebrew? Everyone meets on an intellectual and emotional platform whose
main feature is an encounter between the identities of modern Judaism.
Partly ancient traditions and partly New Age interpretation.

It turns out that the Babylonian Talmud was always more important than
its younger and skinnier Jerusalem brother. That's how it was then, and
it's even more the case today. The power is here in the ancient homeland
of Israel, but the spirit and the intellect are also spread around the
Jewish Diasporic universe. The body is here, the soul is there, and it's
too early to eulogize the Diaspora. And only if the two cooperate can
Jewish eternity continue.

I want to be a volunteer at Limmud for many years to come. But mainly I
want to expose as many Israelis as possible to this fascinating process.
With the prayer that anyone who experiences that spirit will return here
and be a partner to attempts to revive the Israeli spirit, which is
waiting for renewal. To empower the still-embryonic Jewish-learning
organizations like Bina and Kolech, Oranim and Hakhel. Because the
revival of Jerusalem will always begin in distant Babylon. So, more of
us should have a happy Jewish study holiday. On Christmas, of course.

Avraham Burg's book "Breaking Free from the Holocaust: A New Fate for
the Jews and the West" will be published in the fall by Palgrave Macmillan.


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