July 26, 2013 admin


Those not uninitiated into the unique culture of our youth movement Noam’s pre-Camp may be ignorant of the fact that one of the great highlight of such occasions has for many years been the ‘death match’.
I should qualify this by saying that it’s a highlight of a highlight, pre-Camp being itself a high point of the year, with over 120 young leaders studying, learning and training to be ready to run camp itself. Pre-Camp took place this year in a beautiful farm in South West Wales; on Thursday morning the sounds of the Shema meditation emerged graciously from barns and huts to the tranquil accompaniment of the lowing of cows and the twittering of swallows.
It’s not just a death match at pre-Camp; it’s a rabbinic death match. I’m ignorant of what by now faded cultural icon gave this ill-named event its lugubrious title; but I can assure you that it’s taken seriously and I’ve had the pleasure of entering (and, mercifully, leaving) the ring on several occasions. The true master however is without doubt Rabbi Joel Levy, who relishes such events, which I have also come to enjoy. Round the rabbinic table (what other death match has pens and note-paper provided?) the entire pre-Camp eagerly gathers.
What did we fight about? Actually we didn’t decide until about two hours beforehand. (Are many battles like that?) But someone said, ‘We’ve been discussing why Judaism needs so many obscure and complex texts. It’s an issue around here’. So we took it as our theme.
The motion was that ‘Too many texts are crushing the spirit out of Judaism’. Devil’s advocate, I proposed it. I won’t tell you what I said just in case anyone ends up believing it, but I feel I managed to rise to the occasion and present half-truths and distortions with tolerable eloquence. Maybe everyone needs the opportunity to be a hypocrite now and then.
No, said Rabbi Joel, sacred text is the key constant through all the vagaries of Jewish history. It is the true core of our culture, and Judaism has developed beautiful and sophisticated ways of re-interpreting it. Yes, its study demands knowledge and dedication. But isn’t that discipline a good thing? And shouldn’t it be a matter of basic pride to learn to read the texts of our own tradition!
The rules of the death match are that after the first round anyone can tap either speaker on the shoulder, take their chair and argue their position. That’s the real beauty of it at pre-Camp, powerful argument with tens of young people giving their opinions. The queue grew at either side of the table, but the queue to argue for our sacred texts was longer and its speakers drew greater applause. Our texts are our democracy. Recourse to our sacred writings is the arbiter in Judaism, not autocracy or power. Our texts are endlessly engaging; here you find every colour of opinion. Here we debate our values as equals. Through our texts we find our spirituality. We must own our texts, not leave the right to interpret to others. ‘Don’t choose ignorance’, pleaded Rabbi Daniella, ‘Go and learn!’
We ended with a short debrief. I didn’t want anybody to be under the illusion that I’d meant what I’d said. This was an argument I was happy to lose in style.
Afterwards half a dozen young leaders in their twenties gathered enthusiastically around Rabbis Daniella, Joel and I: ‘How can we create more opportunities to learn? How could we mentor teenagers who struggle with it all?’ They won’t go unanswered!
After the death-match, this is new life. It’s exciting for the future and for us all. Come learn!

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