November 15, 2013 admin


Limmud, the word means simply ‘study’ or ‘learning’, probably deserves more credit than any other organisation for the revitalisation of British Jewry over the last twenty years. It is also a wonderful export, reaching Istanbul, Colorado, the Galilee, and now even the pages of the Jewish Tribune. Limmud is a marvellous celebration of Jewish life and learning. It facilitates every form of Jewish expression, or almost; it puts its stamp of exclusive approval on none, except to include them loosely within the complex, contradictory, and inspiring currents of contemporary Jewish life.
I’ve kept out of the debate concerning the Chief Rabbi’s decision to attend. There are two obvious reasons. I don’t think I represent a useful ally for him, though when I next see him I will certainly tell him how warmly I respect his stance. Secondly, it’s hard for me to wax lyrical about how courageous it is not to refuse to talk to people like me. But patiently to face out criticism from within one’s own community, criticism which may be intellectually unfounded but which is nonetheless liable to creep under one’s skin and hurt, – that does indeed represent not just courage but strength of character, conviction and, I imagine, a gift for equanimity. I am glad Rabbi Mirvis is coming to Limmud; though I don’t think this should completely over-shadow the efforts and achievements of those who have worked for decades, almost all as volunteers, to inspire and fashion what Limmud has become, from patient helpers at the long queues for lunch (also a test of character) to teachers, musicians, and those who come promptly to the aid of incompetent presenters who can’t get their own Power Points to work.
Many from within Orthodox Judaism have come to Rabbi Mirvis’s defence. It’s always chastening to recall, if tempted from the outside to think that other peoples’ arguments are out-of-touch or petty, that few of us don’t have our own absurd contretemps. They are usually about fear, power or insecurity. To stand above them is easier said than done.
More important is the reference made to the dictum ‘These and also these are the words of the living God’. With this conciliatory sentence the Talmud determines that the views of both the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai are to be validated. Wherever the final legal decision may lie, both Schools are credited with the sincere endeavour to understand God’s will. The Talmud itself may therefore be hailed as ‘pluralist’, a constant discord of competing arguments united by the respect for the search for truth through Torah. It’s a great model for Limmud.
Actually, I’m not sure how embracing the ‘pluralism’ of the Talmud really is. There aren’t many women’s voices for a start. Also, it’s well known, and they themselves admit it, that the scholars had little respect for the unlettered. Sometimes I wonder if ‘These and also these’ is little more than the equivalent of the concession by a university don that, though a Cambridge degree is to be preferred, a good 2:1 from Oxford might also be acceptable.
But the sentence itself is remarkable. What are the ‘words of the living God’? In the first instance, they include the expression of all those who with heart, soul, mind and conscience sincerely try to apprehend the sacred and what it demands of us on earth. The labels attached to such persons mean almost nothing; the integrity of their quest is everything.
Where are the words, where is the voice of the ‘living God’ right now? In the pleas for help from the Philippines; in the streets in our world similar to those which made Isaiah proclaim two and a half thousand years ago that piety was vapid unless it fed the hungry and freed the bound, – the trafficked child, the woman sold into the power of thugs; in what Hans Jonas called ‘The outcry of mute things’, those forms of life which do not have the power of articulate speech and which in so many places our civilisation torments and kills.
In my view, anyone who sensitises us more deeply to these ‘words of the living God’ and helps us change our lives accordingly has a place at Limmud.

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