January 16, 2012 admin

The joy of argument

Hava amina’, ‘La kashya’, ‘Veha icca lemiphrach’, – I love all these crazy, wonderful-sounding phrases. They all come from the Talmud: ‘I might have thought’; ‘There’s no contradiction here’; ‘that argument can be broken apart’. But my favourite of all is‘inni’ – ‘Is it really so’, which is invariably followed by a demonstration that it isn’t, though the alternative is never the whole truth either. In short, we as a people love to disagree, and this discourse of theory and rebuttal, proposition and doubt, of shouting each other down, but then faithfully recording the very words with which a moment before we so vehemently disagreed, is the very stuff of Judaism’s greatest text – so long, of course, as it is all for the sake of Heaven! God, we’re even told, enjoys it too. 

In just one day in America I’ve seen two wonderful examples of this culture (I’m here as a guest of Limmud New York and promise to report back fully on whether it’s as good as – it can’t possibly be better than – Limmud UK. I also promise to try to import any really good ideas I come across.)

The first example comes from the community of Agudath Israel in Caldwell, with which we’ve had a warm relationship for many years. They too have just completed their new building; it is of course bigger than ours – but we’re equally buzzing with life and have more olive trees in our courtyard (and a smaller deficit with the bank). But right now I’m thinking of their amazing library, to which one couple have recently donated five thousand books, all carefully researched and organised. It has wifi too, and people are already seeing it as a comfortable centre for research and study. Our Bet Midrash, our house of study, is going to be like that too! We’ll fill it not only with more wonderful books, but even more importantly with people, all of us, young and old, studying what we love most about our Judaism, from cook books to Talmud and from ‘Paddington goes to Shul’ to Bachya ibn Pekuda’d ‘Duties of the Heart’.

Then I visited Mechon Hadar for the first time, that amazing Bet Midrash, open, pluralist, non-dogmatic, egalitarian, full of committed young people devoting a year or more to the study of Torah at the most serious level. Within minutes I was engaged; one couldn’t help but be lifted by a sense of energy, by the feeling that engaging with these texts was vital, engrossing, a matter for great passion, fun. A sentence carved into the glass in the window read: ‘Tradition isn’t just what you receive from others’; here were people thoroughly enjoying making it their own. The core group attend from 7.30 in the morning till 9.00 at night; they even have their own cook to keep them in the building. I tasted the tofu and rice; –  – the debate about whether you’d rather live in a country which has both a Chanukkiah and a Christmas tree in the public square, or which bans them both in order to be scrupulously fair was better.

My point is that this is Judaism, this is Torah – this learning, this debate, this constant persistence of the opposing point of view, this openness to ideas, this affirmation of the value of the other, this assertion that everything matters, every word, every moment, every opinion, every person.

The more, the more joy and energy we find in it, the better!

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