Leave your agenda at home: Limmud in Jerusalem

Limmud Jerusalem is about opening up to the possibility of connecting with those different from ourselves, and maybe even learning something new

In a city where it is impossible to begin to count the yeshivot, seminaries, centers and institutes dedicated to Jewish learning, is there need for more? Do we really yet another Jewish learning event in Jerusalem?

Limmud, which began 31 years ago in England, is coming this Thursday to Jerusalem.

And, honestly, I am excited.

Limmud, now truly international, taking place in over 60 communities worldwide, has garnered praise from its devotees as well as the volunteers that make it possible. David Hazony, who admits that he drank the Limmud “kool-ade” last winter at the University of Warwick in England — we shared a pitcher — calls the experience a “revolution.” Such a revolution may be needed as much in Jerusalem as anywhere.

Or, maybe even more so.

Today, institutions of Jewish learning often promote strife, dissent and exclusion, not the openness and innovation upon which the Jewish tradition depends. Not only Jerusalem, but the broader Jewish world sometimes seems torn apart by the struggle between different visions of Judaism. Limmud, however, enacts something different, where the ideological struggle between different “camps” is acknowledged to be outdated and no longer useful, certainly not reflecting the complex reality of hybrid commitments in which Jews – regardless of their affiliations, even in Jerusalem – live today.

Visions, ideologies and egotism don’t survive the chaotic energies of Limmud. Those who come to Limmud this Thursday to promote their institutions, their new books, or just themselves, and hoping to brandish their affiliations on their name-tags, will be disappointed. There are no “rabbis” or “presidents” or “professors” at Limmud. It’s first name basis only, so you never know with whom you will be talking over coffee between the myriad presentations on offer, or late at night at the bar, discovering unexpected connections. You may be surprised that it’s someone you had always wanted to meet, or perhaps as likely, someone with whom you had never thought to get along. So Limmud’s only unwritten principle is that principles do not get in the way of what it is: a forum for encounters and conversation. Limmud is the anti-agenda Jewish experience — you check it, with your title, at the door.

Leaving you agenda behind means feeling secure enough in your beliefs to learn something new. Some, especially in Jerusalem — on both the left and the right — are fearful of that possibility, as they continue the suspicious and co-dependent dance of defensiveness and de-legitimization. The best conversations I had in England — with Jews from across the spectrum — were fruitful, thought-provoking, suggestive, not because one of us thought that we were going to convince the other to abandon their beliefs, but because in our disagreement we were able to learn from one another. Limmud runs on the premise — one that the sages of the Talmud also embraced — that you can only learn from someone who has a different perspective from your own.

The conflicts that get in the way of the conversation and innovation that Limmud cultivates go back a long way. So the period of mourning from the last day of Passover to Lag B’Omer — during which many refrain from hair cuts, listening to music and getting married — commemorates the death of the students of the sage Rabbi Akiva, 24,000 of them. The best and brightest of the generation somehow forgot that engaging with the Jewish tradition was not a matter of turf battles, about defensively pursuing one’s own agenda, or of coercion that masquerades as teaching.

So, we might imagine Rabbi Akiva, who, after the death of his students has ceased, reads the verse in Leviticus “and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself,” and then declares: “this is a great principle of the Torah!” The antidote for the hatred that killed off a generation is an end to selfishness and the recognition and love of one’s fellow Jew.

Lag B’Omer is a day, especially in Jeursalem, of festivity, bonfires, and music, but this year, at Limmud, a day of learning as well, to enact Rabbi Akiva’s principle of love. In doing so, we may cultivate what Jerusalem and Israel need more of today: public spaces where one is free to take risks, exchange perspectives and ideas, encounter difference without fear – opening up to the possibility, even as we maintain our affiliations, of connecting with those different from ourselves, and maybe even learning something new.

About the Author
William Kolbrener is professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University in Israel. An international expert on the Renaissance on England, he has written and edited books on John Milton and Mary Astell. His Open Minded Torah: Of Irony: Fundamentalism and Love was published by Continuum in 2011; his The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition is forthcoming from Indiana University Press in September