The Limits of Learning Without Any: Reflections on Limmud 2010 by Two Orthodox YU Students

BY: David Marks and Nathaniel Jaret.

Several years ago, one of the authors of this essay was interning for a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. His boss, a recent convert to Orthodox Judaism, was known to wear his kippah in public. An elderly congressman with the home zip-code and distinct accent of a Bible-belt state once approached the two in the Capitol building and engaged them in small talk. When introduced to the congressman as a young Jewish intern, the congressman responded with levity, “I was just at the JCC in Savannah, and boy, those bagels and lox were authentically Jewish.” The lox was Jewish?

    This past winter break, we were members of the YU Center for the Jewish Future’s delegation to the annual Limmud NY conference. The conference, set in rural Kerhonkson, NY, urged its participants to “explore all the ways [they] connect to Judaism, meet new friends, reconnect with familiar ones, and savor every moment of the temporary community [they created] together.” It is the first of these aims of Limmud NY 2010, aptly subtitled “Jewish Learning Without Limits,” that we wish to explore.
    The Limmud organization, first founded in 1980 to serve Great Britain’s Jewish community, has since expanded to its current significance as an international phenomenon that assembles swarms of Jews from South Africa to Croatia, New Zealand to Israel for Jewish learning initiatives. The Limmud organization, in all of its international variegations, is non-denominational on principle, marketing itself as open to anyone interested in all forms of Jewish learning.

    The first thing that struck us at Limmud 2010 was the gross underrepresentation, both in terms of numbers and gamut, of members of the Orthodox community. The basic range of Orthodox presenters at the conference included Rabba Sara Hurwitz on one end of the spectrum, and a pair of fully costumed Karliner Hasidim on the other end, with very little in between. Even the presentations of YU’s very own Professor Aaron Koller, YU’s delegated scholar of choice and one of the few Modern Orthodox presenters at the conference, would probably have irked the more yeshivish in our ranks, to say the very least. Mainstream Orthodoxy secured a rather small voice and presence at Limmud NY 2010, giving off the impression that a) she is minimally interested in engaging the greater Jewish world, and b) is unable to do so, even if she so desired, due to the constraints of deed and dogma. While most of the students in the YU delegation were not made substantially uncomfortable by their implicit categorization at the conference, the chasm between the Orthodox and everyone else remained silently obvious.
    The Limmud conference truly lived up to its subtitle. Many fascinating and informative lectures, including “How to Make Israel Relevant to the Next Generation,” “Grappling With Difficult Texts,” “From Memory to History – and Back Again: On Making Meaning of the Jewish Past,” and “It’s All Greek to Me – Praying in Languages Other than Hebrew,” were, at least in our eyes, both relevant and consistent with the textual thrust of historic Jewish culture. Many other lectures, such as “Mechitza Musings,” “Torah: Torn Between Truth and Tradition,” and “I Will Be What I Will Be – Gender and Judaism,” reflected the gamut of contemporary Jewish sentiments, including ones that are un-Orthodox or non-halakhic. This second grouping, at the very least, addressed questions of Jewish belonging, ritual, and creed in a direct manner. If not working from Orthodox presuppositions, the lectures in this second group at least engaged those presuppositions in dialogue. But all of the above presentations seem exceedingly humdrum when compared to some of the other, more exotic offerings. Presentations with titles ranging from “Can Aliens Be Jews?” to “Anti-Fascist Sing Along! Stickin’ it to the Man, Set to Music” to “Davening La Vida Loca” to “Kabbalah Yoga” (this last one was offered four times, with a “Shabbat Yoga” variation) truly befuddled the textually-trained sentiments of certainly the Orthodox, and probably the Conservative, “post-denominational,” and egalitarian-inclined participants of Limmud 2010 as well. But should they have?

    This begs another question. Has any Jew in history, much less the classic figures of Kaballah, even heard the word “yoga,” much less embraced its principles, before yoga’s establishment as a widespread cultural fad in Western society? Can any of these aforementioned presentations be considered viable and legitimate expressions of Jewish identity, or are they rather, as both authors suspect, viable and legitimate expressions of identity, which only happen to have been made “Jewish?”
    Jews, like all other humans, do many things. Jews are accountants and poets (usually in this order). Jews travel to New Zealand and Peru. Jews enjoy mojitos and cabana chairs, hot cocoa and skiing trips. Jews suffer from cysts and hemorrhoids, Vitamin D deficiencies and malignant tumors, and rejoice at a weddings and football games. Can one’s malignant tumor be Jewish? Most would agree not. Was the congressman’s lox authentically Jewish? The answer becomes more nebulous. Is a riveting Carlebach niggun truly Jewish, or must we, after recognizing its musical roots as probably influenced by contemporary musical directions and not Levitical melodies, relegate it to the Goy-bin?

    Limmud 2010, at least for us, represented a concentrated dose, a microcosmic representation, of what might be called – and this phrase is no doubt hackneyed – a “Jewish identity crisis.” In specifically the American tossed salad of cultures where one’s own cultural heritage is put on equal standing with all others, it is perfectly understandable that any given culture should undergo a process of dilution. In the case of Judaism however, where in the past century, all of its creeds and most of its deeds have been called into question and were often abandoned, this process of dilution has in effect been an attempt to caulk the gaping holes left by the absence of traditional Halakhic Judaism. The Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) left Jewish society groping for answers, and those answers have been found, it seems, in anything at all. Anti-Fascist chants included.

    American Jewry today is precariously caught between the demands of a society that emphatically embraces pure individualism (“What does this mean to me?”) and (varying levels of) adherence to a religion that historically enjoins religious and ritual cohesion, leaving the spectrum of contemporary Judaism struggling for a concretized expression of identity.    

    Is the former approach to Judaism, seemingly a-historical in its divorce from texts and estrangement from the primary thrust of covenantal Judaism, entirely devoid of real meaning? Both authors of this article would argue not. The centrality of searching and sifting for Jewish identity which thoroughly permeated the air at Limmud 2010, irrespective of the particulars of that quest, is something that both authors view as uplifting and reassuring—revealing, if only tangentially, a wisp of hope for the Jewish future.
    Admittedly, from our Orthodox perspective, the contemporary Jewish reality that Limmud brought into relief for us cannot be viewed as any sort of final end goal. True, a marginal Jew participating in Shabbat Yoga is better than that Jew never having heard of Shabbat, but we cannot wish in good faith that a downward-dog Lekha Dodi represent the final stage in expanding Jewish practice. Rather, it must be seen as keeping Judaism alive (if on dialysis) enough today to create the possibility of a more traditionally observant tomorrow. The very fact that anything and everything can be posed as an expression of one’s Judaism should serve as a vivid reminder that Judaism, though fundamentally altered from its historic form, is still a concept and a sentiment that Jews worldwide are attempting to hang onto, despite the jagged tear that the Enlightenment has ripped in the fabric of Jewish practice. That in and of itself is something we can appreciate.


David Marks is a junior at YC majoring in Psychology and Jewish History.


Nathaniel Jaret is a junior at YC majoring in English Literature and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.