'Where were you for Christmas?'
Limmud belongs to its participants and volunteers. It has nothing fixed and no institutions. Hence it can offer the Jewish seeker a place of meaning and encounter.
There are questions that we don't ask here in Israel. For example, "Where were you for Christmas?" And there are replies that we don't give here even if we're talking about an ordinary holiday, for example, "We went off to study Judaism." But in England, they ask that question and give that reply, too. They study Judaism on Christmas.
Thousands of Jews from England and many other places converge on Warwick University, during the Christmas vacation, for a festival of Jewish study, both intellectual and experiential. It's called "Limmud" (Hebrew for "study").
Limmud began in the mid-1980s, when several young British Jews, tired of the atrophying of Jewish spirit and spirituality in the United Kingdom, decided to organize a weekend of study. With time, this private initiative, first aimed at educators and Jewish activists, expanded.
Last month, some 2,500 people participanted in Limmud, and it has developed into an amazing international movement of study and friendship, and mainly of Jewish identity and identification. Such gatherings take place now in Russia, Turkey, North America, Latvia, South Africa and elsewhere - all according to similar principles. The organization is based entirely on volunteers and is open to everyone; it is simple materially, but very rich spiritually.
The subject of sessions at British Limmud ranged from Jewish documentary films to the involvement of Jews in Darfur, to the future of Zionism, to contemporary literature and original commentary on the Talmud, the Aggadah and the Jewish ethos. Nor did presenters overlook the simple text or current events.
Such active pluralism is taking place beneath the institutional surface, on the Jewish street, and creating fascinating encounters between Reform Jews and atheists, members of Bnei Akiva and members of Habonim-Dror. A tolerance for unusual study pairs like Prof. Daniel Boyarin of Berkeley and 7-year-old Tamar Levy of Florence has forced the cumbersome religious establishments, headed by the Orthodox chief rabbinate, to turn a blind eye to Limmud - in this case, to support and encouragement. Because Jewish activists in the field are demanding something the leadership is incapable of giving: meaning without politics, study without aggressive commitment to one of the denominations, or unnecessary hostility.
The attractiveness of Limmud derives partly from our state of crisis, and partly from hope. All the major ideological systems have become bankrupt. The significant political movements of the Jewish people in the 20th century no longer exist. The settlements are of little interest and the ultra-Orthodox live in their own world. But people continue to seek meaning; they aspire to connect to substance. And because the Jewish substance is very available, it is a source of hope. Judaism seems like the most suitable culture for this global, post-modern era. It is an ancient culture that is still fresh, relevant. An ideological and behavioral infrastructure that can survive and be expressed anywhere. A world-embracing common denominator. A shared ethical language. This secret, the Jewish DNA, was deciphered by Alistair Falk, Clive Lawton and others three decades ago, and has been working ever since.
Limmud has no owners: It belongs to its participants and its volunteers. It changes with the times, it has nothing fixed and no institutions, it has no struggles for prestige and power, unless they are hidden. Hence it can offer the Jewish seeker a place of meaning and encounter.
It is hard to tell who is who among the participants. Is that girl with the skullcap Israeli, and is that guy wearing sandals English? Is Marcel with the beret, from Switzerland, speaking with Simon, from Austria, in Hebrew? Everyone meets on an intellectual and emotional platform whose main feature is an encounter between the identities of modern Judaism. Partly ancient traditions and partly New Age interpretation.
It turns out that the Babylonian Talmud was always more important than its younger and skinnier Jerusalem brother. That's how it was then, and it's even more the case today. The power is here in the ancient homeland of Israel, but the spirit and the intellect are also spread around the Jewish Diasporic universe. The body is here, the soul is there, and it's too early to eulogize the Diaspora. And only if the two cooperate can Jewish eternity continue.
I want to be a volunteer at Limmud for many years to come. But mainly I want to expose as many Israelis as possible to this fascinating process. With the prayer that anyone who experiences that spirit will return here and be a partner to attempts to revive the Israeli spirit, which is waiting for renewal. To empower the still-embryonic Jewish-learning organizations like Bina and Kolech, Oranim and Hakhel. Because the revival of Jerusalem will always begin in distant Babylon. So, more of us should have a happy Jewish study holiday. On Christmas, of course.
Avraham Burg's book "Breaking Free from the Holocaust: A New Fate for the Jews and the West" will be published in the fall by Palgrave Macmillan.