In last week’s episode of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”, comedy correspondent Jessica Williams called for a return to Purim’s historical traditions, as she blasted the poor taste of Orthodox New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who dressed up as a black man on Purim. The African-American comedian’s display of detailed and esoteric expertise in halakha and Purim was over the top - and hilarious. This impressive display of knowledge that came - I assume - from the Jewish writers of the Daily Show reflected a recent renaissance in Jewish culture.
I had the opportunity this month to experience this renaissance firsthand when I attended the Limmud New York conference. Over four days, 800 Jews gathered in a New Jersey conference center to study Torah and Judaism. All types of Jews were represented with one strong common denominator: a desire to learn. While presenting an early morning “Daf Yomi” session, I was impressed to find in attendance non-Orthodox participants who are involved in this seven-year cycle of daily Talmud study, as well as several people who had never seen a page of Talmud in their lives.
The safe and respectful space that was created at the Limmud conference allowed people with conflicting perspectives to share opinions on highly controversial topics in a positive and constructive environment. Such a delicate balance of community and diversity is not easy to strike or maintain. It reminded me of the “Yarchei Kallah”, the months of learning in Talmudic times when an entire region of Babylon would gather in the large cities for intensive study. Upon considering how those events were crucial for creating the unique intellectual culture and discourse of Talmudic Babylon, I wondered to what extent Limmud New York affects the local Jewish community.
Israel, of course, was featured in many presentations, as participants expressed their sincere interest in our land and state. Much of the conversation centered on the issues of women at the Western Wall, peace, kashrut, shul and a Jewish state. With a paternal tone, the American Jewish community spoke of the possibility of a pluralistic Jewish identity in the Jewish state, and the recent election results - including the much lauded inauguration speech of new Yesh Atid MK Dr. Ruth Calderon. It was clear the Jewish- American community assumes some credit for the recent trend of “hitchadshut yehudit” (Jewish renewal) in Israel. In many ways, this new trend of open minded and edgy Jewish practice is an American import to Israel - Limmud Jerusalem is new, and it is no coincidence that the Women of the Wall are still largely Anglo.
There is a role reversal here, is it not from Zion that the Torah will emerge? I believe and hope that Israel should function as the cultural center of the Jewish people, yet high political stakes continue to hold us back. As an Orthodox rabbi I feel grateful to those who demand a broad re-engagement of Jewish identity and Torah study. Despite the strong differences I may hold with many of those voices, I know it is good for the Jews. I look forward to the day when popular Israeli comedies are as saturated in our cultural heritage as The Daily Show with John Stewart.
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.