Where will we go once the synagogues are gone?
In a Jewish religious landscape dominated by denominations struggling to compete for dollars and daveners, the idea that the three big faith streams might fade into irrelevance, supplanted by a robust “just Jewish” identity, sounds like a fantasy.
But what if it turned out that the demise of synagogue-based life is actually just around the bend — that a new generation of Members of the Tribe, enervated by treacly litanies and tired Talmudic classification, may soon figure out that the greatest sources of Jewish spiritual inspiration, intellectual growth and artistic expression (I lump them together and so can you) might come not from pulpit-pounders and the familiar rituals they command, nor even from the plaque-plagued schools that teach the cantors to cant, the professors to profess and the rabbis to rab — but from somewhere else entirely?
What if something came along that threatened to permanently dislodge the federations and foundations, with their fetes and fiscal décolletage, as the bookends holding up our sense of collective self, and put the core of Jewish identity back where it was always meant to be — in direct engagement with content?
I’m talking about Limmud.
Before I take another step, a disclaimer: In exchange for my giving four talks and participating in two panels over the weeklong Limmud conference in Coventry, United Kingdom, this past December, the folks who ran it were kind enough to fly me there and give me a bed to sleep in. But I’ve had far more lucrative speaking engagements and never once wrote about them afterward. Indeed, I was on such a high when Limmud finished on December 29 that I decided to wait a bit before writing, just to make sure the Kool-Aid had passed through my system.
For those of you permanently stationed in Antarctica, Limmud is an annual multi-day conference of Jewish learning. Since it started in the U.K. three decades ago, it has spread to communities around the world. But the British Limmud Conference remains the original, the biggest and — in my view — the most threatening to established Jewish life.
A few numbers: more than 2,500 participants; 400 presenters, including some of the most influential scholars, journalists, rabbis, artists and institutional leaders in Israel and the Diaspora; 1,000 different sessions. As one of the organizers told me, you can meet someone the first day and literally not see that person again until the closing event. Every hour of every day, if you are not presenting, you’ll need to make the impossible choice among at least two or three simultaneous sessions (out of about 20) that you have defined as must-see, or spend an hour chatting with some extremely interesting people you’ve always wanted to meet. For someone who doesn’t boggle easy, it was boggling — and enchanting.
There are a few unstated principles that make Limmud glow. One is that the mind and the spirit, the body and the soul, are one. Social, religious and intellectual stimuli are mixed inseparably. In addition to the classes going on, there is a cavernous, cacophonous central commons filled with hundreds of chairs and tables and couches for the never-ending conversations that Limmud triggers. During the day, coffee and cookies and live jazz flow freely. At night, beer on tap and harder stuff transform it into an English pub. (Still later at night, they bring out the kosher burgers as, well, a kind of exclamation point on the whole day.) This rejection of the Platonic separation of mind, spirit and body applies to the sessions, as well, which range from panels to lectures to seminars to performances to workshops. You can attend a session on “Aikido and the Talmud,” on Israel’s “cottage cheese rebellion” or on heavier questions of prayer, Zionism, philosophy, demography, dance or poetry. Or just join some people hanging out with a guitar and lighting Hanukkah candles.