Is there an element of the passive, consumerist role in being a Limmud participant? This week's Parashah offers an alternative view - a 'land of Wanderings'.
Five years ago, I spent a year studying Torah and Talmud at Yeshivat Hadar, an egalitarian, intensive learning institute in New York City. 5 days a week, often 7.30 in the morning until 9 in the evening, we were learning to read, act and think Jewishly for ourselves, with expert guidance. I loved it, but I occasionally struggled with life outside of the Yeshiva, like at the supermarket. My wife, Leah, and I were having people over for Friday night dinner, and wanted to make a vegetarian lasagna. After the Friday morning of learning at the Yeshiva we went to a nearby supermarket, a huge New York supermarket, that Leah and I found overwhelming.
Neither of us are experienced cooks, or accomplished shoppers. The recipe called for softened butter. I looked for the right part of the supermarket but couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for. It being the Upper West Side, I suddenly noticed, also shopping for Shabbat, a wonderful Rabbi, Steve Greenberg, who had taught me at a seminar a couple years previously. I hoped I had impressed him as a keen student, so seeing my chance to get help from a local, I approached him, and said how much I enjoyed learning from him. I then asked him where I would find the softened butter.
With the grace of a true teacher, he explained that you had to buy the butter from the fridge and soften it yourself.
I don’t thrive in supermarkets and occasionally at Limmud Conference over the years I have feared that it’s becoming a supermarket of Judaism.
I want to be clear. I love Limmud and hugely admire the way that every year volunteers give incredible love and energy to making this highlight of the Jewish calendar happen so well.
Indeed I write this while on the coach to Birmingham for Limmud, to learn for almost a week with thousands of Jews.
The conversations around me on the coach remind me how special and important Limmud is. It brings together Jews from all denominations and none, from all over the world, and of all ages, and on the whole there is excellent warmth and openness, as everyone comes together to grow and learn. In a piece here on this website I referred to it as a guiding light for European Jewry, and there are now Limmud conferences all over the world.
Yet, occasionally at Limmud I’ve wanted a little more of the participatory learning that I had at Yeshivat Hadar, learning that is close and transformative, in which you get to know a text, by paying close attention to the Hebrew and Aramaic vocabulary, and by paying close attention to your teacher and your fellow students, asking questions of the text and each other.
Sometimes at Limmud, I have felt overwhelmed, as if searching for melted butter, as I sit in a packed lecture hall, with a wonderful teacher, searching for a direct experience of Torah, and yet the context doesn’t quite allow for it - there are so many people that that teaching has to be relatively frontal, the sessions tend to be 1-off’s, and cover lots of text in just over an hour rather than patiently working through one. As I rush through the corridors of Limmud, amongst all the choice of sessions, I’m occasionally back in that huge supermarket rather than the empowering yeshiva. When people talk about the best sessions and outstanding presenters at Limmud, I hope for a culture in which we participate in the most brilliant modalities of Judaism (learning out loud, in chavrutot i.e., study-buddys), patiently, open-ended, personally and in order to act) rather than praise from afar the most brilliant minds and lecturers.
I do not want to be a consumer in Judaism but a participant.
Taking part in Judaism is a struggle. It involves, for many of us, having to engage a language that is not our first so that we can treat Torah with at least the same detailed love that we give to the books and poems we grew up with. It means asking open questions, and thinking out loud, rather than presenting or critiquing finished arguments.
How difficult is this for us adults, accomplished and quietly proud. One of my teachers, Rabbi Joel Levy, taught me that whenever he opens a page of Talmud he is reminded of how clever he is not. Joel is one of the teachers at this year’s Limmud Bet Midrash. I am delighted that it’s happening, as it has occasionally and excellently in years past, and I’m pleased to have helped organise it. Four mornings in a row, people will have two and a half hours, with a group of 10-15 people and an outstandingly empowering teacher to get to know just a couple pages of Talmud - this year we’re focusing on Chapter 8 of Tractate Sanhedrin. People will learn to read for themselves, in a nurturing and challenging environment in which they don’t need to be embarrassed. There will be three different groups, so that the Bet Midrash is perfect for anyone, from beginners to more experienced learners.
The Torah portion, Vayeshev, begins by telling us
vayeishev Yaakov b’eretz m’gurey aviv - Jacob settled in the land of the wanderings of his father.
There is something of a paradox there. The verb lashevet implies permanent dwelling, the word lagur suggests transitory wanderings.
Jacob can teach us that we grow when we embrace the struggle, when we stumble as a fully grown adult in reading a text or understanding its implications. Limmud is a wonderful guiding light in the Jewish world, a place of learning and growth, and I am delighted that it will be an even stronger light with the Limmud Bet Midrash - a place where amidst all that choice people can choose to access text texts themselves at any level, and to make mistakes.
When you make a mistake with a good teacher you tend to learn from it - over the last few year I’ve never tried to buy softened butter straight off the shelf.
Benji Stanley is the Rabbi for young adults for Reform Judaism, creating transformative learning, experiences, and community with people in their 20s and 30s. He has worked as a Rabbi or Student Rabbi at Alyth, Weybridge, Liberal Judaism, and West London Synagogue.