Why Israel Needs Limmud

Having experienced several Limmud community events as a participant presenter, Dr. Samuel Lebens offers his opinion as to why Israel needs Limmud:

Israel is host to a toxic mix between religion and politics. We have an Orthodox rabbinate, completely dominated at its highest levels by the ultra-Orthodox, who are in charge of administering all state-recognised Jewish weddings, burials and conversions. The selection of Chief Rabbis is a highly political process, and the separation between synagogue and state is sometimes very hard to discern.

This toxic cocktail ensures that even the smallest religious gesture can be infused with potent political significance. Do you wear a skull-cap? What size is it? Do you wear a skirt? How long is it? All of these questions allude to a hidden language of political connotations and associations.

It is no wonder that a secular Israeli friend of mine reported that he doesn’t feel comfortable in any sort of synagogue, because he instantly feels judged. The space doesn’t belong to him, and he is viewed with suspicion by those to whom it does belong. At least, this is how he feels.

On the other hand, Israel is home to some of the most exciting Jewish conversations and institutions in the world. Whatever denomination you might belong to, Israel is sure to have, if not the best, then, one of the best centres of learning in the world for you. Israel even boasts secular and non-denominational Yeshivot (seminaries). New synagogues spring up all the time as Jews from all over the world gather to find new ways, and to rediscover old ways, of expressing their Judaism.

But, one of the many obstacles in the way of an Israeli-led, global renaissance of Jewish thought and spiritual expression is the fact that the political climate in Israel makes the doors of any one of these religious (or even secular) institutions imposing and forbidding. If I go there, what will people think of me? What sort of statement does it make to be seen in such a place? I’ve been living in Israel for 3 years, but I often have to go to a Limmud overseas in order to meet inspiring Israeli educators from different walks of life to my own!

In short, Israel needs Limmud.

Limmud events, at their best, provide a neutral space. My talking to a Reform rabbi at a Limmud event doesn’t mean that I agree with the Reform movement on any particular point. I’m just having a conversation! The Reform rabbi’s talking to me doesn’t imply that he or she is coming round to Orthodoxy. We’re just having a conversation!

And what’s more, because the space isn’t owned by any particular group, nor secretly harbouring any other agenda than a love for Jews engaging with their own Jewish journey, my secular friend can feel as at home as anyone else. To the unaffiliated Israeli Jew, the doors of Limmud are neither imposing nor forbidding.

Israel already boasts a number of Limmud events around the country. Israel has the Jews; Israel has the amazing educators and facilitators; it just needs more safe spaces for fruitful conversations.

Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.

courtesy Limmud International