Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Take Aways From Limmud NY 2011

Although it's now been a little over 36 hours since I returned from Limmud NY, I think mentally I am still very much at the conference. The experience definitely has given me pause to think about some issues of critical Jewish importance to me and I'd like to share them to give an idea of the impact Limmud can have on people.

One thing I have been focusing is the role of Halachah and halakhic texts in my life. I definitely partook, at least as an observer, in things this past weekend that I don't think actually who is interested in keeping halachah would consider halachically permissible. This includes attend the pseudo-Reform service with instruments played by the Kosher Gospel on Friday night, and the Jewish Renewal service Shabbat morning with drums and a siddur that feminized tefillot such as brachot and the Shema and included prayers to Asherah (essentially a foreign god). My rationale for attending these things was that as long as I did not actively participate in them, that since the instruments and such were going to be played whether or not I was there, I wasn't actively engaging in any sort of chilul Shabbat.

This, of course, assumes that the very playing of instruments on Shabbat is forbidden. But where does that idea come from? A scanning of Google results for "musical instruments Shabbat" indicates that the main concern is that an instruments could break and a person thus be tempted to fix it. This idea occurs in Beitzah 36b and somewhere around Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 338 or so, as well as a few other places. Now, one could dismiss this and say that this is only an issue if an instrument actually breaks (and even then I wouldn't be doing the fixing) so therefore it's OK to go ahead and play. But for me this speaks to a more fundamental issue of my relationship to halacha and halachik texts. What is the role of the Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, and other such texts to my life and halakhic observance? When do I choose to follow them, and when do I choose to ignore them, and why? Do I value the overall life enjoyment I get out of these things over their halachic value? I have also been mulling over that question in regards to other behaviors that are traditionally seen as banned by halacha, including the quintessential dilemmas of egalitarian tefillah and mixed dancing, both I which I participated in abundance at Limmud and thoroughly enjoyed. In terms of egalitarianism-well, that's a thoroughly complex issue I won't cover here. In terms of mixed dancing, my Googling shows me that in the Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 21:1, mixed dancing is assur becuase it leads to touching, promiscuous thoughts, and more. There is, I believe, some truth to that statement, but I also feel that my life is lacking something if I don't take part in these sort of things. The Sunday night dance party at Limmud was alot of fun, even if I haven't the slightest idea how to dance. Yet my much frummer roommate stayed in the room and watched Sportscenter, and seeing him do so made me feel like he was choosing a much more inhibited way of living. But does this make me someone who picks and chooses my halakhic observance? Am I abandoning part of some concrete package? And is that necessarily a bad thing?

An experience yesterday gave me even more food for thought on the question of what value observing halachah has for me, of how important it should be for me. Yesterday morning, I went to the most beautiful davening I think I have ever been to, at Kehilat Romemu. Romemu is New York's Renewal congregation. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, given the rather trippy experience I had the previous Shabbat at the Renewal service at Limmud NY. But 5 minutes in, I felt I was experiencing something truly beautiful-a word I neither use lightly nor often. It's hard to describe, but it felt so incredibly different from any minyan I had ever been to before. People felt so happy to be there, weren't in a rush to finish or go anywhere-it felt FUN! I've never been to any tefillah before that really felt FUN. I don't even know how I can go back to a regular minyan after something like this.

Now, my wonderful experience at Romemu again raises the specter of how much I should care about halachah. Romemu clearly violates normative halachah-instruments and electricity are used. But the end result is something so beautiful that it's hard to imagine denying it to myself. And yet I feel so torn-something so celebratory of Shabbat, that comes out of something violating Shabbat. Then there is the fact I am benefiting from what I consider other Jews violating Shabbat, though I myself am not doing so.

There are other things that I've been contemplating, though not as much, in terms of halachik observance coming out of Limmud NY 2011. Among them are egalitarianism and mixed dancing. These are complicated issues that I feel that I have essentially solved by deciding how I feel about them rather than what various halakhic sources have to say. But it comes back to the same issue-how much do I care about what those sources have to say? Why can't I just live as I please? After all, it is very clear in the 21st century that one can live a far from halakhic life and still be deeply connected to Jewish life in a variety of ways. That is, in a sense, what Limmud is all about-connecting Jews of all types to Jewish life and community, and trying to turn that into a permanent community that exists outside the purview of one 4-day conference per year. It's about celebrating the diversity of Jewish life that exists.

Looks like I'll be struggling with this tension for awhile, maybe even the rest of my life. More to come on this later on.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Limmud NY 2011!

Got back last night from the annual Limmud NY conference in upstate New York, specifically at the Hudson Valley Resort & Spa in Kerhonkson, NY. For the uninitiated, Limmud is essentially a giant Jewish learning conference which in recent years has become a global phenomena. It began in the UK 30 years ago, allegedly as something for Jews there to do between Christmas and New Year's, but actually as a conference of British Jewish educators. Limmud UK is now the largest and most extensive conference, running for a full week on a college campus somewhere outside London and attracting 3,000 people annually. More can be found out about the Limmud phenomena on Wikipedia or at New York version was started in 2005 and there are about 700 attendees. A volunteer ethos is something that is prevalent at all Limmuds-the conferences, which now exist in some 50+ locations across 6 continents, are almost entirely volunteer-run, often having no paid staff: Limmud NY has, I believe, 1 or 2 paid staff, aside from those who staff Camp Limmud (see below). Everything else, from the marketing, to the fundraising, to organizing every aspect of the conference, to presenting and teaching, is done on a volunteer basis.

My experiences at the 2 Limmuds I have been to-2010 was my first conference-were quite different, but this has more to do with my involvement with the conference than the actual conference itself. In 2010, I was employed to be a counselor in Camp Limmud, the program run to give children of attendees something to do while there parents are at conference sessions. I also spearheaded the tzedakah campaign and did some other volunteer work. Basically, I spent the Sunday and Monday of last year's Limmud running around like a maniac and didn't get to really experience Limmud-I went to something like 2 or 3 sessions in all.

So, this year, I decided to do the total opposite and do very little in terms in volunteering and allow myself freedom in terms of being able to do whatever I want at Limmud. The result was that I had a great time and brought back alot with me to process. I'll give some examples of the things I experienced and the sort of things Limmud has me thinking about:

-For tefillah on Friday night, I went to a service run by a traveling group called "Joshua Nelson and the Kosher Gospel Singers." Admittedly, it was not what I would consider the most halakhic of tefillot-they used selections from a Reform siddur and played instruments on Shabbat. So I brought along my trusts Koren siddur and davened to myself, joining in when I could. But how often do you get to see 4 African-American Jews performing traditional songs in the style of Motown and Gospel music? Limmud is, after all, about expanding your boundaries and experiencing something new, and this was certainly out of the ordinary-and fun!

-Shabbat morning, I went to the Jewish Renewal tefillah. Renewal is a music-based type of davening that was started by Rabbi Zalmon Shachter-Shalomi in the 60s (I think). In Manhattan, there is a congregation called Romemu which is a Renewal congregation. In 2010 I went to the Romemu davening on Friday night and really enjoyed it; it's musical, intergrates meditation and some other outside-the-box stuff, and is, again, something different from your usual Friday night tefillah. The Rabbi of Romemu is this really awesome and fascinating guy, Rabbi David Ingber. Rabbi Ingber has been all over the map in terms of Jewish observance, from Modern Orthodox, to Haredi, to not being Jewish, and is now a Renewal rabbi. I want to pick his brain more about his thoughts on why be observant, theology, and other issues of Jewish life that interest me/drive me intellectually nuts. Anyways, returning to 2011, I decided to check out the Shabbat morning Renewal service because it was, like the Kosher Gospel, something different. And different it was indeed. It wasn't exactly my cup of tea, but I am glad I tried it and I think Renewal congregations can vary widely in the way they do things, so this particular service may not necesarilly be indicative of other Renewal services. In this particular case, the service was run by Rabbi Jill Hammer and a drummer named Shoshana Jedwab. It was cool to have a drummer, but certainly things didn't really click with me, such as the ultra-feminist Siddur that rewrote the Shema into feminine language and other such things. Still, it was worth trying out and I was glad to have had expanded my borders as such.

-Shabbat afternoon I attended what may have been my favorite session, an open forum on theological issues, faciliated by Rabbi Marc Wolf (CEO of JTS and a member of my hometown shul). It was essentially a place to people to just things that they struggled with theologically, and, this being Limmud, drew a wide range of people and ideas, from those with strong faith, to the Jewish educator who is an atheist, and plenty of confused folk like me in between. While nothing was answered, alot of interesting questions were provoked, and all of us agreed that these kind of conversations on theology need to happen more in Jewish circles.

-The communal Havadallah was truly great. A few hundred people gathered in one room, people of all ages holding Havadallah candles, singing an especially poignant rendering of Debbie Friedman (z''l)'s beautiful Havdallah melody in light of her passing just 6 days before-a very touching moment. And then tons of people made their way to the front of the room and starting dancing while Jewish musicians played traditional songs and niggunim-tons of fun just dancing in circles with people, many of them total strangers but in a way united in a common purpose of building an open Jewish community.

-Motzaei Shabbat was a very moving tribute session to Debbie Friedman. Individuals who had known her personally spoke not only of the impact of her music but of the woman herself. Myself, I had never realized quite the impact she had on Jewish music and liturgy. I was familar with her Mi Shebeirach and her Havdallah tune, both of which are widely used. But I never knew that she had really changed the world of Jewish music in a transformative way, and that her music touched the lives of untold numbers of Jews. It was very moving to see the impact she had on people, based on the comments made at the tribute.

-Limmud NY had alot of singing and dancing. Following the Variety Show/Closing Event on Sunday night was more dancing, and then a dance party w/ DJ playing techno music that went until 2 in the morning. OK, so I have no idea to dance, but who cares-neither did most of the other people there (who, after all, are Jews). I felt totally fine moving around like a fool until I was too sore to continue. Now, I do find myself questioning somewhat the halakhic legitimacy of some of these things, but I really can't imagine reneging on something such as mixed dancing; I feel that to do so would make life far too boring and doctrinairre and make me feel like a prisoner of halachah. After all, these were some of my favorite moments of the conference; why would I take them away from myself? Simply because the Shulchan Aruch, written in a far less egalitarian society than our own, says so?

-Finally, yesterday I attended not one, not two, but three presentations of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who is among other things the founding Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side (and next to Yeshivat Hadar); Chief Rabbi of the West Bank community of Efrat; and founder of Yeshivat HaMivtar, Midreshet Lindenbaum, and a whole bunch of other Torah-study institutions. He spoke on 3 different things-the possibility of Israeli/Palestinian co-existence; theology after Auschwitz; and where Israel has gone wrong and what can be to fix it. For the first one, he told some very beautiful stories of local cooperation between the people of Efrat and the neighboring Arab villages and said that there is hope but that Palestinian leadership-which he described as "evil incarnate" (he used the same phrase for Hitler, which I thing is bizarre to equate the two). For the second, he veered somewhat off topic and told some more stories, which was fine because he's an incredible storyteller. For the final session, he says that Israel as a society has veered away from the Tanakh and it's moral message, which I thought was rather simplistic, though I suspect there is more and he just didn't have time to flesh it out. I will say that I was impressed with Rabbi Riskin-he is a great storyteller and has an amazing ability to hold an audience practically in a trance. I have to research more into his positions on Israeli-Palestinian things but he seems to genuinely believe in the importance and possibility of co-existence.

Well, I hope this gives a sense of the diversity and fun that goes on at Limmud NY and if anyone has questions about Limmud feel free to contact me. I will be posting later on about some of the issues the conference has me thinking about in its aftermath but for now I just wanted to give a sense of what Limmud is like and why I enjoyed it so much. I totally encourage everyone to go, if only just to experience it and see what it is like to be part of such a vibrant and pluralistic community, even if only for a few days.