A radical approach to Jewish learning — I’m hooked

If I didn’t have a full-time job, I’d be a Limmud junkie. I’d ditch the apartment and fly around the world shnorring my way into Limmud conferences, those marvelous, intense, multiday gatherings where hundreds, sometimes thousands, of folks spend night and day teaching and learning and singing and eating all things Jewish.

The two days I spent in Pacific Grove at the inaugural Limmud Bay Area, held over Presidents Day weekend, cemented my passion for the project, which got its start 32 years ago in the U.K. and has since spread from London to Berlin to Odessa to, yes, the wilds of the Central Coast.

First, the Asilomar conference center is no shabby place to while away the hours. As the morning mists rolled in off the Pacific, I walked past three deer and a rabbit on my way to breakfast. This is why I left New Jersey.

Here’s what happened: 300 Bay Area Jews spent 36 hours teaching each other whatever they wanted to share. Every hour brought a half-dozen offerings — Talmud, meditation, Rav Kook’s erotic poetry, gay Orthodox Jews, the Torah of the Grateful Dead, a “Fiddler on the Roof” sing-along.

Limmud is radical egalitarianism. No one gets paid. No titles or honorifics are used. Anyone can teach, and everyone learns — one-fourth of the participants  taught classes, and then spent the rest of the weekend going to others.

It’s kibbutz and yeshiva rolled into one. With deer.

Odd things happened. In one session, a woman gave me a two-dollar bill, which she explained was part of the Mussar Institute’s “week of generosity.” Mussar is a traditional Jewish practice of self-improvement via the study of positive personal characteristics.

Lesson learned: Two-dollar bills are still around.

In “People of the Link,” Estee Solomon Gray described Jewishness as a multidirectional network of links rather than the straight compilation and transmission of knowledge. What Jews gave the world, she argued, was not just the concept of one God but the notion of a two-way covenantal relationship with that God.

“We skipped the whole pyramid, hierarchy thing,” she said, referring to the evolution of the Catholic Church.

Thus, the 21st century could launch the Age of the Jew, a time when, as David Weinberger wrote in “Too Big to Know,” knowledge is understood as “not a set of works, but an infrastructure of connection.” The Jewish way of thinking could be seen as having presaged the Internet, Wikipedia, our entire interconnected reality.

“Think about these new technologies not as something foisted upon us, but as, this is our time,” she said.

Heady stuff.

In “The History of Chutzpah,” Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino — a SoCal interloper — posited that the periods of greatest Jewish creativity come not in times of plenty and peace, but after the greatest historical disconnects.

It was the destruction of the Temple that led to rabbinic Judaism, giving us the religious framework we still use.

It was the Holocaust that gave rise to the State of Israel — the central identifier for two generations of Jews — and to the “American Jewish community,” whose response to the mass destruction of European Jewry was, he said, the energetic construction of institutions that proclaimed our physical survival.

Today, Feinstein said, we’re on the cusp of another seismic shift, this one involving how we think and communicate. How will it change Judaism? How will it change our community?

I think about that a lot as the editor of j. There is no one, dominant Jewish institution that sets the tone for our local community. We have several Jewish federations surrounded by many agencies, as well as synagogues, religious schools, Jewish studies departments and new groups popping up all the time.

We have Jews who study, Jews who go to film festivals, Jews who grow gardens, Jews who write, think, raise families and visit Israel. Or not.

These myriad Jewish communities are our “community.” Old terms like “affiliated” need to be reassessed. Guilt is no longer a motivation.

Everyone can be a teacher. Everyone should be a learner.


Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].