Printed in the Jewish Chronicle
London, United Kingdom, December 2011
Judaism is the most astonishing and daring religion the world has been blessed with. It defies all definitions and stands head and shoulders above anything else I know. It is not just a faith, a sentiment, or a ritual, but above all an immense yet intricate exploration of what we might call “the holy dimension of existence.”
What I love most about Judaism is its enormous courage. It dares. It never avoids any obstacle or critique. It enjoys a good fight so that it can enrich itself. It loves to confront and provoke. It is a protest movement against all sorts of “isms,” but above all, against small-mindedness. Its task is to disturb complacency and spiritual conceit. Judaism teaches that one cannot inherit religion; one needs to earn and fight for it. To be religious is to live in a state of warfare: to be constantly wary of clichés while struggling for insight; to avoid obstinacy and remain flexible; and, perhaps most important, to refuse to allow practice to become mere habit, and to strive to maintain spiritual and moral alertness.
I am a child of a mixed marriage and was raised in a completely secular environment. My discovery of Judaism has been an ongoing revelation over many decades. I studied for eight years in Gateshead Yeshiva and then continued learning in other yeshivot in Israel. For many years I have studied secular philosophy, and the more I study, the more I realize that Judaism is greater than I ever imagined. It still has scaffolding, and I believe that the scaffolding should remain while the building continues, never to end.
And so I love to go to Limmud, to listen and to teach. Limmud is a place where I am challenged, where I hear new things (including some utter nonsense), where I can fall in love with my fellow Jews, laugh and cry with them, and share my commitment to and struggles with Judaism.
I enjoy hearing lecturers specifically when I know I am likely to disagree with their conclusions. These lectures challenge me to re-examine my beliefs because they offer many profound critiques of Judaism. Sometimes I agree with these critiques, sometimes not. But one thing is surely true: Judaism today is far too dedicated to defensive self-preservation—to propping up sacred cows, which need to be slaughtered before it is able to re-discover itself.
Limmud offers me the entire Jewish world in a microcosm. As one who teaches Judaism, I need to know what is happening in the larger Jewish world—all the struggles, the differences of opinion, the paradoxes, and the pain of many of my fellow Jews who don’t fit into an easily definable box but still love being part of our great endeavor. I am confronted daily with the accusation that Judaism has stagnated; that it is terribly dogmatic; that it no longer advances bold ideas; and that it offers little to the many young Jews who are looking for more spiritual lives. Sadly, I agree. The irony is that the teachings and practices that comprise Judaism were designed to avoid just such a scenario. I ask myself: Can I reformulate or, more accurately, help to revitalize Judaism so that it will once again represent a vibrant way of living, without letting go of what I believe are its fundamentals? I think I can, but I need Limmud to help me hear the voices of all these searching souls.
In truth, I believe that most religious Jews—whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform—including myself, do not know how much more Judaism has to offer. It contains multitudes; it encompasses a world of sublime ideas, which we have not even begun to grapple with.
I have been asked by several Orthodox rabbis not to participate in Limmud because by so doing I would lend legitimacy to other denominations. I respectfully disagree. Just like the Internet, Limmud is a marketplace. Should I not make use of the Internet at all because within its vastness exist opinions with which I partially or completely disagree and which I sometimes find repulsive? Why should I deny the many hundreds of Limmud participants the opportunity to hear a (hopefully) intelligent word on what Judaism is or what I believe it should be? Why should I offer Limmud on a silver platter to schools of thought I respectfully disagree with? I love to sit on panels where representatives of other denominations will argue with me. I have a lot to learn from them, and they from me.
I want Judaism to be what it really always used to be: a tradition where ideas can be tested, discussed, thought through, reformulated and even rejected, with the understanding that no final conclusions have ever been reached, could be reached or should be reached. Matters of faith should remain fluid, not static. I want my fellow Jews to fall in love with traditional Halacha—not defensive, but prophetic Halacha. After all, Halacha is the practical upshot of living by unfinalized beliefs while staying in theological suspense. Only thus can Judaism avoid becoming paralyzed by its awe of a rigid tradition or, conversely, evaporate into a utopian reverie.
As Baruch Spinoza might have said, all noble things are as great as they are rare.