A Search for Definition: My Journey on Limmud NY 2012
On January 13, during a winter break half as short as most colleges’, YU’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) sent ten students as a delegation to Limmud NY, a pluralistic, all-ages conference in upstate New York. The CJF additionally sent students on humanitarian missions to Mexico, Nicaragua, and the Ukraine, on chessed missions to Israel, and on a coast-to-coast journey in the USA. These missions all contained community service and had elements of social justice, though that’s not to say that those who travelled on Limmud did not play a role in social change. I found that going on Limmud, which may not have involved groundbreaking, physical work or sparking immediate social change, was incredibly important both for other Jewish denominations and for Modern Orthodoxy.
For four days, approximately 600 Jews gathered in the Catskill Mountains at the Hudson Valley Resort and Spa to attend sessions, socialize, network, and relax. A diverse group interacted at the conference: renewal Rabbis, interfaith couples, and cultural Jews, post denominational Yeshivat Chovevai Torah (YCT) students and college students of varying religiosity. And for the few days of Limmud, these distinctions didn’t matter. Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative all became unnecessary descriptions. During Limmud, we united around being Jewish and celebrating Judaism as a culture and religion.
The entirely volunteer-run, annual conference is in its eighth year and is part of a national Limmud movement, which hosts eight different conferences year round. Every attendee is assigned a volunteer time slot, whether to put up signs, work at the help desk, or check people in and out of the hotel. The volunteering aspect enhanced the communal feel of the conference: everyone was part of building the experience together.
Anyone can also volunteer to teach a session. Sessions began as early as eight in the morning starting with traditional Shacharit and more exploratory prayer options like yoga. Sessions ran until past midnight, and the day often culminated in dance parties, karaoke, or concerts by bands like Stereo Sinai, whose lyrics are entirely biblical. (“We steal lyrics from God,” the band boasts.)
Sessions delved into topics from radical Jewish art to Jewish food to singularity from a Jewish perspective. One session on the Jewish body in art by Marc Epstein, a professor at Vassar College, explored topics from Jesus to Chagall and the difference between chochmah and binah in representations of the Jewish brain. Epstein showed slides of depictions of the four sons, with the rashah portrayed as a muscled Jew, and the chacham portrayed as effeminate, with smooth skin. He then showed photographs of Oreet Ashery’s character Marcus Fisher, a traditionally garbed Hassid. It was not until Epstein showed a photograph of Ashery portraying herself as Fisher and revealing one of her breasts that it became apparent that Fisher was Ashery’s alter-ego. Epstein’s interest in the dissolution of Jewish gender boundaries in the modern age culminated in a discussion of the cross-dressing represented by traditional Chassidish garb.
Samuel Klein, a student at YCT, in his session on Gauguin’s Song of Songs, also threw gender boundaries into question. He showed Gauguin’s The Lovers, a painting of Gauguin with his arm around a lover during his sexual escapades in Tahiti. In the painting, it is unclear whether Gauguin’s lover is a woman or a man.
Another boundary that dissolved at Limmud was the boundary around the definition of words. In Jake Goodman’s session on queer risings in the bible, he attempted to expand the word queer to be not only a homosexual term, but as a term related to expression of the awkward and strange within.
In both Klein and Goodman’s sessions they provided alternative translations to those of Artscroll. Reading these translations opened my mind to different possibilities and interpretations beyond the traditional ones I had always embraced. Limmud was almost like a composite of multiple translations of Judaism, a space where multiple perspectives on the religion were embraced and accepted.
Speaking to Daniel Silverstein, a student in his first year at YCT while on the conference, I began to realize how strong the urge is for us to be accepting, undivided and unified as an Am Echad. At a booth at a fair on Sunday, Chovevei was handing out a press release, of which the first words were “Open Orthodox.” I explained to Daniel my frustrations with any adjectives describing “Orthodoxy.” I believe that Orthodoxy should encompass openness and modernity. The student said he’d go even further, saying he didn’t consider himself “Orthodox.” There’s nothing orthodox about me, he explained to me. I’m a halakhic, God-fearing Jew. Why define myself as Orthodox?
At the time, this argument seemed interesting and valid. Why define ourselves? The entire conference left me feeling very much undefined. Age boundaries, denominational boundaries, and boundaries regarding sexual orientation all dissolved. Your occupation or institutional association didn’t matter in the context of communal Jewish growth and learning. Everyone was on a search to learn and to explore outside of his or her traditional boxes and labels. Yet returning from the conference, I began to realize the importance of the search for definition.
“It all started at Limmud,” said Paul Berger, a journalist for The Jewish Daily Forward in his presentation on George Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport. Berger, covering Limmud UK last year for The Forward, first became intrigued by the letter when listening to Jonathan Sarna’s lecture on the topic. When Berger asked Sarna where the physical letter was, Sarna didn’t know. So began Berger’s intense and lengthy search for the letter, during which he was thrown into controversy surrounding ownership of the document. When he finally managed to see the letter, he was only allowed to view it briefly.
Berger’s search is not the only search that started at Limmud. Many questions, searches and quests begin at Limmud. Limmud was only the beginning of a conversation. Limmud was the opening of boxes, the breaking down of boundaries, the beginning of questions, and the search for answers to things I’ve always wondered about. Limmud wasn’t about redefinition, because prior to redefinition or definition at all, we need foundations. Definition cannot come without questions, search cannot come without previous destruction. Ultimately, what instigates us to ask and redefine are troubling experiences, places and spaces where our identity is thrown into question. Limmud is one such space, and as Samuel Klein explained in his description of his search for faith, struggling is okay. Struggling is necessary. It was while driving down Highway 1 in California listening to Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters that Klein broke down in tears, realizing that no matter how much he desired to be as devout as possible, he wasn’t where he wanted to be.
Yet with the conference’s end came the feeling of slowly falling back into reality without the space or time for genuine struggle. In the short period of four days, these complete strangers had become my makeshift community. In less than a week, I felt a kinship and closeness with many of the participants, as if they were an extended family. Yet as our bus pulled away from the hotel, I had to accept the reality. The reality is that we as Jews are not united, but divided. The reality is that Modern Orthodox Jews had been the minority at the conference. The only more right wing orthodox participants had been Shmuley Boteach and Shmuel Skaist, neither of whom were necessarily emblematic of what those parts of Orthodoxy stand for.
Before attending the conference, the student delegation was told that they were representing Modern Orthodoxy. As such, we were asked that all of our activities and anything we said should be within the realm of Modern Orthodoxy. Therefore, we weren’t allowed to attend Shira Chadasha-style minyanim or any egalitarian minyanim. Yet as one of the roshei yeshiva who met with us said, there’s a difference between action and belief. As religious Jews we have few if no mandated beliefs. It’s our actions that count.
How then, are we supposed to represent Modern Orthodoxy with our beliefs? I asked this question at our initial meeting: please define Modern Orthodoxy, I asked the rosh yeshiva, so that I can best represent it.
Yet Modern Orthodoxy is inherently undefined. The modern world is one of flux and change, and the Orthodox world is not any less stagnant than modernity. How are we supposed to represent Modern Orthodoxy when no one can truly define it? How are we supposed to send missions when we have no mission? I think Limmud was instrumental not in answering this question, as this question has no straightforward answer, but in grappling with this question and raising new, relevant questions.
By conversing with Jewish people from so many different walks of life, I felt that I could begin to understand what Modern Orthodoxy was about. At YU, I often feel like a minority. Yet on Limmud, I felt like a majority, on a quest with the rest of the delegation and with the rest of the participants towards self-actualization and self-definition on both an individual and communal level.
In Samuel Klein’s source sheet on Gauguin’s Song of Songs, he included an excerpt from James Kugel’s The Great Poems of the Bible. And perhaps James Kugel says it best:
Aren’t we all, in the end, citizens of the same republic, fish in one great sea? Indeed, if the camera could pull back far enough, was it not the way on a still larger scale? ‘All those who yearn for the LORD’ were sometimes happy—unmatchably happy—but sometimes left wondering, left wandering dreamily about the city, free to go anywhere but chained to one purpose with absolutely no alternative . . . . being nothing but a human being.
The search for God and purpose is not an easy one. Because despite the beliefs, doubts or voices which may permeate our minds, ultimately we are chained to one purpose. It is this that distinguishes Modern Orthodoxy from other denominations. We allow flux and change, we allow the voices within us to enter the conversation. We engage in dialogue with the other. But ultimately, we believe our purpose as human beings is in a resolute goal, a commitment to halachah, a defined system. We are all Jewish; we are all fish in one great sea; we are all human. Yet we are also all different. We have different purposes, different questions, different struggles. And these struggles are what ultimately define us.