Galilee Diary: Torah for the masses
Ben Bag-Bag says: Turn [the Torah] over and turn it over, for everything is in it. -Mishnah, Avot 5:22
I just returned from Limmud Galil, where I had the misfortune to be teaching a class in the first period of the morning (8:00) on the second day of the event, after the participants had all stayed up singing until 2:00 am. And my class was in the same slot as several big name speakers - and a Pilates workshop. So it was intimate.
Limmud ("learning") got its start in England 25 years ago, and has since spread all over the world. The idea is to make Torah study accessible to the masses by creating a sort of festival that brings together learners and teachers of every background and interest for a brief, intensive experience of learning and socializing and crossing ideological and institutional boundaries. The idea is that everyone volunteers - to teach, to organize, so it really becomes a learning community. The "costs" are that there is a certain amount of chaos (my class was small; a few years ago a friend had no learners at all at her session; it's nice to let people learn what they want when they want, but to volunteer to teach, spend time preparing and end up not teaching is rather annoying); and that the quality of instruction can be uneven. And by definition, just about anything goes (a woman stuck her head in the door of my class on halachic controversies, to ask where the class on spirit communication was taking place).
While Limmud is truly pluralistic, being so pluralistic means that your pluralism is unlikely to include people who don't really believe in pluralism. Hence while there is Orthodox participation in the various Limmud festivals around the world, it is largely non-establishment: the Chief Rabbi of England had to stop attending when he became chief rabbi - and the Chief Rabbi of South Africa forbade rabbis from attending Limmud there. For one thing, for these establishment Orthodox rabbis there is the political/ideological problem of sharing the stage with - and hence, legitimizing - "heretics;" moreover, an environment in which "anything goes" and anyone can teach his/her own version of Torah, as opposed to "real Torah study" is decidedly uncomfortable for many Orthodox rabbis and their congregants. They know what Torah study is supposed to look like, and it doesn't look like Pilates and spiritual communication. And if you see regular Torah study as a religious obligation, this type of one-shot smorgasbord seems unnecessary and trivial. Here in Israel Limmud festivals and other similar events attract a more mixed crowd, and prominent rabbis and scholars from the modern Orthodox world are happy to teach there.
Limmud Galil began 7 years ago, and was, I think, the first Israeli version. Now there are Limmud spinoffs in various regions around the country. Meanwhile, for over a decade, Kibbutz Kfar Blum in the far north has been holding an annual Jewish learning festival that has become a national "event." Less voluntaristic/communal, more commercial, the Kfar Blum festival draws attendees from all over the country, and while its offerings are rich and serious, it exists less to enlighten the local population and more to boost tourism to the Galilee Panhandle. Its cast is truly "star-studded" in public figures, Jewish scholars, and entertainers. There are plenty of popular entertainers who have returned to their Jewish roots in recent times, to provide quality musical programs along with the study.
Like Limmud UK, Limmud Galil has also turned toward developing ongoing learning, becoming involved in sponsoring and marketing local study groups throughout the year (for example, in cooperation with the Israeli version of the Melton Minischool).
Limmud is part of the larger trend in Israeli society in the past 15 years, of people from non-traditional communities seeking to reconnect to the Jewish texts from which they were alienated by the polarized nature of Jewish life here. It is certainly possible to question the value of one-shot festivals as opposed to ongoing, committed, study. But it's also possible to see in this phenomenon a welcome fulfillment of a Zionist vision of Judaism becoming the popular culture of a modern state, separated from its manifestation in the synagogue, but not from its roots in the classical texts.