The exception that disproves the rule
Author: Open Forum
Date posted: Monday 6 Dec 2010
THERE ARE RULES IN EDUCATION. We all know them. Teachers should be trained, qualified and have proven expertise in their field. Students should be guided carefully through a coherent curriculum, and assessed to measure their progress. Content should be determined by recognized authorities, and divided logically into disciplines. And the entire endeavor should be driven by a vision of an ideal end product: a strong and compelling portrait of the model graduate.
In most instances, Jewish education has assimilated these rules hook, line and sinker. In day schools, universities, adult education initiatives and even summer camps, they exist in force. All Jewish teachers should be qualified; all Jewish students should learn a coherent and organized Jewish studies curriculum; all Jewish texts should be interpreted by Jewish authorities. And all Jewish educational institutions should have a clear and compelling notion of “the educated Jew,” an idealized picture of the type of Jew their institution seeks to mold.
But there is at least one exception, in the world of Jewish adult education, which does things differently and may be rewriting the Jewish educational rule book: Limmud.
From its modest beginnings 30 years ago as a rather amateurish and hastily thrown together conference for a small group of Jewish educators in Britain, Limmud has blossomed into an international network of activity capturing Jewish hearts and minds in over 50 Jewish communities on five continents. Limmud now reaches an estimated 35,000 people every year, attracts some of the most acclaimed Jewish thinkers, artists and activists in the world, and appears to have hit on a unique Jewish educational formula that works.
Viewed simply, a Limmud event is a festival of Jewish life and learning. It is organized almost exclusively by volunteers, it may take place over one day or several, it offers a rich multiplicity of sessions at any moment of any day, and it provides a fabulous opportunity for anybody attending to learn from anybody presenting. Yet this simple description offers little to explain what Limmud represents and how it may be altering the Jewish world.
Limmud’s tagline – “Wherever you are going, Limmud will take you one step further along your Jewish journey” – is a remarkable statement in two connected respects. First, it immediately establishes an expectation of movement. For Limmud, standing still as a Jew is not an option. However you understand your Jewishness today, that understanding should be challenged and enriched on a continual basis. That principle is applied equally to young and old, to the most and the least learned. Without ever saying this explicitly, one of Limmud’s messages is: No one alone knows the whole truth, truths can be found from multiple people in multiple places, go seek them out.
Second, Limmud does not espouse a particular destination for “your Jewish journey.” No authority figure is telling you – implicitly or explicitly – what specific type of Jew you should become. Unlike most Jewish educational institutions, which actively aspire for their students to become more observant, or intellectual, or liberal, or conservative, Limmud simply offers Jews a chance – on their own terms – to become more Jewish. In effect it says: You’re an adult, you know better than us what interests you and what you find meaningful. We trust you, so we’ll create a space within which you will find the most interesting and diverse buffet of Jewish experiences, and invite you to partake. Choose whatever you want. We know your plate won’t resemble anyone else’s, and that’s fine. People have different needs and interests. Oh, and we’d love you to bring your own dish to the next buffet so that you can share part of yourself, as others have shared parts of themselves this time.
Contrary to the argument of some of its critics, there is nothing parve, or bland, about this. Indeed, in articulating its mission in this way, Limmud is making a profoundly empowering statement about the future of Jewish life. It is saying: Jewish life is not determined by others, Jewish life is determined by us. Let’s work together, give of ourselves, and make it the way it is meant to be.
Expressed slightly differently, Limmud is offering Jews an opportunity to create and live within Jewish community as they believe Jewish community should be. It is a supremely democratic model of Jewish education: power rests with the community rather than with any singular authority. In a Limmud community, no one is formally defined as “teacher” or “student” because everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn. No one is explicitly categorized as “Orthodox,” “Reform,” “secular” or “religious” because people are more complex than that and labels might create barriers that restrict the possibility of dialogue and free engagement. No formal curriculum or linear learning process is set because adults should be free to determine their own learning, and trusted to seek meaning wherever they might find it. No one determines the singular correct meaning of any text because everyone is free to interpret every text. And no one is held in particularly high regard because of the size of their financial donation because everyone who gives something of themselves should be held in equally high regard.
These are challenging ideas. They threaten existing authority, they undermine power bases, they break down walls. And they rewrite the Jewish educational rule book. Here’s to 30 more years of the same.
Jonathan Boyd is the executive director of the UK-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research. This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Report on 5/12/2010.
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