By Dr Jonathan BOYD, Director, Institute of Jewish Policy Research.
In an extraordinary development, the new Chief Rabbi has registered to attend Limmud next week, the cross-communal festival of Jewish learning that is one of the most innovative educational endeavours to have ever emerged out of the British Jewish community.
Lauded by participants, presenters and journalists alike, Limmud’s educational model has been replicated in almost 60 communities worldwide, and, according to a 2011 study, has served as the inspiration for thousands of Jews to engage more deeply in Jewish life.
Given its success, one might be forgiven for wondering why it has taken so long for the Chief Rabbi to turn up. Someone with his standing and commitment to Jewish learning should surely have regarded this event as a major priority in his calendar. And it seems he finally has. It has taken a change of personnel in his office, but now, 33 years after Limmud’s establishment, the Chief Rabbi is finally coming.
Except the Chief Rabbi is not coming to Limmud. In fact, the Chief Rabbi can never come to Limmud. Let me explain. Limmud has several core principles. It embraces the diversity existing within the Jewish community, seeing it very much as part of its richness.
It encourages everyone to be ambitious about their contribution to Jewish life. It creates opportunities for Jews to connect with one another. And, to achieve this, it carefully minimises any hierarchical gaps that commonly exist between people.
At Limmud, everyone should be accessible to everyone else, irrespective of title, position or standing. One of the ways Limmud accomplishes this is by putting aside titles. The name tags everyone wears have only two things on them – first name and surname. That way, everybody becomes seen, primarily, as simply their name.
And I mean everybody. Lord Winston is Robert. The Israeli Ambassador is Daniel. And the Chief Rabbi, when he comes, will be Ephraim.
Some might consider this disrespectful. But its purpose is to break down barriers. How many of us feel intimidated when standing in front of a world-renowned scientific, political or religious authority?
But if that individual becomes his or her first name, it reduces the distance between us, and breaks down the formal barriers that exist. The great authority suddenly becomes more approachable, and an atmosphere is created in which anyone can connect with anyone else. Furthermore, Limmud has no ‘green room’.
There is nowhere for Robert, Daniel or Ephraim to disappear to when they are not presenting. They are no more special than anyone else.
And, when they are not teaching, the expectation is that they will participate in sessions run by others, and learn from them. Indeed, at Limmud, everyone should be a student because everyone – even a chief rabbi – has something to learn. And everyone can be a teacher too – Limmud strongly believes that any participant should feel empowered to teach their Jewish passion.
In essence, the hierarchical boundary that usually exists between teacher and student is minimised at Limmud, which is part of what makes it such an empowering communal experience. It can be quite threatening.
Some authorities find it unsettling as they can’t hide behind their title. They might attract a crowd initially because people know who they are, but people vote with their feet if the substance doesn’t match the presenter’s reputation. But anyone who gets it right quickly achieves iconic status.
People with outstanding knowledge, the humility to learn from others, and a genuine willingness to engage with anyone, carry the most currency. It can be pretty threatening for novice presenters too, because they never know who will walk into their session. An undergrad may teach something they’re learning at university, and Robert, Daniel or Ephraim might turn up. But that dynamic is critical to Limmud.
It can be extraordinarily empowering for a young presenter to have someone like that learn from them, and to receive constructive feedback afterwards.
So, the hullabaloo about the Chief Rabbi coming to Limmud is nonsense. The truth is the Chief Rabbi will be going AWOL for a few days next week.
He will be nowhere to be found. But if you wander around Limmud, you might find someone called Ephraim knocking about – teaching a bit, learning a bit, and maybe just hanging around and chatting at the bar.