(WARNING – this is a very long article with a challenge to all readers at the end!)
The Limmud conference or the Limmud Festival is now over for another year.
It is a remarkable event, at peak there are nearly 2500 people giving up their holidays and money to spend time learning. The question of course is what are they learning? I have been there twice, there is a lot of choice, a lot of it is political and cultural, but of course a huge amount is about very different expressions and interpretations of Judaism, and that is where the issues arise.
For many people who attend Limmud, the attraction is the whole variety of different types of Judaisms on offer, yet for me that is not a positive point. For example, this year you had a lecture from a trainee Rabbi from the Renewal movement in America who believes that marrying out is not really a problem (he has). He writes beautifully in the JC about his inclusive ideals and vision. Having read a lot of his website, he shares some beautiful and inspirational videos, but of course his idea of what is Judaism, is not a Judaism that I or any Orthodox Jew could agree with.
There is a beautiful idea on this week’s parsha that I think can sum up the whole situation of a plurality of Judaism’s outside of Orthodoxy.
The story of Yosef is a powerful one and has myriad lessons that are relevant to life today. This week’s Parsha – Vayigash, deals with the final confrontation between Yosef and his Brothers before he reveals his true identity to his brethren.
And If I may quote from the musical ‘Can’t you recognize my face, is it hard to see that Joseph whom you thought was dead – your brother is me!’ This is loosely based on Bereishit 45:3 – with one major omission.
In Lloyd Weber’s version Yosef tells the brothers it is him – and that is all.
In Hashem’s version, which has sold far more copies, the pasuk reads – ‘Ani Yosef – ha od avi chai’ – I am Yosef – is my father still alive?
Is my father still alive, those are the extra words.
And it makes sense why Lloyd Weber missed it out – because it makes no sense! Yosef KNOWS his father is alive he has been told countless times by the brothers, so why does he need to ask?
One answer comes from Rabbi Sorotzkin – a Rav from pre-war Europe and later the modern state of Israel. He gives what I believe to be a beautiful understanding of the verse.
What had occurred up to this point? The brothers had not come to see Yosef but Tzafnat Parneach the viceroy of Egypt, second to Pharaoh himself. The brothers could well have been saying things to the viceroy to score political points – to evoke sympathy for their cause, about their poor father etc.
As we well know people are prone to saying things in a political arena that may not be exactly accurate!
So Yosef says ‘Ani Yosef, talk to me as brothers, as family not as servants grovelling to a viceroy. Tell me truly now, is Dad really still alive?’
Because family is different, family should be different.
We are family, a very diverse family but a family nevertheless. We don’t have to agree with each other, but we must deal with our issues with love, as we would with our family.
So as family, I will speak about two things.
The first is that many people say that Limmud is Anglo Jewry’s greatest export, on this I disagree.
Our greatest export, as Rabbi Sacks once told me, is actually the United Synagogue. What he meant was that the type of Judaism that developed here in the 17th and 18th centuries, that of a traditional Orthodoxy, with members of shuls not necessarily being religious but belonging to an Orthodox synagogue. This inclusive Orthodoxy spread through the Commonwealth to South Africa, Australia and Canada and created Jewish communities similar to the UK. Intermarriage rates in those four Jewries range from 20% – 30%. Unfortunately, it did not make it to America, which is one of the major reasons why I believe assimilation is by far the worst in the USA, 58% overall and 79% outside Orthodoxy. In America the concept of a non-observant Orthodoxy was never truly created.
As I have said many times before outside of Orthodoxy, American Jewry is rapidly assimilating. It has been described to me by Rav JJ Shachter of Yeshiva University as a ‘Noah’s Ark of Orthodoxy sailing in a sea of Assimilation’.
Fortunately, in countries such as the UK, Australia, South Africa and Canada our inreach is outreach to the tens of thousands of families who are members of Orthodox shuls yet are not Torah observant. Unfortunately, there is still a failure to realise that this is the area where maximum investment needs to take place. Campus outreach is funded hugely across the community, yet community outreach, where the impacts could be felt more are mostly poorly funded. This is the area globally where Mizrachi are aiming to have an impact which will only grow by providing dynamic Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist couples for communities across the world.
Our ideology, to be a proud passionate Torah Jew yet pursue a secular degree, a professional job, a love of culture, science, history and art can and is having an impact on communities here, as well as around the world.
The second issue is very different but just as important and really goes to the core of what has allowed Judaism and more recently Orthodoxy to thrive and grow.
When Limmud comes around the JC has myriad of articles, editorials and pictures. There was a four-page spread in today’s JC – and why not, an educational event that has involved up to 2500 people. It is said that it is the greatest educational event of the year.
Yet this year there has been another event and is simply a remarkable testimony to our people and is not a 3 day or a 5 day event but is the heartbeat of our people every day of the year for 7 and ½ years – engaging close to 500,000 Jews globally.
And on Wednesday nearly 100,000 Jews gathered in Met Life stadium in New Jersey.
It was of course the siyum for the end of the 13th cycle of Daf Yomi – a study of a page a day of Gemara.
The novel idea of Jews in all parts of the world studying the same Daf each day, with the goal of completing the entire Talmud, was put forth at the First World Congress of the Agudat Yisrael in Vienna on 16 August 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro.
Rabbi Shapiro viewed the program as a way to unify the Jewish people. As he explained to the Congress delegates:
‘What a great thing! A Jew travels by boat and takes Gemara Berachot under his arm. He travels for 15 days from Israel to America, and each day he learns the Daf. When he arrives in America, he enters a Beis Medrash in New York and finds Jews learning the very same Daf that he studied on that day, and he gladly joins them. Another Jew leaves the States and travels to Brazil or Japan, and he first goes to the Beis Medrash, where he finds everyone learning the same Daf that he himself learned that day. Could there be greater unity of hearts than this?’
It takes 7 ½ years to complete the cycle, every day rain or shine, it is the equivalent of the Jewish Marathon – you train every day for 7 ½ years!
So this Sunday January 5th 2020 we begin again, Masechet Brachot.
It is a commitment day in day out – for over 2500 days. I received an email last Siyum ha Shas from a rabbinic friend who had as the Rabbi of his shul just finished Shas for the first time in the 12th cycle (2005 – 2012). He wrote the following:
‘Every morning, seven days a week through the blizzard of 2006 (February 11-12) when we had 26.9 inches of snow we continued learning Pesachim; and during the Blizzard of 2010 (December 26-27) when 20 inches of snow came down, we continued learning Zevachim.
We never stopped. Not for weddings of members of the group; not for Hurricane Irene in August 2011 (we were learning Chullin) and not for Selichos and not even did we stop on Yom Kippur. We persevered and we finished.
For whatever happens to me and wherever it happens to me, I know that the Daf is with me. It is not a burden or an additional piece of baggage; no, not at all. As the days stretched into weeks and the weeks into months and months into years; the daf became my companion and my confidant; my source of strength and my friend.
I could not have made it through all of the personal trials and tribulations; the ups and downs without my friend, the daf. Try it, you will like it too!’
And this from Wikipedia:
Daf Yomi can be studied alone, with a chavruta (study partner), in a daily shiur (class) led by a rabbi or teacher, via a telephone shiur, ipad, app or online resources. Typically, Daf Yomi shiurim are held in synagogues, yeshivas, and offices. They also take place in the United States Senate, Wall Street board rooms, and on the Long Island Rail Road, in the last car of two commuter trains departing Far Rockaway at 7:51 a.m. and 8:15 a.m., respectively, for Manhattan.
It is a worldwide phenomenon, a remarkable dedication by teachers and students alike.
I have just started the 14th cycle of Daf Yomi, I hope and pray that I can write on Monday June 7th 2027 that I have done it. I worked out tonight with my son currently in year 6 that he might not be able to come to the Siyum Ha Shas with his Dad in 2027, as he will be in the middle of his A levels! However, I have only completed day 1, one down – 2710 to go! (I got a head start!)
Sivan Rahav Meir, the Mizrachi Shlicha for USA wrote of Wednesdays siyum in America:
‘It is difficult to describe an event of this magnitude in words. I’ll share a few thoughts that come to mind upon celebrating Siyum HaShas — completion of the Talmud after studying one page every single day for more than 7 years — tonight in America.
To see 100,000 Jews gathered together who are not demonstrating, who are not talking or crying about anti-Semitism, but just celebrating the joy of being Jewish; to see here also those who did not study the whole Talmud but came to appreciate and empower those who did.
To see a major emphasis on children at this event; the Torah does not only belong to old folks but is also attractive to the younger generation, to whom the torch is being passed.
To see unity among those who wear knitted kippot and those who wear black kippot, among Sefaradim and Ashkenazim, among chasidim (disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov) and Lita’im (those who follow in the path of the Vilna Gaon); every Jew honours and makes room for every other Jew; to recite together psalms beseeching peace for those living in Eretz Yisrael, and to direct similar thoughts, in light of recent events, to Jews living in America as well.
To see an entire stadium of people dancing to “Open, Heavenly Gates, to our Prayer”; and hear a security guard comments: “This is a place for football games but you are an unusually calm and quiet crowd,” and then asks, “You’re fans of which team?”
To look around and be reminded that they are Americans – the nation of Netflix and Amazon – but have not been confused or distracted by these American inventions, have not succumbed to instant gratification, but have chosen instead to learn, with persistence and daily striving, one Talmud page after the next.
To speak with a doctor and a lawyer who tell me how, in the middle of their working day, every day, they have a meeting with Tanaim and Amoraim, a meeting with eternity.
To hear Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky explain that instead of calling this celebration Siyum HaShas (finishing the Talmud), we should call it Hatchalat HaShas (beginning the Talmud) since we immediately start learning it tonight, from the very beginning, all over again.
To recite “Shema Yisrael” together with 100,000 men, women, and children, when sitting beside me is Marlit Berger, a Holocaust survivor with a number tattooed on her arm, surrounded by grandchildren, and softly saying: “If someone had told me in the camps that I would be privileged to witness a moment like this…”
Mi K’amcha Yisrael, goi echad b’aretz – who is like the Jewish people, a unique nation on earth.
We are one family as we learnt from Yosef.
But our family has to realise what has kept us going for 1000’s of years, is because of the Torah and the Mesorah. It is our responsibility to speak out and inspire the rest of our Jewish family with that ideology.
Whether that means teaching at Limmud.
Whether that means bringing more Shlichim to the UK for our schools and shuls.
Whether that means recruiting and training more couples from the UK for smicha in Israel to come back to lead our communities our campuses and our schools.
Whether that means bringing speakers to the UK from Israel to inspire us with Torat Yisrael.
Or whether that means to personally commit ourselves to Torah, to learn every day, to make sure that the mesorah is flowing through us as well. That may mean taking on the responsibility of Daf Yomi or joining the myriad of other Yomi programmes, or just making sure every day is filled with some Torah learning.
If you do wish to join me and almost half a million others in this seven and a half year journey with Daf Yomi – please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your mobile number and I will endeavour to share with you ideas and thoughts on the daf through WhatsApp (I would like to say daily, but it might be weekly!) You can email me even if you just want to hear the ideas!
Whatever you decide to do, we need to make sure that Limmud Torah is a daily occurrence and pray that that Limmud is spread far and wide to all the Jewish people as that is what our family really truly needs.