Patternicity” is what scientists call the human tendency to find meaning in random events (seeing patterns where none exist — like faces in the clouds or Jesus in a potato chip — is known as “apophonia”). Connecting the dots can lead to false conclusions (“Paul is dead!”), brilliant insights (“E=mc2”), or the latest Malcolm Gladwell bestseller.
I spent Sunday at Limmud NY, the annual festival of Jewish learning, sampling classes on Israel, Jewish spirituality, anti-Semitism, and even Israeli comedy. And though it is not the coincidence of the century, I was still surprised at how teachers and presenters in different rooms, coming from different backgrounds and talking about different things, could often seem as if they were in conversation with one another.
Now in its 10th year, Limmud NY breeds these kinds of connections. It’s not just the connections among the hundreds of learners who attend, or the connections between teaches and students. That’s a given. Rather, you sense that Judaism is an organism, or maybe, as Lewis Thomas once said about ants, “one big collective brain.” In one classroom a rabbi is studying the prayer said at bedtime. In another a policy expert is discussing Israeli security issues. And somehow they are talking about the same thing.
Israeli journalist Ari Shavit was one of the stars of the conference, held this year in Stamford, Conn. On Sunday morning he unspooled a thread I would be following all day long. Shavit’s agenda-setting new book, My Promised Land, is probably best known for its unsparing reportage on the violence carried out by Jews during the War of Independence. But his critics, too busy accusing him of aiding Israel’s enemies, overlook his far more expansive project: restoring the Zionist sense of purpose that inspired Israel’s founders in the first place.
Shavit feels no guilt over Zionism, which he called “the most successful revolution of the 20th century.” Israel fulfilled “a deep need of a real people, but one that was an endangered species, physically and spiritually.”
Fast forward more than half a century, and Israelis and Diaspora Jews have a morale problem. “We’ve lost our narrative,” Shavit told a packed conference room. “We had a narrative before we had anything else. We knew where we were coming from and where we wanted to go. And while we have become stronger, our narrative disintegrated.”
Shavit shared his policy proposals for a two-state solution and terrified everybody about Iran, but mostly he offered a plea for a shared narrative that would undermine the “extremists” and “cynics” currently leading the communal debate. “Our politics is unworthy,” said Shavit. “We are entitled to love ourselves, and use this celebration of life to deal with all the challenges of the first half of the 21st century as we did with the first half of the 20th.”
This search for a common narrative was also heard in a panel discussion titled “Why Judaism?” with rabbis from four different streams. David Ingber of New York’s Romemu spoke of “mispachtology” — a sense of family that leaves us strong enough and confident enough to learn from other religions. Shai Held of Hadar, the author of an important new book about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, warned about “technological language” that tries to convince people that embracing Judaism will lead to “personal enrichment” — as opposed to instilling a sense of service and generosity to others. Asher Lopatin of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah asked how we can create “passionate communities,” where embracing the mitzvot isn’t about saying “no” to the secular world but “yes” to a sense of ownership.
All these rabbis agreed that there are multiple Jewish stories and that the challenge is getting secular, global citizens to start writing their own.
Even Abraham Foxman, attending his first Limmud only days after announcing his impending retirement as head of the Anti-Defamation League, worried that the Jews have lost a common narrative.
Most of Foxman’s talk was devoted to his fight against anti-Semitism. But he began, significantly, by talking about threats from within, not without. “After every trauma, the Jewish community said, ‘We want to continue to be Jewish,’” said Foxman. “Will the Jews without trauma get up every day” and say the same thing? “Will the Jews still want to be Jews?”
A few hours at Limmud can lull you into optimism, into believing that so long as a few hundred people can gather for four days of learning, the Jewish future is secure. But like so many Jewish gatherings, there is anxiety about replicating that sense of purpose for a rapidly assimilating Jewish majority. And no one is sure what story or narrative can create a Jewish community — a Jewish organism — out of so many indifferent Jewish individuals. Will it be Zionism? Torah? Service? The arts?
Or maybe what we need, as rabbi and author Danya Ruttenberg put it in the “Why Judaism?” session, are more “non-sucky Jewish experiences.” Like Limmud.