Nestled below the stunning vistas of the Colorado Rockies and Pikes Peak, Limmud 2011 took place at the CU Campus in Colorado Springs during Memorial Day weekend. A smaller than usual “shtetl” of Jews populated an area containing dorms, classrooms, halls and dining rooms. An eruv encompassed the living spaces and signified that here, in this place, orthodox, conservative, reform and reconstructionist Jews could find common ground. An orthodox rabbi served as the mashgiach, supervising all eating arrangements so that the entire fare was certified kosher.
This is my third of the four Limmud Colorado weekends to date and, for me, the best. I have found all of them satisfying and I have made discoveries at each of them; there is always a surprise learning experience. Two years ago it was the work of Carlos Zarur and his classes on the surprising rise of the Conversos community in the Jewish world. What a discovery to find that an estimated eight million Conversos around the world wish to return to Judaism and that an estimated majority of Brazilians are derived from the original Jews, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, who settled in the New World area of modern day Brazil. Last year Deborah Lipstadt illuminated the retreat with her profound teachings related to the Holocaust. This time, though, I made a special discovery.
This year the highlight was the power of Torah study to delineate and guide philosophical inquires about the natural laws. The same natural laws, in fact, to which the American Constitution refers and on which it bases its existence. Though I have been exposed to Torah study, that past exposure seemed a bit esoteric and fuzzy if somehow merely heuristic, these study sessions clearly revealed much greater relevance.
1. The Torah is so well thought out and designed that, even under intense and scholarly scrutiny, it is too nuanced, intricate, consistent and interconnected to have come together merely by chance. Not that this is necessarily the case or that I might merely be self-deceiving by a paucity of data points on this, but I found it intriguing that the Torah could muster a pass on this first test at all. Could millions of people over thousands of years discuss say, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” and distill, continuously, thought-provoking appreciations for it in their everyday lives? The people who personally discredit Torah study as merely esoteric probably do not actually participate much in its study or do so with the right people.
2. This second observation relates to the first because good Torah study depends on good presenters and thinkers. In other words, master teachers. It is to this point that I found Limmud to be greatly educational. There were in attendance a number of teachers from whom I found great appreciation for the scholarship of the Torah.
Here are three:
Our own Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder was one of them. He enlightened us about the concept of Ratzo v’shov, which generally translates as coming out and going in. It is a metaphor, at the least, for a natural process in life whereby we cycle between, ebb and flow, understanding and confusion about our surroundings in some particular way, such as deepening our relationship with our spouses. When we reach plateaus that turn what was a goal into an obstruction, we must find ways of going back and re-learning more in order to advance. To understand this process is to understand how to control how we advance to more acceptable states of mind.
Rabbi Jack Schlachter is an experimental physicist at Los Alamos, and said he has a personal library of over 5,000 Judaica books. He wove various biblical story threads about sex into a discussion of how scholars such as Rashi developed particular methodologies to uncover the laws that connect husbandly sexual obligations, their occupations and divorce.
But the brightest and most enlightening was David Silber, who lives in New York, and has a son in Boulder. Silber held three classes, and they (and he) were highly enlightening. Not being a Torah scholar myself, I would have to admit that perhaps I am not a good judge of the Torah study process, but my ignorance notwithstanding, I found Silber fascinating in this regard. I listened as he delineated the nuances of the textural words, comparing their root meanings and conjugal meanings, even from different Bible stories. Only someone with enough brilliance could weave a tapestry of such dots of observations into a cloth imbued with rich meaning. What he thus taught me was that the Tanach is a very literate document that demands scholarly assessment both because the meanings are purposely profound and because it takes real scholarly work to get to them. Shakespeare was a master at writing like this, but the Tanakh beats him by miles.