TORONTO — In the first such event in six years, hundreds of people gathered March 8 to take part in Limmud Toronto 2015, an international Jewish learning festival that promotes Judaism’s rich history, culture, and heritage.
Limmud Toronto, which was founded in 2007 by a U.K.-born volunteer named Peter Sevitt and modelled after Britain’s 30-year-old Limmud educators’ conference attended by about 2,500 people annually, was held at the Alliance Francaise Toronto.
About 85 rabbis, professors and community leaders, spoke on topics relevant to Toronto’s young professionals, including art, music, the Bible and Talmud, Israel, health, Jewish history, Jewish identity and education, Jewish values and philosophy, social activism and politics, and literature.
In one of the sessions, Rabbi Aviva Richman, a Talmud teacher at the New York-based yeshiva Mechon Hadar, led a discussion titled “The Talmud Meets the Vagina Monologues.”
She said she wanted to explore the Talmud with a feminist lens and used excerpts from Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues – an episodic play that features monologues relating to the female experience of sex, menstruation, masturbation, birth and orgasm – to serve as commentary on talmudic passages that relate to sexuality.
“I thought maybe a less vulnerable way to bring women’s voices into the Talmud is to use these monologues as commentary to the Talmud passages,” Rabbi Richman explained.
“What would happen if you took the Talmud and either instead of, or in addition to having Rashi in the margins, have some of the scripts from the Vagina Monologues on the margins that kind of interrupt the talmudic texts and comment and go back and forth?”
She said approaching talmudic texts in this way is not about saying “the Talmud is wrong about this, and the modern women’s voice needs to come in and make it right… I’m more interested in creating a conversation about female sexuality that is springing from the Talmud.”
Another session led by Rabbi Michael Skobac, director of education and counselling for Jews for Judaism Canada, explored some of the negative stereotypes that people have about religion in general and how Judaism suffers from it.
In his lecture titled “Is Religion Killing Judaism?” Rabbi Skobac said he doesn’t often meet Jews who reject Judaism.
“Often what they are rejecting is a sad and unfortunate caricature of Judaism,” he said. “People have… a rather negative association with the idea of religion. It is not a sexy word for many people. It often conjures up negative associations, and I think if we associate Judaism as a religion, I believe it is damaging to our impressions of Judaism.”
He said he often hears non-religious people refer to religion as the “opium of the masses,” a term coined by Karl Marx, something people use as a crutch if they are lost or have experienced trauma.
“I suspect that many people see religion as something that will cramp my style and make me miserable, interfere with my freedom – it’s just dos and don’ts,” he said.
“How many people think about Shabbat as 25 hours of torture when you can’t do anything? That is how people might frame it, as opposed to seeing Shabbat as a day of liberation where we are often freed from those things that enslave us. It depends how you look at it.”
As a ba’al tshuvah who once rejected organized religion, Rabbi Skobac said Jews have a responsibility to make the world a better place. What’s missing is “buy-in” from the Jewish People.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to fulfil any kind of historical role in this world unless we have a buy-in from the Jewish nation,” he said “If we’re living in a world, where quite possibly a majority of Jews are not plugged into the ideals of Judaism, it is tough for us to make an impact as a people.”
Limmud organizers have already booked next year’s festival. The goal is that within three years, Limmud Toronto will host an annual three-day conference.