Learning Down Under

1 12 2010

Last weekend was Limmud Oz Fest: Sydney’s first outdoor festival of Jewish learning. Drawing some one-hundred-and-fifty people, the event was a terrific success. The sun shone brightly and, to the best of my knowledge, only one tent blew across the campsite like a tumbleweed. That might be a record. The highlight for me was Roxanne Azoory’s outstanding presentation on Inception, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, general representations of psychological recursion in dream states, and their relationship to the weekly parsha. Bet you all wish you were there now, don’t you?

I gave two presentations, and was very flattered with the turn-out. The first was on Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) communities in the State of Israel, particularly in relation to their attitudes towards the state in which they dwell. I discussed briefly the philosophy of the Zionist Haredim (“Hardal”), considered the history of the various Haredi political parties (Agudat Yisrael, Degel haTorah and Shas), whose attitude towards Israel is neither positive nor negative, but spent most of my time focusing on the history and the philosophy of those who oppose Israel’s existence. The session was, after all, called “Enemies of the State”. We looked at the formation of the Edah haChareidis, the philosophy of the Satmar Rebbe, who served as its president for much of its history, and its primary demographic. We then focused on more extreme elements that broke away from the Edah, such as the two wings of Neturei Karta, and Shomer Emunim.

The second of my two presentations was entitled “The Long Arm of the Law”, and was an overview of the history and the development of the halakha. Commencing with the need for an halakhic system, we considered the role of the midrash in developing Torah law, and remarked upon the disjunctivity between the midrashic corpus and the volumes of Mishna that were to become authoritative. We looked at the development of the Talmuds as an expansion of the Mishna, and considered the role of the early mediaevals in interpreting and codifying the Talmud’s legal pronouncements. We finished with the 16th century masterpiece(s) of Rav Yosef Caro: the extraordinary, and intellectually terrifying, Bet Yosef, and the hugely influential Shulchan Arukh. Finally, we looked at how certain contemporary scholars use this literature in order to make rulings on issues that transcend the concerns of the classic texts.

My thanks to all those who supported my presentations with their attendance, but especially those of you who supported Limmud Oz with presentations of your own. Whether it was an exegetical reconsideration of the Levitical ban on male homosexual intercourse, or an in-depth overview of the pharmacology of hallucinogens and their relationship to Jewish spirituality, there was not a session that I attended that was neither feisty, learned nor amazing. Let’s do it again next year!

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