It's courage versus arrogance in the Mirvis Limmud row

Look, I hope you won’t mind what I have to say here. It’s just that, well, I think it needs to be said, however diffident I am about it.

My general principle is that I don’t argue with other Jews about Judaism. Everyone’s religious practice is deeply personal. It reflects generations of family practice and centuries of political history. My view is that we are all brothers and sisters together, and that we have enough enemies without making enemies of each other.

I am a Liberal Jew, and the practices of ultra-Orthodox communities are sometimes hard for me to understand, but I grope for that understanding. In my work I often meet non-Jews who are dismissive about, or hostile to, such Orthodoxy. I want to be able to explain to them, to teach them, I suppose, why very traditional, very rigid, religious practice can bring joy to participants. And for that I need to understand and accept.

Most of the time that acceptance even extends to the fact that my understanding and appreciation of ultra-Orthodoxy is not reciprocated. It’s just that right here and right now is not that time.

I don’t argue with other Jews about Judaism — generally

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the new chief rabbi chosen by the United Synagogue, is to attend this year’s Limmud conference.
This ought not to be an act of courage, but it is and I am genuinely impressed.
Limmud is an increasingly important intellectual and spiritual gathering of Jews, with many members of the US in attendance. The chief rabbi should be there. It’s absurd not to go. He is a teacher. He wants to teach.

The Chief isn’t chosen by Jews who belong to Liberal synagogues, but because he is acknowledged outside the community as the spiritual leader of Britain’s Jews, most of us agree, generally tacitly, to accept his status as Chief. The Limmud decision is a small, politically astute, nod towards the fact that there are Jews beyond the United Synagogue.

The response from a group of his fellow rabbis was extraordinary. Led by the former head of the London Beth Din, Dayan Ehrentreu, the rabbis had this amazing thing to say: “Participation in [Limmud’s] conferences, events and educational endeavours blurs the distinction between authentic Judaism and pseudo-Judaism and would bring about tragic consequences for Anglo-Jewry”. Well, mates, since you brought it up, I’ll tell you what would be a tragedy for Anglo-Jewry. Following you guys down your blind alley. How dare you call me a pseudo-Jew? The arrogance. Who do you think you are?

I think, Dayan Ehrentreu, that too many people have tippy-toed around you for too long saying “yes sir, no sir” to your ridiculous notions as if they were real wisdom. And you have concluded from this that you have been provided with the right to say who is and who isn’t a Jew. Well, you haven’t.

I am not very impressed with a theological approach that suggests that nothing has changed for thousands of years. I think that is implausible and comes close intellectually to misunderstanding Judaism.

I think the argument for very strict Orthodoxy is very weak and maybe the reason Dayan Ehrentreu is able so confidently to hold on to it is that he never meets anyone who disagrees with him. Yet I am happy not to press that view stridently, because we are part of a pact, part of a community. We are Jews and we love each other. Or we should.

I have many wonderful friends, inspiring teachers, in the US. What I have felt forced to write here is deeply uncomfortable. I just felt it would be wrong to let these comments pass. Sorry.

Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times

Last updated: 12:35pm, October 17 2013