Just who is really under attack?

By Geoffrey Alderman, November 1, 2013

The contents of a document are sometimes less important than the context in which it was written and the audience for which it was intended.

For proof you need look no further than the strange case of the encyclical against Limmud issued on October 2, published eight days later in the Jewish Tribune, and reported on not merely by the Jewish press worldwide but by no less a prestigious broadsheet than The Times .

The encyclical, signed by seven rabbis, of whom Chanoch Ehrentreu is probably the best known, advised that no Jew “whose heart has been touched by the fear of God” should attend Limmud.

This was clearly aimed at the United Synagogue’s new chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, who had already signalled his intention to ignore the 1995 ruling of the US’s Beth Din, presided over by Lord Sacks, and grace the forthcoming midwinter Limmud with his presence.

Did Ehrentreu and his associates really think through the consequences of their action? I doubt it. The presence of Mirvis at the December Limmud was always likely to increase its public profile, a prospect that cannot have been pleasing to Limmud’s Charedi enemies.

This anti-Limmud broadside comes from Gateshead

They might now reflect that their admonition has merely added to the attraction: they have in fact conferred upon Limmud a national prominence, not to say status. Purely in terms of their own religious framework, they have publicised that which is treife — a sin for which, next Yom Kippur, they will need to ask God for forgiveness.

Meanwhile, I want to ask other questions. How many members of the United Synagogue read the Jewish Tribune? How many readers of the Tribune knew (prior to October 2) anything about Limmud? I read it out of academic necessity — and believe me it’s a hard slog, a form of torture, to have to peruse, week after week, an Anglo-Yiddish scandal-sheet that has never allowed truth to stand in the way of dogma. But I’m hardly your average Tribune reader.

I’ll wager my second-best shtreimel that your average reader of the Tribune, in the shtetls of Stamford Hill, Golders Green and Gateshead, knew next-to-nothing about Limmud, and would never dream of attending it. So, again, why publish in this “news” paper?

I must draw attention to several features of the encyclical itself. Its signatories do not include Ephraim Padwa, head of the Beth Din of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, nor any present member of the United Synagogue’s Beth Din. On the other hand it was signed not only by Ehrentreu but by the Communal Rav of Gateshead, Shraga Faivel Zimmerman, and by Avraham Gurwicz, who heads the Gateshead Yeshivah.

I take this as confirmation that the document emanated from Gateshead, which has, for over a century, made a habit of speaking out against successive chief rabbis. It was Zimmerman’s predecessor, Bezalel Rakow, who was the prime mover in the publication of the psak halachah [ruling] that damned Chief Rabbi Sacks’ monograph, The Dignity of Difference.

Sacks was brought to heel in double quick time, rewriting Dignity to suit its Gateshead readership. If Mirvis were to change his mind over Limmud, his own chief rabbinate would effectively be at an end. I don’t expect him to do this, and I strongly suspect that the signatories of the October 2 encyclical are under no illusions in this respect.

They have probably given Mirvis up, at least for the time being, as a lost cause. Equally lost to them is the handful of United Synagogue rabbis who have attended Limmud over the years — pre-eminently the brave Michael Harris of Hampstead.

One US rabbi, who doesn’t wish to be identified, is reported as having supported the encyclical. That leaves 25 or so US rabbis who have remained silent. It’s at them that the anti-Limmud attack is primarily aimed.

The rabbinate of the United Synagogue presents a stark contrast to the memberships of the congregations it serves. Many of these rabbis come from the Charedi world. They have reputations to defend, and children to marry off. They will no doubt be hoping and praying that the Limmud controversy will go away.

It won’t, because Ehrentreu, Gurwicz and the rest will do their damndest to keep it alive.

Last updated: 11:45am, November 1 2013