Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis this week announced he is to attend the Limmud cross-communal education conference in December – the first serving chief rabbi to do so since its launch in 1980.
In a statement on Monday, he said that was “very pleased to be participating” in the event. “As I said in my installation address, one of my primary functions is as teacher of the community. I see Limmud as an opportunity to teach Torah to large numbers of people who want to learn.”
His predecessor, Lord Sacks, although he attended Limmud before becoming chief rabbi, stayed away after taking office.
But US rabbis had widely anticipated that Chief Rabbi Mirvis would be willing to set a precedent.
Although the London Beth harbours reservations about Orthodox rabbis going, a spokesman said that the dayanim recognised that the decision was the prerogative of the Chief Rabbi.
United Synagogue president Steve Pack said that he “wholeheartedly” welcomed the Chief Rabbi’s move.
“Limmud is one of Anglo-Jewry’s greatest achievements and exports, and conference presents a fantastic opportunity for teaching Torah,” Mr Pack stated. “I know that participants will enjoy hearing from the Chief Rabbi and benefit from learning with him.”
In 1995, Chief Rabbi Sacks said that US rabbis were free to attend the event at their own discretion. But most Orthodox rabbis have complied with the wishes of the London Beth Din, headed until 2006 by Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, who was opposed to Orthodox rabbis attending an educational event where non-Orthodox rabbis also spoke.
Over time, Limmud has grown from a small winter retreat for educators to a mass participation event attended by 2,500 people – many of them from congregations under the Chief Rabbi’s aegis.
Oliver Marcus, co-chairman of this year’s event, said: “We are delighted Chief Rabbi Mirvis has chosen to join us at Limmud conference as a presenter and a participant.”
A spokesman for the Beth Din said that the dayanim remained “seriously concerned that the attendance of Orthodox rabbis at Limmud blurs the distinction between authentic Orthodox Judaism and non-Orthodox Jewish beliefs and practices.”
But they retained “every confidence” in the chief rabbi and offered him “every support”.
One US source said that there was “a very strong argument today that if he would not go, it would cause serious damage to the community”.
In 1995, just one United Synagogue rabbi, Dr Michael Harris, of Hampstead Synagogue, was prepared to defy the disapproval of the Beth Din and go to Limmud.
The following year, the day-long Encounter conference was launched at Dayan Ehrentreu’s instigation as an Orthodox alternative to Limmud, but the initiative was abandoned nine years later when it was recognised that US congregants were still going en masse to Limmud.
In recent years, the number of rabbis at Limmud from the US or regional Orthodox universities has been growing.
Rabbi Baruch Davis, chairman of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, said Rabbi Mirvis’s move had been “fairly expected. The message he has put out is very clear. He sees teaching Torah as his number one priority and that his attendance at Limmud will help fulfil that goal.
“At the same time, he is accommodating of the fact that not everyone shares his view. So colleagues who go will feel supported, but colleagues who choose not to go will take that decision with support of the chief rabbi. It is up to the individual.”
More US rabbis would now be ready to appear at the conference, Rabbi Davis believed. “A lot of our US members attend Limmud. The chief rabbi clearly sees it as a great opportunity to spread his message to our community and beyond.”
Rabbi Sybil Sheridan, chairman of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK, was delighted at the news. “For too long, the chief rabbinate has been on the sidelines of the most dynamic and creative element of Anglo-Jewish life,” she said.
Limmud, she said, was "at the heart of Jewish learning and culture and the chief rabbinate should be at that heart”.
Limmud co-founder Clive Lawton said the chief rabbi’s decision was “an excellent token of what direction he wants to take - to participate with the people. That has been one of his characteristics as a communal rabbi.”
Kevin Sefton, chairman of the overall Limmud organisation, said “Limmud in Hebrew means learning - one of Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ passions as both a teacher and as a student. Because of this we are sure that he will find Limmud conference a very rewarding experience.”