I am (in case you hadn’t noticed) a congenital pessimist, albeit with a refined sense of humour. Optimists believe that things will always turn out for the best. Often they don’t, which is why optimists are prone to sadness. We pessimists believe that things will usually go wrong. Often they don’t, which is why pessimists are basically happy people.
And I’m certainly happy at the way the Limmud controversy is turning out. I am no particular fan of Limmud, but no particular foe. I have attended Limmud events maybe three times, always to give prearranged presentations.
The rather boring wider politics surrounding Limmud have, until very recently, passed me by. But now I’m beginning to enjoy myself. Because, as a result of these politics, British Jewry is, it seems, at last having a debate (or, rather, a public debate) that it should have had publicly a long time ago: what do we mean by authentic Judaism, and what are authentic Jews?
Those of you with a theological bent might be tempted to protest that this debate is at least as old as the Talmud, if not older. After all, the 63 “tractates” that make up the Talmud are themselves replete with controversy: to take a very topical example, should we light one candle on the first night of Chanucah, two on the second and so on, or should we light eight on the first, seven on the second, and so forth, with only one alight on the final night instead of eight? Both methods are equally correct.
Should we fix a mezuzah case vertically or horizontally on a doorpost? The truth is, we’re not quite sure, which is why most (dare I use this term?) authentic Jews would fix it diagonally — which is of course an exquisite, rabbinically ordained fudge.
Or, to take a final example, must we all stand for Friday-evening kiddush, or can we sit down? In fact, both practices are equally valid. No Jew that I know of would dare say that someone who recites that kiddush sitting down is committing a sin, or has somehow cut themselves off from the faith into which they were born.
Those of you with a theological bent might now be muttering that these arguments all take place within a particular framework, which, for want of a better word, we are accustomed to call “Orthodox.” And those of you with a theological bent might be adding that, while Jewish Orthodoxy is indeed a “broad church”, there are parameters beyond which no Jew can venture without risking damnation as a heretic. So let me turn, for a moment, from the sublime to the ridiculous.
I have in front of me as I write, a truly horrific photograph. Dated November 20, it shows two alleged Jews, complete with wide-brimmed black hats, beards and sidelocks, presenting a shiny new ambulance to the Hamas government of Gaza.
The photograph accompanies an article in the online Jewish Press (November 22) by its reporter Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu, to whom we must all be indebted for exposing a scandal — no, two scandals — within the Orthodox world.
The first is that so-called Jews can possibly think it a commendable act to make a free gift to Hamas (whose Charter calls unashamedly for the destruction of the Jewish people) of a vehicle that could well be used (as other ambulances have been) to smuggle Islamic terrorists into Israel.
The second is that the organisation to which these two alleged Jews belong — Neturei Karta — has not been formally condemned as a heretical sect. For, while it is true that some leading rabbis (including the late Gaon, Moshe Feinstein) have indeed damned Neturei Karta as heretical, and not part of klal Yisrael, few people, even within the broad-minded Orthodox circles in which I move, would dare brand NK as (in however nebulous a sense) anti-Jewish.
Let me put the matter this way. Suppose next month’s Limmud were to have included a presentation by NK justifying its gift of an ambulance to the Hamas government of Gaza. Would we now be hearing so much as a peep from any of the rabbis who have taken it upon themselves to publicly condemn (if not in so many words) Chief
Rabbi Mirvis for daring to grace Limmud with his presence?
I would like to think that we would. But I’m afraid that my sense of the real — my innate pessimism — tells me otherwise.