While much of Britain was awaiting the winner of The Great British Bake-Off, Jewish Brits were whipping themselves into a frenzy as to whether or not Chief Rabbi Mirvis should attend this year’s Limmud conference. The history of this debate is well-known. Lord Sacks did go before becoming Chief Rabbi but not after taking office: the London Beth Din has consistently maintained opposition to Limmud “because it blurs the distinction between authentic Orthodox Judaism and non-Orthodox beliefs and practices”.
It was no surprise when Chief Rabbi Mirvis declared his intention to attend Limmud —a stance which may have helped him secure the job of chief rabbi. It should equally have been no surprise when seven eminent rabbis from the Charedi community expressed their disapproval. The Gateshead Rav, Rabbi Shraga Faivel Zimmerman, who is one of them, made clear that the statement they issued was not a personal attack on Rabbi Mirvis — and he was still willing to work with the chief rabbi — but simply “a clarification of a long held opinion” by Torah scholars.
Thrown into the mix are various lay leaders, who while attempting to support Rabbi Mirvis, have sadly added their own inappropriate words of rebuke for the Charedi rabbis’ statement.
Everyone should understand that these seven rabbis, apart from the length and breadth of their learning, are kind, gentle and measured people. Their scholarship is accompanied by deep righteousness, rarely seen in the turbulent world we live in today. They care about and love every Jew, regardless of his or her level of observance. They are entitled to express their opinions and anyone who wishes to muzzle them does world Jewry a disservice.
But the reaction to the statement has led local rabbis to wonder whether their congregations will respect their choice to attend Limmud or not: and whether entry into the Orthodox rabbinate, or progression within it, will become dependent on their attendance at Limmud.
I last attended the national Limmud conference some 15 years ago. I felt the buzz seeing many people engaged in learning but I also experienced sessions that, from my Orthodox perspective, were sheer heresy. Some may find the word offensive but this is a key issue in the debate. I attended some sessions given by non-Orthodox speakers to see at first hand what others were being exposed to and it was truly alarming. Let’s not be naive about it.
The arguments for and against rabbis going are powerful. Should one take advantage of this huge audience and teach them authentic Torah? Every session heard from an Orthodox speaker means its audience did not hear a non-Orthodox speaker. Or should one keep away, since by participating, credence is given to the overall event and thereby to its non-Orthodox elements?
Rabbis face such dilemmas on a daily basis. On the one hand, should they be tolerant, inclusive and even turn a blind eye, thereby appearing to legitimise non-Orthodox practice or, on the other hand, should they uphold standards of Orthodoxy at whatever cost? Is Limmud just a magnification of this challenge or is it much more?
It may be argued that such a comparison is incorrect, since the tolerance and inclusivity shown by rabbis in their own communities, while sometimes on the edge of Orthodoxy, is still within a purely Orthodox framework.
Some cite cases of less religious people they know, who attended Limmud, increased their observance and even became fully Orthodox, as well as those who met their Jewish spouses there and now live more fulfilled Jewish lives. But there are also those whose heresy is enhanced and those who are led astray, not necessarily overtly but subconsiously.
In addition, some have met partners who they thought were Jewish since they had Jewish surnames and appeared Jewish, but then discovered later that only the person’s father was Jewish and therefore they ended up marrying someone outside the Jewish faith.
Some rabbis do not go to Limmud simply because they want to go on holiday with their families as all their children are off school then. But some, dare I say, may lack confidence or the scholarship to face unknown audiences, which may include some considerably knowledgeable people who are unfamiliar, as they are not from their own community.
British Jewry should calm down and embrace this healthy debate without making it personal. Make no mistake about it, if any one of the seven Charedi rabbis entered a room, Rabbi Mirvis would stand up for them and likewise if he entered a room, they too would stand up for him. There is no fall-out between him and them. Just respectful disagreement.
Imagine if Rabbi Mirvis had decided not to attend Limmud and another group of seven rabbis signed a letter urging him to attend, what would the lay leaders have done then? Would they have lambasted the chief rabbi? I bet that, at the very least, many would have expressed their deep disappointment. Censoring rabbis will never work; the free speech we espouse for our youth and society as a whole must extend to religious leaders also.
Rabbi Mirvis has taken a much-expected line and gained some support, but British Jewry must be ready for the time when he makes a decision not to the lay leaders’ liking. Will they support him then?