Rabbi I Have a Problem

If my rabbi won't go to Limmud, is it time to move shul?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi tackle issues in modern Jewish life


Question: I am a member of a central Orthodox synagogue whose rabbi won’t attend Limmud because of the presence of non-Orthodox rabbis. Is it time for me to move to a shul where the rabbi is prepared to go?

Rabbi Brawer: Even though Limmud offers unparalleled access to one of the largest gatherings of the widest cross- section of Jews, some Orthodox rabbis will forgo this exciting teaching opportunity, rather than present alongside their non-Orthodox colleagues. These rabbis argue that to attend Limmud is to confer legitimacy on non-Orthodox Judaism and this is something they feel duty bound to avoid.

Aside from the fact that non-Orthodox Judaism neither seeks nor requires Orthodox approval, Limmud is not in the business of conferring or withholding legitimacy on any movement. It is an open marketplace of ideas. Refusing to engage leaves such rabbis open to the critique that they lack the confidence to hold their own against more Progressive forms of Judaism.

The chasm between anti-Limmud rabbis and their congregants, who support and attend Limmud, is significant and indicates that the rabbis have not successfully made their case. Congregants do have a right to demand a cogent explanation from their rabbi as to why he chooses to shun the most important Jewish learning and teaching experience of the year.

Whether you should leave your shul over this very much depends on what you otherwise get out of belonging to it. Is it welcoming and nurturing? Does the rabbi otherwise inspire you? Are his sermons and classes engaging and stimulating? Do you leave services feeling uplifted? Is he present for you in times of need and celebration? 

One does not have to agree with every position taken by one’s rabbi — which is rare in any case — to feel comfortable with his leadership. The crucial question is not whether you agree with your rabbi, but whether you can respect him?

If your rabbi is an otherwise positive force in your life, it would be petty and self-defeating to resign your membership over his position on Limmud. But if his Limmud stance is symptomatic of a deeper misalignment between your spiritual and intellectual needs and what the rabbi is able or willing to offer, then you owe it to yourself to seek out a congregation with a rabbi whom you can admire and learn from.

The community you belong to and its rabbinic leadership ought to align with your values, even if broadly defined. When it becomes apparent that this is not the case, it is time to look elsewhere. Belonging to a community is a serious business and one should choose 
carefully and deliberately.    

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University

Rabbi Romain: Let’s make this very simple: Limmud means “learning”. It is not only a collection of Jews who wish to study more about Judaism, but it is the largest educational gathering of Jews in Britain.
Rabbi means “teacher”. So what rabbi worthy of his or her title would not want to be there, help Jews learn and impart his/her particular insights?

Yes, it would be Jews from mixed backgrounds, including those who belong to non-Orthodox communities and those not affiliated at all — but that should make it even more attractive: an opportunity to reach out and share with Jews whom one might not otherwise meet.

How extraordinary to pass up on such a chance. Even more astonishing when the reason given is that non-Orthodox rabbis are present. 

Your rabbi might well go to a local Council of Christians and Jews meeting and speak alongside a vicar. Does anyone think that by so doing he is about to convert to Christianity? It is just a form of derech eretz, the ability to have a civilised exchange of views.

Similarly, does the act of being near a non-Orthodox rabbi imply that he suddenly endorses Reform or Liberal Judaism? Of course not. No more than it suggests the Reform or Liberal rabbi is suddenly going to become a Chasid.

It does point to a curious lack of self-confidence by those who feel that being in the same room at someone who takes a different approach to them lessens their stature or weakens their influence. This applies particularly to Limmud when the accent is not on competitiveness or on being confrontational, but on sharing Jewish knowledge.

As for you leaving the shul, much depends on whether you reckon that this is a one-off point of disagreement between the two of you, and that in other respects your rabbi is a great personality with many strengths.

Or whether you think it typifies a deeper problem to do with a blinkered attitude to Jewish life, which makes it impossible for you to feel at home under his leadership.

If it is the former, then you should not only stay put, but also try to initiate a discussion on the issue. After all, if his boss, the Chief Rabbi, can attend Limmud, why should he not?

However, if it reflects a wider malaise, then transfer to a shul where you can breathe religiously and grow Jewishly.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

If you have a problem to put to our rabbis, please ring 020 7415 1676 or email with details

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