A Lesson From Limmud

Even now that the recent much-celebrated Limmud gathering in the historic cathedral town of Coventry, West Midlands, England has concluded, the celebration continues, at least in many Jewish media.

The popular Jewish event, which attracts people from all segments of the Jewish universe (and some, like the Reverend Patrick Morrow, who led a Limmud session at this year’s, from the non-Jewish one), is always loudly lauded as an opportunity to access a broad gamut of theologies and practices that have Jewish devotees.

But this year’s Limmud conference, at least to the media, was particularly exultation-worthy, as one of the attendees was Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the current chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, the first person holding that position to grace the proceedings with his presence.

Much, unsurprisingly, was made of that first. Rabbi Mirvis was warmly welcomed by those in attendance, and his speech was parsed by the press with the determination of high school teachers seeking puns in Shakespeare, in a quest to find hints of disdain on the rabbi’s part for the religious leaders of the more traditional Orthodox British community, who made clear that the rabbi’s attendance at Limmud was ill-advised.

Aside from celebrating and parsing, the media also, however, grossly misrepresented the reasons for the charedi rabbinic leadership’s opposition to Rabbi Mirvis’ participation.

One news service initially attributed the charedi objection to the belief that the chief rabbi’s appearance “represented a danger to British Jewry by suggesting it was acceptable for observant Jews to associate with less or non-observant Jews.”

After being called to task for not realizing the absurdity of the notion that charedim – with their innumerable (and rabbinically-endorsed) outreach organizations and efforts, personal friendships and study-partnerships with “less or non-observant Jews,” – somehow consider it unacceptable to associate with Jews different from them, the news agency, to its credit, quickly changed the version of its report and notified its clients of the change (for what that was worth; the amendment was largely ignored).

The replacement line read: “The critics had said the conference, which draws thousands of participants from all walks of Jewish life, represented a danger to British Jewry because of its inclusion of non-Orthodox religious perspectives.”

Closer but also misleading, as the charedi rabbis hadn’t issued any blanket condemnation of Limmud, but rather simply disapproved of a chief rabbi’s participation in it.

Those religious leaders’ longstanding and principled opposition to Orthodox rabbis participating in “multi-denominational” panels, rosters and such, derives from their feeling that being part of such events perforce promotes the notion that all “rabbis are rabbis,” equals in belief and scholarship, and that all self-defined “Judaisms” are legitimate forms of the Judaism of our ancestors. Many Jews may believe those things, but, in the eyes of charedi leaders, not only are those Jews wrong but it is wrong to do anything that could be construed as an endorsement of the error.

What’s interesting is something that somehow wasn’t widely reported about this year’s Limmud event. It seems that its organizers had originally scheduled two talks by one Marcus Weston, a trustee of the London branch of the Kabbalah Center, the Los Angeles-based purveyor of what it claims is a form of Jewish mysticism. However, after objections were raised – the Kabbalah Center has been accused of using mystical claims and promises to mislead people into supporting the group – Mr. Weston’s addresses were summarily cancelled.

According to the British newspaper The Jewish Chronicle, after the cancellations, the Kabbalah Center representative was impressively sanguine. He “fully respected the decision,” he said, although, he contended, “it would have brought great value to the event if participants were given the choice to learn and debate with us.”

Another reaction reported in the newspaper was that of London-born, now Denver-based, Rabbi Levi Brackman. He accused Limmud of having “caved in” to pressure and, with its declining to allow those attending the event to hear Mr. Weston’s views, being “unfaithful to its own mission.”

That mission does in fact include the conviction that “‘arguments for the sake of heaven’ can make a positive contribution to furthering our education and understanding,” and that “everyone can be a teacher and everyone should be a student.” Limmud, further, according to its literature, “does not participate in legitimising or de-legitimising any religious or political position found in the worldwide Jewish community.”

Apparently, though, Limmud’s leadership felt that a particular brand of Jewish expression had misled Jews and, if granted legitimacy by being included in the event program, would be empowered to further do so.

An entirely defensible, indeed proper and principled position. In fact, although Limmud may draw its lines in a different place, it is the very position of the much-maligned charedi leadership.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

[email protected]

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