The very first Limmud Conference was held at Carmel College in the UK during my time as principal. Alastair Falk, a teacher at Carmel, and some friends had been to a CAJE (Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education) in the USA and come back enthused by the range of participants, the enthusiasm, and the mood of commitment. Initially they thought only of replicating CAJE for teachers, but over time the concept expanded to become a forum for the study and experience of Jewish religious and cultural life. Over the years I have attended Limmud events. It now spans the Jewish world and brings together virtually the complete spectrum of Jewish life to celebrate Jewish culture, to study, to learn, and to debate.
The more successful Limmud became, the stronger the opposition from Charedi and not-so-Charedi rabbis in the UK. But why? Because Limmud commits the cardinal sin in UK Charedi eyes of welcoming all Jews regardless of denomination or degree of religiosity and gives everyone a platform. It is truly independent. It is not affiliated to any movement inside Judaism or out. Anyone who has something to say or teach can come and pitch his or her tent . So you might get a Reform teacher in one room and a Charedi teacher in the next. No one has to listen to anyone he does not want to and you can go right through Limmud attending every single hour of lectures and never hear one word of heresy. But yes, the opposite is true too. It’s a Jewish free for all. And UK religious authorities hate independence or anything they can’t control.
The Beth Din imposed a boycott that hitherto has succeeded in preventing most Orthodox rabbis in the UK from attending. They also reigned in any independent-minded rabbi who was unfortunate enough to be employed by the dominant and Orthodox institution of Anglo-Jewry, the United Synagogue. The previous Chief Rabbi Sacks, who was appointed on a much-trumpeted platform of inclusivity, lacked the fiber to stand up to the Right Wing. Not only did he not try to overrule what was, on paper at least, his court, but he betrayed his real constituency by refusing to go to Limmud, himself. Of course the former Chief Rabbi’s defenders have argued, with some justification, that his contribution to Jewry far outweighs his lapses. But genuine leadership is not just concerned with speaking and writing. It should involve action.
In Britain it is very rare for Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis to come together or to appear on a common platform. The official policy of the Beth Din is against any form of fraternization or cooperation. As if this will stop the drift towards assimilation. Barring gates never works. Strengthening and disseminating powerful values is what does, as the Baal Teshuva movements have shown. If you don’t like something, argue your case.
But Limmud is primarily for study. We, the people of the book, for whom study is probably the single most important factor in our survival, should welcome any opportunity to reach a wider Jewish audience. So what’s the issue? On paper it is the notion of recognition; if you invite other people with other ideologies you are “recognizing” the validity of their points of view. Strangely, this argument does not seem to apply to non-Jews. If a Chief Rabbi goes to Westminster Abbey to represent the community, is he thereby admitting that Christianity is right and Judaism is wrong? If a Chief Rabbi publicly debates with an atheist, is he thereby recognizing atheism? Of course not. But some on the right seem to think that if I attend a conference at which there are Reform rabbis, I am thereby accepting the validity of their ideology. We are more aggressive with internal schisms than we are with external threats. Freud put it beautifully as “the narcissism of little differences.” This is precisely why competing Chasidic dynasties engage in fisticuffs or why rabbis who back a different politician get beaten up.
Isn’t one of the successes of Chabad that they welcome and speak to and accept any Jew, regardless of affiliation? Does it mean that they are recognizing their different ideologies? If one has confidence in one’s own ideology, why not share it? Did the great proselytizers of our Talmudic past fear that talking to Pagans or Samaritans or Sadducees meant they recognized their points of view? Even the Mishna has rabbis teaching and working together with Sadducee priests who were not so different to Reform rabbis today. If there is a gathering of Jews eager and willing to learn, it is a scandal if Orthodox rabbis refuse an invitation to attend and a platform for their ideas.
The newly installed Chief Rabbi of the UK Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, to his great credit, has realized that he is not the Chief Rabbi of Bnei Brak, but of a broad Modern Orthodox and not so Orthodox community. He has declared he is going to attend. Good for him, and at last someone prepared to be true to his values. He was immediately and publicly attacked by the High and Mighty. Surprisingly, some other important rabbis not hitherto considered extreme, joined the nay chorus. At least Rabbi Mirvis has the guts to stand firm where others crumbled.
But what does this tell us about the Charedi world? It is one in which they resort to bully tactics to impose their point of view and one in which, ostrich-like, they think that if they bury their heads in the sand the problem will disappear.
The world of those committed to Torah and living it and studying it with passion is growing exponentially. But at the same time it is also facing a serious crisis. Latest figures show that while the employment rate amongst Orthodox Jews is 80%, amongst Charedi Jews it is 40%. What is the response of the leadership? To pretend there’s no problem. To go on insisting that any secular studies are against Torah, to bluster and ban and condemn.
There are millions of Jews out there eager for a passionate, Torah-imbued but reasonable and rational alternative. Most Jews are abandoning Judaism out of sheer ignorance. There are talented Charedi teachers who can show the depth and beauty of our tradition to Jews, regardless of denomination. But for reasons I cannot honestly fathom some rabbis still refuse to condone Jews going to Limmud to study.
Limmud is not an agency for according recognition. It is not a religious authority. It is simply a very successful forum for Jewish study and Jewish life of all sorts. There is not one good reason why any Jew should not go there to teach or to interact.