On The Limmud Controversy

As many have pointed out in recent weeks, public controversy is often damaging and unhelpful. However, all the rabbinic voices in the ongoing public controversy over Limmud have opposed Limmud and Orthodox participation in it. It is surely reasonable for an Orthodox rabbi who thinks differently to speak out honestly and openly.

I first attended Limmud in 1994 and have since been to almost every national Conference as well as many day Conferences. It is a wonderful event which I always find uplifting, blessed by the incredible energy, enthusiasm and ability of a host of volunteers, many of them young and already showing great commitment to the Jewish community.

Sessions at Limmud reflect the variety of perspectives that exist in the contemporary Jewish world. Limmud has for nearly two decades now had Orthodox opponents as well as supporters, and I accept that one can make a case against Orthodox participation in Limmud, although there is in my view a far stronger argument to be made in favour of Orthodox and Orthodox rabbinic participation. Machloket leshem shamayim should be possible here.

But I struggle to understand why the gilui da’as of the seven rabbis – two of whom I know personally and admire – which initiated the latest sad series of events was written in such a way as to undermine the possibility of such machloket. I struggle to understand how rabbonim, however senior and respected, can claim to know the mind of HaShem concerning Limmud – a claim that could legitimately be made only by a prophet. I struggle to understand why they told dedicated young volunteers, many of them from our own Orthodox communities, who put so much dedication and commitment into Limmud out of the best possible motives of love for the Jewish people, that G-d does not approve of their path.  I struggle to understand the purpose of calling non-Orthodox Judaism “pseudo-Judaism”, language which only serves to drive many people further away from our tradition.  I struggle to understand a simplistic Manichean view of the world in which haredi Orthodoxy is the sole, direct and simple continuation of Torah miSinai and every other contemporary form of Judaism is deluded. The signatories of the gilui da’as included rabbis who deliberately live lives totally secluded from the mainstream British Jewish community. One doubts whether they understand that community, let alone Limmud.

The Jewish Tribune on Friday carried a statement from the Adas Bet Din denouncing Orthodox rabbinic participation in Limmud and, en passant, criticising Shuls which (like my own) encourage women to dance with a Sefer Torah on Simchat Torah, as well as Shuls which allow the taking of the Sefer Torah into the ezrat nashim  for women to kiss. The irony is unbearable. Not satisfied with jumping on the anti-Limmud bandwagon, the Adas Bet Din tells us how to conduct our Shuls on issues affecting women, the very area where their failure over the Halpern affair has been so egregious.

The gilui da’as sparked an angry response from a group of lay leaders. It was, probably rightly, pointed out that some of them were not qualified to enter into theological debate. However, the lay leaders doubtless would have preferred to leave the response to the mainstream Orthodox rabbinate – but rightly surmised that, sadly, no critical response of any sort would be forthcoming.

A few days ago, Rabbi Kimche circulated his article. An excellent response has been made by Samuel Lebens at https://www.facebook.com/notes/sam-lebens/open-letter-to-rabbi-kimche/10151663623421901. Two additional points can be made. First, Rabbi Kimche is correct that a number of sessions at Limmud express viewpoints opposed to Orthodox ones. They may even have increased in number and in how radical they are. But if they have, that is because Orthodox rabbis and teachers have failed to attend Limmud in sufficient numbers and promote an Orthodox voice.  Orthodox rabbis need to be at Limmud in larger numbers, not fewer. Secondly, one is tempted to respond to Rabbi Kimche: if you have problems with Limmud, why not set up an alternative Orthodox event? That of course happened a number of years ago – the Encounter Conference, an interesting omission from Rabbi Kimche’s article. Encounter distinguished itself by attempting to deligitimise Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. It then disinvited Chief Rabbi Sacks to Manchester Encounter, hurriedly U-turning when some key funders threatened to pull out. Finally, the coalition of groups which put Encounter together fell out among themselves, and Encounter ceased to exist. What began because of delegitimisation of Limmud ended, compelled by its own bizarre inner logic, in effectively delegitimising itself.

It is hard to escape the feeling that we in the Orthodox rabbinate have let our community down in recent weeks, and frankly it is hard not to feel shame and distress at what has occurred. I look forward to learning and teaching at this year’s Limmud; it is one of British Jewry’s greatest ever achievements and it is a privilege to be a part of it.

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5 thoughts on “On The Limmud Controversy

  1. I have booked for Limmud again this year. I went last year after a break of about 5 years, having previously attended for at least 6 years (maybe longer). The reason I had stopped going is because I felt like there was a big drop in Orthodox speakers I wanted to hear. As you say, I really felt that Orthodox rabbis and teachers were failing to attend Limmud in sufficient numbers and promote an Orthodox voice – when I went last year the balance felt right again. One of the best things about Limmud is the choice, and I felt like I had a choice again.

    I know many people who;
    - if they hadn’t been involved with Limmud would not be involved with anything Jewish at all,
    - have become frum/ more religious through Limmud,
    - met their Jewish partners through Limmud,
    - find a fun/ different part of Jewish life which they would not be able to experience otherwise at Limmud (Joshua Nelson anyone?),
    - or just find it a great way to enhance their Jewish learning.

    Do the Dayanim really think that by ignoring it, or not participating, they are doing anything other than turning people away from Judaism? Do they think if they ignore Limmud it will wither away? Out of pure prejudice (although they disguise it as something else), they are ignoring the wonderful opportunity that Limmud offers to get the disengaged interested and involved. They could use it as a useful means to spread their message and love of Torah, and create a sense of genuine community.

    I would go so far as to say by blocking participation, they are turning people away from orthodoxy and Judaism and that any outcome from that should sit firmly on their shoulders.

  2. A Rabbi means “Teacher”, so how can anyone of that title be dismissive of an event, where two thousand Jews mostly young attend an event of Jewish learning, at a time of year when they are so many secular distractions?, as Rabbi Harris mentioned, their was a purely Orthodox event a number of years ago, and it appears even the then chief Rabbi was good enough for some, in other words, ” they had their chance to saw their broad- mindless , and they blow it”.

  3. Having just read a number of excellent responses to those who are busy denouncing Orthodox Limmud attendees, I feel as if I have nothing further to add. But I would nonetheless like to write in support of everything that Rabbi Harris has written, and to express my surprise and disappointment that he had to write it. I attended Limmud many years ago and recall the controversy surrounding it back then. I am looking forward to flying in for Limmud this year after a long absence, and presumed in my naivety that Orthodox attendance was surely no longer an issue that could stoke controversy. How wrong I was. But my mistaken assumption, it seems to me, might possibly be down to my move to New York about 6 years ago. American Jewry is FAR from perfect and has many very real problems, but on this particular type of interdenominational issue, it pains me to say that it seems to act with far more maturity.

    I teach at a large Modern Orthodox institution – Yeshiva University. I also teach adult education every week at a large Reform Temple in Manhattan – Temple Emanuel – as part of a program that includes teachers and students from all denominations. In effect, from an educational perspective, it’s a weekly (if very small) Limmud. I am sure that there are rabbis at Yeshiva University who would not themselves teach on the program, and am pretty sure that there are some who disapprove of my doing so – though I also know that I have other colleagues at YU who similarly teach at Reform Temples, and that there are rabbis who are enthusiastic about my teaching on this program. But the notion that it is some unspeakable sin to be giving a class in a building and a program that simultaneously houses different denominations simply doesn’t register. Indeed, I find it bizarre, not to mention deeply distressing, that I can recall from my childhood an incident whereby a certain individual – as humble and self effacing as he was brilliant – was removed from the Torah-reading roster of his Orthodox synagogue for giving a one-off midweek talk at a Reform Synagogue. Of course, Limmud works on a far bigger scale than this, but the unseemly disputes surrounding it are symptoms of the same malady.

    I am not going to justify my going to Limmud – I simply feel no need to do so. I understand that some people do wish for justifications, but they generally seem to be people who feel that it is wrong to attend and will not be convinced by any such justification. Such a stance is absolutely fine, but for that reason surely we should just agree to disagree without the need to make a public spectacle of such disagreements or to issue condemnations clothed in pseudo-halakhic garb. Somehow everyone here in the USA manages to understand that there are different views on these matters without feeling the need to take to some public forum to denounce those with whom they differ for holding those views.

    And yes, I understand that some smart alec will point out the irony of “denouncing” those who denounce people who go to Limmud. But we are not denouncing people who do not go to Limmud. We are denouncing their denouncement of those who do.

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