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November 25, 2013 7:40 am

Limmud UK: Why Charedi Jews Oppose Pluralistic Learning

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Studying Talmud. Photo: Creative Commons via hooktothejaw.

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.

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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 toward 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 percent, amongst Charedi Jews it is 40 percent. 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.

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  • Reb Reuven

    To our dear author of this article. This is a matter of halacha. Unless you’re a contemporary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi M Feinstein or Rabbi JB Soloveitchik, you’re just not in the league to comment at all.

    Yes- Pluralistic platforms sound like a great opportunity to showcase Torah thought to a diverse range of people but a Rabbi (and really and Jew) represents the dictates of halacha so therefore must operate entirely within the policy rules of halacha.

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s view, as well as that of Rabbi M Feinstein and Rabbi JB Soloveitchik are clearly and strongly against pluralistic platforms.

    There’s no bigotry here. It’s Jewish law. Not opinion.

  • Just a Jew (ex-Charedi)

    I think this article is only laudatory and I can see nothing wrong with it.

    Those who think it attacks frumkeit have a superiority complex about Orthodoxy and don’t consider anyone less Orthodox than the Modern Orthodox as Jews. David’s comment above is representative. His rabid views are acceptable in Orthodox circles even if many Orthodox people would be more accepting (although no-one’s taken a poll so far as I know). This is the only reason they are offended: because the article dares to call a spade a spade – they control and intimidate their members from engaging in honest open debate and dialogue. How is this not true? This only recalls the great Charedi anti-Internet rallies. Being upset about accurate reporting is rather like Muslims being angry for Mohammed being described as violent.

    David: You don’t know what you’re talking about. Most Jews in America are Reform or Conservative. They’re still Jews. Reform and Conservative are still going strong after nearly 200 years. It’s reform and conservative Jews who have a focus on tikkun loam, fighting anti Semitism and making much if not most of the money to run Jewish and Israeli institutions. Get an education.

    Most Jews in Israel are secular and can’t stand the religious. Judaism is more than a religion; it’s a nation, an ethnicity, a family, a language group, a culture. Every nation has its national religion. Take away religion and we’re still Jews. So have some respect and listen to what other Jews have to say.

  • Rashi’s representative

    We could form a more informed opinion if the Chareidi point of view was expressed by someone who shares it,rather than an attacker. The rabbi protests too much.

  • YF

    With all Due Respect to the Esteemed Author (no sarcasm intended),

    I humbly suggest that the author’s disrespectful tone towards Chareidi Jewry as a whole and the London Beis Din are misplaced and offensive.
    Judaism is more than a series of rules associated with great literature, it is a system of enabling a simple human being to connect with G-d. This system is called the Torah. Therefore, when a prominent Rabbi (or in this case, a huge number of extremely scholarly and pious) Rabbis) bpycott/ban/ etc… something, it is a ringing declaration that this activity will not advance you towards your life’s goal/purpose. In fact, it could and likely will achieve the exact opposite.
    I am not a representative of the Beis din, nor am I particularly familiar with the Limmud program, but it appears to me that this boycott bears resemblance to a basic chareidi positio on similar matters throughout many different communities.
    Therefore, although you certainly have a right to your opinion, ad one cannot stop you from expressing it publically, to be entirely dismissive of the Chareidi Rabbinate at the very least contains traces of conceit, even if you vehemently disagree. And that they pressure those affiliated with them or the community they are bound to guide and direct is a basic responsibility, not an act of burying anyone’s head in the sand. In fact, it just may be that banning association with Limmud is the clearest sign their heads are towering high above the sand.
    This was writte with all due respect to the author and I apologize if anything came across as harsh. All the Best.

    • jeremy rosen

      You are wrong. I am not attacking the Charedi world any more than someone defending Chabad against Satmar is attacking the Charedi world. I do value the need to protect a closed vulnerable society and to hold the line.

      But there is a mind set in parts of the Charedi world that thinks that if you attack something it will go away. Look at how some Charedi rabbanim attacked Rav Natan Slifkin or Rav Kaminetzky, themselves frum yidden, simply because they took positions they did not like. Is that a sensible policy, to humiliate Yirei Shamayim? I don’t think so. It rebounds on them. It is counter productive.

      Here is an opportunity to teach Torah. Just because there are others present you do not approve of , that is no reason to deny people the beauty of hearing a Torah position.

  • Drl

    Jeremy,

    i respect your opinion on Limmud, but why such criticism of the previous chief rabbi and the United Synagogye, does it really aid your argument?

    • With respect I think it is important to illustrate both the illogicality and pettiness of the opposition especially from people one would have/might have expected more from.

    • jeremy rosen

      No one in our tradition is infallible. Everyone makes mistakes. Errors of judgment that are in fact counter productive. This is a case in point. They should face up to them.

  • david

    smartbomb to destroy judaism.
    reform and conservative have nothing to offer: they dont believe in the religion they are supposedly part of and young people see right through their hypocracy. why would a young people go to a temple where the female (perhaps lesbian) rabbi lectures about things she doesnt believe in to a bunch of people who may or may not even be jewish? reform was designed to mimick the german churches of the time. it is dying and mostly dead today.

    in comes feminism…
    now the orthodox can not allow women (or lesbian) rabbis and there are aspects of feminism that doesnt jive with jewish law. perfect!
    now the reform and conservative can do what the religious jews are not allowed to and make this their entire reason for being. doesnt matter if they are intermarrying like flies and no -one wants to set foot in a reform temple, but feminism (and gay rights) will carry the day!!

    • Not very clever of you to lump all Reform and Conservative Jews into one category!!! But even if you were completely right, have you not heard of the concept of Tinok Shenishba Beyn HaGoyim????

  • I realize full well that Chabad is made up of individuals who do not always agree but I must tell you that there are Chabad rabbanim and Chabadnicks like Laibel Wolf with whom I once shared a session at Limmud, who have indeed taught classes there over many years.

    Neither he nor I considered this to be giving anyone a platform except ourselves.

  • Dear Mr. Rosen
    You seem to be confusing 2 separate ideas.
    Indeed, at chabad, everyone is welcome!
    I myself am a chabadnik.
    At my Shabbos table everyone is indeed welcome.
    Religious and non religious alike can come and enjoy the jewish sphere.
    I have had at my table Jews of all backgrounds. I have even hosted a jewish convert to Islam and a sfardi who espouses Nturei Karte attitudes.
    Everyone is welcome does not mean moral relativism.
    Yes, everyone can and will participate in my public menora lighting this coming Sunday. The audience will include people who are the modern-day equivalent ofHellenists. I do not however give the hellenists a platform from which they can speak.

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