Rabbis Who Ban
People have every right to decide what they will read or listen to and what they will not. They also have the right to try to dissuade people from what they consider to be undesirable events and occasions. But one thing that annoys me intensely, and I think is absolutely futile, is to try to censor or to ban. As the Bible says, “Stolen water tastes sweet and bread eaten in secret tastes better.” Banning something tends to make it more attractive, not less.
Once again, a Chief Rabbi has issued a ban on going to a Limmud conference. This time, it is in South Africa. Interesting how such bans have tended to be in communities of the late British Empire. The office of the previous Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, warned rabbis about attending Limmud.
There are always going to be speakers from across the spectrum of Jewish life, some of whom you might disagree with or even condemn. Does anyone believe they will magically disappear, or their voices will be silenced, if you refuse to allow your flock to hear them? Is everyone so incapable of making up their own minds?
Surely Orthodox, Haredi, or whatever kind of traditional Judaism you choose should be able to stand on its own merit. It should have enough confidence in the power of its own message to focus on that, rather than on attacking other variations or denominations. It is a sign of weakness if you have to defend your position by trying to shut out other narratives.
For hundreds of years, the Catholic Church had a list of forbidden books (it is referred to by its short name, the Index). They often burnt books they did not approve of, including the Talmud. But they came to realize what an ineffective and self-destructive weapon this was.
But let us consider the dreaded evil that Limmud presents to the innocent vulnerable minds of Jews.
It was founded in the UK by a group of young, Orthodox Jewish Studies teachers in 1980. They had been to an educational conference in the US called CAJE, and were so impressed by the range of teachers, ideas, and teaching methods, that they came back to England determined to do something similar in the UK. Initially, it was entirely run on a voluntary basis, and is still largely amateur.
Over time, it has grown exponentially into a veritable festival of Jewish religious, artistic, musical, and political ideas, with hundreds of presenters on everything from Jewish cooking and dance to the whole panoply of different religious points of view. Thousands of people are attracted to its annual conference in the UK, and just as many to the local and international conferences around the Jewish globe. It is an amazing achievement — both in organization and the range of age groups it caters to. It is one of the great Jewish innovations of the past 50 years.
So why the opposition? Because there is a vein running through Orthodoxy called the “ostrich mentality.” If you don’t like something, bury your head in the sand and pretend it isn’t there.
It is the same mentality that says, “do not engage with people from other religions” — as if they will disappear if you don’t engage. Such an attitude might have been justified under Christian and Muslim oppression of the Jews and their desperate and often violent attempts to force Jews to convert. But in this day and age, this is simply not the danger it was. Even the Catholic Church has now declared it is against its principles to try to actively convert Jews.
In New York, one Jewish Community Center holds an annual Tikkun Leil Shavuot, where over 3,000 Jews of all flavors attend. Speakers range from Haredi, Chasidic, Orthodox — right across the Jewish religious spectrum to as far left as you can get. You are free to choose. No one forces anyone. No one is sat down in a straight-jacket and force-fed any heresy. There are also completely secular Jews coming to watch Jewish movies, taste Israeli wine, and attend poetry reading and drama.
How come US Jewry can do this and not collapse?
Censorship and banning just makes a monkey of those who try to ban. Remember how they tried to ban the Internet and have manifestly lost the battle? The answer is to educate, not ban.
There is an important obligation of Ahavat Yisrael — loving one’s fellow Jew. But it does not mean only those who share your same exact views. We need to welcome others, not ban them.