Limmud and the Orthodox Fiasco
Courage is the word that comes to mind when we think of Britain’s new Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’ decision to come to Limmud, the largest Jewish conference in the world, which will take place in England at the end of the year. It is a sad commentary on the state of contemporary Orthodox leadership when a chief rabbi is called courageous because he accepts the invitation to teach Torah at such a remarkable Jewish event. What could be more obvious? But the truth is that courage has indeed become a rare commodity in large segments of Orthodoxy.
The letter written by the venerable Dayan Ehrentreu, former Rosh Beit Din of the United Synagogue, as well as some other leading British dayanim and rabbis, calling on fellow Jews not to participate in the upcoming Limmud conference in England because spokesmen of the Reform and Conservative movements will also be present, is most telling. It has once again thrown British Jewry into a fierce, highly publicized, and embarrassing confrontation.
Religious condemnation in the form of bans and harshly written edicts is the worst action these eminent rabbis can take. It displays symptoms of fear, helplessness and miscalculation. It reflects fundamentalism and dogmatism. Bans such as these are identified with those issued by the Christian clerical authorities who condemned Galileo in the seventeenth century for suggesting that the earth was not at the center of the universe. Bans have been used against demons, witches and other forms of superstition—hardly activities these rabbis want to be associated with.
It is a sad state of affairs when rabbis believe they can still hide behind high-walled citadels of exclusiveness. More than that, it indicates a total disconnect from reality. Today, we communicate with one another in unprecedented ways. The rules of waging an ideological war have drastically changed, just as the overall situation of the Jewish people has. What once worked is now nothing more than a farce. While a large part of the Orthodox world continues to believe that there is no need for change, the truth is that there is almost nothing more misleading and dangerous than that belief.
Cracks in the walls of Orthodox strongholds are everywhere around us—the higher the walls, the larger the cracks—and by no artificial process can they be mended again. To believe otherwise is nothing more than wishful thinking.
The fact that Orthodox rabbis stay away from conferences such as Limmud is downright embarrassing to all of us Orthodox teachers. The hopelessness of thinking that anyone will be convinced of the truth of Orthodox belief when its educators stay away because teachers from other movements participate has gone beyond the point of debatable. Such ideas have faded into flickering embers that have lost all meaning. All it does is convince people that Orthodox Jews are afraid of any confrontation with those who think differently. It turns Orthodox Judaism into a laughing stock and convinces intelligent young Jews that it is an outmoded form of Judaism, which no longer has anything to offer and is driven by nothing but fear.
It inexplicably does not occur to these rabbis that by staying away they hand Limmud over on a silver platter to the non-Orthodox denominations, strengthening these very movements. One wonders why they don’t see what is crystal clear to everybody else. The enormous damage done by not having Orthodox teachers participating cannot be emphasized enough. Who of the distinguished dayanim and rabbis have the right to deny the participants of Limmud the opportunity to hear the Orthodox point of view? How do they dare to stay away?
Arguments that it is a matter of principle not to participate because it will give credibility to non-Orthodox denominations are completely unfounded, since Limmud does not give credence to anybody and is nothing more than a market place where people try to sell their goods. Deciding not to attend is like deliberately closing one’s business on the Internet and going bankrupt because competing businesses have the chutzpah to use the Internet as well.
Indeed, isn’t fear of the Conservative and Reform movements the real reason for the rabbis’ refusal to participate? Too many Orthodox rabbis have no knowledge about these denominations. They don’t study their arguments, read their literature or even speak to those who stand for these ideas. They’re afraid of these movements because they don’t know how to refute them. When they are asked by Limmud participants why they don’t agree with these denominations and why Orthodoxy is the right path, they are at a loss for words. Their principle seems to be similar to that of the person who reviewed a book but refused to read it first because it would prejudice him too much. Arguments today used against Reform and Conservative ideas are often outmoded clichés. Many rabbis are not even aware that major positive changes have taken place within these groups. Neither do they seem to be aware that Orthodoxy itself is constantly reformulating its ideology so that it can meet the new and daunting challenges that modernity heaps upon our Jewish and non-Jewish societies.
Would it not be possible to show a bit of humility and actually listen to some of the opponents’ arguments? Reform and Conservative Judaism, in many ways but not solely, resulted from Orthodoxy’s failure to read the religious map correctly. There is much evidence supporting the claim that some delicate religious souls were searching for a Judaism that was committed to Halacha but not authoritarian, and Orthodoxy failed to deliver. Would some modesty not be appropriate here? Is Orthodoxy always right, and can it actually claim that it has the truth and nothing but the truth? Is absolute theological certainty indeed the hallmark of Orthodoxy? Anybody who studies the primary religious texts of Judaism knows better. To a great extent, authentic Judaism consisted of a multitude of seriously competing ideas, and while simultaneously not compromising Halacha there was a full awareness among the Sages that even Halacha was open to many opinions.
The enormous loss of prestige that Orthodoxy has suffered over the last hundred years, due to its failure to understand what was happening with the spiritual condition of our people, is beyond description. It has still not realized that it is nothing short of a miracle that so many young, intelligent Jews became or even remained Orthodox despite what Orthodoxy had to offer. Most of the time, it was possible only because some Orthodox individuals, thinkers and leaders went their own way and, just like the Baal Shem Tov, realized that mainstream Orthodoxy got it terribly wrong. The outcome of the constant war waged by conventional Orthodoxy against these new ideas and new directions was predictable. It capitulated, leaving behind lots of fatalities.
Real Orthodoxy has nothing to fear. It has all the vital ingredients necessary to enter the battlegrounds and show its worth. Judaism is the most astonishing and daring religion with which the world has been blessed. It has infinite courage, standing head and shoulders above everything else. It dares, and never avoids any obstacle or critique. It enjoys a good fight so that it can enrich itself. It is a protest movement against many “isms,” but above all against small-mindedness.
I call on Dayan Ehrentreu, who is not only a great scholar but also an outstanding orator, to come to Limmud. Instead of criticizing Chief Rabbi Mirvis, he should compliment him for his courage and ask Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks to join him, abandoning his former practice of stopping him from going to Limmud. I encourage the Dayan to sit on panels with Reform and Conservative rabbis and thinkers and carefully listen to what they have to say, take advice from them and, if necessary, prove them wrong. He should invite them to join him in the struggle to ensure that young Jews fall in love with Judaism and become convinced of the beauty of Orthodoxy.
Judaism is on the decline in many parts of the world, and we have to do everything in our power to turn the tide. What is necessary is creative thinking and bold ideas. Scaring people away from Limmud is the last thing we need. It’s a sign of cowardice. If Orthodoxy is unable to educate its followers to withstand other ideologies, it is guilty of an educational fiasco.
Dear Dayan Ehrentreu, do not spend your energy on denunciations and censorship. Show us that real Orthodoxy is unbeatable. That’s what we are all waiting for: Orthodox courage.