Britain’s Chief Rabbi Embraces Limmud, Despite Protest From Ultra-Orthodox

Ephraim Mervis Will Attend December Gathering

Winds of Change: Rabbi Ephraim Mervis (above) will be the first British chief rabbi to attend a Limmud gathering.
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Winds of Change: Rabbi Ephraim Mervis (above) will be the first British chief rabbi to attend a Limmud gathering.

By Jennifer Lipman

Published October 23, 2013.
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If Jews in America eat out at Chinese restaurants on Christmas, large numbers of British Jews avoid the holiday entirely by heading out to Limmud, the annual learning fest for Jews of all stripes that has spread worldwide since its launch at Oxford University in the 1980s.

As the event’s popularity has grown by leaps and bounds, however, one Jew has been made conspicuous by his invariable absence at its British incarnation: the United Kingdom’s chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, or as he was formally known, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.

That’s about to change now: Ephraim Mirvis, the Commonwealth’s new, recently inaugurated chief rabbi, has announced his intention to attend Limmud’s 2013 gathering at the University of Warwick this December, setting off a furious reaction from ultra-Orthodox sectors of the country’s Orthodox community — the sector Mirvis officially represents even as his title makes him the most prominent public face of U.K. Jewry in general.

Deploring “pluralism” as “the ‘political correctness’ of the theological world,” several of the Haredi community’s leading rabbis have issued a public warning against any Orthodox rabbi’s participation in Limmud.

The Limmud gatherings, the rabbis lament in an Oct. 10th letter published in the Jewish Tribune, a Stamford Hill-based Haredi paper, “espouse the ethos of pluralism,” and the concept behind them “blurs the distinction between authentic Judaism and pseudo-Judaism.”

“We strongly advise any Jew whose heart has been touched by the fear of G-d … not to participate in any activity which is under the auspices of Limmud,” they warn.

Through a spokesman, Mirvis, who took office Sept. 1, told the Forward he was “disappointed” with the letter and “disagrees with its contents.” But he is not backing down on his decision to attend. And that is drawing a clear line between his tenure and that of his recently departed predecessor, Sacks.

“I see Limmud as an opportunity to teach Torah to large numbers of people who want to learn,” Mirvis said in a press statement. Indeed, the chief rabbi will not only attend Limmud, following in the footsteps of many of his congregants; he will also speak there.

Mirvis’ decision marks a clear break with Sacks’ approach toward the powerful, Haredi-dominated London Beth Din, which has strongly opposed Limmud. A charismatic media personality who presided over Orthodox Jewry in the U.K. for 22 years, “Lord Sacks identified himself with the Beth Din’s ruling on Limmud,” observed Geoffrey Alderman, a British Jewish academic and expert in Jewish history. “By saying so early on that he will go, Mirvis has drawn an absolute marker. He has made a rational decision about what the characteristics of his chief rabbinate will be.”


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