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.”

Last year 2,500 people came to the campus of the University of Warwick for Limmud’s winter gathering during Christmas holidays. That’s about 1% of all Jews in the U.K. Participants, as usual, ranged from young singles to families and retirees, and came from the full spectrum of religious backgrounds. The attendees heard a diverse range of speakers there, from the gay religious rapper Y-Love to Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub. The winter gathering is just one of many held in different countries, not to mention the scores of other Limmud events held all year round across the U.K.

But Sacks eschewed attending, though he often praised the organization (and was the father-in-law of Limmud’s former chair). He instead reached an uneasy compromise that halfheartedly permitted other Orthodox rabbis to attend.

Some Orthodox rabbis did so and become important advocates for Limmud, including Jeffrey Cohen, who at the time presided over the largest Orthodox congregation in Europe, Stanmore and Canons Park United Synagogue. But most heeded the London court’s overwhelming disapproval.

None of this, of course, affected the Liberal, Reform and Masorti communities, which have wholeheartedly embraced Limmud. Mirvis’ decision has ingratiated him with those movements, improving a relationship with non-Orthodox Jewry that did not always run smoothly during Sacks’ tenure. Some 38% percent of U.K. Jewry is affiliated with a non-Orthodox congregation or is unaffiliated.

“Some rabbis may choose to live in the segregated, medieval world of the past but Rabbi Mirvis is to be praised for reaching out,” commented Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism.

What Mirvis’ decision has done is place him at the center of tension between mainstream Orthodoxy and the ultra-Orthodox, whom he also nominally represents. It is a tension intensified by a higher birth rate among the latter.

Indeed, many mainstream Orthodox Jews viewed his predecessor Sacks’ repeated Limmud absences as a massive failure of leadership. Rabbi Naftali Brawer, who for years helmed one of the U.K.’s largest Orthodox communities, even called Mirivis’ move “too little too late” since so many in the mainstream rank-and-file of the Orthodox community have long been happily attending. Brawer, who has himself attended Limmud on several occasions, described it as “an unrivalled opportunity to impart one’s ideas.” He voiced regret that “the opportunity for Orthodox rabbis to really shape Limmud has been squandered.”

In an interview with the Forward, Rabbi S.F. Zimmerman, one of the signatories of the anti-Limmud public letter, stressed that the missive was “not personal to Mirvis.” He said he remained willing to work with the chief rabbi despite “a difference of opinions” on the issue. Zimmerman called the statement “a clarification of a long held opinion.”

Mirvis’ status as chief rabbi renders him “in a sense untouchable,” said Alderman. But the same is not necessarily true of other Orthodox rabbis. As a communal pulpit rabbi, Mirvis himself never attended Limmud, reflecting his own inclination then to toe the line.

Now, Orthodox rabbis less insulated than Mirvis will be under increased pressure, caught between the ultra-Orthodox rabbis’ opposition to Limmud and the chief rabbi’s embrace of it. The pressure can get quite personal.

“They will be thinking, if I support this will my children get shidduchim?” said Alderman, using the Hebrew term for a marriage match in traditional Judaism.

Added Barry Frankfurt, chairman of the minyan at Kinloss, Mirvis’ former synagogue: “It’s highlighted the very narrow path that those of us who consider ourselves Modern Orthodox walk.”

In his installation address, Mirvis vowed: “We shall not seek to impose our traditions on anyone.” His attendance at Limmud appears to be a concrete manifestation of that commitment. His challenge now will be to also maintain the respect and support of everyone as he does so.


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