British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis Brings Message of Openness to Limmud

Decries 'Self-Imposed Ghetto' in Debut Appearance

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By Jane Eisner

Published December 23, 2013.
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So Mirvis is walking a very fine line. He recently angered feminists by dismissing the “partnership minyans” that allow for more female participation in Orthodox prayer services. But his words here will resonate, and so will his appearance.

He smartly opened by noting that at Limmud, “it’s impossible not to feel that it’s great to be Jewish and I’m delighted to be a part of it.” The audience clearly appreciated this legitimization.

He was a forceful speaker, at times charming, moving fluidly from referencing the new Prince George, the late Nelson Mandela, Kabbalah and lots of traditional Jewish texts, to story-telling that left the audience laughing.

While his central message was a standard mix of hope and faith, he tucked a universalistic theme into many of his comments. Moses achieved greatness even though he came from humble beginnings; that is, we all have the capacity to be leaders. In killing an Egyptian slavemaster and fetching water for the Midianite women who were otherwise ignored, Moses fought injustice and aligned himself with the oppressed; that is, we all should be willing to do for others.

At one point he even said that the purpose of Torah study is to be “in tune with those around us.”

But it was his closing affirmation of universalistic ideals that impressed me. Mirvis told the audience that they must be totally devoted to their fellow Jews, but that wasn’t enough. They also needed to be concerned about other people, “to reach out to all mankind.”

I suspect that a message like this would be greeted with a shrug by most American Jews, who are innately outward-focused and generally tolerant of other communities. Probably by most British Jews, as well.

But coming from the bastion of the establishment here, it means more. You could read these words as a sly slap at the ultra-Orthodox leadership that condemned Mirvis for even attending Limmud. I’d like to believe that the leader of an important Jewish community is instead saying that Jews cannot be so single-minded about their own survival that they ignore the plight of others and the imperative to combat injustice.

Who are those others? He didn’t say. That is for the rest of us to decide.

Contact Jane Eisner at eisner@forward.com or on Twitter at @Jane_Eisner


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