Let My People Go to Limmud

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Limmud is a pluralistic Jewish organization that organizes learning conferences for Jewish people all over the world. Limmud London is a very large gathering and for the first time ever, it is being attended by the new Chief Rabbi of England, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. This has set off a controversy. Many charedi rabbis have prohibited their constituents from attending Limmud and are urging Rabbi Mirvis to renege on his commitment to attend.  A very important discussion within the Orthodox Jewish community has ensued.

limmudRabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo defends the position of the Chief Rabbi in the Jerusalem Post. His argument is mostly that Limmud is a tremendous opportunity to showcase the beauty of Orthodox Judaism to the world and instead of taking that opportunity, they have handed it off to non-Orthodox Jews. Jonathan Rosenblum defends the charedi position in an article on Cross-Currents. His argument can be summarized as a reaffirmation that attending events with non-Orthodox Jews is the wrong forum for teaching Torah. He bases this on two assumptions. One is that Limmud is not serious about learning because they have too many fluffy sessions like “50 Shades of Hummus” and a drumming workshop. The second assumption is that something bad will happen if Orthodox rabbis attend a pluralistic event. He does not mention this in his article, but it is the underlying assumption here. Without making this assumption, his argument about the forum not be serious enough is flailing in a soft breeze.

Rabbi Adlerstein adeptly attacks this assumption in his latest article on Cross-Currents.

The assumption is not necessarily based on facts, evidence, or reason. It is based on a rabbinic proclamation issued 58 years ago and signed by Hall of Fame Orthodox rabbis from the bridge generation between Europe and America. This proclamation declared that it was prohibited by the Law of the Torah to be a member of an organization of Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis. In turn, this edict has been interpreted and expanded by the Orthodox Jewish establishment to include any joint learning or activity that may seem to give tacit approval to non-Orthodox movements.

As only he can, Rabbi Adlerstein softly and respectfully suggests that perhaps it is time to revisit this assumption. He makes two arguments. First, the reason for the proclamation in 5716 was to address Jews on the fence between Orthodox and non-Orthoodox Judaism. In his opinion, this is no longer a valid concern.

I agree. In fact, there is no more fence. Now we have a Grand Canyons between us. The soft center is nearly gone. Rabbi Sacks lamented this in his controversial farewell address. It’s true. So there is hardly a concern that we are going to lose the soft middle to non-Orthodox movements if we acknowledge they exist.

Second, Rabbi Adlerstein seems to be saying that working together need not imply approval, tacit or otherwise. We are absolutely capable of engaging in a discussion while acknowledging our irreconcilable differences. We do it all the time in real life. We don’t only talk to people with whom we agree on everything. Somehow it works.

I agree with this as well. Rabbi Shubert Spero made this argument in the 1960’s. He was correct back then and Rabbi Adlerstein is correct today.

It’s possible that we can be a little more forceful that Rabbi Adlerstein. We actually have a responsibility to our shrinking non-Orthodox brethren to shine bright the light of passionate, compassionate, enlightening and enlightened Judaism. Non-Orthodox Judaism has kept many of our brothers and sisters in the fold. They are Jewish and religious in their own way thanks to Reform, Conservative, and the rest of them. For that we sincerely thank them. But many yearn for more. Not everyone that yearns for more will become Orthodox. Many of them would never attend a lecture that has Kiruv written all over it. But they will attend Limmud. They will attend other pluralistic events. That is our opportunity to inspire them.

There is no cost anymore. There is nothing to fear from showcasing our version of Judaism to more people, even if there is a drum circle 25 yards away. Nothing bad is going to happen. They are not the enemy. Our mutual enemy is leaving Judaism, God, and religion entirely. We are actually partners in that war. Let’s fight together.

The only reason we think something bad might happen is because we have a rabbinic edict telling us so.

But the truth is that the edict itself never prohibited a rabbi from speaking at Limmud or at a similar event. It merely prohibited membership to pluralistic organizations. We don’t need to violate the edict in order to participate! Why make the letter more broad than its words? It is shooting ourselves in the foot for no good reason. One can stay loyal to the Gedolim who signed the proclamation and speak at Limmud. They are not mutually exclusive.

We can debate the value of the rabbinic edict with regard to membership another time. Limmud is not membership. It is a speaking engagement. An amazing opportunity that I can only hope will inspire more rabbis to participate in a similar way in the future. We can pave the way for a time where all Jewish people can learn from one another. Yes, there are even some things that Orthodox Jews can learn from non-Orthodox Jews, despite Jonathan Rosenblum’s insistence to the contrary.

Never underestimate the power of unity. We can do great things together if we take a break from chasing demons from the last century.

Links: JPost, Rosenblum Cross-Currents, R’ Adlerstein Cross-Currents

  • ahg

    Nice article. But, you’re probably preaching to the choir on your blog here. Over at Cross-Currents they probably see things a little differently.

    For example:
    (1) Your wrote “Non-Orthodox Judaism has kept many of our brothers and sisters in the fold.” They would say that’s an oxymoron; by definition non-Orthodox is out of the fold.
    (2) Your wrote “They are Jewish and religious in their own way thanks to Reform, Conservative, and the rest of them.” They believe that if it weren’t for organized religion outside of Orthodoxy, more Jews would have stayed Orthodoxly observant. They fault the other movements for the attrition from Orthodoxy in the early to mid 20th century.

    They might be receptive to seeing Limmud as a kiruv opportunity through people like Rabbi Alderstein. However, an MO rabbi has no chance of getting them to see the other movements as anything other than the enemy… the canyon between chareidim and anyone else is growing to vast.

    • I have many readers who are not part of the choir. But even if I did, the hope is that the choir will grow and share my thoughts to the others…

      • Susan Barnes

        I hope I’ll see some of the choir (new members or old) at Limmud Bay Area in 2014.

  • Susan Barnes

    Here’s a thought: Not only might the Orthodox people who participate in Limmud help to inspire people who are not Orthodox, the Orthodox might also be inspired by, and learn some things from, those who are not Orthodox – without losing their firm grasp on their own Orthodoxy.

    • I had an additional couple paragraphs about that but I cut them at the end because it’s a different topic and issue. But I agree! (I’ve said it before).

  • NeilSHarris

    Very nicely stated, R Fink. About a week and a half ago I attended my first planning meeting for Limmud Chicago. I have been playing with the idea of getting involved (and presenting) for five years. I was one of two out of twenty-five that were outwardly Orthodox and was made to feel very welcome (and the location of be meeting also hosts drum circles). For me it boils down to the fact that I will have an opportunity to give over something from our mesorah.

  • ahg

    One additional thought on what you wrote: “They are Jewish and religious in their own way thanks to Reform, Conservative, and the rest of them.” As I previously posted, over at Cross Currents they will tell you that the existence of the other movements weakened Jewry further, not the other way around.

    What I am asking now is – Are they right? Watch the video linked below from “The Shabbos Project” in South Africa – where there is not much of an organized Jewish religious presence outside of Orthodoxy. Recently in South Africa tons of Jews across the county, who normally don’t keep Shabbat, kept a halachic Shabbat. Could that happen in the US?

    Are Jews in parts of the world, where other movements never took hold, generally more traditionally minded? Without other options that validate a religious lifestyle that’s not halachic, are people who seek religion/spirituality more likely to make the effort to become orthodoxly observant? If the answers are yes, and consider that they might be, then the other movements haven’t really helped by creating a comfort zone outside of Orthodox observance- have they?

    Video link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSOUGRnGkCM&noredirect=1

    P.S. I’m not making a statement one way or the other here. Just providing food for thought.

    • Susan Barnes

      A good example to look at is Israel. A lot of the Jews there are secular, since Orthodoxy doesn’t work for them, and many of them believe it’s Orthodox or nothing. Now that the more progressive movements are starting to gain traction there, more previously secular Israelis are starting to get involved in non-Orthodox synagogue life, plus there is now a revival in “secular” Talmud study, a “secular yeshiva” movement, etc.

      • ahg

        Israel is not a good comparison to the United States. (1) The Chareidi control of a lot of state affairs has been a turn off too many from any form of Orthodoxy. (2) In only the Jewish state there is the belief that just by virtue of living there, your kids will identify as Jews – without any effort to at all to affiliate, practice, educate, etc. required. It makes Israel a unique situation where people abandoned all observance that may not be comparable to diaspora circumstances.

        • Susan Barnes

          What you say may be true, yet non-Orthodox Judaism is starting to draw Jews in Israel back into becoming more religious, and may very well be doing so elsewhere also.