He makes a good argument but falls a bit short. I must admit, however, that in a recent article in The Jewish Press, Rabbi Gil Student makes some very valid observations – both pro and con about Limmud.
Limmud, one may recall is an interdenominational event whereby rabbis from all denominations are invited to lecture the Jewish public on matters of Torah and Jewish interest. The one held in London was attended by British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. For which he was severely criticized by the right.
The criticism was based on the proposition that joining with non Orthodox movements in any forum, especially if it is in any theological context will give the false impression of legitimizing theologies that are anathema to Orthodoxy. This was universally condemned by all segments of Orthdodxy, including Rav Soloveitchik.
Limmud is certainly a theological event. But I have argued that Rabbi Mirvis was not there in any joint context with them and therefore not seen as endorsing anything other that the Orthodox point of view. To the best of my knowledge there was no panel or joint appearance of Rabbi Mirvis with heterodox rabbis. He was there to teach. And teach he did to real acclaim by all who witnessed it, including those of other denominations.
However, Gil suggests a problem I hadn’t thought of which I think has merit. The idea that if a high profile rabbi is there, it is OK for any Orthodox Jew to attend. Which would mean that they would be exposed to ideas they are rarely if ever exposed to – and ill prepared to deal with from an Orthodox perspective. Here is how Gil put’s it:
If the Orthodox leadership permits attendance at Limmud, it will effectively be permitting Orthodox Jews to study Judaism under non-Orthodox teachers. It will be encouraging the spread of heresy among the faithful. Of course, many Orthodox Jews will be able to intellectually deflect these foreign assumptions and beliefs, perhaps even growing stronger from the challenge. But ideas have wings; they excite and inspire. This is especially true when the intellectual match is uneven, when the non-Orthodox best and brightest are teaching the Orthodox not-so-best and not-so-brightest. There is a risk, a very real risk, that some Orthodox Jews will become enchanted by the passionate spokespeople of non-Orthodox Judaism.
I think he’s right and this is a matter of real concern. But as Gil also points out, the positive impact Rabbi Mirvis made has ‘wings’ too. I would go so far as to say he made a Kiddush Hasehm with his appearance:
Many non-Orthodox Jews have never met a refined and intelligent Orthodox Jew. They expect Orthodox Jews to be socially and intellectually backward. But the impact of interaction with Orthodox Jews has brought many people to Orthodoxy, including non-Orthodox rabbis. This is particularly true when an Orthodox scholar teaches, offering an intelligent and compelling worldview. There is great outreach opportunity at Limmud. An Orthodox rabbi has the unique opportunity to teach an audience thirsty for knowledge and often unaware of basic traditional texts and concepts.
Is it worth taking the chance that ‘some of our own’ may leave the fold in order to gain those who may come into the fold? That is the $64,000 dollar question.
Gil suggests that a solution to this might be for prominent rabbis not to attend and thus not be a drawing card for observant Jews who are ill prepared and thereby vulnerable to the ‘enchantment’ of heretical thought presented by charismatic speakers.
If a ‘second tier’ rabbi does the teaching, that risk will be diminished and the goal of attracting Jews with little or no background will still have its impact.
But I question that. There is a reason that Rabbi Mirvis is an attraction and a second tier rabbi might not be.
I know that a lot of it is politics. But you don’t become the Chief Rabbi of England without the kind of substance that can make the kind of impact Rabbi Mirvis did at Limmud. I don’t think a second tier rabbi would have been able to make the kind of Kiddush HaShem Rabbi Mirvis did which included broad based accolades he received from non Orthodox media like the Forward. In addition, the very thing that Gil says makes Rabbi Mirvis’s appearance there problematic – is what made it have the kind of impact it did. The Chief Rabbi by definition will get that kind of public attention. On the other hand, Rabbi ‘Joe Ploni’ will be generally ignored. Stature makes people notice you. And notice what you say.
That is indeed the conundrum.
As I see it there are several issues at play here. One is outreach. Another is the appearance of legitimizing what Orthodoxy deems illegitimate. And still another is when ill-prepared observant Jews start attending these events by virtue of the implied imprimatur given by the Chief Rabbi’s attendance. They can easily become mesmerized by the people whose views are anathema to Orthodox Judaism.
What to do.
I’m not sure. But I believe that matters of such import deserve the attention and analysis of rabbis of high stature. Not a group of well meaning but mistaken rabbis who without consulting anyone have decided to jump in head first and embrace heterodox rabbis even in religious matters. Which gives the clear appearance of endorsing their views. There is a right way and a wrong way to do this.
But I if I had to make a decision I would have to factor in the circumstances of the 21st century. While Halacha doesn’t change – circumstances do. Which require a new look at old polices. The fear used to be that giving the appearance of legitimacy to problematic theology would lead the un-initiated astray. They would think that these are all legitimate versions of Judaism with a left, right, and middle and choose based on that. Orthodox Judaism – if it is to be true to its ideals – cannot allow that impression to be made. But I do not see that as the great danger it once was.
The far greater danger is apathy and disinterest by the majority of Jews in the world. Jews that have virtually no Jewish background. They are abandoning Judaism in droves. We need to reach out to as many of them as possible. I don’t think we have any choice anymore.
I believe that there are recognized rabbinic leaders who know this and might re-think our interaction with non Orthodox clergy – as long as lines of separation are made clear at the outset and at public venues.
I am convinced that heterodox clergy will welcome us in a joint effort of ‘conserving’ Judaism. We should accept them with the caveat that there will be no joint public discussion or debate on any religious matters… and that our joint efforts should be to reach out the the hemorrhaging Jewish masses. It is in fact already being done on a small scale.
Limmud is a venue that enables us to have contact with masses of unaffiliated Jews that we would otherwise never have.
What about the impression made on observant Jews that would attend such events – with its attendant risk of losing them from Orthodoxy? That is a problem. But it’s a fixable one. It’s called education.
Living in the 21st century with 24/7 access to all manner of Apikursus at the click of a mouse, requires Jewish educators to re-think what they teach. It can’t be all Gemarah all the time. There has to be more emphasis on Jewish thought and theology. Young minds have to be trained how to deal with ‘what’s out there’. Whether it is on the internet or in a place like Limmud.
Only we better hurry up and do it. Because time is running out…
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at email@example.com.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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