Limmud NY, a large gathering of a wide variety of Jews for studying Torah and Jewish topics, will take place next weekend and while there must be an Orthodox presence, there also needs to be an Orthodox refusal to attend.
Recently, British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis made news by attending a Limmud conference in England late last year. While it is widely understood (although unconfirmed) that attendance was an unofficial precondition for the office of chief rabbi, thereby guaranteeing that whoever was appointed would attend, the appearance of so important an Orthodox figure at Limmud generated controversy. Rightly so; his appearance was important and so was the controversy.
I see three main issues with attending Limmud. The first is the legitimacy given to the non-Orthodox teachers. Personally, I would be honored to speak at an event where the chief rabbi is speaking. My name appearing on the same list as his would mean – to me and to the world – that I had made it to the big leagues; that while I may not have his title, his scholarship or his talents, I am still at least within shouting distance of one of the most important rabbis in the world.
In reality, I am not in that league and have not appeared with him. But, speaking personally, doing so would give me great honor.
I do not believe the chief rabbi, or any important Orthodox figure, should be granting that honor to someone who does not share our core beliefs about Torah, regardless of denominational affiliation (affiliation is much less important than beliefs and practice). A non-believer, or for that matter an unrepentant sinner, should not be raised on an Orthodox pedestal (see Aruch Ha-Shulchan, Yoreh De’ah 243:4). The chief rabbi represents the Torah. His honor is the Torah’s and the people whom he honors are the people whom the Torah honors.
(I recognize I am unfairly picking on the chief rabbi. Please keep reading to see a fuller picture.)
Additionally, if Orthodox rabbis widely embrace Limmud, the Orthodox laity will follow in large numbers. Of course, some will come regardless. But when the Orthodox leadership encourages attendance – whether explicitly or implicitly – many more will come.
The nature of Limmud is that teachers (speakers, presenters, I’m not sure what term they use) represent a broad spectrum of Judaism. Many, currently most, base their teachings on beliefs that Orthodox Jews consider heresy. They will speak about the human authors of the Torah, the bias of the Sages, the immorality of halacha and choosing whether to follow even basic biblical laws. Some will do this directly and some only in passing. Even the most sensitive and sincere teachers will often incorporate their non-Orthodox attitudes within their teachings. The most innocuous subject may include subversive theological ideas, often unintentionally (see Rema, Yoreh De’ah 153:1; Chelkas Mechokek, Even Ha-Ezer 22:6).
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 am not saying that non-Orthodox scholars have nothing to teach us. Quite the opposite. They offer a fresh perspective that will take us out of our comfort zones and force us to look anew at well-worn texts. It is precisely because they have much to teach us that we have to be very careful about the unconscious and insidious de-sanctification of sacred texts.