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.
When the chief rabbi attends Limmud, or when roshei yeshiva or yeshiva presidents attend, and their actions are widely publicized, they are effectively permitting the Orthodox masses to go. They are saying there is nothing wrong with studying under non-Orthodox teachers. Come, hear the chief rabbi speak, and while you’re here you must attend this session on this topic that interests you taught by a bare-headed Reform rabbi who observes neither Shabbos nor kashrus. Or worse, by a yarmulke-wearing Reform rabbi who observes Shabbos and kashrus but will teach that you do not have to.
On the other hand, the Orthodox impact on the non-Orthodox attendees can be enormous. Sitting together as friends breaks down misconceptions on both sides and promotes communal unity. When the Orthodox refuse to attend, the non-Orthodox are insulted, with untold consequences on the individual and communal level. And when the Orthodox engage the non-Orthodox on a personal level, extended families are reunited and broader communities are joined in harmony (and yeshivas are funded).
There is an additional element of outreach. 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.
I am not suggesting that an Orthodox rabbi scan the audience, targeting those most vulnerable. When an Orthodox rabbi gets up and speaks intelligently, he has already broken down barriers. When he sits and shmoozes with his neighbors, he has changed perceptions. And if he inspires his audience with a particularly good lecture, he has drawn people closer to Orthodoxy. All I am suggesting is that an Orthodox scholar do his best teaching job. That alone will frequently accomplish wonders.
The chief rabbi’s attendance at Limmud probably made dozens of ba’alei teshuvah, even if not immediately. He stole the show, breaking down barriers and drawing people closer to traditional Judaism.
The question is how to balance this incredibly positive impact with the competing concerns. I suggest, as a theoretical proposal and not practical guidance, that absent the crushing pressure the chief rabbi faced, only Orthodox scholars who are not in prominent positions attend Limmud. When they are not high-profile figures, they will not attract the attention and offer the legitimacy that is so problematic. Few will say that since the assistant rabbi of some synagogue taught at Limmud, I may attend as well.
Of course, some Orthodox people will go but they are the people who would go anyway. And those Orthodox teachers who attend should not actively encourage laypeople to go; they might even privately discourage attendance. Their role is not that of a trailblazer, clearing the way for others to follow, but as ambassadors of Orthodoxy. Their goal is to participate, make friendships, and teach their hearts out. In this way, the dangers of legitimation and permission are largely mitigated while the benefits of participation are maintained.
Perhaps this is an appropriate recipe for Limmud success.
About the Author: Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and serves as editor-in-chief of TorahMusings.com. Rabbi Student previously served as managing editor of OU Press and still maintains a connection to the publisher but did not work on this book in any way.
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