By Brian GORDON, Conservative councillor, Barnet.
IF I harboured doubts about my previous article criticising attendance at the Limmud conference by Orthodox rabbis, they were firmly dispelled by the comments and reports on the conference that followed.
Even at this late stage, I feel tempted to give the controversy one final shot before shelving it until it rears its head again at the end of this year.
Certainly the recent conference staged many stimulating debates on issues of Jewish interest. Even theologically-provocative subjects such as same-gender weddings, feminism, evolution and the authenticity of the Bible were worthy of discussion, in view of the confused times in which we live. W
hat was unacceptable was that among those advocating totally heretical views on those subjects were non-Orthodox individuals calling themselves rabbis.
Many of the press photographs portrayed the leisure side of Limmud as resembling a glorified pop festival, a social scene far from any- thing religious. That’s not a condemnation; people can enjoy themselves as they see fit. I just cannot see how Orthodox rabbis would feel comfortable or fulfilled in such an atmosphere.
The most recent articles in these columns from Limmud enthusiasts elicited another aspect of what seems fundamentally wrong with the conference’s philosophy. Dr Jonathan Boyd says Limmud “puts aside titles to reduce the distance between us and breakdown barriers” and “everyone can be a teacher too … the hierarchical boundary that usually exists between teacher and student is minimised”.
In other words, anything goes, nobody has a claim to the truth, Judaism is anything you want it to be – provided you are clever and persuasive.
Says Rabbi Gideon Sylvester: “Just as Tony Blair was known for saying ‘Call me Tony’, rabbis may also waive the honours normally bestowed on them.” Yes, Gideon (I presume you wish me to call you that), honours may indeed be waived. But in my book, that is not what Judaism is all about.
A proper rabbi is entitled to automatic respect because he has learned to a high standard and received “semicha”. By the same token, automatic respect is due in Judaism from student to teacher, child to parent and – in terms of according priority – a non-Cohen to a Cohen. When the Messiah comes he will be a king, not Dave, Johnny or Charlie!
Hierarchy and leadership are an integral part of Judaism, not to be dumbed down to emulate the leftist, egalitarian philosophy that has corroded so much of secular society.
Press coverage of Limmud was voluminous, yet how many readers know over the same period a massive inter-school ceremony took place in Stamford Hill to celebrate Mishna learning awards?
How many know there was an 800-strong gathering in Finchley to celebrate an international Torah-study project called Dirshu, or a highly-festive family “Seed” seminar in Nottingham attended by 400-plus?
Coverage in the Charedi press of those outstanding events consumed numerous pages and a galaxy of exciting pictures.
Elsewhere they received a few lines at best. What a lack of proportion between ridiculous and sublime!
As for the Chief Rabbi, whose personal attendance was the overriding focus of this year’s Limmud hype, many in the Orthodox community reacted disapprovingly to the United Synagogue’s recent assumption of control over his office.
But perhaps that decision was a blessing in disguise. If the Chief Rabbi is increasingly compelled to equalise his status with non-Orthodox clergy, the more his office is associated with the United Synagogue as an organisation, the more appropriate this will be.
It will be increasingly apparent to the public that the Chief Rabbi’s office is directed by a new kind of agenda, especially when it comes to policy and the wider community. In that way, it will be more difficult to draw religious conclusions from events like Limmud and attention can be re-focused on more important matters.