The new Chief Rabbi is to attend the Limmud educational conference this winter despite reservations from the London Beth Din.
Ephraim Mirvis’ decision to present at December’s cross-communal event marks a clear departure from his predecessor Lord Sacks who had given his rabbis the green light to attend but decided not to do so himself.
Thousands of participants of all ages and from various religious backgrounds attend the annual five-day conference, which boasts everything from Talmud study to art classes and jamming sessions to social opportunities. But the presence of non-Orthodox rabbis teaching Torah has led some Orthodox figures to stay away amid open opposition from the Beth Din to US rabbis sharing a platform.
But following extensive consultation with his rabbis, it was announced that Rabbi Mirvis would become the first chief rabbi to attend – a move “wholeheartedly welcomed” by the US. “I am very pleased to be participating at Limmud conference this year,” he said. “As I said in my installation address one of my primary functions is as teacher of the community. I see Limmud as an opportunity to teach Torah to large numbers of people who want to learn.”
Judges of the Beth Din were also consulted but said in a frank statement that they “remain seriously concerned that the attendance of Orthodox rabbis at Limmud blurs the distinction between authentic Orthodox Judaism and non-Orthodox beliefs and practices”. But it added: “The dayanim of the London Beth Din recognise that the ultimate decision of our rabbis’ attendance at Limmud lies with the Chief Rabbi in whom the dayanim of the London Beth Din have every confidence and to whom they offer every support.”
While Lord Sacks had attended Limmud before coming to office, his decision to stay away once in the role was the subject of intense debate during his 22-year tenure. Rabbi Sacks told the Jewish News last month that he had feared that personally attending would have been a “divisive act within our rabbinate”.
Rabbi Mirvis said he would welcome any rabbi who chooses to join him at the conference but believes it is for each rabbi to decide on attendance and that decision should be respected by their community, according to his office.
Rabbi Moshe Freedman, of Northwood Synagogue, said he and his wife would be attending this year following the Chief Rabbi’s “courageous” decision. While he shares the Beth Din’s concerns, “on balance I feel there’s more to be gained by attending than the risk” of lines being blurred.
The minister – who had last attended as a student in 2002 – told the Jewish News he had not wanted to be seen as “rebellious and the perception was anyone who attended was a rebel. The Chief Rabbi is the head of everything including the Beth Din and he is leading from the front. He asked us to come with him in his installation speech and I’m doing that”. While the Chief Rabbi’s move would “certainly make more rabbis comfortable about going and lift the taboo”, he acknowledged that some of his colleagues would still feel it was “inappropriate” to attend.
Stanmore’s Rabbi Mendel Lew agrees that more rabbis are now likely to attend but he will not be among them. “I would venture to say that it’s 50/50 in the Rabbinate as whether to go or not,” he said. “Behind the original objection is a very serious debate and discussion about what Judaism truly is, and how best to ensure that it is preserved intact for future generations.
“So, while I respect the opinion that encourages attendance, and I certainly respect and admire my Chief Rabbi, I will not attend until the London Beth Din feels that it is undoubtedly the right thing to do.”
Conference co-chair Oliver Marcus expressed delight that the Chief Rabbi had chosen to join “as a presenter and a participant. We welcome participants to learn and teach in a grassroots, volunteer-led, cross-communal, multi-generational gathering, to study the past, revel in the present and set course for the future.”
US President Stephen Pack added: “Limmud is one of Anglo-Jewry’s greatest achievements and exports, and conference presents a fantastic opportunity for teaching Torah.”
Board of Deputies President Vivian Wineman said: “We are delighted that our new Chief Rabbi will be participating in the Limmud Conference. His presence at UK Jewry’s most successful and dynamic cross communal event elevates it still further, and we are greatly looking forward to hearing him speak there.”