By Rabbi Gideon SYLVESTER, The United Synagogue’s Rabbi in Israel.
IT’S NOT surprising that the spotlight was on Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.
The first official visit of a Chief Rabbi to Limmud Conference raised all sorts of questions. The columns of this newspaper buzzed with speculation; should he be there and how would he be received? How would someone accustomed to the honours of high office adjust to the informal, first names only conference style?
The columnists need not have worried.
Mischief-makers may portray Limmud as a den of sin and iniquity, populated by radicals, revolutionaries and deviants, but actually, it’s just a cross-section of Anglo-Jewry, including many of the people we meet in shul, as well as those who now feel alienated from our synagogues.
Not everyone is Orthodox, but that’s a reality our rabbinate must face up to and challenge, not flee from. The naysayers tried to persuade us that the Chief Rabbi was entering the darkest depths of hell, but as those of us who have been attending Limmud for years know very well, Orthodox prayer services take place three times each day, catering is under the supervision of the London Beth Din, an eruv is set up for Shabbat, and with a rich programme of presentations from which to choose, it may not be a yeshiva, but an observant Jew can certainly survive!
Limmud’s magic creates a bubble where there is no politics, troublemaking or cynicism. Each year, I’m astonished anew by how accommodating caring, kind and eager to learn the Limmud community is. I’m humbled to see how swathes of people walk from session to session, enthusiastically learning from whoever will offer them an intelligent, lively and coherent presentation. Limmud is packed with poets, professors, politicians, film directors, ambassadors, scholars and heretics.
Not every session is to my liking. I do not agree with every speaker and I don’t attend every class. But I’ve never fled the battlefield of ideas. Orthodox rabbis also benefit from the freedom of expression; so long as we speak respectfully, we have carte blanche to present our ideas to audiences who might never attend our synagogues or classes. Even when I gave a philosophy class explaining why some Orthodox Jews stay away from Limmud, the amphitheatre was packed with Jews from across the spectrum who engaged with the texts, wrestled with the ideas and caught a glimpse into the beliefs and lifestyle of an Orthodox rabbi. I relish the opportunities to learn from others and to present my own beliefs.
If we believe that every Jew matters, and that Orthodox Judaism has a message relevant to the 21st Century, then our rabbis and educators can- not afford the luxury of staying away. Britain’s chief rabbis never favoured splendid isolation; they live
amongst the people whom they lead. Rabbi Mirvis recognised this and with his natural warmth, kindness and wisdom, his presence at Limmud alongside United Synagogue and Tribe rabbis was a natural development and a great boon.
Titles have their place, but the halachais clear; just as Prime Minister Tony Blair was known for saying: “Call me Tony”, rabbis also may also waive the honours normally bestowed on them.
Ultimately, respect does not depend on titles and ceremonies; it comes from the way we behave; “the most respected people”, says the Talmud, “are those who give respect to others”.
When a rabbi teaches Torah to his people with warmth, compassion and integrity, he wins respect; title or not. This was proven as the Chief Rabbi entered his first class, and the audience spontaneously rose to its feet. Even more significantly, at the end of his lecture, they were upstanding again, this time in a standing ovation.
The Chief Rabbi’s visit to Limmud was a great success. It has brought credit to the Orthodox community. No one felt that he had given semicha to the devil or granted legitimacy to the things he does not believe in.
Instead, by coming to the conference, Rabbi Mirvis demonstrated that he cares about his en- tire constituency; not only the religious, but the traditional, the rebels, and the undecided.