Senior community leaders have accused a group of strictly Orthodox rabbis led by the former head of the London Beth Din of a “shocking failure of leadership” and “tactical power play” after they called for a boycott of the Limmud conference.
Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu was among seven signatories of the letter last week urging “any Jew whose heart has been touched by the fear of God and who wishes to walk upon paths which will be viewed favourably” to stay clear of December’s annual cross-communal educational event.
In a reference to the fact the conference features non-orthodox rabbis teaching Torah, they said uncompromisingly: “Participating in their conferences, events and educational endeavours blurs the distinction between authentic Judaism and pseudo-Judaism and would bring about tragic consequences for Anglo-Jewry.”
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. The rabbis’ dictat comes just four weeks after new Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis – who was “disappointed” by development – announced his plans to present at the five-day event, breaking with the decision of his predecessor. No specific mention however was made of Rabbi Mirvis.
But, in a stunning rebuke, published in tomorrow’s Jewish News, nearly 30 community leaders, politicians and philanthropists say the Chief Rabbi’s presence “should be welcomed and not the subject of misplaced and disrespectful criticism”.
An open letter – backed by Board of Deputies president Vivian Wineman, Jewish Leadership Council chair Mick Davis and several senior US figures – said their declaration that participants will not be viewed favourably by God has the power to “cause great harm to our community and appears to be rooted in tactical power play, as opposed to religious principle”.
They also claimed the rabbis’ “misrepresented” Limmud in suggesting it “espouses the ethos of pluralism….the upshot of this is no one is deemed to be wrong”. The community leaders’ said: “Limmud is a gathering of Jews, a marketplace that attracts massive levels of participation from across our community. To seek to dissuade orthodox Rabbis and others from taking the opportunity to articulate the classic Orthodox Judaism which has sat at the heart of this community for over three centuries is a shocking failure of leadership. It would leave many orthodox participants bereft of the rabbinic input and support they desire and deny many others the benefit of learning from outstanding orthodox teachers.”
The fact that participants come from different strands of anglo-Jewry does not “legitimise or delegitimise” any people or groups involved, they argued. The Chief’s Rabbi’s decision to attend, announced last month following consultation with his rabbinate, attracted widespread applause but the Beth Din reiterated its ongoing concerns. The Office of the Chief Rabbi said at the time he would welcome any minister who chooses to join him at the five-day conference but believes it is for each rabbi to decide on attendance and that decision should be respected by their community.
Jewish News understands more people have applied to join the conference than at this stage in any previous year, with the Chief Rabbi’s decision thought to be among the contributory factors. It is however still unclear how many United Synagogue rabbis will follow his lead by attending for the first time – with only a handful of the 30 ministers contacted by the Jewish News this week revealing their intentions or reacting to the letter signed by Dayan Ehrentreu.
US President Stephen Pack described the strictly Orthodox signatories as “hugely respected” figures but suggested that, in placing their letter in a charedi newspaper, “they are principally addressing their own community and I think it won’t have any bearing on our own”. While he expressed confidence that more US members and rabbis would attend following the Chief Rabbi’s “right” decision, Pack suggested that the boycott may serve to “reinforce positions” among those planning to attend and others who would not do so anyway.
Bushey United’s Rabbi Meir Salasnik said: “I believe that, with regards to Limmud, everybody should be allowed to do what they wish and there should be neither pressure nor harassment from anybody else, rabbinic or lay, either to stop them going if that is their wish or to push them to go if that is not their wish.”
Rabbi Yehuda Black, of Kenton Synagogue, said only logistical issues of getting his entire family to the conference would keep him away. He told the Jewish News: “The directive to the United Synagogue Rabbonim comes from our Chief Rabbi. The way I see it is that Limmud is a supermarket and you can buy all kinds of products off the shelves. Some of which might have a Hechsher and others not. The consumer chooses.”
But Hampstead Garden Suburb’s Rabbi Dov Kaplan, who has previously attended and will return this year, said he holds Dayan Ehrentreu in the highest regard “and understand that the letter in no way contravenes the intentions of participating rabbis who wish to teach Torah according to our accepted tradition. It is actually a cautionary statement for participants regarding presentations that veer from the principles of Judaism”.
And another rabbi, who wished to remain anonymous, went as far as to “salute” Dayan Ehrentreu – who retired as head of the LBD in 2006 – and the other rabbis. “For them the goalposts remain as they always were. They were never in favour of Limmud as there is the anomaly of non-orthodox people teaching Torah. This has not changed, so they remain opposed. They are not wishy-washy. Trying to be popular.”
Reform Movement senior Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner added: “We echo Rabbi Mirvis’ disappointment. British Jewry is a community united by a love of learning. We relish debate, discussion and exploration of our rich tradition. It saddens me that there are some who feel threatened by this”.
[divider]Read the letter that the entire community is talking about[divider]
We write as individuals actively engaged in communal work who are deeply interested in Jewish continuity in the United Kingdom, where Jewish life is vibrant and relevant.
In this context we warmly welcome the Chief Rabbi’s decision to attend Limmud. It is a decision that is consistent with the best traditions of anglo-Jewish Orthodox rabbinic leadership – namely promoting an open, approachable and inclusive Judaism while adhering to a firm halachic framework. As the Chief Rabbi himself recognised, there will be those individuals who make the personal choice not to attend Limmud.
However, we deeply regret the publication of a formal Gilui Da’at (Declaration of Opinion) by a number of Orthodox rabbis which claims that those who attend Limmud will, by implication, not be viewed favourably by God. The declaration has the potential to cause great harm to our community and appears to be rooted in tactical power play, as opposed to religious principle.
It also misrepresents Limmud which is not an organisation promoting pluralism. Limmud is a gathering of Jews, a market place that attracts massive levels of participation from across our community, including many from the Orthodox sector. It aims to increase levels of Jewish engagement, literacy and commitment.
To seek to dissuade Orthodox rabbis and others from taking the opportunity to articulate the classic Orthodox Judaism which has sat at the heart of this community for over three centuries is a shocking failure of leadership.
It would leave many Orthodox participants bereft of the rabbinic input and support they desire and deny many others the benefit of learning from outstanding orthodox teachers.
The fact that Jews of different levels of belief and practice participate in Limmud does not detract from this great endeavour nor does it legitimise or for that matter deligitimise any of the participants, educators or religious groups.
Respected and renowned Orthodox rabbis attend similar events in the USA, Israel and across the Jewish world on a regular basis and there is no reason why a different set of principles should apply in the UK. We feel compelled to speak out because fundamental principles are at stake including: the imperative to welcome every Jew who seeks a link with our community; the idea of a community that works together, regardless of religious differences, where it is able to so do and (equally importantly) the principle of not consigning Orthodoxy to the margins.
The Chief Rabbi has the wisdom, standing and mandate to take decisions of this nature for the communities that recognise his authority. His presence at Limmud should be welcomed and not the subject of misplaced and disrespectful criticism.
Keith Barnett, Alex Brummer, David Dangoor, Mick Davis, Jonathan Goldstein, Michael Goldstein, Simon Jackson, Lord Michael Levy, Steven Lewis, Richard Loftus, Lord Jon Mendelsohn, Alan Mendoza, David Menton, Adam Musikant, Stephen Pack, Gerald Ronson, Peter Sheldon, Sir Harry Solomon, Louise Solomon, Jonathan Solomons, Michele Vogel, Arnold Wagner, Vivian Wineman, Michael Ziff, Sir Bernard Zissman, Sabah Zubaida