OPINION: United Synagogue Limmud ‘boycott’ – uncertainty or cowardice?

OPINION: United Synagogue Limmud ‘boycott’ – uncertainty or cowardice?

Ephraim Mirvis, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations, taught at Limmud for two years.
Ephraim Mirvis, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations, taught at Limmud for two years.
Rabbi Danny Rich
Rabbi Danny Rich

By Rabbi Danny Rich, Chief Executive, Liberal Judaism

I have been both a teacher and a learner at Limmud for many years. Whether the United Synagogue rabbinate engages with Limmud or not is a matter of personal indifference to me but a topic that invokes feelings from sadness to incredulity across the wider Jewish community.

Although he is abroad this year, Ephraim Mirvis, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations who announced early in his tenure that he would teach at Limmud and did so in 2013 and 2014, quickly became one of Limmud’s ‘star turns’. His erudition and warmth filled Limmud.

What is it then that prevents Mirvis’ United Synagogue colleagues from following his example? 

It may simply be that, for hard-working pulpit rabbis who are teaching and ministering throughout the year with so little time for rest, the possibility of a Limmud-style ‘busman’s holiday’ against the chance to be with family while the country goes seasonally wild is just one mitzvah too many.

But if, as the group of charedi rabbis who opposed Mirvis’ decision claimed, Limmud represents an ‘aberration of Judaism’ which seeks to celebrate inimical ‘values and lifestyles’, why should a gathering of nearly 3,000 British Jews, many of whom describe themselves as ‘traditional’ or even ‘Orthodox’, not be exposed to United Synagogue rabbis who could counter with ‘Torah true’ teaching and practice?

Ephraim Mirvis, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations, taught at Limmud for two years.
Ephraim Mirvis, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations, taught at Limmud for two years.

It was hinted by some United Synagogue clergy who did not wish to attend that Limmudniks get exposed to intellectual heresy which leads them to stray further from the path of traditional Judaism. Why would a responsible Orthodox pastor abandon hundreds of Jews from traditional families to being led into temptation of both mind and body?

Perhaps opposition is based on a delusion that the British Jewish community is as some people might like to be, rather than as it is.  When the United Synagogue held sway over British Jewry the community was much more respectful of position and hierarchy and the majority paid allegiance to them – often more in theory than practice.

The most impressive aspect of Limmud is that it was founded and is still run by volunteers. The key questions are no longer ‘Of which family are you a cousin?’ or ‘To which shul do your parents belong?’ – but rather: ‘What can you offer?’ and ‘When can you start?’

When you are at Limmud you have a name rather than a title and a role instead of a position. Limmud culture is, therefore, counter to many of the institutional ways of British Jewry.

Limmud comes closest to challenging the assumptions and barriers that denominational labelling creates. It clearly is a fear that United Synagogue rabbinical participation in Limmud would ‘blur the distinction between authentic Judaism and pseudo-Judaism’ and could be, in the words of leading Orthodox Rabbi Alan Kimche,‘misinterpreted as a hechsher’ [kosher certificate] for other branches of Judaism.

There was a time when the United Synagogue was the minhag Anglia, subscribed to by the overwhelming majority of British Jewry.  Yet Liberal (Progressive) Judaism was founded more than 200 years ago in Germany and, despite repeated condemnation and hostility, is now represented on every continent in more than 1,000 communities and by nearly two million souls.

In the United Kingdom the latest statistics on synagogue membership show that in 1990 the United Synagogue comprised 66% of household affiliations and the ‘non-Orthodox’ movements only 26%, but by 2010 the United Synagogue had dropped to 55% whereas the ‘non –Orthodox’ Movements had risen to 31%. 

If the rabbinic boycott of Limmud and similar measures are an effort to re-inforce United Synagogue primacy, one is reminded of the quip of Labour politician, Richard Crossman: ‘A policy of pragmatism is never justified – especially if it is unsuccessful.’ 

Ultimately the failure of the United Synagogue rabbinate to engage with Limmud is a disappointment to its own adherents and a sadness to those who believe that learning comes from variety not uniformity.

For those who could but will not participate the question is this: is this a matter of collective uncertainty or institutional cowardice?

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