LET’S BE HONEST ABOUT LIMMUD
Rabbi Dr. Alan Kimche
By all accounts Limmud is an amazing experience. It's a residential learning experience for over 2000 participants enjoying a week in the winter which is warm and friendly, interesting and engaging, non-judgemental, open minded, feel-good and politically-correct, -it's clearly all this and more. But there's one thing it most definitely is not. It's not Judaism, --at any rate it’s certainly not anything close to the Judaism which would be recognised by 3000 years of mitzvah-observant, Torah-learning, Israel-loving, God-fearing Jews. It would not be recognised by Ezra or Hillel, by Rashi or the Rambam, or indeed by the grandparents of most of the attendees. Let's be honest.
At Limmud you will hear a Reform rabbi from LA speaking about how wonderful it is that he officiates at same-sex marriages in his Reform Temple; or a professor of bible from Chicago (author of ‘Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking’) explaining that all that you ever learnt about Judaism was merely a man-made metaphor and folklore; or a fellow of the Hebrew Union College teaching ‘Archaeological Speculation on the origins of the Second Commandment?’ venturing a secular historic meaning of one of the Ten Commandments on the basis of archaeological findings; or a well-known agnostic teaching ‘How to Pray Without God’, or a senior Masorti rabbi (a movement which does not subscribe to the Sinaitic origins of the Oral Law) presenting the history of Rabbinic Judaism, --it soon becomes crystal clear that in this conference, Judaism is essentially whatever you want it to be.
As for the Jewish social parts of the programme, I think Ruth Gledhill of The Times got it right when she referred to it as the ‘Jewish Glastonbury’. When the programme amazingly includes sessions such as: ‘Fifty shades of Hummus’, ‘Old Jewish Jokes’, ‘Kaddish for deceased Pets’, ‘Pyjama Party Disco’, and a ‘drumming workshop’, --one realises that this is indeed Glastonbury, a place to celebrate the absence of any structures and beliefs, a place of great fun where anything goes.
At Limmud you will often be told that there are no immutable Truths only personal narratives, in fact there are no Divine origins of anything. The Exodus from Egypt that we love to recount on Seder Night probably never happened, heterosexual marriage is not the only way for men and women to live together, and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are probably all mythical individuals created poetically by ancient authors. The Limmud week is the time of year when the most articulate and lucid presenters of ‘Progressive Judaism’ are activated and imported here to sell these ideas. This is a celebration of Pluralism where nothing is ultimately true, everything is optional, and all is great fun.
Let's be honest. This has always been the agenda of Reform Judaism. Since its creation in the 19th century it has encouraged generations of Jews to abandon their beliefs in Torah-Min-Hashamayim. It has created the illusion that a Jew without Rabbinic Halacha, without mitzvot, without the Talmud, without Shabbat, without tefillin, without the mikva, and without Emunah, could withstand the inducements of assimilation and still transmit his or her faith to the next generation. History has proven otherwise.
But I have heard it asked, why are senior leading orthodox rabbis denouncing Limmud, surely we live in a world of choice, in a supermarket of ideas? Let everyone come together, teach together and learn together, and let everyone choose to believe what they find meaningful?
Let’s be clear. Orthodox rabbis believe passionately in the Divine Origins of the Torah, the commitment to Rabbinic Halacha, the sanctity of marriage and family life and the divinely ordained connection between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel. These principles are not negotiable. They alone are the exclusive guarantors of Netzach Yisrael, the indestructible sanctity of the Jewish People. When Limmud promotes a systematic denial of all these foundational beliefs, the feelings this arouses in the orthodox rabbinate are comparable to, for example, the reaction of pro-Israel activists when facing anti-Zionists the likes of the Neturei Karta. Limmud celebrates a rejection of all that is precious to Orthodox Judaism.
It is absurd to claim that arrogance or fundamentalism drives orthodox leaders to denounce Limmud it is rather their clarity of vision, and their objective is only to defend everything that is precious and vital to Jewish continuity and authenticity. It is leadership.
And it’s not only traditional religious principles that are being abandoned at Limmud. What about the passion that Anglo Jewry has had over the years to support Israel? Attendees at Limmud are given a very different message. Far-left Pro-Palestinian speakers make sure that your sympathies are entirely with the suffering Palestinians in Gaza and how terrible a crime of human rights has been perpetrated by building the Wall. Furthermore your indignation will be ignited against the human rights violations of the checkpoint searches of the IDF, and alleged Zahal war crimes. Screening a far-left film like ‘Poisoned’ about four young men enlisted into the IDF and how it impacts destructively on their lives as –‘ the rhetoric of combat they are fed turns bitter in their mouths, they begin to question the ideologies and consequences of their actions, leading to mental collapse and desertion.’ This is not a balanced agenda, and it’s driven by several far-left organisations and funders.
Interestingly I couldn't find any speakers about the systematic incitement to jihadist hatred of Jews which is commonplace in Palestinian schools and universities. The many millions of copies of The Protocols of Elders of Zion, that infamous anti-Semitic forgery, constantly taught and reprinted and translated as part of an openly hostile Islamist programme to inflame every generation of Islamist youth to believe that the Jews are the source of all the evils in the world.
Conspicuously absent also are speakers about the high-calibre moral code of Zahal, the rapid economic growth rate of the Palestinian economy in Judea and Samaria under ‘Israeli oppression’, the growing number of Palestinians treated in Israeli hospitals, or the increasing number of East Jerusalem Palestinians in a 2011 survey who greatly prefer being citizens of Israel rather than a new Palestinian state, because Israeli Arabs have more civil rights than anywhere else in the Middle East.
Is it a part of Jewish teachings to promote LGBTQ (you don’t know what it means? Look it up in the Limmud brochure) lifestyle as an attractive alternative new way of Jewish life? Is it Jewish Education to violate the meaning of the Torah and the Talmud by claiming to find support in it for homosexual life? (see: ‘Queering Eden: Another look at Bereishit’ with Idit Klein). Is it Jewish education to have sessions like: ‘Pride and Prejudice? Being young, Jewish and queer’ billed as ‘interactive talks by young LGBTQ members of our community who offer a personal perspective on life being young, Jewish and Queer.’ Homosexuality is certainly an issue the community needs to face up to, but who can claim with a straight face that advocating LGBTQ life is part of teaching Judaism, or that Steve Greenberg’s claim to be an orthodox gay rabbi is anything other than incoherent and absurd? Let's be honest.
One particularly eye-catching form of non-authentic Judaism is the bogus mysticism of ‘kabbalah.com’ teachings. The profound teachings of genuine Kabbala were designed to deepen our grasp of the mystical truths of the Torah and to enhance the practice of mitzvot by a rich symbolism and transcendent meditations. It was for many centuries the Holy of Holies of Judaism to be used only by the most knowledgeable and dedicated of devout Jews. This system of ideas has now been stripped away from the observance of mitzvot and the words of the Torah and tefillot and popularised as a type of self-help lets-be-spiritual-with-no-commitments feel-good system hyped up by non-Jewish Madonna-type celebrities who dabble in it. This is prime material for Limmud under various titles and Reform presenters, who create an illusionary connection to Judaism which is popular and easy but is certainly not going to connect anyone to the mitzvot of authentic Judaism.
I am not suggesting for a moment that those orthodox speakers who do participate in Limmud are teaching anything other than genuine authentic Torah. Exceptional educators such as Rabbi Cardozo and now our Chief Rabbi himself, with their considerable Torah scholarship and outstanding talents, do indeed teach genuine Torah superbly. What I am suggesting is that they are unwittingly being used as 'window dressing', a fig leaf for a conference which is overwhelmingly Reform oriented, and that their presence confuses Anglo Jewry about what is authentic and what is bogus Judaism. Members of the wider community are being largely taught an aberration of Judaism, which is widely seen as being sanctioned by the presence of these orthodox rabbis and could mistakenly be perceived as having their hechsher. This creates confusion in foundational matters that require certainty and clarity.
A short personal anecdote: a few years ago I was walking home from Ner in the company of one of my congregants. This young professional man from a modern religious observant home is a regular participant in shiurim and tefillah. He had gone to an orthodox school and then to yeshiva for a year or two, and sends his kids to religious education. In our discussion he remarked in an offhand way that a particular mitzvah is not a real Torah obligation, since, he argued, it is only found in Sefer Devarim, and we all know that Deuteronomy was written many centuries later at the time of Isaiah!! I was thunderstruck. Where would he have been taught this bit of Reform Bible Criticism in a convincing way? Before he told me I knew the answer: - the only likely source that could have persuasively taught him this apikorsut was at Limmud, as it would be unlikely for him to be present at any other lectures of Reform Judaism.
One of the greatest achievements of Anglo-Jewry for generations has been to successfully defend the boundaries of mainstream orthodoxy, differentiating it clearly from the Reform, Liberal and Masorti movements. In doing so we have consistently and unswervingly succeeded to ensure that the core of Anglo Jewry is affiliated to authentic Orthodox Judaism, an achievement that other countries observe with envy. Even a brief look at the line-up of presenters and titles at Limmud clearly shows that the agenda of this conference is exactly the opposite of this. Limmud blurs exactly those boundaries that have been so jealously protected in the UK for centuries.
So why indeed are several orthodox speakers regularly teaching there? The pragmatic answer is that since in fact so many of Anglo Jewry attends we should be there to teach Torah. This is definitely a cogent answer, but I suggest that it totally misses the bigger picture, the overall message given to anyone attending the Limmud conference, that Judaism is a pick-and-mix affair and that all the strangest variations are as equally valid as authentic Torah.
So what is it exactly that I am advocating? To shut down Limmud? Absolutely not. I believe firmly in the live-and-let-live policy of tolerance. However, tolerance is light years away from the muddled relativism of pluralism.
Let's just give this conference its true name. Let’s rename it as the ‘Limmud conference of Progressive Judaism’, and leave the orthodox rabbinate out of it. As for the orthodox community, they will no more attend such an event than they would join a Reform or Liberal or Masorti synagogue on a Shabbat morning. Let's call a spade a spade. Let's be honest.