Why Orthodox Rabbis Shouldn’t Boycott Limmud

Limmud simply isn't what you think it is.

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Limmud Conferences are a family of events at which Jews from all over the religious (and non-religious) spectrum gather to study, debate, share, listen and learn. As soon as this movement became sizeable, Orthodox rabbinic authorities in the United Kingdom started to take note, advocating boycott.

Then head of the Beth Din of the United Synagogues, Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, was in favour of boycott. And though Dayan Ehrentreu was hardly representative of the moderate membership of the United Synagogues, the chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, was placed in an uncomfortable situation. Evidently, he didn't think the flack he was going to receive for attending was worth the dividends, despite clearly being in favor, and even being proud, of Limmud as an organization.

Limmud U.K.'s annual winter conference is attended by almost 3,000 people, making it by far the largest communal event on the Anglo-Jewish calendar. As the years went by, the Anglo-Orthodox boycott made Anglo-Orthodoxy look less and less in-touch. And thus, the new chief rabbi of the United Synagogues, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, has announced that he will be attending Limmud this year.

Soon after this announcement, the traditional flag-bearers of the anti-Limmud line, including the abovementioned Dayan Ehrentreu, released a statement. Limmud, they said, is wedded to a pluralistic philosophy that encourages the expression of opposing philosophical views without deeming any as wrong. Thus, according to their statement, Orthodox participation in Limmud would blur “the distinction between authentic Judaism and pseudo-Judaism and would bring about tragic consequences for Anglo-Jewry.”

I agree with some of these points. Unqualified pluralism, like moral relativism, is a dangerous philosophy; one that ought to be combatted. Some things really are right. Some things really are wrong. And, to the extent that we blur that distinction in the name of pluralism, the more we risk to lose.

There are, indeed, people at Limmud who call themselves pluralists. But I take it that their pluralism isn't really unrestricted. The Jews who call themselves pluralists obviously believe that murder, for instance, is an absolute moral evil; that pro-murder activists, if there ever were such a thing, would have no claim to having truth on their side. Instead, the Jews who think of themselves as pluralists probably intend a more restricted version of pluralism, where, in the array of all opinions, some are acceptable while others go beyond the pale.

That kind of restricted pluralism is one that Judaism has always encouraged. For example, it can often make sense to say that divergent legal rulings are equally well motivated, and equally well justified by the body of written law and by the relevant case law. The Talmud adopts just such a pluralism in many places. These reflections have led some to criticise Dayan Ehrentreu for holding a myopic and close-minded Judaism; blind to the qualified forms of pluralism that Judaism has always encouraged.

This line of argument is unfair to Dayan Ehrentreu. The debates between Hillel and Shammai in the Talmud can't be compared to the debates between Orthodoxy and Reform in the modern age. Hillel and Shammai, despite their legal disagreements, had a significant and solid core of theological and metaphysical doctrines in common: they both believed in the eternal and binding nature of Jewish law as taught and developed in the rabbinic tradition; they both believed in the Divine authority of the Bible. Their disagreements took place against that significant backdrop of agreement.

To the Orthodox mind: the debates between contemporary Orthodoxy and Reform have much more in common with the Talmudic debates between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. In those debates, the Talmud saw no room at all for any degree of pluralism. The Sadducees rejected the authority of rabbinic tradition, and their whole movement is fervently opposed by the Talmud at every and any opportunity.

The pro-Limmud Orthodox voice has to articulate a better response to Dayan Ehrentreu, who has misunderstood the real nature of Limmud. Limmud is not pluralist. Some people who go there are. But Limmud itself is not.

The Reform movement is not unrestrictedly pluralistic; it makes certain absolute claims (as we all do when we say that murder is absolutely wrong), and many in the Reform movement think Orthodoxy to be absolutely wrong about many issues. Likewise, Orthodoxy thinks that the Reform movement is, on many issues, absolutely wrong. Neither side is unrestrictedly pluralistic.

If the mere presence of a Reform rabbi at Limmud made a public statement that he/she wanted to legitimize Orthodox Judaism as a worldview, he/she wouldn't go; indeed, he/she probably shouldn't go. Likewise, if the presence of an Orthodox rabbi at Limmud made a public statement that he wanted to legitimise Reform Judaism as a worldview, he wouldn't, and indeed shouldn't, go. But that simply isn't the statement that they make when they go.

The Reform rabbi goes to affirm his/her non-pluralistic beliefs. The Orthodox rabbi goes to affirm his divergent but equally non-pluralistic beliefs. And, they go to listen to one another. Not because they think that the other person's viewpoints have some degree of pluralistic truth, but because they see the common humanity in one another, and recognise the importance of conversation. Limmud attendance makes no pluralistic statement; nor is that how attendance is understood by the rank-and-file Limmudniks. Limmud isn't a pluralistic space. It's a neutral space, a cross-communal space.

Similarly, Limmud is only partially egalitarian. It doesn’t say that the views of all of its presenters are equally valid. Some may be true; some false. That’s for you to figure out. Likewise, it doesn’t say that all of the presenters are equally qualified to teach. It’s for you to choose who is worthy of listening to. Limmud’s egalitarianism stretches only this far: everybody has an equal right to hold opinions, to express their beliefs, and to engage in conversation, learning and growth.

Once we accept that Limmud is not a pluralistic space, Dayan Ehrentreu's argument can be silenced, and room is made for a different voice, the voice of Rabbi Judah Lowe, the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609), who wrote (Be'er Hagolah, Be'er Shvii, Ch. 7):

"Therefore it is proper, out of love of reason and knowledge, that you not [summarily] reject anything that opposes your own ideas, especially if [your adversary] does not intend merely to provoke you, but rather to declare his beliefs. And even if such [beliefs] are opposed to your own faith and religion, do not say [to your opponent], “speak not, close your mouth.” If that happens, there will take place no purification of religion… one who causes his opponent to hold his peace and refrain from speaking, demonstrates [thereby] the weakness of his own religious faith…"

Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame. He also chairs the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.

Audience at the 2013 Limmud Oz conference. Credit: Shirli Kirschner

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