Great Britain’s new chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, announced on Monday that he would be attending Limmud, Britain’s largest and oldest festival of Jewish learning and culture. Rabbi Mirvis’ announcement may have been expected, but it is still significant for the future of Britain’s rapidly fracturing Jewish community.
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Mirvis’ predecessor, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, had been an early supporter of Limmud back in the day when it was mainly an educators’ conference, but during his 22 years as chief rabbi, he bowed to pressure from his ultra-Orthodox colleagues and did not appear at the Limmud conference.
In a statement put out by his office, Mirvis, who was inaugurated as chief rabbi only two weeks ago, said that for him, speaking at Limmud fulfills “one of my primary functions as teacher of the community. I see Limmud as an opportunity to teach Torah to large numbers of people who want to learn.”
Mirvis had indicated in recent months that he planned to reverse Sacks’ policy, but it wasn’t clear whether he would attend this year’s main Limmud conference, which is scheduled to take place in late December. The five-day event of more than a thousand lectures, workshops, debates and performances at the University of Warwick is expected to draw around 2,500 participants.
Mirvis is formally head of the Orthodox United Synagogue movement, however, over the last decade, the proportion of believers identifying with religious streams - whether ultra-Orthodox or Reform, Masorti or Liberal – that refuse to recognize the chief rabbi’s spiritual leadership, has grown.
The fact that Mirvis announced his Limmud appearance as the first major decision of his tenure signals that he understands the climate in which he is operating: one of intense competition between various strands of Judaism and an environment of growing plurality among British Jews. Limmud has become the main venue where different groups mingle and study together, including a growing number of Orthodox rabbis and members of United Synagogues congregations -- something that further highlighted Sacks’ absence.
Britain’s Haredim still adamantly oppose any cooperation with non-Orthodox streams, a view emphasized in a statement put out last night by the London Beth Din (rabbinical court), a body ostensibly under the auspices of its president -- chief rabbi -- but dominated almost entirely by Haredi dayanim (judges). In the statement, the dayanim said they “remain seriously concerned that the attendance of Orthodox rabbis at Limmud blurs the distinction between authentic Orthodox Judaism and non-Orthodox beliefs and practices.” However, even they have been forced to admit that the landscape is changing, noting in their statement that “the ultimate decision of our rabbis’ attendance at Limmud lies with the Chief Rabbi in whom the dayanim of the London Beth Din have every confidence and to whom they offer every support.”
Limmud organizers, non-Orthodox rabbis and lay leaders of the United Synagogue all enthusiastically welcomed Mirvis’ statement. United Synagogue president Steve Pack called Limmud, which has spawned dozens of Limmud international events around the world, “one of Anglo-Jewry’s greatest achievements and exports.” But besides the significance of the chief rabbi’s first-time appearance, Limmud will also put him in an unfamiliar position: on a level playing-field with hundreds of other rabbis, academics, performers and activists presenting at the conference.
Unlike his predecessor, who built his leadership around his academic stature, oratorical skills and media star-quality, Mirvis’ strength has been as a community-builder and educator at the grassroots level. Going to Limmud, as just another one of a thousand presenters, Mirvis is bravely setting out his stall for an increasingly embattled institute of British Jewry.