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Chief Rabbi addresses the Limmud issues




It is difficult, and was taken with great pain, for two reasons. As rabbis, our instinct is to seize every opportunity to reach more and more people. How could we turn down this opportunity to connect to our community? Furthermore, our community has a pervasive ethos of inclusivity and tolerance, of unity and co-operation, and a decision like this seems to be a departure from these defining values.

Before I explain the reason behind our decision not to speak, I would also like to clarify that we have never, over all these years, attacked Limmud in public, nor engaged in a disrespectful way. All we have done is chosen not to use it as an educational platform for our own work of promoting Torah Judaism.

I would like to make a plea that the communal debate about Limmud be conducted in a spirit of respect and love. What is so unique and special about the South African Jewish community is the fact that we view each other as brothers and sisters, as part of one family. Families can disagree. It’s perfectly fine for brothers and sisters to disagree with one another, but only in a spirit of respect and love.

Limmud is based on a particular philosophy of Judaism which is called pluralism. Pluralism is a philosophy that says that Judaism as a religion is whatever you wish it to be, and that any approach to the beliefs and practices of Judaism is equally valid. Some may say that Limmud is not pluralistic but neutral, a completely neutral space for everyone to express their viewpoint without judgement or prejudice. But the truth is that there is no such thing as a neutral space. The very decision of neutrality is a decision in itself, and it is a decision rooted in a philosophy of Jewish religious pluralism. This has been clear from the programming throughout the years. It was clearly expressed by the Limmud leadership to the Beth Din at its recent meeting, where it was explained that even speakers and content rooted in atheism or a denial of the divine origin of the Torah would be acceptable in the Limmud context.

After much debate and introspection, we feel that this philosophy of pluralism is a clear and definite position that Limmud has taken, and that it is, as such, not a neutral platform.

We understand that Limmud is not neutral in the context of other decisions that it has unilaterally taken.

For example, Limmud last year made it clear that it would not have a speaker who supported the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement at its conference. This is a clear policy decision. There are Jews who are BDS supporters, who maintain that their support for BDS is an expression of Zionism, and that they support the boycott of Israel in order to prod Israel to change and evolve as an ethical and democratic state. In so doing, they believe that they are saving Israel from itself. Yet, Limmud took a strong view, quite rightly in my opinion, that BDS had no space on its stage. Limmud took a similar view regarding Holocaust denial – ensuring there is no place on its stage to entertain these ludicrous theories.

We respect and support these stands and principles. These are lines in the sand. But as rabbis and rebbetzins, whose mandate and calling is to teach and promote Torah Judaism, as it has been expressed, practiced, and protected by our people for thousands of years, we have our own lines in the sand. We believe that G-d exists. That is not negotiable. We believe that the Torah was given to us by Him. That is not negotiable. We believe that it is applicable and relevant to all times, in all places, and to all people, that its mitzvot are eternally binding. These are not negotiable.

For us, these lines in the sand are as strong as those of anti-Zionism or Holocaust denial. And, they are the reason we have decided not to speak on the Limmud stage. To speak under the banner and on the platform of Limmud would be to endorse and support pluralism, which we just cannot do in good conscience.

To reiterate, it’s very painful for us. We see a lost opportunity to share and engage with our community. We also hate any division that our decision has caused in our incredibly cohesive community. But we do so because these issues strike at the very core of what we see as the Jewish purpose and role in this world. We believe that Torah Judaism is the only formula for a vibrant future for the South African Jewish community. We believe that Jewish history has shown that pluralism ultimately weakens Jewish identity, practice, and continuity.

Friends, I know this decision may be hard on some to understand and accept, but let’s take a moment to step back, and look at the big picture. As the rabbis and rebbetzins of our community, we have dedicated our lives to teaching, reaching, caring for, supporting, inspiring, and connecting to our community. We do this through thousands of interactions reaching tens of thousands of people, throughout the year. We engage on every platform imaginable: shuls, schools, university campuses, shiurim at offices, coffee shops and in homes, at weddings, Barmitzvahs and Batmitzvahs, funerals and shiva houses, on radio, television, social media, and in print. Our decision not to take this stage has been a difficult one, but please don’t let it define us. We remain dedicated to continue to serve, reach, and connect with you wherever we can.

A word needs to be said about our shuls in particular. Our shuls are among the most welcoming and inclusive in the world. Every Jew in our community is welcome, no matter who they are, where they come from, whether they keep Shabbos or they don’t, whether they are married in the faith or not, whether they can read Hebrew or not, whether they practice mitzvot (commandments) or not, no matter who they are, no matter what race, sexual orientation, gender, or age. There is a warm and welcoming place in our shuls for every Jew. As a community, we pride ourselves on the fact that we have been part of making our shuls such warm, welcoming, and inclusive places, and I cannot stress enough the importance of this going forward.

I would also like to take this opportunity to explain how the rabbinate works, and how we came to this decision together. The South African Rabbinical Association holds annual meetings and conferences where we debate and discuss important communal issues. A democratic decision was taken, after a collaborative debate, that the South African rabbinate would not use Limmud as an educational platform. The Rabbinical Association recently requested the opinion of the Beth Din, which after having a hearing on the matter, endorsed the association’s long standing policy on Limmud. As rabbis, we work together as a team for the common good of the South African Jewish community. Over the years, we have taken many decisions as a group, and those decisions are accepted by everyone in the group.

In conclusion, we believe that Torah Judaism is the formula for a vibrant future for the South African Jewish community. We believe that Jewish history has shown that Jewish religious pluralism ultimately weakens Jewish identity, practice, and continuity. We believe that Torah Judaism has ensured the survival and thriving of the Jewish people. We are the only one of the ancient nations that still exist today, despite the countless exiles, pogroms, inquisitions, and a Holocaust. We believe that this can be due only to G-d’s miracles, and the commitment of the Jewish people for thousands of years to Torah Judaism. Therefore, we have taken the painful decision not to use Limmud as an educational platform because Limmud advocates a philosophy of pluralism.

But we will always engage with respect and love with all those who disagree with us, and who endorse and support pluralism. And, we would ask that our decision not to support and endorse pluralism be equally respected. We can agree to disagree, but still get along. We need, as a community, to find a way to have these disagreements as brothers and sisters in a family in a way that doesn’t diminish the love and respect that we have for each other. Let’s go forward in the spirit of love and unity to continue to nurture and build the wonderful family of our South African Jewish community.

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  1. Joel Bergman

    Jul 4, 2019 at 10:15 am

    ‘The Chief Rabbi does not address the fact that the SA Rabbinate is the ONLY such (Orthodox) body in the entire world to have reached this conclusion. And so is every other Rabbinate’s decision wrong?

    It is our Rabbis’ decision that is divisive. At best (worst?) they should allow individual Rabbis and Rebbitzens freedom of choice as to whether they attend a Limmud event. This has nothing to do with "democracy"!

  2. Neil Harris

    Jul 5, 2019 at 4:47 pm

    ‘Nice words but at end of the day your decision means that Jews such as myself who are interested in Jewish history, nationhood, culture, religion and theology will make it our business to seek learning and guidance outside the orthodox community in which we were raised.  Honesty compels is to have little truck with those that cling to beliefs and myths that have been discredited by evidential research, with those who dogma and stringencies override ethical teaching and with those who will become an existential threat to the Jewish people because of the division they sow (recall why the second temple was destroy).  I would like to wish you good luck in following your own path but I simply cannot – one day there will be a showdown and I sicerely pray that orthodoxy and the mistruth it has comes to represent is destroyed.’


    Jul 7, 2019 at 5:50 am

    ‘Why is it that our religious leaders have such intolerance for those who need to get inspiration from sources other than shul, an aversion to those of us who think differently in our community? We are a nation of thinkers, surely we can sort out for ourselves what we would like to take home with us? This intolerance towards a brilliant seminar has honestly done nothing more than make a whole lot of people who havent heard of Limmud, interested in going to listen. There are so many hardships in todays world, why is going to Limmud such a huge thorn in anyones side? Some of us dont care about pluralism, I didnt even know what it meant. Now that I know I shrug my shoulders. We attend Limmud because few international lecturers grace our shores and we need the inspiration. Simple. ‘

  4. Clive Rabinowitz

    Jul 8, 2019 at 2:35 pm

    ‘Dear Rabbi Goldstein,

    I am a practicing orthodox Jew who puts on Tefillin daily, although I am not Shomer Shabbat. I believe you have come down on the wrong side of the line in this decision. How is it that orthodox Rabbis will happily debate on interfaith platforms with the clergy of other religions, but cannot open their hearts to do the same with fellow Jews?

    It is illogical and mean-spirited. By presenting your strong case on the Limmud platform you have an excellent opportunity  to influence participants to your way of thinking. 

    Have the courage of your convictions and be prepared to defend and debate them in an arena occupied by Jews willing to learn in a free atmosphere.’

  5. Steven Isacowitz

    Jul 10, 2019 at 1:34 pm

    "What is so unique and special about the South African Jewish community is the fact that we view each other as brothers and sisters, as part of one family. Families can disagree. It’s perfectly fine for brothers and sisters to disagree with one another, but only in a spirit of respect and love."

    I wonder how Judge Richard Goldstone would interpret this message of love, considering the treatment he received.’

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