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Limmud: Torah educators speak out

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Don’t fear Limmud for providing neutral space

Rabbi Dr Samuel Lebens

South African orthodox Judaism is an inspiration. But I have also thoroughly enjoyed teaching and learning at Limmud South Africa.

The Beth Din of South Africa states that Limmud promotes “values which are contrary to the Torah’s philosophy and principles”. Indeed, some at Limmud will promote reform Judaism. Some will promote secular forms of Judaism.

When I was there, I did my best to promote orthodox Judaism. Limmud itself promotes none of these. It is neither in favour of my orthodoxy, nor in favour of somebody else’s anti-orthodox views. It simply provides a space in which honest and sincere people can present their vision of Judaism.

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) allows professors to teach views that are contrary to Torah values. It gives them a platform. Does that mean that it promotes values that are contrary to the Torah? Does the Beth Din want to prohibit rabbis and rebbetzins from attending university campuses?

A Marxist historian’s presence at UJ in no way indicates that he agrees with the views of his Keynesian colleagues. An orthodox rabbi’s presence at Limmud in no way indicates that he agrees with the views of reform or conservative Jews.

Sinai Indaba touches thousands of Jewish lives. I was blessed to have seen this first hand. But I have also seen Limmud first-hand. There, I saw a large number of Jews, many of whom were loosely affiliated with orthodox communities but thought of themselves as on the margins.

For one reason or another, those people are not being touched by Sinai Indaba (though thousands of others are). I saw how eager they were to meet orthodox rabbis face to face, to talk to them, and to learn with them.

They told me they felt comfortable doing this only in what they believed to be a neutral space. Limmud shouldn’t be feared for providing a neutral space. Its neutrality is what attracts a large number of people who we orthodox educators should be eager to engage.

The Torah was passed down from Sinai in an unbroken chain. Our orthodox rabbis and teachers are guardians of this tradition. It is a tree of life, and we should cling to it.

But Jews in the information age are living in a free market of ideas. If we are unwilling to “sully ourselves” by presenting our views alongside other views that compete for the allegiance of the Jewish people, then I fear we’re putting our own pride before the urgent need of the hour. I fear we will have written off our obligation to those Jews who fall between the communal cracks. I would urge the Beth Din to reconsider.

Rabbi Dr Samuel Lebens is a research fellow in the philosophy department at the University of Haifa, and a dynamic Jewish educator. He is also an orthodox rabbi, having studied at various Israeli rabbinical schools (Yeshivat Hakotel, Yeshivat Hamivtar, and Yeshivat Har Etzion).

Rabbis are obliged to teach there

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo

My main objections to the chief rabbi and Beth Din are as follows:

First, all of Limmud will fall into the hands of the conservative, reform, and secular movements. By not participating, they deny the Limmud audience an orthodox point of view. Is that what they want to accomplish?

Second, they make the impression that the orthodox rabbinate is afraid of the other denominations. It’s seen as a form of cowardice. Is that what they want? Should the other denominations not be afraid of the orthodox? Where is orthodox courage?

As long as Limmud is fully kosher, keeps Shabbat in the kitchen and in all public spaces, and has an eruv, orthodox rabbis have an obligation to teach there.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo is a Dutch-Israeli orthodox rabbi, philosopher, and scholar of Judaism. He is the founder and dean of the David Cardozo Academy, and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. Rabbi Cardozo heads up a think tank focused on finding new halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and towards Israel.

 

Limmud about learning, not grandstanding

Ilana Stein

Amidst what is no doubt a plethora of letters and opinions on the current Limmud/rabbinical debate, I’d like to put my oar in. I’m not going to deal with politics or policies, rather discuss the difference between pluralism and diversity.

Importantly, Limmud is not about pluralism but about diversity. There is a difference. Pluralism is basically: we’re both right. Diversity describes the fact that we hold different views, in other words, I think I’m right, and I don’t have to think you’re right to have a conversation with you over a cup of coffee.

The point that seems to be made by the rabbis is that orthodox rabbis can’t sit on a platform with those of heterodoxy as this would be seen to legitimise the latter’s beliefs. But, if you read the values of Limmud, you’ll find that it doesn’t advocate pluralism, but rather states, “We do not participate in legitimising or de-legitimising any religious or political position found in the worldwide Jewish community. Anyone coming to Limmud seeking opportunities for this will not find them. We have no part to play in the debates between/across denominations.”

In other words – and as a Limmudnik for 11 years I can testify to this – there are no platforms.

When you go to Limmud, you understand another Limmud value, “Everyone should be a student, and anyone can be a teacher.” This means, that as a thinking adult, I can work out for myself who the speaker is, his or her orientation or belief systems, and whether I want to listen to them. No-one is – or should be – there to be dogmatic.

Has Limmud sometimes got it wrong? Yes. Have some sessions been marked with disrespect instead of respect? Sadly, yes. Do some speakers espouse values that clash with orthodox beliefs? Definitely. Is anyone convinced that my presence expresses agreement with or legitimisation of these? I highly doubt it. When at Limmud, people are not there to be brainwashed or told what to do. They’re there to hear, to learn, to engage – and yes, agree to disagree.

It is natural to fear the unknown. Stepping outside of our boxes can be uncomfortable. But when you understand that at Limmud you can leave the boxes at the door, that fear slips away, leaving in its wake a unity with others that is at the level of the yiddishe neshama, the collective soul of the people.

Rabbi Ben Greenberg, formerly orthodox rabbinic advisor at Harvard, in his excellent article, “Orthodox and Non-Orthodox: Can We Learn from Each Other?” says, “When a Jew cannot sit down with another Jew to learn our sacred texts together, the Jewish people as a whole are at a profound loss.”

We just want to learn together.

Ilana Stein is a conservationist, and lectures on the subject of Judaism and the environment as well as Tanach for the Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning. She is working on her Masters in Jewish Education through the Academy’s National Education Development Programme.

 

The Halachic reasons for attending Limmud

A respected British rabbi, who does not want to be named or drawn into the local debate, has in the past written about the halachic issues Limmud raises, and whether it should be permissible for orthodox rabbis to attend.

He speaks about the negative impact of an environment in which beliefs and values contrary to halacha are shared and promoted, citing a teaching in the book of Mishlei to “distance your way from her”. This, he says, is explained by the rabbis of the Talmud to mean that we should stay far away from places of heresy. Based on this comment, halachic authorities have warned against being in an environment where we are confronted by beliefs and values contrary to the halacha.

However, the rabbi believes that Limmud is a different case altogether, pointing out that the beliefs and values contrary to halacha shared at sessions are not those of Limmud itself. Thus, he argues, while the above teaching would certainly apply to some sessions at Limmud, it does not apply to Limmud as a whole. He likens a broad ban on the festival to forbidding a visit to a public library, given that a library certainly contains books that are contrary to Jewish beliefs and values.

The second point he raises is the problem of learning Torah from individuals whose beliefs and values run contrary to halacha. He believes Limmud offers a variety of opinions from which one can choose, and cites Rabbi Yehuda Black of Kenton Synagogue who says, “The way I see it, Limmud is a supermarket, and you can buy all kinds of products off the shelves, some of which might have a hechsher and others not.” For this reason, he argues that the presence of orthodox rabbis is necessary at Limmud to offer a halachic opinion. Their absence constitutes placing a stumbling block before the blind.

The third issue is the problem of legitimising beliefs and values opposed to the halacha, like those expressed by some non-orthodox denominations, which poses a risk of legitimising these denominations. Unlike other settings, however, the rabbi says Limmud doesn’t require speakers to share platforms with those of different religious attitudes, meaning that attendance of Limmud doesn’t involve making a theological compromise. He compares attending Limmud to contributing an article to a publication that includes essays from authors of different beliefs and values, which is permissible.

Quoting the late former United Kingdom chief rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, he presents a more extreme expression of this idea. “Normally, on my American lecture tours, I accept invitations to speak on conservative and reform as well as orthodox platforms. I believe the Torah was given to all Jews, and I am obliged to teach it to any section of the community when invited to do so. Obviously, I have nothing other than orthodox Judaism to proclaim.”

In response to the claim that his presence would be viewed as an endorsement – or at least legitimisation – of beliefs and values of such non-orthodox denominations, Jakobovits responded, “I don’t think anyone would misinterpret my appearance as extending ‘recognition’ or ‘credibility’ to non-orthodox Judaism. I and my teachings are known well enough, I believe, not to have my presence taken as any kind of endorsement whatsoever. On the contrary, I hope my presence and presentations help to enhance respect for Torah teaching.”

Thus, he says, attendance at Limmud confers no legitimacy to denominations beyond orthodoxy, as Limmud is itself neither a conservative nor reform platform, but a setting where various speakers can learn and teach, especially when the speakers are recognised as representing orthodox beliefs and values.

The rabbi concludes that there is no prohibition per se on attending Limmud, but recognises that attendance of sessions by speakers explicit in their rejection of core beliefs and values remains halachically problematic. Those who can express a true halachic spirit and orthodox values at these sessions are to be commended, he says.

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