Mirvis decries ‘self-Imposed ghetto’ at Limmud debut
British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis brought message of openness to Limmud UK this week. Keeping to their principle of not elevating any speaker, organisers didn’t introduce him as he took the podium. He said he was moved by acts of voluntarism he had witnessed. “Here at Limmud, you can’t escape the fact that it’s great to be Jewish.” Read what else he had to say…
“I’m delighted to be part of this”
By: Ant Katz with the Jerusalem Post and the Jewish Daily Forward
British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis brought a message of openness to Limmud this week. In keeping principle of not elevating any speaker, organisers did not introduce Mirvis as he took the podium. He said that he was moved by the acts of voluntarism he had witnessed. “Here at Limmud, you can’t escape the fact that it’s great to be Jewish and I’m delighted to be a part of this,” he said, smiling broadly.
In the decades since a bunch of British Jews created Limmud, its model of volunteer experts offering a pluralistic smorgasbord of Jewish teachings, arts offerings and performances has turned into a worldwide movement. But through all these years, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom has never attended Limmud in the country where it all started. In SA Orthodox Rabbis and Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein also do not attend.So, just by his presence on Monday, Rabbi Mirvis, who has held the powerful position of Chief Rabbi for only a year, created a buzz in the UK – and in South Africa.
RIGHT: Rabbi Mirvis
seemed quite comfortable
at Limmud UK this week
Observers were well aware that the previous Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, avoided attending Limmud, even when his own son-in-law helped run the multi-day conference, which attracts thousands of Jews to a windswept university campus in the middle of England.
No special treatment given
In keeping with its principle of not elevating any one speaker over another, Limmud organisers did not introduce Chief Rabbi Mirvis as he took the podium.
The JEWISH DAILY FORWARD said in an article this week that: “Limmud’s core principles of egalitarian openness were evidently too much for the leader of British Jews to countenance.”
The room in which Mirivs spoke was jam-packed with an eager audience and a phalanx of security. Many more listened in an overflow room.
What they heard on the surface was an engaging if conventional teaching about the Torah portion of the week – specifically, the second chapter of the book of Exodus, beginning with the birth of Moses.
But, said The Forward correspondent, the subtext was startling for its message: Mirvis used the figure of Moses not only to illuminate leadership qualities and to emphasize Jewish unity. He also forcefully spoke of the need for “universalistic ideals” and the imperative to be concerned about other people, to “not exist in a self-imposed ghetto away from the rest of the people in the world.”
“Pious but treif way of life”
“When we exist only for ourselves, when we disregard members of other communities…that might be a pious way of life but it is a treif way of life.”
“Mirvis may be new in his position, the only one dressed in a suit in this decidedly casual crowd, but my sense is that he knew exactly what he was doing by drawing that lesson in his maiden speech at Limmud,” wrote the Forward’s correspondent, “a movement that many say reflects his future constituency. This is a grey-haired conference, but also a hip and edgy one.
“He needs the allegiance of Limmudniks if he is going to be able to maintain the centrality of his office. British Jews are more moderate and affiliated than American Jews, but they are not immune to the opposing trends of fundamentalism and assimilation that are tearing away at the broad centre among their co-religionists across the pond.”
It’s great to be Jewish, I’m delighted to be part of this
Mirvis told the audience of several hundred that he was moved by the acts of voluntarism he had witnessed. “Here at Limmud, you can’t escape the fact that it’s great to be Jewish and I’m delighted to be a part of this,” he said, smiling broadly.
Mirvis received a standing ovation upon entering the packed auditorium at the University of Warwick, wrote J-POST, and he did not directly address the controversy on his attendance – but contained himself to his lecture subject, this week’s Torah portion.
LEFT: “We need to concentrate
seriously on binding the Jewish
people, rope like, together” – MIRVIS
Referring to Moses’ talent in drawing together the Jewish people, he suggested that single strands are easier to break than a rope.
“We need to concentrate seriously on binding the Jewish people, rope like, together,” the Cape Town born and bred Rabbi Mirvis said.
The Chief Rabbi also gave a second session on Tuesday entitled “A Torah guide to conflict resolution.”
Rabbi Mirvis has previously served as Chief Rabbi of Ireland, faced many Orthodox critics of Limmud which draws thousands of participants from all walks of Jewish life.
Orthodox authorities have previously felt that the annual conference represented a danger to British Jewry by suggesting it was acceptable for observant Jews to associate with less- or non-observant Jews.
This year’s annual event, the 30th in the UK, drew over 2,500 participants from the United Kingdom and around the world for 4 1/2 days of lectures, workshops, performances and discussions on Jewish issues ranging from Torah study to art, archaeology, history and politics. The event is more than 30 years old.
Walking a very fine line
Mirvis’ predecessor, Jonathan Sacks, reportedly had supported Limmud early on but bowed to pressure from his Charedi colleagues and never attended.
So Mirvis is walking a very fine line. And he has by no means shown a general tendency towards being a reformer. He recently angered feminists by dismissing the “partnership minyanim” that allow for more female participation in Orthodox prayer services.
But his appearance at Limmud will resonate, as will his words. The organisers and the audience clearly appreciated the legitimisation that his attendance gave to the movement.
From new Prince George to late Mandela
He was a forceful speaker, at times charming, moving fluidly from referencing the new Prince George, the late Nelson Mandela, Kabbalah and lots of traditional Jewish texts, to story-telling that left the audience laughing.
While his central message was a standard mix of hope and faith, he tucked a universalistic theme into many of his comments. Moses achieved greatness even though he came from humble beginnings; that is, we all have the capacity to be leaders.
Mirvis told the audience that they must be totally devoted to their fellow Jews, but that wasn’t enough. They also needed to be concerned about other people, “to reach out to all mankind.”
Finding faith in the hippo
This week’s parsha details the laws of kashrus. The Torah makes a brave statement by enumerating the one and only animal that has split hooves but doesn’t chew the cud. It’s a “brave” statement, because if a human being wrote the Torah, how would they know that the pig is the only one on the “face of the planet” with this characteristic?
Moses was born in Egypt, spent some time as a fugitive in Ethiopia, and died somewhere near modern-day Jordan. If we presume that he was the author of the Five Books without any divine inspiration, and he sucked the whole thing out of his left thumb, then how could he be so confident that there wasn’t a marsupial or wallaby in the furthermost corners of the planet that didn’t have at least one of these characteristics? This was almost 3 000 years before anyone even knew there was an Australia. If he was inventing the whole religion, he would have taken the more prudent course of being rather vague. He wouldn’t have blatantly listed the only four exceptions “from all the animals on the earth”.
With this great piece of Torah veracity in my mind, my faith was shaken when, on a trip to London’s Natural History Museum, (I know, it’s a pretty nerdy thing to do), I discovered that there was a hoofed animal, classified by zoology, that seemed to be an exception “overlooked” by the Torah – the hippo. It’s classified as an “ungulate”, a split-hoofed animal without a ruminant stomach that isn’t listed in the Torah as another exception!
I thought about this problem for a while, and then the solution came to me. Why should we allow zoology to dictate the classification of animals? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that hippos don’t have hooves like a pig or cow, they have toes (like camels). I know it’s more fancy to talk about ungulates, phylum, and genus. It even makes us look clever, but if we are really honest with ourselves, we won’t let zoological classifications stand in the way of our emunah in Hashem and His Torah.
Let’s start talking about Pesach
For the past few weeks, my family and I have been doing something really special. We’ve been getting together every Sunday night, sitting around the table, and going through the Pesach Haggadah.
It’s just me, Gina, and our children – our eldest, Mordi, his wife Avigayil, and Levi, Shayna, and youngest Azi. We have supper together, and then we get stuck into the Haggadah, discussing, debating, sharing as a family, covering everything from the four sons, the four questions and the ten plagues, to matzah, maror, and the four cups of wine.
It has been a truly memorable experience. We started this family tradition a few months ago, setting aside the Sunday night slot to connect as a family and share Torah ideas. It’s an open forum, a space for every member of the family to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. We’ve covered the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith and the weekly parsha, and now, most recently, the Haggadah.
Going through the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Jewish people and goes to the very heart of who we are as Jews, has been particularly special. We’ve fine-tuned our understanding of the story, and gained so many new insights and ideas. Just as importantly, we’ve grown closer as a family, and feel more connected to each other and Hashem. Now, as we head towards Pesach, we all feel that this is going to be a dramatically different seder experience. Our mindset is different.
The Pesach seder is perhaps the formative Jewish experience. The seders we had as kids seem to stay with us. Even as we grow older, we recollect them fondly and vividly. It’s so much more than a ceremony, a procession of rituals, it’s the rich soil in which our families and our very Jewish identity are formed.
Of course, as we grow older, there’s the temptation, given how familiar the story is, to slip into autopilot on seder night. But if we prepare, we can avoid this and enter the seder charged with inspiration and filled with rich new perspectives. In doing so, we can transform it into an incredibly powerful spiritual and emotional experience that changes us, that truly frees us from our tired routines and habits and brings us closer to one another, to G-d, and to our true selves. A rebirth in the deepest sense.
That’s why I would like to call on all of us to start these meaningful family conversations in preparation for Pesach, to discuss the ideas and themes and get a deeper understanding of the seder itself. Of course, we need to prepare our homes – cleaning and cooking are incredibly important because they help us to fulfil all the mitzvot of this special chag and ensure we have a proper, kosher Pesach. But the seder, too, needs preparation, and the more we prepare for it, the greater the experience is going to be.
There’s something that can help you get the process started. My family and I were so excited and inspired by our Sunday night learning sessions, we decided to record our Haggadah discussions. We’ve turned these recordings into a special Pesach series, called The Goldstein Family Podcast, which you can access via my website or wherever you get your podcasts. The sessions have been cut and edited into eight episodes ranging from 10 to 30 minutes each to make them as accessible as possible.
There’s not much time left before Pesach, but I would like to encourage you to devote some time to preparing for the seder, and our podcast can be a good place to start. Even just a couple of hours can make all the difference to your seder.
Especially at this time, after a year of being battered by a pandemic, we need the healing, the meaning, and the deep inspiration of the seder more than ever – the message of faith in Hashem, connection to generations past, the sense of rootedness it gives us in an uncertain world.
Let’s take this opportunity to prepare so that we can connect with the ancient words of the Haggadah – with the great origin story of our people – in ways we’ve never done before.
Gina and I wish you all a chag kasher v’same’ach – a beautiful Pesach – and deeply meaningful, enriching seders.
Is antisemitism good for the Jews?
One of the traditional songs from the Pesach Haggadah which has become hugely popular in recent years is Vehi Sheamdah. An original version composed by Yonatan Razel was turned into a mega hit by Yaakov Shwekey, and was named Song of the Decade in Israel.
The passage in English reads, “And it is this that has stood by our fathers and us. For not just one alone [Pharaoh] has risen against us to destroy us, but in each and every generation they rise against us to destroy us and the holy one, blessed be He, saves us from their hand!”
What is meant by the opening words, “vehi” as in “it is this that has stood by us”? What does “this” refer to? The simple meaning seems to be that it follows on the previous paragraph in the Haggadah where we read, “Blessed is He who keeps His promise to Israel.”
It refers to G-d’s promise to redeem the Children of Israel from Egyptian exile. According to commentary, it also refers to G-d’s ongoing promise to redeem us from all our exile and persecution, including the final redemption at the end of days.
This promise has sustained the Jewish people throughout all the dark and difficult days of our long and tortuous history. We have always believed and trusted in G-d’s promise that, in the end, it would all come right.
That’s the simple meaning. But a few years ago, I had a brain wave of a rather alternative interpretation. Later, I was gratified to see the same idea in the writings of earlier rabbis much more learned than I.
What occurred to me was that the Haggadah may have been giving us another message as well. The very fact that “in every generation they rise against us to destroy us” is itself what has stood by us and given us the strength to persevere. Antisemitism, and the fact that in spite of all the existential threats we as a people have suffered, we have survived, all bearing testimony to the Almighty’s watchful eye which continues to guide us through our special providential mission on earth.
Jews and non-Jews alike have marvelled at our miraculous survival. Over 300 years ago, King Louis XIV of France asked the philosopher, Pascal, to give him proof of the existence of G-d. Pascal famously replied, “Why the Jews, your majesty, the Jews!”
Our tiny nation’s survival while all the greatest empires of the world have come and gone remains powerful confirmation that there is a higher power ensuring our continuity and destiny.
Indeed, there is a strong argument to suggest that antisemitism has been good for the Jews. The French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, made that point in his book Anti-Semite & Jew. History records that under regimes that persecuted us, we remained steadfastly Jewish, whereas under more enlightened, liberal forms of government, we became comfortable in our newfound freedom, gradually embracing a welcoming but dominant culture and forfeiting much of our own.
Back in the early 19th century, Napoleon was conquering Europe and promising liberty and equality for all. When he squared up against Russia, many Jewish leaders sided with him, hoping he would finally bring an end to Czarist persecution and extend to Russian Jewry full civil rights. However, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, thought differently. He actively opposed Napoleon, and even had his Chassidim assist in intelligence gathering for the Russian army.
When his colleagues challenged him and questioned his apparent lack of concern for the well-being of his own people, he argued that while Napoleon might be good for the Jews materially, his victory would result in spiritual disaster. Tragically, the record proves him correct. Minus the Little Emperor, Russian Jews remained staunchly Jewish, while French Jewry virtually vanished.
How many Jewish Rothschilds are left in the world? G-d knows we could have used them. Most of French Jewry today hails from North Africa. The originals are few and far between.
And the American experience confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt that freedom, democracy, and equal rights, while wonderful blessings for Jews for which we should be eternally grateful, also present a profound challenge to our Jewish identity and way of life. In the melting pot of the United States, Jews have integrated so successfully, they are virtually disappearing!
Back in the 1970s, when I was working with Jewish university students, we were struggling to break through a wall of icy indifference towards Judaism. It was so frustrating, that my colleagues and I even considered going onto campus in the dead of night to paint a few swastikas on the student union building!
Maybe that would jolt them out of their apathy. Of course, we never actually did it, but the fact that the thought crossed our minds demonstrates how external threats have a way of making Jews bristle with pride and righteous indignation.
We see it today as well. Outside many shuls around the world, you will find young men and women who volunteer to do security duty. Many of them are never seen inside the shuls they protect. Going to shul and praying isn’t their thing. But when enemies of Israel threaten Jews, these brave young people respond as loyal, committed Jews.
It appears that as repugnant as antisemitism may be, in a strange, perverse sort of way it may have contributed to the stubborn determination of Jews over many generations to stand up for their convictions and live by the principles of our faith no matter what.
So, when you sing Vehi Sheamdah at your Pesach Seder this year, instead of bemoaning our enemies’ hatred for us, find the positive side. Vehi – this very hostility and the never-ending attempt at our annihilation – has only served to strengthen our resolve to remain steadfastly Jewish. Indeed, it has stood us well!
- Rabbi Yossy Goldman is the rabbi at Sydenham Shul, and the president of the South African Rabbinical Association.
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