I’m angry. Very angry. Angry enough to write about it, which is saying something. Rabbi Kimche has written an open letter (edit: now posted on his blog) about why he thinks Orthodox rabbis (and in fact, Orthodox Jews in general) should not go to Limmud. Limmud, that magical place where for one week each year, UK Jews (and hundreds of overseas visitors) manage to set aside their differences and learn from each other. Limmud, one of the highlights of my Jewish upbringing, where every year thousands of people gather to devote day and night to studying Torah and Judaism. Hannah Gaventa has written a wonderful response about the beauty of Limmud and the importance of learning with people of varying beliefs; I agree with everything she says and recommend that you read it. My response is less positive and a lot more angry.
Angry, because despite his repeated plea to “be honest”, he is basing his objections to Limmud on a very selective reading of the handbook. From his letter:
As for the Jewish social parts of the programme, I think Ruth Gledhill of The Times got it right when she referred to it as the ‘Jewish Glastonbury’. When the programme amazingly includes sessions such as: ‘Fifty shades of Hummus’, ‘Old Jewish Jokes’, ‘Kaddish for deceased Pets’, ‘Pyjama Party Disco’, and a ‘drumming workshop’, –one realises that this is indeed Glastonbury, a place to celebrate the absence of any structures and beliefs, a place of great fun where anything goes.
He’s talking about the social parts of the programme, so why is he including Kaddish for deceased pets? Maybe because he got carried away trying to find session titles that seemed ridiculous and forgot he’d introduced the paragraph that way?
Pyjama party is the name of the evening childcare program. “Pyjama party disco” means that the older children were having a disco that evening, which he’d have known if he’d bothered to read the description rather than skim for shocking titles. It is not a session for adults to hang out in pyjamas. And if he’d read the blurb for the fifty shades of hummus session, he’d know that the title was a (perhaps misguided) attempt to be catchy, but that the session was about hummus and not in any way about glamorising abusive relationships. Finally, while jokes are (by definition) light-hearted and drumming is a thing that may occur at Glastonbury, it is a huge leap to conclude that “anything goes” at Limmud.
Angry, because he chooses to focus on these easy-to-mock-if-you-don’t-do-your-research titles, rather than on the hundreds of people who gather to learn in chavruta every morning, or the people who decided chavruta wasn’t intense enough and commit to Yeshivat Limmud in-depth learning, or the large crowds that are attracted by Tanach scholars such as Judy Klitsner, Avivah Zornberg and Uriel Simon, and Talmud scholars such as Leah Rosenthal.
Angry, because of his repeated claims that Limmud promotes the idea that anything goes in Judaism and nothing is ultimately true. Limmud does nothing of the sort. Many presenters have strong opinions on what Judaism is; the fact that often these presenters disagree with each other does not mean that they cancel each other out, does not mean that any of them thinks nothing is ultimately true. He says:
At Limmud you will often be told that there are no immutable Truths only personal narratives, in fact there are no Divine origins of anything. The Exodus from Egypt that we love to recount on Seder Night probably never happened, heterosexual marriage is not the only way for men and women to live together, and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are probably all mythical individuals created poetically by ancient authors.
Well, I’ve been to Limmud eleven times and never once been told that there are no immutable truths or divine origins, or that the Exodus probably didn’t happen, or that the avot are probably mythical.
But guess what? Heterosexual marriage is not the only way for men and women to live together. I initially read this as one of the many digs at non-straight people, but perhaps it’s actually a dig against cohabitation? Either way, both exist, and it’s at Limmud that you’ll find people who care about halacha struggling with these issues rather than pretending they don’t exist in their community.
Angry, because his main argument against Limmud is that a select group of Orthodox rabbis are the only people who know what is “true” Judaism, and he doesn’t trust people to think for themselves:
Orthodox rabbis believe passionately in the Divine Origins of the Torah, the commitment to Rabbinic Halacha, the sanctity of marriage and family life and the divinely ordained connection between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel. These principles are not negotiable.
Go ahead and believe that. I have no problem with that.
They alone are the exclusive guarantors of Netzach Yisrael, the indestructible sanctity of the Jewish People.
… and you lost me.
When Limmud promotes a systematic denial of all these foundational beliefs […]
From Limmud’s mission statement:
Limmud’s Principles: Arguments for the Sake of Heaven
Limmud does not participate in legitimising or de-legitimising any religious or political position found in the worldwide Jewish community. Anyone who comes to Limmud events seeking opportunities for this will not find it
Limmud has no part to say in the debates between/across denominations. Limmud will programme its events in such a way as to avoid religious or political conflict. However we do recognise and appreciate that ‘arguments for the sake of heaven’ can make a positive contribution to furthering our education and understanding. Sessions should therefore be educational and not polemical
He ends by suggesting that Limmud should simply be given it’s “true” name : “the Limmud Conference of Progressive Judaism”. I think the above passage from the mission statement makes it clear that this would not in fact be an appropriate name for Limmud.
It is absurd to claim that arrogance or fundamentalism drives orthodox leaders to denounce Limmud it is rather their clarity of vision, and their objective is only to defend everything that is precious and vital to Jewish continuity and authenticity. It is leadership.
Did I read that right? “We’re not arrogant, we’re just the only ones who could possibly be right! Why don’t you like that? It’s for your own good!”
Members of the wider community are being largely taught an aberration of Judaism, which is widely seen as being sanctioned by the presence of these orthodox rabbis and could mistakenly be perceived as having their hechsher.
Um, no. No one at Limmud is under the impression that all sessions taught at Limmud have an “Orthodox hechsher”. And — whether because they are themselves not Orthodox or interested in Orthodoxy, or because they are Orthodox but understand that even (gasp) non Orthodox speakers might have something to teach us, or indeed because they do prefer to learn from Orthodox presenters and so use the convenient presenter biographies to pick which speakers to listen to — they simply don’t care.
I really dislike this unwillingness to allow people to decide for themselves what they think. My own beliefs have been refined and strengthened over many years of conversations with people with different views. I find that discussing an idea respectfully with someone who disagrees with it is the best way to clarify my reasoning. If your convictions are so weak that exposure to other ideas kills them, then the problem is not with the exposure, it’s with your reasons for holding those beliefs in the first place.
I’m angry, because he condemns Limmud for being dominated by people with views that are contrary to his own, even as he calls for those people sharing his views not to go to Limmud.
Angry, because of the homophobia (and biphobia and transphobia) in his letter.
Is it a part of Jewish teachings to promote LGBTQ (you don’t know what it means? Look it up in the Limmud brochure) lifestyle as an attractive alternative new way of Jewish life?
In the context of a letter explaining how he doesn’t consider Limmud to be authentic Judaism, his instruction to look up the acronym LGBTQ in the Limmud brochure reads as presenting LGBTQ as “some weird progressive thing that we don’t have in our community”. That is a shameful attitude.
Also, people aren’t promoting “the LGBTQ lifestyle” as an attractive alternative way of life. LGBTQ activism isn’t about telling cisgendered heterosexual people to change their orientation or identity. It’s not about making straight Jews stop being straight. It’s about recognising that not all Jews are straight and cis, and making sure that LGBTQ Jews are comfortable in their Jewish community.
Is it Jewish education to have sessions like: ‘Pride and Prejudice? Being young, Jewish and queer’ billed as ‘interactive talks by young LGBTQ members of our community who offer a personal perspective on life being young, Jewish and Queer.’
Homosexuality is certainly an issue the community needs to face up to, but who can claim with a straight face that advocating LGBTQ life is part of teaching Judaism, or that Steve Greenberg’s claim to be an orthodox gay rabbi is anything other than incoherent and absurd? Let’s be honest.
Ok. You agree that homosexuality within our community is an issue that needs to be discussed. So what exactly is your problem with having Jews discuss their personal experiences of homosexuality with each other? And what is your problem with Rabbi Steve Greenberg telling people how he reconciles his homosexuality with his Orthodoxy? You said earlier that Orthodox rabbis were the ones who had the clarity of vision to defend everything vital to Jewish authenticity, but now you take issue with this particular Orthodox rabbi. So who decides which Orthodox rabbis are reliable and which aren’t? You’ve already made it clear that as a layperson, I couldn’t possibly be expected to tell the difference between authentic and bogus Judaism, but it sounds like you know the difference.
So, you tell me. Why is Steve Greenberg’s claim absurd?
I also find it difficult to picture what you think the discussion of this issue should look like, given that you write off as an absurdity the gay Orthodox rabbi without responding to his actual beliefs.
So, I’m angry.
I’m angry, but I’m also sad. Because this letter, so opposed to one of my favourite things about UK Jewry, exemplifies much of my problem with Orthodoxy. Not expecting laypeople to think, and the not-so-subtle homophobia, are two of the big things that put me off Orthodoxy. But writing this rant, though somewhat therapeutic, feels futile: this letter demonstrates the position that people who disagree with you are to be ignored rather than engaged in conversation. It reminds me that if (when?) I decide that I no longer wish to be a part of such a homophobic, anti-thinking community, that will be no great loss (apparently if I think gay people should be allowed to marry I wasn’t properly Orthodox in the first place). I know that soon, having written this rant and through talking with like-minded people, I will calm down, I will remember that there is a section of the Orthodox community that does share my values, that I do feel sort of almost sometimes at home in. But I also know that this letter will blur into the growing collection of evidence that Orthodox Judaism does not share my values. And, having been mostly very happy with my Orthodox upbringing, that makes me sad.