Limmud – A Plea for Intolerance
1. As the date for this year’s Limmud Conference draws nearer, the Jewish community is able to put aside the distracting trivialities of past months – minor irritations like discovering that the rabbinate is completely unable to provide an effective system for investigating allegations of sexual abuse by rabbis – and concentrate on the all-important task of infighting.
2. The Limmud controversy is enlivened this year by two novelties. First, the new Chief Rabbi Mirvis has publicly announced his intention of attending. Secondly, in response, letters have been published by orthodox rabbis denouncing the event.
3. The fact that Chief Rabbi Mirvis has decided to go is hardly startling. Since he opened his term of office by declaring his wish to act for all kinds of Judaism – progressive as well as orthodox – he would have lost every shred of credibility that declaration carried had he refused to attend the main pluralist and inclusive event in the communal calendar. Nor does it require particular courage: it will make no difference to the chareidi community’s attitude to his chief rabbinate – when it suits them they will use him and when it doesn’t they won’t. (It probably won’t make any real difference to the progressive communities’ attitudes to him either; they will pocket the gesture and demand more, pushing him beyond wherever he draws his boundaries in order to assert their need for separate recognition by the secular authorities.)
4. The letters of condemnation are pretty futile too. With one exception, those that I have seen are very much in the “preaching to the converted style”, and do not even pretend to argue in a way that will convince anyone who needs convincing. The one exception is a modern orthodox Rabbi who has written a brilliant description of his personal attitudes to the event.
5. The battle – trivial, parochial and communally-self-absorbed as it is – has of course been lost years ago. Outside Chareidi circles, it has long been regarded as intolerant and bigoted to object to Limmud.
6. So perhaps this is a reasonable time to remember that Judaism has always been, theologically speaking, intolerant and bigoted. In human terms, Jews have always been – if they follow their religion – generous, humble and unlimitedly tolerant in their dealings with Jews and non-Jews alike. In theological terms, there is no room in orthodox Judaism for compromise, or for acceptance that any other religion or version of religion has any truth that is not also found in orthodox Judaism itself.
7. It is this theological intolerance that would lead many orthodox Jews to feel uncomfortable at an event that has pluralism and the acceptance of pluralism at its heart. They like their educational events to take place in an atmosphere of respect for orthodoxy as the only authentic version of Judaism. The presence of progressive educators being presented as equally valid sources of education and inspiration as orthodox rabbis would be enough to make many orthodox Jews feel profoundly uncomfortable.
8. All very bigoted and intolerant: but I wonder if the spirit of tolerance and generosity that prevails at Limmud (or so I am told) can find room to feel tolerant and generous spirited towards those of us who stay away because we genuinely believe that our religion requires us to be bigoted and intolerant? (Or is it, perhaps, infected with an intolerance and inverted bigotry of its very own?)