Courage is the word that comes to mind when we think of Britain’s new Chief
Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’s decision to come to Limmud, the largest Jewish conference
in the world, which will take place in England at the end of the year.
is a sad commentary on the state of contemporary Orthodox leadership when a
chief rabbi is called courageous because he accepts the invitation to teach
Torah at such a remarkable Jewish event. What could be more obvious? But the
truth is that courage has indeed become a rare commodity in large segments of
The letter written by the venerable Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu,
former rosh beit din (head of religious court) of the United Synagogue, as well
as some other leading British dayanim and rabbis, calling on fellow Jews not to
participate in the upcoming Limmud conference in England because spokesmen of
the Reform and Conservative movements will also be present, is most telling. It
has once again thrown British Jewry into a fierce, highly publicized and
Religious condemnation in the form of bans
and harshly written edicts is the worst action these eminent rabbis can take. It
displays symptoms of fear, helplessness and miscalculation. It reflects
fundamentalism and dogmatism. Bans such as these are identified with those
issued by the Christian clerical authorities, who condemned Galileo in the 17th
century for suggesting that the earth was not at the center of the universe.
Bans have been used against demons, witches and other forms of superstition –
hardly activities these rabbis want to be associated with.
It is a sad
state of affairs when rabbis believe they can still hide behind high-walled
citadels of exclusiveness. More than that, it indicates a total disconnect from
reality. Today, we communicate with one another in unprecedented ways. The rules
of waging an ideological war have drastically changed, just as the overall
situation of the Jewish people has. What once worked is now nothing more than a
Yet a large part of the Orthodox world persists in believing there
is no need for change, but the truth is there is almost nothing more misleading
and dangerous. Cracks in the walls of Orthodox strongholds are everywhere around
us – the higher the walls, the larger the cracks – and by no artificial process
can they be mended. To believe otherwise is nothing more than wishful
The fact that Orthodox rabbis stay away from conferences such
as Limmud is downright embarrassing to all of us Orthodox teachers. The
hopelessness of thinking that anyone will be convinced of the truth of Orthodox
belief when its educators stay away because teachers from other movements
participate has gone beyond the point of debate. Such ideas have faded into
flickering embers that have lost all meaning. All it does is convince people
that Orthodox Jews are afraid of any confrontation with those who think
differently. It turns Orthodox Judaism into a laughingstock and convinces
intelligent young Jews that it is an outmoded form of Judaism, which no longer
has anything to offer and is driven by nothing but fear.
does not occur to these rabbis that by staying away, they hand Limmud over on a
silver platter to the non-Orthodox denominations, strengthening these very
movements. One wonders why they don’t see what is crystal clear to everybody
The enormous damage done by not having Orthodox teachers
participating cannot be emphasized enough. Who of the distinguished dayanim and
rabbis have the right to deny the participants of Limmud the opportunity to hear
the Orthodox point of view? How do they dare to stay away? Arguments that it is
a matter of principle not to participate because it will give credibility to
non-Orthodox denominations are completely unfounded, since Limmud does not give
credence to anybody and is nothing more than a marketplace where people try to
sell their goods. Deciding not to attend is like deliberately closing one’s
business on the Internet and going bankrupt because competing businesses have
the chutzpah to use the Internet as well.
Indeed, isn’t fear of the
Conservative and Reform movements the real reason for the rabbis’ refusal to
participate? Too many Orthodox rabbis have no knowledge about these
They don’t study their arguments, read their literature or
even speak to those who stand for these ideas. They’re afraid of these movements
because they don’t know how to refute them. When they are asked by Limmud
participants why they don’t agree with these denominations and why Orthodoxy is
the right path, they are at a loss for words.
Their principle seems to be
similar to that of the person who reviewed a book but refused to read it first
because it would prejudice him too much.
Indeed, arguments used today
against Reform and Conservative ideas are often outmoded clichés.
rabbis are not even aware that major positive changes have taken place within
these groups. Neither do they seem to be aware that Orthodoxy itself is
constantly reformulating its ideology, so that it can meet the new and daunting
challenges that modernity heaps upon our Jewish and non-Jewish
Would it not be possible to show a bit of humility and
actually listen to some of the opponents’ arguments? Reform and Conservative
Judaism, in many ways but not solely, resulted from Orthodoxy’s failure to read
the religious map correctly.
There is much evidence supporting the claim
that some delicate religious souls were searching for a Judaism that was
committed to Halacha but not authoritarian, and Orthodoxy failed to
Would some modesty not be appropriate here? Is Orthodoxy always
right, and can it actually claim that it has the truth and nothing but the
truth? Is absolute theological certainty indeed the hallmark of Orthodoxy?
Anybody who studies the primary religious texts of Judaism knows better. To a
great extent, authentic Judaism consisted of a multitude of seriously competing
ideas, and while simultaneously not compromising Halacha, there was a full
awareness among the sages that even Jewish law was open to many
The enormous loss of prestige that Orthodoxy has suffered over
the last 100 years, due to its failure to understand what was happening with the
spiritual condition of our people, is beyond description.
It has still
not realized that it is nothing short of a miracle that so many young,
intelligent Jews became or even remained Orthodox despite what Orthodoxy had to
offer. Most of the time, it was possible only because some Orthodox individuals,
thinkers and leaders went their own way and, just like the Ba’al Shem Tov,
realized that mainstream Orthodoxy got it terribly wrong.
The outcome of
the constant war waged by conventional Orthodoxy against these new ideas and new
directions was predictable. It capitulated, leaving behind lots of
Real Orthodoxy has nothing to fear. It has all the vital
ingredients necessary to enter the battlegrounds and show its
Judaism is the most astonishing and daring religion with which the
world has been blessed. It has infinite courage, standing head and shoulders
above everything else. It dares, and never avoids any obstacle or critique. It
enjoys a good fight so that it can enrich itself. It is a protest movement
against many “isms,” but above all against small-mindedness.
I call on
Dayan Ehrentreu, who is not only a great scholar but also an outstanding orator,
to come to Limmud. Instead of criticizing Chief Rabbi Mirvis, he should
compliment him for his courage and ask Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
to join him, abandoning his former practice of stopping him from going to
Limmud. I encourage the dayan to sit on panels with Reform and Conservative
rabbis and thinkers and carefully listen to what they have to say, take advice
from them and, if necessary, prove them wrong.
He should invite them to
join him in the struggle to ensure that young Jews fall in love with Judaism and
become convinced of the beauty of Orthodoxy.
Judaism is on the decline in
many parts of the world, and we have to do everything in our power to turn the
tide. What is necessary is creative thinking and bold ideas.
people away from Limmud is the last thing we need. It’s a sign of cowardice. If
Orthodoxy is unable to educate its followers to withstand other ideologies, it
is guilty of an educational fiasco.
Dear Dayan Ehrentreu, do not spend
your energy on denunciations and censorship. Show us that real Orthodoxy is
unbeatable. That’s what we are all waiting for: Orthodox courage.
who is an author and international lecturer, is dean of the David Cardozo
Academy in Jerusalem.