Ephraim Mirvis 370.
(photo credit: Flix’ n’ Pix)
COVENTRY – A long-standing joke among the 350,000-strong Jews of the United
Kingdom is that the queen of England will visit Israel before a sitting chief
rabbi of the UK will attend the pluralistic Jewish outreach conference known as
Limmud, which is meeting this week in the historic cathedral town of
Limmud held its first annual conference in England in 1980,
with 80 attendees. Its politics are nonjudgmental. Anyone can attend. Its panel
presentations, lectures and cultural events represent the broad spectrum of
multiple Judaisms. So as not to exclude any Jew, Limmud has always served kosher
meals, and this year also features vegan and vegetarian meals. Limmud has
expanded worldwide and now holds conferences from Boston to Beijing. It will
soon expand to Haifa. A record-setting 2,600 attendees reached Coventry this
Limmud is a constituency within British Jewry which is too large to
be ignored. Precisely because of its inclusiveness, Limmud has been attacked by
ultra-devout elements of British Jewry, who see it as undermining what they
define as ‘authentic” Judaism.
Rabbi Daniel Levy, of the United Jewish
Congregation in Leeds, in the English Midlands, attended Limmud 15 years
In 2013, he had a problem going back. “I felt the buzz of many
people engaged in learning,” Levy wrote of his earlier visit, “but I also
experienced sessions that, from my Orthodox perspective, were sheer
According to Levy, “there are those whose heresy is enhanced,
and those who are led astray, not necessarily overtly but
Such dissent has posed a dilemma to previous sitting
chief rabbis and prevented them from attending Limmud.
establishment in 1704, the Chief Rabbinate has attempted to represent British
Jewry as a whole, as part of a “united synagogue” of what has become the entire
British Commonwealth. But chief rabbis, like archbishops of Canterbury, have
witnessed growing factionalism within their ranks and faced the challenge of
creating a genuinely representative body. Jonathan Sacks, the previous chief
rabbi, attended Limmud like Rabbi Levy, but only when he was a pulpit rabbi. He
declined to do as chief rabbi.
Despite hints that the newly installed,
South African-born Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis might attend this week’s Limmud,
nothing was certain up to the last minute. All bets were off on Monday as Mirvis
strode confidently onto the Limmud podium to a standing ovation.
of his “wonderful sense of togetherness” at Limmud and asserted that “I am
delighted to be part of it.”
To quench a “deep thirst for knowledge”
about “our Jewish roots,” he then launched into an hourlong explanation of
Moses’s efforts to achieve Jewish inclusiveness and outreach – the very themes
represented by Mirvis’s historic visit. Mirvis included comments clearly
addressed to the ultra-Orthodox, or haredim, who had questioned the
appropriateness of his attendance. He cited a parable about a Chabad- Lubavitch
rabbi who saw attending to the needs of his own grandchild as being a higher
calling than Torah study.
According to Oxford Center for Jewish Studies
historian Todd Endelman, an authority on the British Rabbinate who attended
Mirvis’s talk, “It’s too early in his rabbinate to know what to do with it. It’s
hard to know how far it’s going. Is it symbolic or is he more confident than his
predecessor Sacks?” In short, was the chief rabbi’s presence at Limmud a gesture
or a commitment? All can agree that Mirvis delivered a message of
It may even percolate up to the queen’s ears, and her
long-awaited arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport may yet be in the cards.