Limmud conference sparked by arrival of UK chief rabbi

A record-setting 2,600 attendees reached Coventry this week for the pluralistic Jewish outreach conference.

Ephraim Mirvis 370 (photo credit: Flix’ n’ Pix)
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 Coventry.
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 week.
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 ago.
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 heresy.”
According to Levy, “there are those whose heresy is enhanced, and those who are led astray, not necessarily overtly but subconsciously.”
Such dissent has posed a dilemma to previous sitting chief rabbis and prevented them from attending Limmud.
Since its 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.
He spoke 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 inclusiveness.
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.