The Limmud controversy part two began in mid October when Chief Rabbi Mirvis announced his intention to attend this year’s conference. This was swiftly followed by a Gilui Da’as (an open letter) signed by seven leading haredi rabbis denouncing Limmud as pluralistic platform, peddling pseudo-Judaism and calling on God-fearing Jews to avoid attending at all costs. Rabbi Daniel Levy of the United Hebrew congregation of Leeds wrote a sycophantic article in the Jewish Chronicle defending the rabbis and adding for good measure that Limmud promotes heresy and that attendees might unwittingly come to marry out of the faith. The newly appointed Rabbi of Borehamwood & Elstree United Synagogue Chaim Kanterovitz publicised, in a JC interview, his reluctance to attend Limmud declaring “I don’t like its pluralistic side”. As if this were not enough, Rabbi Alan Kimche of the independent Ner Israel congregation in Hendon released a letter outlining why he believes Orthodox Jews should not attend Limmud. The substance of his arguments was unoriginal, and the sarcastic way in which he put them forth upset many people. Finally the Union of Orthodox Hebrew congregations headed by Dayan Padwa released a statement, warning the faithful not to attend Limmud because they will encounter reform rabbis.
Many excellent pieces have been written in defence of Limmud in response to these attacks, nor is there any point in rehashing their arguments here. I am concerned with a broader issue – pluralism. A term that continues to be thrown about by critics of Limmud with increasing frequency, carelessness, and ignorance as the debate wears on. The Rabbis mentioned above, in particular Rabbi Kimche, claim that pluralism blurs the distinction between ideologies, by legitimising viewpoints other than Orthodox Judaism. This absurd assertion reveals ignorance of both pluralism and Limmud.
Pluralism is not some great intellectual whirlpool, where truth and falsehood are all swirled together. Pluralism is not, as stated by the rabbinic signatories of the Gilui Da’as ‘the political correctness of the theological world’. It is not, as presented in Rabbi Kimche’s letter, ‘where nothing is ultimately true’. Pluralism makes no attempt to merge, synthesise, or even reconcile opposing ideologies. Rather, pluralism is a system of co-existence, where ideologies remain separate, but not isolate. In the words of Diana Eck of the Harvard Pluralism Project, a leading think tank focusing on achieving interfaith harmony through pluralism, ‘pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments.’ Pluralism asks that we actively engage with diversity, that we actively seek knowledge of other beliefs, not that we accept or legitimise them. Rabbi Kimche and others have blatantly misused the term. Far from the blurry, pick-and-mix affair they describe, pluralism defines and respects the boundaries of beliefs, keeping them whole and intact.
But pluralism is flawed. Human creativity has always thrived on the conflict of ideas, a sort of intellectual Darwinism. Good ideas eat bad ideas for breakfast. It is through debate, through challenge, that ingenuity comes about – nothing original was ever created in a vacuum. This is the tenet of the Socratic Method, and the entirety of western rationalism by extension. Progress is a great debate, a battleground of conflicting ideas, constantly pitting their worth against one another. Pluralism halts that debate. Pluralism buries conflict. Pluralism stifles dispute. Certainly, it is important to debate with respect, but pluralism, in protecting that respect removes the debate altogether. To have ideas and beliefs frozen in a protective stasis is decidedly unhealthy. Conflict and confrontation are key to creativity, paramount for progress.
This conflict and confrontation is exactly what Limmud offers. Not in the manner of polemics – all debate is ‘for the sake of heaven’, for the advancement of creativity, and intellectual progress, as presented by their mission statement. Limmud is, in essence, the antithesis of a pluralistic environment. It is a marketplace, more – a battle-ground of intellectual endeavour, where no belief can be presented without challenge, where no idea is free from constructive criticism and analysis. Rabbi Kimche criticises the vapidity of Limmud, so often called the ‘Jewish Glastonbury’. Limmud is not ‘the celebration of the absence of any structures and beliefs’ – quite the opposite! It is the celebration of debate, the debate which builds intellectual structures and beliefs.
Rabbis Kimche, Levy, Kanterovitz, as well as the rabbinic signatories of the Gilui Da’as, claim to oppose pluralism. If this is truly so, they will relish the chance to engage respectfully in the intellectual debate offered at Limmud. To shirk from the chance to prove the worth of their own ideas smacks of flaccid self-conviction. It would be more fitting for representatives of Orthodox Judaism to face the challenge of debate head on. After all, if their ideas are at all robust, surely they have nothing to fear?