It’s time we put Limmud to the test

Well, if you are reading this, you are truly as obsessed and fascinated by the whole Limmud broiges as I am. Imagine all the careful thought, blogs, facebooking, tweeting, and just plain kiddush table kvetching that is buzzing around our community for the past month on an issue so uniquely particular to our time and place, that future generations will look back on this level of vitriolic in-fighting with the same distant fascination in which we might now approach the wild controversy over machine matzah in the late 19th century. 

If you are reading this you are also probably familiar with Rabbi Kimche’s epistle “Let’s be Honest About Limmud”, and perhaps you’ve even browsed some of the responses for and against the rabbi that have flooded in this week. There’s a lot in Rabbi Kimche’s piece that I sympathise with, and a lot that I struggle to connect to, but as an Orthodox rabbi with a paid up Limmud ticket for December, I am taking his lines like this one seriously.

“Let’s just give this conference its true name. Let’s rename it as the ‘Limmud conference of Progressive Judaism’, and leave the orthodox rabbinate out of it. As for the orthodox community, they will no more attend such an event than they would join a Reform or Liberal or Masorti synagogue on a Shabbat morning. Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s be honest.”

Is Rabbi Kimche correct? Should Limmud really be called the ‘Conference of Progressive Judaism.” I think I have developed a reliable test to find out. I am calling this test: The Could you teach that session at Ner Yisrael Synagogue? Test” Or, just the Ner Test for short.

The Ner Test is an admixture of one fairly fundamental halachic principle, a handful of general assumptions, and too much time on the Northern Line. The principle is called ‘bitul b’rov’ and it is commonly used in almost every aspect of halachic life, from koshrut, to blessings over food, to Jewish jurisprudence (though capital punishment provides some interesting exceptions). In its most basic fashion, ‘bitul b’rov’ applies when we have a mixture of two divergent entities, and we are required to give that mixture a unified and singular label. Torah hermeneutics allows us to judge the entire mixture in accord with its dominant part, so long as that majour element provides 50.1% or more of the whole.

Want to make a blessing on raisins and peanuts all clumped together? Look for the majority ingredient. A source of treif cow’s milk (yes, this really happens!) enters the milk system, we still consider the mixture completely kosher just as long as the majority of the milk comes from healthy cows. A tort case where the judges split 2-1. Go with the majority. Can you see where this is going? If the majority of sessions offered at Limmud conference are non-Orthodox, than Rabbi Kimche is right and we should indeed call Limmud ‘Progressive’. And if the majority of the sessions could theoretically be taught at Rabbi Kimche’s Orthodox Synagogue, Ner Yisrael, than, well….

The astute halachists amongst us might argue that a Limmud conference is nothing like a mixture of milk. That each session is its own recognisable entity, and that when items in halacha are clearly distinguishable (Heb. Nikkar) we do not reduce them into a single amorphous conflation. I tend to think this line of thinking is probably the correct one. Let each session be judged on its own merits. Why should a ‘kaddish for your pet’ class at 9am, that I do not attend, muddle my religiosity when I attend Rabbi Shochet’s in-depth reading of Talmud in the afternoon? However, it certainly seems that Rabbi Kimche considers Limmud to be a mixture. How else could the off-kilter sessions spoil the whole cholent-pot? If we are going to unilaterally label Limmud Conference as ‘pluralistic’ this, or ‘progressive’ that, than we are a priori considering Limmud as something whole. Now we just need to uncover Limmud’s majour ingredient.

In order to run our data, which in this case is last year’s Limmud Conference handbook, through the Ner Test, I am going to imagine the following scenario. A Ner synagogue member approaches Rabbi Kimche and asks the following: “I know this great teacher X, he or she would like to teach a class here in our synagogue on subject Y, is that acceptable?” We simply fill in X with the name of the teacher, Y with the session they taught at Limmud, get Rabbi Kimche to yay or nay each one, and record the numbers. Only, I did not actually consider approaching Rabbi Kimche with this odd request, instead I came up with some assumptions about what I think Rabbi Kimche thinks.

Here then are the general assumptions on which of the sessions from the 2012 Limmud handbook Rabbi Kimche would allow to be taught at his shul. However, a brief preamble on method is in order. Firstly, I did not go through last year’s entire Limmud handbook, there are over 600 sessions, I am interested in this test, but that would be creepily compulsive. I took Tuesday, December 24th, 2012. Tuesdays are the half-way point of Conference, so it seemed like a representative slice. Secondly, I gave up on the whole project about two-thirds of the way through Tuesday’s schedule, after examining 79 sessions. If you really want to see this through till its end, here’s the whole of Tuesday. Though, I tend to think that had I gone on, things would have been more suitable for Ner. Would Rabbi Kimche really object to a whole slate of children’s story-telling and craft projects that tend to dominate the family programming in the sessions just before supper?

Now to the Ner Test criteria. First of all, any session taught by a non-Orthodox rabbi, or by anyone who had taught or learned or had any association with any non-Orthodox seminary, or was affiliated at any time with any non-Orthodox movement or non-Orthodox synagogue was not for Ner. Sorry. Please remember, this has nothing to do with my personal opinion on these matters. I am trying to do a scientific study here, and the Ner Test must be strict.

Secondly, any session description that mentioned the concept ‘Progressive’, ‘pluralistic’, ‘Liberal’, ‘Reform,’ ‘biblical-criticism’, ‘kabbalistic’ or anything gay related was out. Do I need to apologise again?

Thirdly, anything extremely weird was out. Sure, a modern dramatist from Johannesburg might not look Reform on paper, but with a session title like “May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground,” one could never be too sure. Admittedly this last criteria is not all that scientific, but then again, maybe ‘weird’ doesn’t really have anything to do with denominations at all, so I am really going to extra lengths to enforce a stringent test here.

Fourthly, though one could question just how ‘Orthodox’ this concept really is, I have struck off every session that was associated with Rabbis for Human Rights, the Abraham Fund, and other socially active Israeli NGOs, in keeping, I think, with Rabbi Kimche’s concern that Limmud is populated with ‘far-left Pro-Palestinian speakers.” Also, any session taught by a minister of another faith was out. Need I remind you of the unpleasantness with Lord Jonathan Sack’s faux pas on the question of the righteousness of those other religions? The Ner Test runs in the good graces of our Dayanim.

However, I did include a few positive criterion in the Ner Test. Specifically, that Ner would allow a session taught by a woman teacher. And even those in which women sang or danced. There are some halachic concerns about a man attending such classes, however, that would seem to be a problem more for the participants to contend with, than a content issue. Let’s imagine that Ner has an active women’s programme, and that these classes would work for them.

I also assumed that Rabbi Kimche would encourage his community to engage with humanitarian issues like mental health, extreme poverty, ecology, and the like, just as long as they did not run afoul of any of our earlier anti-Ner criteria. I am not saying you should run to Ner tomorrow to hear a class on these topics. Only that it would be theoretically possible to do so.

Also, I gave all classes taught be anyone, either rabbi or educator, associated with the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS) a pass into Ner. Rabbi Kimche could quibble with this one too, but in point of fact, LSJS is under the auspices of the Chief Rabbi’s Office, and Rabbi Kimche did apply for that post.

Are you ready for the numbers, then? From Tuesday from 8am till 2pm these 79 sessions would go:

No Ner: 31

Yes Ner: 48

So, well, maybe we should start calling Limmud ‘The Conference of Orthodox Judaism, with some other stuff thrown in on the side.’

About the Author
Rabbi Natan Levy is the Interfaith and Social Action Consultant