Keep your eye on the ball!

Normally, when there is a ‘scandal’ in the Anglo-Jewish community, I roll my eyes and move on. It’s not that I don’t care. On the contrary, I was heavily involved in Bnei Akiva and other educational endeavours in the UK, and now retain a connection with alumni from the yeshivot I have taught in who are the movers and shakers on the ground all over the UK. However, the particular reaction to an announcement by prominent rabbanim in Britain moved me to the keyboard.

It was well documented that Chief Rabbi Mirvis announced his intention to attend the Limmud conference this year. This was welcomed by many, though not unanimously. The latter found their voice recently in an open letter expressing their opposition to organisations like Limmud that work on a cross-communal basis.

Anyone who maintains a cursory knowledge of the Anglo-Jewish scene would not be surprised by either of these two events. Scrolling down my Facebook feed last week, I saw a picture of the anti-Limmud announcement, signed by prominent dayanim and rabbanim, two of which I have had the personal merit of learning Torah from. Indeed, it is indisputable that Dayan HaRav Chanoch Ehrentreu shlita is the foremost talmid chacham in the UK.

The comments underneath seemingly didn’t appreciate the point of view of the undersigned (to say the least), and I didn’t it think it was fitting to re-post even the most tame of the responses because ultimately, it was clear that to a man, none these people had grasped the far more obvious rationale for Chief Rabbi Mirvis to go to Limmud in the first place.

There has been a growing paradox over the last decades that while we have become more and more technologically sophisticated, with ever-growing access to all sorts of knowledge, we have simultaneously fallen to desperately low levels of Jewish knowledge and literacy. A large plurality of world Jewry can barely identify the alef-bet. Of those who can a majority cannot puzzle out a verse from a Chumash, never mind Rashi. That’s without even mentioning Gemara.

What is even worse is that over time people have elevated their ignorance to a zen-like quality to which they float unconcerned over the real apprehensions that eminent individuals have raised. Everyone has an opinion while having expertise in nothing. It’s like a GCSE student taking issue with a Nobel Prize winner – insignificant and worse, insulting.

Notwithstanding this parlous state of affairs, there remains a tremendous thirst for all Jews, of all denominations to connect to Torah. The implicit challenge to all educators is that they have to be able to convey deep, meaningful, sophisticated Torah to those who are searching for it. The sine qua non of a teacher is to communicate to those who are searching for answers.

I am not surprised that Dayan Ehrentreu signed this letter. I don’t feel the need to hector the most eminent Talmid Chacham in the UK because apart from knowing from personal experience that he is a warm and caring individual whose life mission is the maintenance and betterment of the Jewish People, I have confidence that his thought process and outlook is built on and infused with integrity. Furthermore, I know that if I asked, he would be only too happy to explain his reasoning.

This disagreement between the authors of this letter and the Chief Rabbi is serious and will have all sorts of repercussions. The good news is twofold: First, that both sides hold honest opinions underwritten by their profundity of experience and knowledge. Secondly, there is a conversation that is going on at the highest level of Anglo-Jewish leadership on the most important of issues – education. It is certainly too important to be derailed by self-important individuals with a post-denominational axe to grind.

About the Author
David Gross was born in Geneva and grew up in London. He graduated from UCL in 2010 with a B.A. in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He has previously served as Southern Fieldworker of Bnei Akiva UK. He has studied and taught in Yeshivat HaKotel, and currently teaches in Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. He will be starting an MBA at Bar Ilan in the coming academic year.