Temple Israel explores the past, present and future of Progressive Jewry in Cape Town

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Who is not going to Limmud?

By Rabbi Greg Alexander

By the time you read this, I hope you will have booked your place for Limmud Cape Town 2019. 

You will find some of the best speakers, educators and thinkers in the Jewish world offering three days of dynamic programming with panels, lectures, debates, culture, comedy, Talmud, history, Israel and general Jewish interest. You will eat delicious kosher food and make your choice from the array of different Shabbat services ranging from secular to Progressive, traditional egalitarian to Orthodox. You will find a mix of the diverse Jewish community of Cape Town attending, from all the shuls and those who attend none, elders and kids and everyone in between. 

What you won’t find is an Orthodox rabbi or rebbetzin who serves a South African shul. And that is because for the past 10 years the Orthodox Beit Din has forbidden their rabbis from attending. This was taken on review this year and not only was the ban upheld, but was now extended to rebbetzins as well. It should be noted that every year international Orthodox rabbis and rebbetzins attend Limmud in this country, and in other countries they are free to do so. South Africa is the only place worldwide where there is a ban on local Orthodox rabbis attending. In fact, the Orthodox Chief Rabbi of the UK, South African-born Ephraim Mirvis, attends every UK Limmud, explaining that, “One of my primary functions is as teacher of the community. I see Limmud as an opportunity to teach Torah to large numbers of people who want to learn.” (London Jewish Chronicle)

Why are our local Orthodox Beth Din doing this? Because Limmud offers those who attend the chance to hear not just Orthodox-sanctioned views, but those from other streams of Judaism. These views, according to the Beth Din, “do not promote Torah philosophy and principles”.

When asked what they meant, the organisation responded, “The Beth Din’s mandate is to uphold halacha and Torah values within the community. Underpinning everything we do is the fundamental belief in G-d and the divine origin of the Torah. On questioning the Limmud team, we were told that these core beliefs are not a prerequisite for educators, nor is it a prerequisite for content that is delivered at the conference. As a result of this Limmud policy decision, the Beth Din is unable to approve or verify this conference.”

Let’s pause for a moment and see what question the Beth Din is actually answering — they feel unable to ‘approve or verify’ Limmud, because Limmud by definition offers a marketplace of opinions, some of which they cannot agree with. Well, hold on, that is actually not what is being asked for at all. To ‘approve and verify’ an event is different to allowing rabbis who wish to to go. I don’t approve or verify every product on sale in Pick n Pay when I go shop there — some I put in my trolley and some I would rather not. The point is that I am grateful for the opportunity to find the products I need, and just because I don’t load up on sugary breakfast cereals or think that non-free range eggs should even be sold, does not stop me from choosing the free-range ones that I ‘approve of’.

You see, if the Progressive Bet Din was to take the same approach as the Orthodox one, we would forbid our rabbis to go to Limmud too. Alongside Progressive services, Limmud offers services where only men lead and only men are called to Torah. Kiddush is led by men. Presentations are offered that do not include Progressive views. The public spaces of Limmud are ‘Shomrei shabbat’ which of course means according to Orthodox interpretation. They serve food that is not eco-kosher often in disposable containers and the urns are left on over the whole of shabbat to provide hot water throughout, using a huge amount of unnecessary electricity. Presenters cannot use music or electronics to enhance their presentations over Shabbat, and participants are asked not to take notes during sessions. None of these do we ‘approve of’ and if asked to verify that these are indeed Progressive Jewish practises we would say “no, they are not”. 

However, we are also part of the greater Jewish community and we realise that to be part of klal Yisrael involves making compromises that will sometimes make us uncomfortable. It will stretch us beyond our comfort zone, but in doing so it also gives us time to speak with those who hold different, but deeply held and thoughtful opinions, and in the interaction, we too learn and grow. 

What are the Orthodox Beth Din afraid of? That their rabbis will listen to a Progressive rabbi and be persuaded? That in going to Limmud they would be ‘endorsing’ Progressive thinking? Give the Jews of South Africa and your own rabbis a little more credit please. Do not fear the marketplace of ideas — perhaps you will be pleasantly surprised by what you find there, and even if not, you will lose nothing for attending. You will lose much by not attending. One prominent British Orthodox rabbi likened the South African Beth Din ruling to banning Jews from attending the local library. 

I remember attending my first Limmud in the UK in 1998. At the first Shabbat dinner, sitting at a table with a mix of Orthodox and Progressive friends, I burst into tears – I had never experienced anything like Limmud before. When I described it to friends and colleagues in South Africa, they said that this could never happen here. Well, it did and it does – it has been for a decade and PG will for decades to come, and everyone should experience it.

When you read this, we will already be on a sabbatical learning programme in New York City (more about that next month), which means that this will be the first Limmud Cape Town that Andi and I will miss since its inception 10 years ago. Please take up the tickets that we and our family cannot and make this the best Limmud yet.

To read the full PDF of the Cape Jewish Chronicle, click here
To read the editor’s column for August, click here
To read our most popular story for July, click here

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