At the end of the second term, two colleagues and I accompanied 24 pupils on an excursion to Gauteng on a history tour. It was fantastic!
We went to Maropeng and the Cradle of Humankind; to the Hector Pieterson Museum and Mandela House (the day after Youth Day, which was especially poignant); to Pretoria, seeing the juxtaposition of the Voortrekker Monument and Freedom Park (a road links the two, although it isn’t very well-known); Liliesleaf Farm (where the Rivonia Trialists were captured) and the Apartheid Museum; and finally Constitutional Hill. I think the kids were museumed out by the end of it, but it was well worth it. Taking in everything we saw, from the beginning of our history to our current times, I realised that although we humans come from common ancestors, we do not acknowledge this. We tend to focus on our individual and collective identities, not our original origins. We see ‘us’ and ‘the other’, and that was very evident throughout the tour.
The educational value of the tour was not lost on our pupils. They could see the intricacies of our past and our future, and the questions that they posed were of such a higher order, showing that Herzlia really does imbue in many of their pupils excellent critical thinking skills. However, I feel that the ‘differences’ they were taught about at our various stops may have further entrenched the idea of the distance between them and ‘the other’. It’s useful to remember that difference is not always a negative concept though, as it leads to debate, discussion and openness. One place where this occurs in our own community is Limmud.
As some of you might know, I was actively engaged in Limmud for many years, co-chairing the Conference in Cape Town in 2014 and 2015. I was also co-chair of programming in Jo’burg in 2012 and in Cape Town in 2013. It was a rollercoaster ride of emotions, but through it all it was an incredible experience, working with people who, although I may have had differences of opinions on nearly everything, worked together for the common good of the community. Limmud really takes you one step further on your Jewish journey, wherever you may be. But Limmud is not without its controversies.
Since its inception in South Africa 13 years ago, Limmud has had a tenuous relationship with the Orthodox Rabbinate. Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein and the Rabbinic Association of South Africa have boycotted the conference, on many different grounds. However, recently the Beth Din once again publicly stated that attendance at Limmud by rabbis and rebbetzins will continue to be prohibited. According to the Beth Din’s statement, reported on 20 June 2019 in the South African Jewish Report, they cannot endorse attendance at Limmud due to the fact that it promotes values which are contrary to “the Torah’s philosophy and principles”. They further stated that “these core beliefs are not a prerequisite for educators (at Limmud), nor is it a prerequisite for content that is delivered at the conference”. However, what are these core beliefs and how have they come to the conclusion that Limmud does not follow them?
These core values of Limmud are as follows: learning; expanding Jewish horizons; enabling connections; participation; empowerment; diversity; community and mutual responsibility; respect; arguments for the sake of heaven; and religious observance. These values are ones which we hold dear as Jews — we believe in diversity as a nation; we acknowledge the importance of arguments; and we always seek out respect for all.
The week following the publication of the Beth Din’s statement, the South African Jewish Report was inundated with letters in support of Limmud, as well as from past presenters who are leaders in their communities. Rabbis Samuel Lebens and Nathan Lopes Cardozo, both Orthodox rabbis from overseas who have presented at Limmud South Africa, objected to the Beth Din’s prohibition. Rabbi Cardozo challenged the rabbinate to be courageous and not be seen as ‘afraid’ of other religious denominations. Rabbi Lebens stated that to disengage with Limmud is to allow members of the community to fall through the cracks and discourage that platform from which people can ‘argue for the sake of heaven’.
In the Ethics of our Fathers, we learn that one cannot judge another before understanding exactly what one is judging:
Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community; and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death. Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place. Do not say something that cannot be understood (now) but will be understood in the end. Say not: “When I have time, I will study”, because you may never have the time (Pirkei Avot 3:5).
The Dayanim who have cast their judgement against Limmud have separated themselves from the community. We are a community which is multifaceted; a community who should celebrate difference. They have judged Limmud according to a one-off meeting with the leadership, instead of attending the Conference to fully understand the complexities. As for their argument, they have not fully explained how they came to that conclusion. It is imperative that they be there, even if this means witnessing the values which may be contrary to the Torah and its principles.
We see ‘the other’ all the time. We are a diverse community and should celebrate our otherness. We should accept that we are different, and our views may not always be in synch. This value is critical to pass down to the generations to come. If we can’t accept each other’s differences, we are creating an intolerant and narrow-minded community. I do not want my daughters to grow up in a community that is heterogenous in its views, where opinions are shut down because they do not conform to some grand narrative. So, to the rabbis who may read this, go to Limmud and do not separate yourself from the community. May we see a strong and robust South African Jewry in the very near future.
Craig is a teacher, father and Jewish observer