The furor that has broken out in recent days within Britain's Jewish community over the participation of Orthodox rabbis in a cross-communal festival has brought to the surface long-simmering tensions. It has also proved that the fault lines running under British Jewry are very similar to those dividing between Jews in Israel.
Controversy was kicked off last month when the newly installed Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis confirmed that he would be speaking in December at this year's Limmud conference. A five-day jamboree of Jewish study, culture and entertainment attended by thousands of Jews from all religious (and non-religious) persuasions, Limmud has been taking place in England for a quarter of a century and successfully exported to dozens of countries.
The chief rabbi's participation would be a most normal occurrence, but for the past 20 years Rabbi Mirvis' predecessor, Jonathan Sacks, succumbed to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox rabbis of the London Beth Din (religious court) who have slammed Limmud for offering a platform to rabbis and educators from the Reform and Masorti movements, and kept away from the event. Sacks' departure raised expectations among Limmud devotees, but even they were surprised at the speed with which Mirvis acted. "We thought he would come perhaps next year," said one of the conference's organizers, "but he almost immediately said he was coming in December."
Last week, the Haredi wing of the religious establishment hit back with an open letter written to the ultra-Orthodox weekly The Jewish Tribune, in which they warned that "any Jew whose heart has been touched by the fear of God and who wishes to walk upon paths which will be viewed favourably” not to take part in Limmud, ruling that “participating in their conferences, events and educational endeavours blurs the distinction between authentic Judaism and pseudo-Judaism and would bring about tragic consequences for Anglo-Jewry.”
What gave the letter increased significance was the fact that among its seven signatories were Dayanim (religious judges) of the Beth Din nominally presided over by the chief rabbi. chief among them was Rabbi Chanoch Ehrentreu, the venerable 81-year-old former head of the London Beth Din, who officially retired seven years ago, but is still widely regarded as the most influential arbiter on matters of halakha (rabbinical law) in Britain. For two decades, the outward face of religious Judaism in Britain was Chief Rabbi Sacks, while on crucial matters of matrimonial law, conversion and religious discourse, Sacks ceded his authority to Ehrentreu. The letter to the Jewish Tribune was a clear signal of Ehrentreu's displeasure at the independent spirit of the new chief rabbi.
On Tuesday, the mainstream leadership of the community decided to react by sending an open letter - signed by almost 30 senior Jewish leaders and philanthropists - to two mainstream publications, The Jewish Chronicle and The Jewish News., In it, they welcomed Mirvis' decision to attend Limmud and expressed deep regret at the Haredi rabbis' letter which they described as "a shocking failure of leadership" and warned that it "has the potential to cause great harm to our community and appears to be rooted in tactical power play, as opposed to religious principle."
The letter by the community leaders finally exposes a split that has existed in British Jewry for years, between the growing ultra-Orthodox community and the rest of British Jews who do not understand why rabbis and lay members of the different religious streams cannot work and study together. As opposed to the United States, "affiliated" Jews in Britain are predominantly members of the Orthodox United Synagogue movement, even though many of them do not observe mitzvot in a strictly Orthodox fashion. Haredi Jews in Britain are not members of the United Synagogue, nor do they recognize the Chief Rabbi as their spiritual leader; however, many of the rabbis at United Synagogue and all the Dayanim of the Beth Din are Haredi, possibly due to a lack of qualified candidates.
While for the ultra-Orthodox any cooperation with the "progressive" streams on religious affairs is anathema, the more moderate United Synagogue members generally see no problem with it. A relatively small number of United Synagogue members have attended and presented at Limmud over the years, irrespective of the absence of the chief rabbi, and represented there the more open and tolerant face of Orthodox Jewry in Britain. The dispute this week over Rabbi Mirvis' attendance is not just about Limmud, but a signal of the growing tensions within Orthodoxy between modernizers and hardliners, similar to that which has been going on in Israel between religious rabbis and educators advocating a more inclusive attitude to the wide Israeli public and those who promote a more rigid adherence to halakha.
One notably silent voice this week was former chief rabbi Sacks. Freed from the constraints of office, it may have been hoped that the still revered Sacks would weigh in in defense of his successor, or at least explain why he lacked the courage himself to defy the dayanim. In his new website launched this week, Sacks posted his homily for last week's Torah portion, headlined "The Courage not to Conform." This courage seems not to extend to finally standing up to the Haredi rabbis.