For the uninitiated, some background might be necessary. In Britain there is an annual conference where laypeople can go and study Torah, known as Limmud. This conference is multi-denominational and teachers from all movements within Judaism from Reform to Orthodox attend.
For many years, London Beth Din and its then former head Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu was of the opinion that Orthodox rabbis were forbidden to attend that conference because it gave equal legitimacy to non-Orthodox clergy. Not wanting to antagonize the London Beth Din, the former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks complied with that ruling and did not attend Limmud.
To his credit, new Chief Rabbi Mirvis has broken from that precedence and has just recently attended the Limmud conference. The response was shock by Ehrentreu and his orthodox colleagues, who wrote a letter accusing Mirvis of action that will "bring about tragic consequences for Anglo Jewry."
What surprises me here is not the response by Ehrentreu, but rather that anyone would take what he says seriously. Ehrentreu is still fighting a battle that we lost 50 years ago. According to the recent Pew Research study of American Jews, identity with Judaism as a religion is declining in America. Having lived and served as a Jewish leader in the UK, it's clear to me that this trend is mirrored in that country as well.
Having the Orthodox rabbi attend together with Reform and Conservative clergy members at a Limmud-type conference is no longer a threat to Judaism. Judaism as a whole, including Reform and Conservative movements, is threatened by something completely different and much more challenging – its inability to make itself seem relevant to a younger generation. The average young Jew is just as un-attracted to Reform Judaism as to Orthodox Judaism.
Beginning of trend?
Our aim must be to get Jews to associate to any form of Judaism. Until we can get Jews to want to identify as Jews, battles such as the one Dayan Ehrentreu and his misguided colleagues are fighting only serve to further alienate young people who already view Judaism, Jewish identity, and organized religion as a whole as unimportant to their lives.
There is no doubt that Judaism in the West, together with all forms of organized religion, is facing a huge crisis. Old structures which kept people affiliated have broken down. Outside of a number of Jewish enclaves we no longer really have Shtetl. And even in those enclaves, more and more people are being exposed to powerful outside elements and are finding a sense of community in other venues such as in online forums, Facebook groups, and the like.
Today affiliations are fluid. People no longer need to affiliate based on demographics. They no longer affiliate based on familial ties, or even their upbringing. Time and place are no longer vital to a sense of identity. Young people decide where to affiliate based on their own needs and desires. Having Orthodox rabbis and non-Orthodox rabbis at the same venue doesn’t take away the legitimacy of the Orthodox rabbi in the eyes of young people today.
All it does is allow those who attend a conference such as Limmud the ability to be exposed to the multiplicity that is modern day Judaism. If they then decide to affiliate to any particular denomination then we will all be collectively better off.
Our challenge as Jews today is to be able to transition from the outdated, caged-in mindset represented by Ehrentreu, to one which recognizes that our biggest challenge is not other elements of Judaism but rather our own representation of it. In fact, ironically, in today's age it is exactly the type of behavior Dayan Ehrentreu and his colleagues are displaying that alienates young Jews from Judaism a religion and therefore brings “tragic consequences.”
Our real challenge is how to show young people that Judaism is not just an organization constantly seeking their money and financial contributions. We need to showcase that Judaism is not only relevant, but can add huge value to their lives. We then need to offer young Jews multiple ways in which they can affiliate on their terms and build a sense of Jewish identity. Rabbi Mirvis made a first step in this direction by agreeing to go to Limmud. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life