British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis made history this week, at least in the world of Limmud, when he became the first person in his post to attend and address Limmud UK, the granddaddy event of the international enterprise that fosters cross-denominational study of Jewish texts and a celebration of Jewish life.
More than 2,500 people from around the world attended this year’s five-day event in England. A large crowd greeted Rabbi Mirvis with a standing ovation at his session on this week’s Torah portion. Those in attendance were well aware that he defied a haredi ban on Limmud UK because the conference does not distinguish between the authenticity of Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis.
The rabbi’s predecessor, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, highly respected for his erudition and his public writings and media appearances in Britain, was criticized by many in his own community for bowing to haredi pressure and avoiding the Limmud UK conference during his tenure.
Rabbi Mirvis, in his first year in his post, did not address the controversy directly in his class on the Torah portion, but his views were made clear in his comments about Moses as a leader. He said the biblical hero managed to keep the Israelites united, and in noting that separate strands are easier to break than a rope, he asserted: “We need to concentrate seriously on binding the Jewish people, rope-like, together.”
Going further, Rabbi Mirvis said that Jews must not only be supportive of their fellow Jews, but also need “to reach out to all mankind.”
Perhaps that sounds radical to some in our community, but it is in the Book of Exodus, now being read in synagogues, that we find God’s command, repeatedly, to remember “the stranger” because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
As the British might say to Rabbi Mirvis, “well done.”