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Limmud, Federation, and a New Kind of Herem

02/26/2019 09:59:28 PM


“Judaism has little interest in using thought control. Prior to the emancipation of the Jews, bans were sometimes used when the coherence of a Jewish community, living in gentile and often hostile surroundings, was at stake. Yielding to unity then was crucial to the survival of the Jewish people. The rabbis, however, were very reluctant to impose bans, knowing how harmful they would be for the so-called renegades and even for their families. But above all, they realized that such condemnations were for the most part counter-productive.”
This cogent argument for freedom of thought and expression doesn’t come from the corner of the Jewish world you are likely expecting to be its source. The blog entry was posted on the web site of the Times of Israel, and the author is Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo (b. 1946), the Dutch-born head of a Jerusalem yeshiva, and a prominent authority on halakha/Jewish law and philosophy.
I mention his origins because it put me in mind of another Dutch Jewish thinker of Portuguese-Sephardi origin, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Prior to the emancipation of the Jews, he was indeed banned, formally put in herem – meaning banishment from the Jewish community - for ideas considered heretical.
Those who were fortunate to have attended the lectures offered by our guest scholar Sydney Nestel on the life and work of Reconstructionism’s founding philosopher Mordecai M. Kaplan were shocked to learn that he had also been put in herem – and, perhaps, also shocked that the concept and practice exists in Judaism. Like Spinoza, he had a rational and scientific understanding of the sources of Scripture, and also delved into divergent understandings of God. The presenting “reason” for Kaplan’s excommunication, by a Haredi rabbinic organization, was the publication of new prayer books, including a haggadah, that re-conceptualized God.
We Reconstructionists exercise our religious rights, and rites, with little thought or concern for those who deride the legitimacy of our enterprise. While we recognize that segments of the community believe and practice differently, we hold up what we do with pride, rooted as it is in a set of values we hold dear.
If we celebrate the kind of thinking for which Spinoza, Kaplan, and Cardoza share an appreciation – an unbridled exploration of ideas and engagement in the life, heritage and practices of our people – then we can only imagine that they all would shudder at the recent decision of the Winnipeg Jewish Federation regarding a speaker in that city’s forthcoming Limmud, an international grassroots learning initiative.
Lex Rofeberg, a rabbinical student and podcast host, was slated to speak and teach about digital engagement in Judaism. He is well known in Jewish educational circles as an innovative thinker. He is also connected with a progressive youth movement If Not Now that calls for North American Jewish communities to end their support for the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. It is explicitly for this last association that Federation withdrew its support for Limmud in Winnipeg, just a few days before the event.
That his scheduled talk was utterly unrelated to conflicts in Israel apparently did not matter to the agitators who challenged his presence, and whose pressures prevailed on Federation. That a Jewish thought leader has been treated in this way may have made sense in the Middle Ages. It was shocking when Kaplan’s siddurim were burned by Haredi religious authorities in a New York hotel room in the middle of the 20th century, and it should be shocking too that it is now considered “ban-worthy” to hold certain progressive thoughts, practices and commitments in Canada in the 21st century.
At Sydney’s presentation, more than one question was raised along these lines: “What would Kaplan think about …” including his ideas on present-day Israel, and Zionism. One thing I can say for sure: he, and Spinoza, and I would hope even Rabbi Cardozo would vehemently agitate for the right to think progressive thoughts and share progressive ideas. As Cardozo wrote, condemnations are counter-productive.
What is productive? Sustaining a vibrant community of open ideas and support for difference. Sounds like limmud to me.
- Rabbi Liz

Tue, February 25 2020 30 Sh'vat 5780