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Swarthmore Hillel And The Limmud Conference

A Response To MK Dov Lipman

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Last week, the 5TJT published MK Rabbi Dov Lipman’s response to an article by Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum regarding Orthodox rabbis attending the annual Limmud conference on Judaism, to be held this year in England, December 22–26.

Rabbi Rosenblum’s rationale against attending the conference was that the venue provides equal standing to the offshoots of Judaism, and provides forums to anti-Israel presenters as well.

The argument between Rabbi Lipman and Rabbi Rosenblum is very similar to another argument that has been in the headlines of late—between the Swarthmore College Hillel, in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and Hillel International. Hillel Houses cater to the spiritual needs of Jewish students studying in universities and colleges away from home. Hillel International is the umbrella organization for all the Hillel Houses across the U.S., as well as in Canada and throughout the world.

A few years ago, the Hillel International organization developed guidelines as to what organizations each individual college Hillel may partner up with in developing programming.

The guidelines placed prohibitions on partnering with or hosting groups or speakers that as a matter of policy or practice: (a) deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders, (b) delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel, or (c) support the “boycott, divestments, sanctions” movement against the State of Israel.

The Swarthmore College Hillel House has blown off the guidelines set by Hillel International and is actively cosponsoring and pursuing programming with anti-Israel organizations.

Getting back to the Limmud conference, Rabbi Lipman argues that the conference presents an unprecedented opportunity to allow millions of Jews to find their way into Torah-true Judaism. Rabbi Lipman relates a remarkable experience where he had spent Shabbos at the home of an Orthodox rabbi in New York who had also hosted two Reform rabbis, one of whom brought along his wife and children.

Rabbi Lipman asked whether there really is “no theological common ground or meeting point” among those who gained so much from this Shabbat-meal experience.

Rabbi Lipman characterizes Rabbi Rosenblum’s view as a “holier-than-thou philosophy” masked as some sort of important and traditional ideology. Rabbi Lipman then provides two emotional appeals. He explains that the Jews were encamped around Mount Sinai “like one person with one heart.” But then, as they traveled from Sinai, the Bible describes how each tribe had its own flag and special place to camp.

While one may question how, notwithstanding the availability of downloadable sessions, participation in such a conference of 2,500 people can influence millions of people, there is no question that Rabbi Lipman’s sentiments for outreach are certainly in the right place. There is nothing quite as rewarding as outreach and bringing Jews to their birthright and heritage of Sinai. And there is no question that Rabbi Lipman’s life is dedicated toward these goals.

The words that follow, therefore, are written with tremendous respect. This author has spent many hours with Rabbi Lipman and has seen him in action.

But there may be something quite not right when a conference features a program called “A Queer Re-reading of Genesis” by David Lazar, a proponent of the “anti-Leviticus” crowd, and that program has equal billing with genuine Torah lessons.

Doesn’t Rabbi Lipman understand that there very well may be a vast difference between inviting a Reform rabbi and his family to a Shabbos table and attending a conference where that Reform rabbi, who actively performs at an intermarriage ceremony and denies the validity of Torah MiSinai, is receiving equal billing with the Orthodox rabbi?

The greatest sages of Israel have, in fact, made that very distinction way back in 1956, in regard to another matter—the participation of rabbis in interdenominational organizations.

On March 1, 1956, a group of eleven illustrious roshei yeshiva, among whom were Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt’l, Rav Yaakov Ruderman, zt’l, and Rav Aharon Kotler, zt’l, signed a ban on participating in either rabbinic or communal interdenominational organizations:

“We have been asked by a number of rabbis in the country and by alumni and rabbinical graduates of yeshivos if it is permissible to participate with and be a member of the New York Board of Rabbis and similar groups in other communities, which are composed of Reform and Conservative ‘rabbis.’

“Having gathered together to clarify this matter, it has been ruled by the undersigned that it is forbidden by the law of our sacred Torah to be a member of and to participate in such an organization.

“We have also been asked if it is permissible to participate with and to be a member of the Synagogue Council of America, which is also composed of Reform and Conservative organizations.

“We have ruled that it is forbidden by the law of our sacred Torah to participate with them either as an individual or as an organized communal body.

“May the Al‑mighty have mercy on His people and close the breaches in Torah life, and may we be worthy of the elevation of the glory of our sacred Torah and our people Israel.”

There is thus a fundamental question that all people involved in outreach must ask themselves: Who is to determine the fine lines and parameters of activities that one involved in outreach should take part in?

Should the choice be up to each individual involved? Or should it be the traditionally recognized religious leaders of Judaism, as in the case mentioned above?

Some of the older readers may recall from years ago a very bright and promising rabbi who rationalized joining in the recreational use of marijuana with those whom he engaged in outreach, in order to better bond with them to perform that outreach. Readers may also recall a certain outreach leader who actually hugged and kissed those whom he worked with (including women), with the rationale that he should not be so aloof.

The reader may distinguish between activities that the outreach leader actually performs, and questions as to who else is in attendance at a particular conference. This distinction may very well be valid. However, one can ask, where do we draw the line? Let’s say the organizers of the conference also allowed members of the Jews for J organization to participate? And let’s say that the Jews for J organization was given more time, or was allowed to play a very emotional video at the convention? Would Rabbi Lipman draw the line there?

What if a conference extended an invitation to Holocaust deniers and those who are virulently anti-Semitic or anti-Israel?

We all have friends and relatives who survived the Nazi Holocaust. Wouldn’t these friends and relatives be deeply offended if we were to attend such a conference—even for the lofty goal of outreach?

This author has family members who fought and died so that the State of Israel could exist and continue to exist. In the eyes of so many of us, what Swarthmore Hillel is doing is deeply offensive. In the eyes of the vast majority of those who care about Israel, Hillel International’s guidelines are correct, notwithstanding the very same arguments and emotional appeals that Rabbi Lipman may be marshaling to argue for participation in Limmud.

True, outreach is a value—a strong value—but there are so many other ways to reach out to others without giving away the farm. For a Hillel organization, any Hillel organization, to cosponsor an event with an organization that denies the right of Israel to exist is wrong, plain and simple.

The leading sages of Israel have likewise created guidelines, no different than Hillel International did, as to what types of organizations one may participate with in a conference. Pretty much everyone would agree that the Jews for J organization is out. Why should we not count among this list those who are virulently anti-Israel and those who virulently deny the Sinaitic revelation?

It could very well be that there is nothing objectionable in participating in such a conference. It could be that Rabbi Lipman is correct. But the more fundamental question is, who should be making this determination? Is it the newspaper publishers and newspaper columnists, the Knesset members and Jewish elected politicians, or the recognized sages of Israel?

One can lobby, one may argue, but ultimately the decision on such weighty and lofty issues should be made by leading Torah and rabbinic figures.

One last point: When these issues do come up for discussion and debate, it is always important to maintain a tone of civility and respect. Arguments, especially in regard to weighty theological issues, can quite easily devolve into name-calling and other abusive forms of communication. Shlomo HaMelech tells us in Sefer Koheles (9:17), “Divrei chachamim b’nachas nishmayim miza’akas moshel bak’silim—the words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools.” v

The author can be reached at

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Posted by on December 19, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.