Unorthodox Orthodoxy

Inside the World of An Agnostic Rabbi


Photo credit: Sammy Kagan

Limmer has occupied his post at Chicago Sinai Congregation for nearly five years.

Rabbi Seth Limmer is an agnostic.

Known to his congregants plainly as “Seth,” the Parker parent of two and Senior Rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation has long embraced an unconventional mantle in the divinity scene.

“He often says that he’s the ‘Rock and Roll Rabbi,’ he’s just really weird,” said sophomore Rosey Limmer–Limmer’s elder daughter. “He’s known to wake me up by blasting Kendrick Lamar throughout the entire house. Even this morning in the car, we had the radio on, he started giving us a lesson on 6ix9ine and why 6ix9ine’s in jail.”

Perhaps more rap than rock and roll, Limmer has maintained an independent streak since the days of his youth. Limmer grew up in Great Neck, New York as an “engaged, reform Jewish kid.”

After matriculating to Cornell University for his undergraduate years, Limmer decided he wanted to become a “professor of philosophy, from a Jewish perspective.” “I wanted to go and get two degrees,” Limmer said. “I wanted to get a Ph.D. in philosophy and I wanted to become a rabbi so I would know both of those worlds from both directions. Then I could sit in some ivory tower and write brilliant books of philosophy every day.”

Following his graduation from Cornell, Limmer attended Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion “without any desire to become a congregational rabbi” –– continuing his original ambitions.

Time at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, a congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, changed Limmer’s mind. “One day I was coming home from a particularly engaged class…and I said to myself ‘I really like this,’” Limmer said. “This is the opportunity to talk with real people about how Judaism can bring real meaning to their lives.”

Since coming to Chicago Sinai in July of 2014, Limmer has continued to spread meaning in the life of his congregants–– sauntering forward in his signature style. “He’s really high energy, a great guy actually,” senior and Chicago Sinai member Jonah Meiselman-Ashen said. “I saw him be the rabbi for my brother’s Bar Mitzvah and other Bar Mitzvahs…he’s done everything really well and smoothly every time.”

Limmer carries his energy beyond the modernist walls of Chicago Sinai, often foraying into political discourse. The Rabbi has worked with the NAACP and written for publications like “U.S News and World Report” and “The Chicago Sun-Times.”

In his writing, Limmer supports gun control, favors LGBT rights, advocates for DACA, and stands as an active proponent of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Rosey Limmer sees her father’s political work as his true career focus. “He does a lot of work in social justice,” she said, “and he cares more about that area than he does about necessarily the God stuff.”

Similar to his daughter, Limmer believes that political involvement is a fundamental tenet of the Jewish identity. “Basically, what Judaism is about, is establishing a culture and a society that works for the common good,” Limmer said. “To me, it’s a denial of Judaism to say ‘I’m not going to be political,’ because Jewish values are meant to infuse the entire world. People say ‘Rabbi, why do you care so much about politics?’ and the answer is that you can’t be Jewish and not care about politics.”

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, the Rabbi in Residence at Avodah, shares Limmer’s sentiments. “Particularly now, in the Trump Administration, I feel the obligation to speak out with the lens, the weight and the power, of 2,000 years of wisdom,” Ruttenberg said. “I write a lot about our…our obligation to care for immigrants…It’s basically the entire synopsis of Torah…it’s our job.”

Limmer, unlike most prayer leaders, is a vocal agnostic––meaning he doesn’t believe it’s possible to know about the existence of God. The Rabbi does not see agnosticism as limiting in his religious endeavors.

“It’s is not a contradiction,” Limmer said of his status as an agnostic rabbi. “Judaism is an agnostic religion. Judaism has never committed to a definition of God, and on our books we have about 30 different definitions of God. And if we refuse to define God, and say what God is, and if we have multiple definitions of God, that means, at our base, we don’t really know what God is. ”

Limmer doesn’t believe that God wrote the Bible or ascribe to the notion that the Jews were given the Torah at Mount Sinai. Where some take the stories of the Torah to be literal depictions of biblical times, he sees the tales as parables.

“What’s the story of the tortoise and the hare?” Limmer said. “If we think about it, we know many things. A) Tortoises don’t have the power of speech. B) Hares don’t have the power of speech. C) Even if they did, there has never been an instance in the biological history of the universe where a hare and a tortoise have set up a track meet, one against the other.”

Congregants at Chicago Sinai have, at times, pushed back on Limmer’s unique views, as have his fellow rabbis. Ruttenberg has questions about the Sinai leader’s professed Jewish values. “I don’t know what it means to be an agnostic rabbi,” Ruttenberg said. “What his relationship is to our tradition, what his relationship is to our liturgy, what he thinks does and doesn’t happen when we pray. When somebody is an agnostic rabbi, there’s sort of the classic question ‘tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’”

Through his taste in music, political disposition, and holy views, Limmer sees his work as an extension of his desire to remain boldly honest. “I tell the truth as I see it, and no one ever doubts that what I’m saying is what I believe and what I understand,” Limmer said. “Many times people try to manipulate the truth or hide back things or try not to show their cards. I’m just all out honest. All the time. People ask my opinion, I give them a straight up answer.”