January 21, 2019

An Illiberal Lament?

Writing in the wake of the slaughter of Jews at worship in their Pittsburgh synagogue, Gal Beckerman, an editor at The New York Times Book Review, quickly pivoted from anti-Semitism to a more potent threat facing American Jews: the thinness of their religious culture, especially within the precincts of the non-Orthodox. (New York Times, Nov. 18).

The headline on Beckerman’s essay, a Book Review cover piece for all to see, speaks loudly and sadly: “Lamentations.” For historically sensitive Jews, that word conveys destruction and disintegration. Put in the contemporary context, America, its unprecedented freedom and beckoning arms, has been wonderful for the Jews — and something far less: a dissolvent of a once vibrant religious culture.

Recently came a different lamentation, one likewise in regard to liberal Judaism, particularly Reform. This expression, though, was, in essence, the reverse of Beckerman’s keening.

Its author, Judith Taylor, wrote ruefully in the Forward of a Canadian Reform movement “sorely behind” its American counterparts, most of all, on matters of inclusion.

“Canada’s Jews will sustain their religious culture more successfully than will our confreres south of the border.”

By her telling, Taylor arrived in Toronto 15 years ago from the U.S., only to be badly disappointed by the behind-the-times Canadian Reform movement (read: rabbis). Having assessed her new country as laudably socially progressive — especially compared with her former one — Taylor laments, what for her is, an exclusivist, almost retrograde, Canadian Reform Rabbinate. All the more so in relation to our (apparently, far more liberal) American rabbinic counterparts.

The bill of particulars? Canadian Reform rabbis betray “narrow mindedness” about who is a Jew; inexcusably, they refuse non-Jews the recital of brachot at the Torah reading; and, all together, are found inexplicably lagging on “inclusion” issues.

If that weren’t indictment enough, Canadian rabbis “buffer” local Jews from the progressive ways south of the border. (Really? Are Canadian Jews so unable to see what happens elsewhere, as to be incapable of figuring out whom to pay regard?)  In case the message isn’t sufficiently clear, the writer asserts that Canada’s liberal rabbis are on the “wrong side of history.”

With respect: Nonsense. I fear the writer, no doubt with all good intentions, flirts with what (at least in her Forward story) she charges the rabbis: being illiberal. She judges Canadian Reform rabbis harshly: stuck in a time warp, resistant to change, dividing Jews from one another. The writer’s judgmental stance, given her professed liberal loyalties, is jarring.

A personal note: it’s, at best, careless to say of me (as does the writer) that I changed my mind about officiating at same-sex weddings, in effect, because “he could no longer ignore the gay people in his community.”

Hardly the case. Mine (as with Barack Obama’s virtually the same week), was an honest change of heart about an important issue. It’s a shame the writer distorts my intent so casually — so much so, one wonders if she read the sermon. Canadian Jewish News readers can do so for themselves and make their own judgment. Read “Rabbis at Gay and Lesbian Weddings: How I Changed My Mind” (found in my 2015 book, “Evolution of an Unorthodox Rabbi.”)

More important, read the thoughtful response by the Reform rabbis of Canada to the Forward story. Authored by several rabbis across the country, signed onto by the vast majority, the response roots itself in Jewish tradition no less than the contemporary experience, in communal norms as well as real lives. It’s an impressive articulation of why Canadian Reform differs from its American counterpart. (I had no part in the writing, and back it wholeheartedly.)

A final personal note: After three decades in Canada, I remain enthusiastic about America. It’s “my home and native land,” as I’ve also learned to say and feel. But Canada’s virtues, though more understated, are no less compelling than those of its neighbor. And I’d venture to guess that, in the long run (as in the short), Canada’s Jews will sustain their religious culture more successfully than will our confreres south of the border.


John Moscowitz is rabbi emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.