Money should not split faith groups, only ideas

The North Amer­i­can Con­ser­va­tive stream is di­vid­ing. That is not good for Bri­tish Jews

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis - DOW MARMUR

CANA­DIAN JEWS — whether Ortho­dox, Con­ser­va­tive or Re­form — are more tra­di­tional than their Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts. That is one rea­son why they have al­ways felt closer to Europe than to the United States. As a put-down, Amer­i­cans like to say that Canada is “two gen­er­a­tions be­hind”. The dif­fer­ence is very no­tice­able in Con­ser­va­tive Ju­daism, es­pe­cially in Toronto, where more than half of Canada’s 350,000 Jews live. Thus, for ex­am­ple, un­like in other com­mu­ni­ties, no Con­ser­va­tive pul­pit in Toronto is open to women. Sim­i­larly, doc­u­ments signed by women rab­bis are ren­dered in­ad­mis­si­ble.

It seems that what many Con­ser­va­tive rab­bis re­ally want is to be recog­nised by their Ortho­dox coun­ter­parts, with whom they be­lieve to share a com­mit­ment to Jewish law, dif­fer­ing only on points of in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Even if their con­gre­gants are lax in ob­ser­vance, they them­selves as­pire to lead the lives of Ortho­dox Jews. Of­ten they even send their chil­dren to Ortho­dox day schools and yeshivot.

In the vain hope of strength­en­ing their case, they tend to dis­tance them­selves from Re­form. Sadly for them, how­ever, Ortho­dox rab­bis don’t ap­pre­ci­ate it. In fact, be­cause the Con­ser­va­tives claim affin­ity, Ortho­dox spokesper­sons tend to at­tack them even more than Re­form. This is par­tic­u­larly so in Is­rael, where there is very lit­tle dif­fer­ence in the prac­tice of the two move­ments, yet they re­main very much apart.

As ex­pres­sions of their ha­lachic bent, sev­eral Cana­dian Con­ser­va­tive rab­bis have joined the Union for Tra­di­tional Ju­daism, an or­gan­i­sa­tion largely in ex­is­tence as a protest against al­leged ex­cesses in the Con­ser­va­tive move­ment. In many ways, the Union ap­pears to pur­sue a course that was once that of the United Syn­a­gogue in Bri­tain and of mod­ern Or­tho­doxy else­where.

Mem­bers of the Union look askance at the at­tempts by Con­ser­va­tive rab­bis in the United States to im­i­tate their Re­form col­leagues in the re­lent­less ef­fort to at­tract the largely non-ob­ser­vant sub­ur­ban Jewish mid­dle class. Even pa­tri­lin­eal de­scent that recog­nises the Jewish sta­tus of the off­spring of a Jewish fa­ther and a non-Jewish mother, taken for granted in Amer­i­can Re­form, ap­pears to be ac­cept­able in some Con­ser­va­tive quar­ters in Amer­ica.

The last straw is the re­cent de­ci­sion by the Amer­i­can Jewish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary (JTS), where most Con­ser­va­tive rab­bis in Toronto were trained, to ad­mit gays and les­bians into its rab­binic pro­gramme. This prompted sev­eral large con­gre­ga­tions here in Toronto to do what the pres­ti­gious Shaar Hashomayim in Mon­treal has done years ago, and se­cede from the par­ent body.

Un­like their rab­bis, the Cana­dian Con­ser­va­tive lay lead­ers have had lit­tle to say about halachah and ide­ol­ogy. Their pri­mary rea­sons are fi­nan­cial. As an ex­pres­sion of anti-Amer­i­can parochial­ism, which is never far from the sur­face in Canada, they de­clared that they were pay­ing more in af­fil­i­a­tion fees to the US Con­ser­va­tive move­ment than they ben­e­fited. The im­pli­ca­tion is, of course, that they wouldn’t tol­er­ate Amer­i­can Jews tak­ing ad­van­tage of the “two gen­er­a­tions be­hind” com­mu­nity to the north.

What­ever the rea­sons, the re­sult of the se­ces­sion is that sev­eral im­por­tant syn­a­gogues in Canada are mov­ing away from the lib­eral re­li­gious main­stream. For though the dis­senters in­sist that they will con­tinue to sup­port JTS and pre­sum­ably get their (male) rab­bis from there, it is bound to be only a mat­ter of time be­fore JTS and its lay coun­ter­part will greatly dis­cour­age, per­haps even block, grad­u­ates from serv­ing th­ese con­gre­ga­tions and thus com­pel them to em­ploy Ortho­dox rab­bis in the fu­ture.

Ide­ol­ogy — even when mis­guided, as I be­lieve to be the case here — can be re­spected. It is much more dif­fi­cult to take se­ri­ously a de­ci­sion to save money by leav­ing a move­ment that rep­re­sents Con­ser­va­tive Ju­daism on the Amer­i­can con­ti­nent and be­yond, and is there to of­fer sup­port to the smaller con­gre­ga­tions that lack the re­sources that the Toronto dis­si­dents have. Th­ese may in­clude the strug­gling Ma­sorti in­sti­tu­tions out­side North Amer­ica, in­clud­ing Bri­tain. Though Cana­dian tra­di­tion­al­ism may ap­peal to the English way, there are solid his­toric rea­sons for Ma­sorti Jews not to re­joice in the Cana­di­ans’ de­ci­sion to se­cede. Dow Marmur is Rabbi Emer­i­tus of Holy Blos­som Tem­ple in Toronto. He is a grad­u­ate of the Leo Baeck Col­lege and served two Re­form con­gre­ga­tions in Lon­don be­tween 1962 and 1983

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