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One rabbi’s story of change

Musings on people's unintended shifting politics, in light of his own journey to the radical left and back again

When I was twenty, I abandoned the soft counter culture of the time for the harder radical left. I veered so far leftward as to alarm my normally nonchalant, semi-bohemian Henry Wallace-Democrat parents. Last fall, enthralled with writing about it all, nonetheless, I put away my notes after only a few months.

Recollecting my youthful radicalization of the early seventies, I kept brooding over a more gradual political turnabout while a rabbi at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple. After all, having set sail dramatically one way in my early twenties, I had cast back the opposite way two decades later. That I’d done so against the grain of both my movement and the larger liberal milieu — thus, my brooding and need to know more. And, that I’d forsaken the left for the center (the right, some said) in public when the personal stakes were high — all the more so I wished to solve this mid-life political evolution.

Holy Blossom had long been a place of significance, both in the Jewish world and beyond. Its landmark Bathurst Street building stood as a beacon for Canada’s Jews, and what its rabbis said was paid regular attention. I experienced this first-hand at the beginning of my tenure as the senior rabbi in the early 2000s, when, with the Second Intifada raging in Israel’s streets and cafes, I wandered off my predecessors’ well-marked progressive path. Many welcomed my full-throated defense of Israel and warning about radical Islam — from the pulpit and in the papers — but others viewed it as misguided. Still others characterized my divergent voice in harsher terms: I’d betrayed my position as the rabbi of the foremost liberal synagogue in Canada.

I was not unsympathetic to the charge. After all, I’d remained a serious leftist through the early Nineties. I’d sung enthusiastically from the same song sheet as friends and colleagues about Israel then — the one issue that overwhelmingly determines one’s politics among the Jews. I was as adept as any on my side at denouncing Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon’s retrograde Israeli right. I looked askance at the telegenic and ambitious Benjamin Netanyahu, and learned how to marginalize those spouting the wrong views. Adept though I was, I grew troubled by something I couldn’t quite identify. Or didn’t wish to.

Regardless, I started to change. Imperceptibly at first, and then with a momentum I couldn’t halt. By the mid-nineties, I’d migrated toward the center — largely on Israel, but on other matters, too. A highly public expression of my change occurred when Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in June 1996, and I suggested — to raised eyebrows in a Shabbat morning crowd — that Bibi was not necessarily the dangerous ideologue I’d previously judged him. Back off, I cautioned my liberal friends and community. And, while still something of an enthusiast of Bill Clinton’s, the metastasizing political correctness in the academy, as elsewhere, (engendered largely by the baby boomers’ ascendancy in the early nineties) was irksome and overdone, and maybe not correct. In any case, I neither hid nor trumpeted my political migration. More than anything, I was trying to learn to live with it — quietly, if at all possible. But the times were such, all the more so once the spotlight found me, that what I said was readily noticed.

What was that intellectual and political evolution about, especially given that I was well past acceptable youthful insouciance? What pressed so hard that a longtime left liberal would stray from the comforts of a fixed political address? My days as a young radical could wait. I wanted to first account for my changing views in my forties — not only the how, but also the why.

What had pressed were the matters which had gradually come to preoccupy me as a rabbi, and, in retrospect, fueled my intellectual growth over the years. My preoccupations started with increasingly serious doubts that peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, short of Israel dissembling itself, was achievable. But other matters also roiled me: What is it with human beings, the stunning good we do and the horrific evil we commit? Is depth of Torah learning possible in the liberal synagogue milieu? Should a liberal rabbi, albeit one with traditionalist sensibilities, officiate at same gender weddings? And, what I’ve been regularly vexed by over the years: What becomes of Jews when the tradition’s hold vanishes before our eyes? These dilemmas were the very spoils of modernity.

I knew where to turn to account for what had turned me inside out: my sermons as a rabbi. What I’d written over two decades plus would come to illumine my peripatetic political ways, including why, while the left was once my natural home, it no longer was.

Whether I’d write about leaving the left, at least, yet, I wasn’t certain. After all, I’d retained an affection for the times and the people, and my changes weren’t across the board: if I’d been a left liberal before, I wasn’t exactly a conservative now. In any case, my immediate interest was those dilemmas that claimed and changed me. They had some hold of a few other colleagues, too, though our conversations at annual rabbinic conventions were furtive and out of ear shot.

I read nearly five hundred sermons from among many more I delivered between 1987 and 2012. I’d not looked back before, so I was curious. Some things I’d written were startling, more than enough of them pleasing. I didn’t agree with everything, but did feel assured that I had brought sufficient clarity and learning to what I said then, that I needn’t be chagrined today. Returning to these sermons — delivered at Holy Blossom on the Sabbath and holidays largely — brought its own contentments. Other things I’d written over the years — newspaper articles, book contributions, eulogies and more — became part of the reading mix.

Much of it shed light on my intellectual migrations. There it was before me: changes in my thinking, recorded faithfully, though not terribly consciously, in those hundreds of sermons. Written between the ages of 35 and 60; from the Meech Lake Accords and the Iran-Contra deal through much of Stephen Harper and Barack Obama’s lengthy leadership; from shortly prior to the outbreak of the first intifada to more than a decade after September 11; from the time of Holy Blossom as a fairly typical liberal synagogue to one less so; from pre-digital days to digital life on steroids. Not surprisingly, those writings showed that what had compelled and confounded me had, in fact, changed me. If I was once easy to categorize politically, I no longer was — but, indeed, change I had.

I knew I had a book in hand. An idiosyncratic one, but a real story of a rabbi who’d changed significantly, if reluctantly. My story, like the writing, ranged from the personal to the political, from the theological to the hard-to-classify — all the while capturing how a once more or less typical Reform Rabbi no longer fit the mold as before. I included remembrances of a number of people (my father, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut and Christopher Hitchens among others) important to me. I labored with pleasure over a list of a hundred books I’ve loved throughout my life. Seeking the satisfactions of coherence, I wrote an introduction to each section. Upon reading the book, Senator Linda Frum observed that it was “part memoir, part social history”. While that’s not what I set out to do originally, I think she got it right.

One way or the other, what I’d produced amounted to a series of reflections accumulated along a not entirely predictable path for a rabbi or anybody else — that of an American patriot (if you’ll excuse the out-of-favor sentiment), one much at home in Canada, who considers Jerusalem my and my people’s temporal home. No less — the savannahs of East Africa, the very place from which we emerged as human once touched by God, my original home, as for every human being. I found myself on those hauntingly beautiful savannahs first in 2009, and glimpsed — it was no more than that — that within the larger scientific dimension, evolution (that is, the eternal relentlessness of essentially unpredictable change) possesses a deeply personal element. Both phenomena are miraculous. Both define us well beyond our capability to discern, much less control, them.

My story is a small meditation on how we change, knowingly or not, from one way of perceiving the world to another. It ranges from Jerusalem to East Africa, two places which have shaped me like no other. Which tellingly, returns me to California days when, as a young man at twenty, everything appeared so different, and I had no idea any of this was ahead of me.

About the Author
John Moscowitz is the rabbi emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, and the author of Evolution of an Unorthodox Rabbi (Dundurn Press 2015)