Wilderness and Nation-Building: Canada and Israel

Our recent Torah portion finds the people of Israel near the conclusion of their 40 year journey through the Wildness, from Egyptian slavery to the Land of Promise. “And the children of Israel journeyed and camped in the plains of Moav, across from Jericho of the Jordan.” (21.35). But, we all know that there were still many tasks ahead.

Michael Walzer explores some of these issues in his study, In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible.  Moshe Halbertal and Steven Holmes point out in their new book, The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel, that after entering the Land, the responsibilities of self-government would occupy and challenge our ancestors.

The same is true for us, here in Canada, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation.  A bit of history: Initially, Jews were prohibited from living in Catholic New France, but a small group of Jews began to settle in 1760, after the British victory. Aaron Hart became one of the most prominent of these early Jewish residents and the Hart Memorial Trophy for the Most Valuable Player in hockey was established in honour of his direct descendant, Cecil Hart, the longtime coach of the Montreal Canadiens.

Early Jewish settlers were fur traders, soldiers in the British Army, merchants and landowners. Although the community was small, the two hundred Jews of Montreal built the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in 1768.

It takes a while to establish a place in a new land. By 1828, the law requiring an Christian oath of office was amended to allow Jews to refrain from the oath, In 1831, Jews were granted full political rights, the first so recognised in the entire British Empire. Most Jews were based in Montreal, but some migrated west. In the 1830s Samuel Liebshitz, a German Jew, founded Jewsburg, now part of Kitchener.

In 1850, there were only 450 Jews living in all of Canada, but by 1871, there were 409 in Montreal, 157 in Toronto, 131 in Hamilton, others along the St. Lawrence River, and about 100 in Victoria, where Congregation Emanu-El was opened in 1862. When British Columbia became the sixth province to join the new Confederation, its delegation included Henry Nathan, who eventually became the first Jew to serve in Parliament.

Faith Canada 150 has sought to highlight the role that faith traditions have played in the development of this country. The religious traditions of Catholicism, Anglicanism and what became the United Church, played a powerful role in the expansion of European religion and authority throughout Canada.

Faith Canada 150 consciously recognises that First Nations were the native inhabitants of this land and had their own indigenous spiritual practices. Many of you have heard a variation of this statement which now opens many public gatherings:

We acknowledge that this land where we meet has been a site of human activity for 15,000 years. This land is the sacred territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and Confederacy of the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes.

European based faiths were involved in the subjugation of native tribes and their spiritual traditions. While Black churches and Jewish synagogues did not operate residential schools and did not oppress the First Nations, we recognise that as Canadians, we must all be engaged in the teshuvah process initiated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Moreover, as Jews — who celebrate the revival of our indigenous language, Hebrew, as part of the Zionist return of our indigenous people to its indigenous land, Eretz Yisrael — we feel a resonance with the story and struggle of the First Nations here in Canada.

As we celebrate 150 years since the Confederation that created the modern nation-state of Canada, we know that this great country is still in process of defining our national identity. Canada can and should be more than hockey, medical care and beer for the 21st century. In addition to the test of Truth and Reconciliation, we face challenges common to many developed nations:

  • maintain national security and safety,
  • balance economic development and the preservation of natural resources,
  • provide proper health care while controlling costs,
  • respond to the existence of significant poverty,
  • deal with the ongoing scourge of chemical and other addictions.

Canada is still in the process of absorbing and integrating immigrants of all colours and creeds, national identities and social classes. We want to provide reasonable accommodation for the human rights recognised by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We strive to properly welcome refugees. Beth Tzedec is involved in the effort to enable Syrian refugees to find their place in Canadian society, as earlier generations struggled to establish themselves.

Just as entry into the Land of Promise did not fulfil all the aspirations of the Exodus, so Canada is still incomplete. In our Torah reading we see Moshe responding to criticism with anger, but that proves to be a failure of his role as leader.  We need not look at internal disagreement as an effort to tear down what has been constructed. Civic engagement and criticism are part of a political process that helps to build a better country.

Israel faces similar challenges. While it has traversed more than 40 years in the Wilderness, there are many years to go before it reaches 150. But this past week, the Government of Israel failed two important tests.

Over many years, Masorti and Reform leaders, working with the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Federations of North America,  have negotiated with government representatives to gain equal access to the Western Wall, the Kotel, for men and women who wish to pray together. A carefully vetted agreement was developed to allow the construction of a permanent and public place for liberal Jews to gather and pray at the kotel.

The Azarat Yisrael — Section for all Israel — would provide dignity to Women who wish to pray and read Torah in public. It would enable those who want to pray without gender separation to have a easily located, public pathway to the Wall. Although Masorti and Reform would cede control of the main area of the Kotel to allow for separate male and female prayer, we recognised this as a necessary compromise. But last week, facing resistance from the Haredi political parties and fearful of losing his thin governing coalition, the secular parties in Cabinet scuttled this agreement.

David Horovitz wrote in Times of Israel:

Until [last] Sunday, many passionate non-Orthodox supporters of Israel overseas could convince themselves it was rain, not spit, when ultra-Orthodox MKs and ministers over the years denigrated their streams of Judaism as “counterfeit Jews,” sinners, illegitimate and worse. But then [coalition] hands went up around the cabinet table, and the leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism were told that no, you do not get a safe haven for prayer anywhere along that hallowed Wall to which Jews worldwide direct their prayers. The government of the State of Israel can’t give you that guaranteed place of solace. You’re just too… well… treif.

To compound the problem, legislation was introduced to return authority for conversions to the Chief Rabbinate, effectively giving the Haredi Orthodox more control over the process of becoming a Jew. For many years, non-Orthodox conversions in Israel were not recognised by the state. Only  conversions approved by Chief Rabbinate’s courts were recognised. But in 2016, the Israeli Supreme Court paved the way for greater diversity in conversion by permitting battey din unconnected to the Chief Rabbinate to oversee the process of becoming a Jew. This allowed some independent Orthodox courts to help many former Russians with Jewish ancestry who want to be recognised as Jews according to Jewish law to achieve their dream. Masorti and Reform rabbinic courts in Israel also began to convert Jews-by-choice.

A number of years ago, a different Supreme Court ruling allowed individuals converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis outside of Israel to claim citizenship under the Law of Return. But the proposed law would roll back all these developments and restrict the approval of conversions in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate and deny recognition of conversions in the Diaspora by any rabbis of which it did not approve — whether they be modern Orthodox, Masorti or Reform.

These two simultaneous developments were disappointing and disturbing. The leadership of the Jewish Agency, the Masorti and Reform movements all protested. CIJA and the Jewish Federations of Canada objected to Prime Minister Netanyahu. The Canadian Rabbinic Caucus has composed a letter of protest addressed to Bibi that already has been signed by over 60 Canadian rabbis. It will be circulated to you in the coming week to add your signatures.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to write a letter affirming the Jewish identity of a young man so that he could be married in Israel. I wrote that I personally knew him, his mother and his mother’s mother. All of them were Jews. In addition, I had a photo of the gravestone of the great-grandmother. I sent this all to the local Orthodox bet din, the only Toronto rabbinic court recognised by the Chief Rabbinate. The Toronto bet din said that this would not be accepted by the Chief Rabbinate, so the local rabbinic court would not validate the Jewish identity of the young man. The chilling effect of the Chief Rabbinate is felt here, in Canada.

Even if the Government does not allow the conversion legislation to advance, significant damage has already been done. Responsibility lies with the political parties which do not recognise that ceding religious control to the Orthodox will ultimately strangle the secular and moderately traditional elements of Israeli society.

Responsibility lies with the Haredi parties that seem to follow the path of Yiftah, as seen in the haftarah reading this past Shabbat. As Yiftah went to battle, he declared that were he to be victorious, the first thing to emerge from his home would be offered up to God. Yiftah did not anticipate that this would be his daughter. The rabbis of the Talmud criticize Yiftah for not seeking religious counsel that would have allowed him to void his vow. The current Haredi political leadership is willing to sacrifice the Jewish people in order to preserve what they believe to be their vow to God.

It takes years to forge a nation-state. It takes tremendous effort to attain the ideals to which the country articulates. That was true for ancient Israel. It is true for Canada. And it is true for Israel. We must continue to aspire, to dream, and to advocate for the ethical advancement of the countries we love. “We stand on guard for thee.”

About the Author
Baruch Frydman-Kohl is the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Senior Rabbi of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, Ontario. Born in Milwaukee and raised in Chicago, Rav Baruch has served congregations in Albany, New York and Toronto. He has a doctorate in philosophies of Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He serves as a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly and is Vice-Chair of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus. He received a LLM degree in Dispute Resolution from Osgoode Law School of York University.
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