The Jewish denomination wars have flared up again. On February 4, Knesset member David Rotem said, “The Reform movement is not Jewish … they are another religion.” He later backtracked, withdrew the comment and apologized for making it.
A few days later, Rabbi Mark S. Miller, an American Reform rabbi, took his colleagues to task in his Times of Israel blog suggesting that, with their Shabbat tables always at the ready, traditional Jews are much more welcoming than the Reform movement can ever be. Plus, the Reform movement’s insistence that they care about Shabbat and kashrut is duplicitous, he argued.
And here, in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, Orthodox Rabbi Howard Finkelstein wrote a letter-to-the-editor (Mailbag, February 3) in response to Reconstructionist Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton’s piece on Jewish belief in God (From the Pulpit, January 20) stating her “evaluation flies in the face of traditional Judaism for millennia.”
But there is also the reverse conundrum. Rather than ask which type of practice is most Jewish, I find myself asking a thornier question: which is more human?
Such is the challenge currently facing Conservative Judaism in Ottawa, specifically around the issue of GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) inclusion and related questions of human dignity. Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism both embrace same-sex marriage. And many Conservative congregations across North America are now doing the same – but not so far in Ottawa.
Here in Ottawa, Congregation Beth Shalom, a member of the Canadian Council of Conservative Synagogues, is not even gender egalitarian (and is currently without a rabbi), and Agudath Israel Congregation, a member of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the main Conservative organization, and the synagogue to which I belong, is still keeping its tent flaps closed to same-sex weddings. The much smaller and lay-led Adath Shalom Congregation, also a USCJ member, does not currently perform weddings.
In 2012, the Committee for Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly approved the performing of same-sex marriages. Conservative rabbis in various corners of North America have embraced the opportunity.
“As a rabbi I cannot countenance sitting before people who can fully love one another and insisting that the Jewish tradition has no place for them simply because they are of the same sex. Surely no people understands rejection and marginalization better than the Jewish people,” wrote Rabbi David Wolpe last June in the Washington Post as he announced his willingness to perform same-sex marriages at Sinai Temple, his Los Angeles synagogue.
But no Conservative rabbi or congregation in Ottawa has yet taken up the mantle. The national context makes this especially ironic, given that Canadian law has outpaced American law on these issues.
For myself, I’m increasingly noticing a disconnection between my denomination as practised at my shul and the values I place on human dignity. The question for me, then, and perhaps for others, is should I stay in my congregation and attempt to eke out change from within or switch shuls? Given the landscape of progressive Judaism in Ottawa, switching shuls would mean switching denominations thereby both sending a strong signal and, hopefully, finding a community that better connects with my values. However, we know the signal a person tries to send when exiting in protest is typically heard at a much lower decibel than intended.
For me, as someone who values the Jewish literacy component of Conservative Judaism, the choice is doubly complicated by having kids. I want my kids to grow up surrounded by a certain flavour of Judaism. But I also want them to understand that the range of human sexuality is something to be celebrated, not hidden, denied and shamed.
To stay would mean being authentic to my Jewish self, but inauthentic to my human self. On the other hand, to stay might also mean enabling my kids to take a stand, as one child in the U.S. who gave a Dvar Torah on the topic of GLBT inclusion, chose to do. His speech was celebrated across social media.
To stay might also help give way to an opening, as dialogue might shift hearts and minds. But is there a deadline by which one should decide that one’s efforts on this front, however passionate, creative and sustained, ultimately have yielded little?
On some days, the choice seems clearer than others.
Mira Sucharov, an associate professor of political science at Carleton University, blogs at Haaretz.com.