Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, spoke about “a Jewish response to a divided world” during a visit to Ottawa described as “historic.”
Jews must recognize that our commitment to the well-being of all people is a critical and essential part of our faith.
This was the impassioned message delivered November 3 by Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, to a capacity crowd of more than 500 gathered at Congregation Machzikei Hadas.
In addition to members of the Jewish community and rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, the audience included political leaders, diplomats and Christian and Muslim clergy.
Rabbi Mirvis’ powerful and historic speech, interspersed with humour and charm, gave all present the clear directive to join him in his quest to help heal our divided world.
The world, Rabbi Mirvis explained, is currently suffering a new type of division – a divide that is not between left and right, conservative and liberal, but between open and closed, nationalism versus globalism.
Countries across Europe have embraced a “drawbridge up” attitude and have closed their borders to refugees while tightening their economic practices. In the United States, there are calls for “Americanism before globalism.” Only Canada, said Rabbi Mirvis, is bucking the trend as we continue to welcome refugees and foster open trade.
What does this mean for Jews? Unfortunately, Rabbi Mirvis said, when it comes to an “us versus them” mentality, Jews are inevitably classified as “them.” Jews are seen as outsiders. But are we? Are we open or closed? Do we see ourselves as separate?
Indeed, we are separate, the rabbi explained. We even have a blessing, part of the Havdallah ceremony, which thanks God for the separation of different things: the sacred and the secular, darkness and light, and between Israel and all other nations.
“Jews,” said Rabbi Mirvis, “understand that we are exclusivists. We have our culture, our own communities, our own schools, our own calendar and our own Jewish homeland.”
However, he stressed, “We are not permitted to just sit and watch as others suffer. We are required by our faith to do something about it. This is integral to our identity.”
Indeed, we are not only commanded to “love our neighbours as ourselves,” but also to recognize that all people are created in the image of God. “We must honour and respect the divine presence in all humanity.
“Be proud of your culture and respect all others’ cultures too … Our message to the world, then, is that it is not good to only be particular and exclusive, and it’s not only good to be universal and assimilated. We can be unique and still work in concert with others.”
Rabbi Mirvis used the analogy of an orchestra: We can each be unique, each playing our own instrument; but, played together in joint purpose, in harmony, we can make beautiful music.
The simple but powerful message was met by a standing ovation.
Rabbi Idan Scher of Congregation Machzikei Hadas thanked his colleagues from Ottawa’s faith community for their presence and urged all in attendance to take action, to take responsibility to respond to Rabbi Mirvis’ message.
Rabbi Scher stressed that, because we live in Canada, a country that respects people, and where we enjoy equality and religious freedoms, we are at an advantage in making a difference. Together, he said, the mark we can make on the world can be astounding.
Andrea Freedman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, expressed a similar sentiment as she explained that Federation’s mandate is to put the Jewish value of tikkun olam – repair of the world – into action.
“We are guided by our Jewish values to not only help those in our community, our country and our Jewish homeland, but to help all those in need. This is particularly apparent when Federation launches special appeals like the one this past summer for Fort McMurray fire relief,” she said.
Others in attendance were equally moved and stressed the importance of the rabbi’s visit and his message.
“The visit of the chief rabbi was welcome validation of Ottawa’s importance as a vibrant centre of Jewish life. The compassion and sensitivity so evident in his remarks confirmed Rabbi Mirvis’ well-deserved reputation and served as an inspiration to all of us who strive to do better and be better,” said Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
“I am inspired by Rabbi Mirvis’ passionate plea to Jews and members of all faiths to use religion as a source of peace and goodness in the world, not as a source of hatred and violence. This is a message that resonates very powerfully with me, and looking around the room during the talk it was clear that this is a message that resonates with all of the political and religious leaders in attendance,” said Rabbi Michael Goldstein, executive director of Congregation Machzikei Hadas.
The event was co-sponsored by Congregation Machzikei Hadas and Mizrachi Canada.