The way of Man or Woman (redux)

This is a somewhat long argument. If you’ve heard me rant about religious pluralism before, skip to the last four paragraphs. Although I do reccomend reading the whole post.

“When some disciples of a deceased tzaddik came to the Seer of Lublin and expressed surprise at the fact that his customs were different from those of their late master, the Seer exclaimed, “What sort of God would that be who has only one way in which he can be served! God does not say, ‘This way leads to me and that does not.’ Instead God says, ‘Whatever you do may be a way to me, provided you do it in such a manner that it leads you to me.'”
-Martin Buber, The Way of Man

I often find myself returning to the thoughts of Martin Buber to console me when I’m upset about the Jewish world.

Last week, at Hillel we had our first “Three Rabbis walk into a Bar…” programme, where we invited a Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbi to come to a roundtable discussion at a bar. The topic of discussion were varied – challenges each movement faces, why the Rabbis choose to affiliate with each movement, perspectives on Halakhah, perspectives on pluralism, etc.

The programme itself was fantastic. The rabbis were stimulating. They were respectful, and most of all, they were refreshing. As I’ve noted before, Toronto is not the most religiously pluralistic community, quite the opposite in fact. So to have an Orthodox rabbi (granted, he was from YCT) and a Conservative rabbi (granted, he was from one of only two egalitarian Conservative shuls in Toronto) sitting in a bar with a woman rabbi talking about pluralism and halakhah was truly refreshing.

So why am I upset?

One person attending the programme came “armed” with vitriol, ignorance, and a condescending tone. This is not a good combination. I won’t go into the details of his challenges to the Reform and Conservative Movements and to religious pluralism – they’re the same old whinings that we’ve heard for ages. And I’ve heard them from this particular individual on many occasions (Jesse, if the Reform Movement allowes gay marriage, then why doesn’t it allow incestuous marriage?).

I often wonder how educated Jews are able to sit and spew hatred masked as concern towards other Jews. I often wonder if we can’t even sit in a bar and talk to each other in Toronto, how we’re supposed to sit in the Knesset and talk to each other. Yes, this was just one individual in this case, but it is indicative of a worldwide pandemic.

To see just how endemic this pandemic is, read the comments on this article about the WUPJ Conference from today’s Jerusalem Post.

For all that we talk about religious pluralism, and how we acknowledge that it is an uphill battle, I wonder how much success we’re actually making. Hillel in Tornoto is not as a religously pluralistic environment as people might think it is. We claim that our Shabbat dinnners are our “hallmark” outreach event, but we hold them at Orthodox and Conservative shuls. Mincha used to be held with a mechitzah that put women at the back of the room (now it divides down the centre).

Because the Jewish religious community in Toronto is predominantly Orthodox, this often infuses our campuses with the “frumest common denominator” syndrome (for more on this, read BZ here). Even though the programme directors on all of our campuses are Reform (including a particularly fantastic woman Reform Rabbi), we have to “cater” to the constituency.

Which brings me full circle. This is not only a leadership issue. This is a constituency issue. This is not a problem that’s going to be solved by putting pluralistic rabbis and pluralistic Hillel professionals on campus (although that certainly is a step in the right direction). When you have an organization whose members are largely not religously pluralistic, it doesn’t matter what the leadership screams out if the volk are not buying it.

This is an issue that needs a grasroots solution. We need a New Israel Fund type of movement for Jewish life in Toronto. We need to find a way to speak to the people at their level. We need a way to show people that two women having a Jewish wedding will not mean that their children will wind up marring each other. Or a cat (yes, I’ve heard that one, too).

I’m not imposing my Judaism on you. The wonderful thing about Judaism is that it is able to survive while containing within in it many different, yet equally valid perspectives of Judaism. But heaven knows that those people who don’t understand this are not going to learn about pluralism from their rabbis. It’s got to come from somewhere else, and the current model is not working.

I should note in closing – at Hillel in Toronto, there is not an overt animosity between Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Secular, and otherwise un-labeled Jews. We get along just fine when we’re not talking about religious Judaism. But that’s the point. We should be able to talk about religious Judaism in a pluralistic manner. If we always have to skirt the issue and walk on eggshells, we’re doing something wrong.

Let’s do something right.
Mr. Buber knew how to do it, perhaps we should take a page from his book.

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