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Look into the mind of a wise – if unorthodox– rabbi

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Evolution of an Unorthodox Rabbi, by John Moscowitz (Dundern Press)

Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, one of the oldest congregations in North America, has been blessed over the years with some great rabbis. Many of them in effect served not just one synagogue, but the entire Jewish community. Rabbi John Moscowitz, who spent 13 years as a member of Holy Blossom’s rabbinic team and then 12 more as its senior rabbi, certainly lived up to this tradition.

Rabbi Moscowitz’s new book, Evolution of an Unorthodox Rabbi, looks back on his years in the Toronto rabbinate. It contains sermons that he delivered at Holy Blossom and articles he wrote in the Canadian press. It also includes short tributes to him from community leaders in Toronto and beyond. It’s an easy and pleasant read; Rabbi Moscowitz is a powerful orator and a good writer.

Rabbi Moscowitz has a wide general education. He explains that the desire to be knowledgeable about Judaism, too, was really what attracted him to rabbinical school, even more than the desire to be a rabbi. Many of his sermons urge his congregants to deepen their own knowledge of traditional Jewish texts.

Reform Judaism in Toronto, as Rabbi Moscowitz writes, “has cultivated, within the larger Reform rabbinate, a collective persona as the guardian of the tradition (no rabbis here officiate at intermarriages; we employ stricter standards for conversion; we express strong disagreement with the patrilineal stance of the Reform movement).” (Some have argued that the same is true of Toronto’s Conservative and Orthodox rabbinates, that each has “cultivated a collective persona as the guardian of tradition” when compared to the larger Conservative and Orthodox rabbinates respectively.) But even within Toronto’s Reform rabbinate, Rabbi Moscowitz understands that people find some of his positions extreme, particularly concerning the State of Israel.

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He bristles at being called “right-wing.” Yet he writes: “It was suggested… that maybe I just sounded too much like a ‘fundamentalist’ for a liberal rabbi in a liberal milieu. That I think is demonstrably true. I’m aware that I don’t always speak like most liberal rabbis.”

Rabbi Moscowitz insists on calling acts of terrorism “evil,” not “tragedies.” “Read the Greeks and Shakespeare to know what is tragic. Read the Bible and look around with discernment to be clear about evil.” He explains that muddled and misguided thinking about terrorism comes from people’s refusal to talk about evil, “because such language flies in the face of our need to see ourselves as essentially good and decent… To think otherwise is to risk running afoul of the orthodoxy of modern liberalism.”

Rabbi Moscowitz agreed to participate in a pulpit exchange program between rabbis and imams (he would preach in a mosque, and an imam would preach at Holy Blossom), but he set a condition that the imam sent to the temple would be someone who recognized Israel’s right to exist. The organizer of the exchange balked: “What you’re asking violates what we are about.” Not surprisingly, Rabbi Moscowitz did not back down and the exchange never happened.

A tribute from the Israeli journalist and thinker, Yossi Klein Halevi, mentions that Rabbi Moscowitz “scandalized much of the liberal Jewish world by organizing an advertisement in the Jewish Forward, signed by a small group of fellow courageous Reform rabbis who broke rank and supported the policies of President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.”

The book paints Rabbi Moscowitz as a man who is always learning and rethinking his positions, not in any predictable or consistent direction on the right-left spectrum.

In the early 1970s, before he was a rabbi, he was involved in radical left politics, working with Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda to oppose the war in Vietnam, and supporting other causes of the left. Rabbi Moscowitz claims that he did not give up on his liberal values even when he became a strong supporter of former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Another change is the recent shift in his position on performing same-sex marriages. Very honestly, he shares the arguments for the position that he advocated for most of his career—that kiddushin (a traditionally sanctified Jewish marriage) can take place only between a man and a woman. He then offers three reasons, from least to most important, why he changed positions: (1) Holy Blossom could find itself irrelevant if it ignored societal change; (2) He was tired of being a gate-keeper who said no; and (3) His understanding of freedom changed. “I’ve chosen this decision, this way of regarding same-sex marriages… because as the world has changed, so have I.”

Despite his love for Jewish texts and his strong admiration for two Orthodox rabbis, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and Rabbi David Hartman (the two rabbis he quotes most often in this book), he remains a Reform rabbi. Jewish texts, he tells us, did not contribute to his decision: “I’ve not employed any Torah as a proof text to rationalize rabbinic standing at same-sex weddings. The reason is straightforward. You, as easily as I, can find texts to buttress one side or the other. I believe that in our liberal milieu it’s, at best, intellectually problematic to go there; one text is as good as another.”

The book is an enjoyable and stimulating window into the mind of a wise and talented rabbi who has contributed significantly to the Jewish community of Canada and beyond.