With his public defence of Quebec stage director Robert Lepage’s controversial stage production called SLAV, which was cancelled by the Montreal International Jazz Festival due to allegations of cultural appropriation, and his denunciation of “cultural zealots,” Rabbi Aubrey Glazer has signalled that he is not afraid to express unpopular opinions.
The Toronto native is the new senior rabbi of Shaare Zion Congregation, the flagship of Conservative Judaism in Montreal. He succeeds Rabbi Lionel Moses, who has become rabbi emeritus after serving for 23 years.
Only days after moving to Montreal from San Francisco in July, Rabbi Glazer’s article on the SLAV controversy was published in the Montreal Gazette. The show had been cancelled in the wake of widespread criticism that it was inappropriate for a white cast to be performing African-American slave songs.
Rabbi Glazer, an ardent admirer of the respected Quebec director, deplored the “shutting down” of “sacred theatre” and questioned the idea of cultural appropriation.
“A lot of people agreed with me, some did not,” he said. “The point was to get people to think – a lost art – and not be complacent.”
His outspokenness stems from his conviction that critical thinking and the arts must be cultivated and pursued meaningfully. Shaare Zion members can expect their hearts and minds to be engaged.
Rabbi Glazer, 48, is both an intellectual and an artist. Academics and aesthetics have been central to his “spiritual journey,” and he is a seeker of different ways of experiencing Judaism.
He has a PhD in Hebrew hermeneutics, or contemporary Hebrew poetry, from the University of Toronto, a master’s in Jewish philosophy and a BA in French language and literature. He is fluent in the language and loves French and Québécois culture. (He also published an opinion piece in La Presse on the late French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann.)
He spent time at the Université de Paris pursuing an interest in the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, and is also an expert in the German philosopher Theodor Adorno. He has taught in numerous settings in North America, Europe and Israel.
He’s also a musician, visual artist, filmmaker and author. He is a devotee of Jewish mysticism and meditation.
Leonard Cohen, whom Rabbi Glazer regards as a mystic, had a huge influence on him. In 2016, he published the book, Tangle of Matter & Ghost: Leonard Cohen’s Post-Secular Songbook of Mysticism(s), Jewish & Beyond.
He plays hockey and enjoys fly-fishing, as well.
Ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2000, Rabbi Glazer was the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco for four years before coming here. Founded in the early 20th century, Beth Sholom has a history of being progressive. The landmark synagogue was among the first in the city to allow women to participating equally. And, since the 1990s, it has incorporated meditation into its services.
Shaare Zion is a little more traditional. Founded in 1924, the congregation has close to 900 member families, making it much larger than Beth Sholom, which grew to about 380 during Rabbi Glazer’s tenure.
“Shaare Zion has a fused model of egalitarianism that is still evolving,” said Rabbi Glazer. Since 2000, women have been counted in the minyan, read from the Torah, chant the haftarah and are permitted aliyot.
Previously, Rabbi Glazer served for nine years at the Jewish community centre in Westchester County, N.Y.
“I always wanted to come back to Canada,” he said.
Him and his wife, artist Elyssa Wortzman, who’s also from Toronto, have a 12-year-old daughter named Talya Sahara.
At Beth Sholom, music was a central to the services. He played Middle Eastern and African percussion and regularly featured guest artists performing styles ranging from klezmer to bluegrass to jazz. Everyone joined in.
At Shaare Zion, there is a strong hazzanut and choral tradition. Rabbi Glazer looks forward to working with Cantor Adam Stotland and the choir, in order to expand on that and encourage congregational participation.
Meditation practice is now offered before services, to set a contemplative mood and greater appreciation of ancient Jewish wisdom. “We must repair the inside before we repair the outside. A strong neshamah (soul) is the first step to tikun olam,” he says.
Rabbi Glazer acknowledges that Conservative Judaism is having a sort of identity crisis. He thinks the name no longer conveys what the movement is about and is, regrettably, confused with small-c conservatism and the current divisive political climate.
“The synagogue needs to be a refuge from the toxicity of politics,” he said, emphasizing the openness of Shaare Zion to all Jews.
He prefers four other words beginning with the letter “C” – caring, compassionate, critical and covenantal – as guiding principles for the movement.
“We are very excited to have Rabbi Glazer on board,” said the shul’s treasurer, Gary Shapiro. “His style and personality will serve as a bridge between generations. He has the ability to relate and motivate the young and the old. He will add an awful lot to our community in general, not only to our congregation.”