RABBI AVI FINEGOLD
FOUNDER, THE JEWISH LEARNING LAB, MONTREAL
RABBI PHILIP SCHEIM
BETH DAVID B’NAI ISRAEL BETH AM CONGREGATION, TORONTO
Rabbi Finegold: To say that we are going through turbulent times would be an understatement. I am concerned that, as rabbis, we are not always preparing our communities to develop spiritual resilience to grapple with difficult times. I think much of that is because we do not want to be seen as fear-mongers, always pointing out during pleasant times that dark days are ahead.
But there must be something we can do to help develop moral strength and courage in our communities. Should we be teaching anything specific or co-ordinating activities that can then actively be drawn upon when a crisis occurs?
For example, I feel that we do not present opportunities for people to think about the Jewish approach to death and dying until it becomes absolutely necessary. The problem is that when one has a close family member that has just died, they are often not in a position to absorb these ideas. I would prefer that we get over our aversion to talking about morbid subjects, which might have an overall positive effect in the long run.
Rabbi Scheim: Most people learn that the optimal time to acquire life insurance is while one is young and healthy – waiting for old age or infirmity will increase the cost astronomically, if not make the purchase altogether impossible.
Similarly, as you suggest, learning the basic spiritual skills and structures of accommodating the darker side of life is best achieved in times of peace and tranquility. But human nature leads us to procrastinate, and, like Noah, who delayed entering the ark until the floodwaters forced him in, we too often react only at the time of crisis.
We do, of course, offer classes in Jewish laws and customs surrounding illness and death, but these tend to be attended by the “usual suspects,” who come to any class we offer, while the larger masses pass on the opportunity. Maybe a way of reaching larger numbers would be through the lens of Jewish history, which is tragically filled with multiple examples of communities who waited too long to ready themselves or to flee in the face of impending dangers, the signs of which they understandably preferred to ignore.
Rabbi Finegold: I like the appeal to history, which can teach is that just as we should notice warning signs when they are beginning to emerge, we can learn the opposite as well. History shows us that when things are at their worst, our resilience as a people will eventually lead us to better times.
For example, Orthodoxy is currently dealing with the issue of women as clergy, something Conservative Judaism has already laid to rest. While it seems stressful and of outsize importance right now, I always remind people that when they write the history of Orthodoxy in 200 years from now this entire episode will be reduced to a single page.
While I may be firm in my knowledge that I am on the right side of history, I also know that it is fruitless to try to convince others they are wrong. Perhaps that is a lesson we can pass along to our communities in bleak times: keep doing the good work and know that history will ultimately prevail.
Rabbi Scheim: Having very recently returned from a visit to Prague, I was reminded of the power of history. In a city with a current Jewish population of 1,500, there are several Jewish museums and memorials, recalling a thousand-plus year history of a flourishing Jewish community (more than 60,000 Jews lived in Prague before the Shoah). Notwithstanding three good kosher restaurants (largely serving Jewish tourists) and magnificent synagogues, the community today is unable to make a minyan, except for on Shabbat, when tourists provide the necessary numbers.
On the surface, the current demographics are bleak, since the few remaining Jews are largely assimilated and unlikely to produce Jewish offspring in sufficient numbers to rebuild the shattered community. It is more than symbolic that the most famous Jewish site is the cemetery.
But, like you, I believe there to be a redeeming quality to history – knowing that a community that, in its day, produced some of the greatest Jewish luminaries, religious, cultural and literary has not shut its doors. Perhaps, here, too, history will, in the long-term, prevail, and the richness of our past will bear new fruit in years to come.