I am a Toronto rabbi who was recently rejected by the Toronto Board of Rabbis (TBR). I’d love to tell you why but, despite multiple attempts, they won’t tell me. It’s clear, though, that it’s for one of the following reasons: I identify as – and lead Jews who identify as – secular; I am intermarried and officiate a lot of intermarriage ceremonies and I am part of, and was ordained by, the Secular Humanistic Jewish movement.
I meet their stated requirements. According to the group’s website, the Toronto Board of Rabbis is “Ontario’s oldest and only multi-denominational rabbinic organization. Its members lead synagogues, educate in schools, comfort the ill in hospitals, and guide the Jewish community in happy and challenging times.” But clearly, there is something unstated going on.
Most of the rabbis on the TBR are likely unaware that I applied, let alone was rejected. A small group made the determination – and also determined that they would keep the reasons for their decision secret. So while this is partly about me being excluded, it’s also about a dynamic I think is dangerous and toxic within Judaism much more broadly. Certain leaders seem so intent on “Jewish continuity,” that they are turning an awful lot of people away and reducing Judaism to a narrow set of practices.
Hanukkah is around the corner, and during this historical holiday it is interesting to look back. Yes, Antiochus was suggesting that Jews Hellenize. There were external threats. But the Maccabees, heroic as they were in defending their right to practise their religion, were also religious zealots. If you were the kind of Jew who wanted to secularize, who was open to the literature, sport, and education that came with Hellenization, they’d have killed you. (Ironically, the Maccabees would have violently opposed the modern Maccabee games.)
Today we similarly face external threats, with a rise in anti-Semitic expression. But rather than banding together, our communities are rife with in-fighting. Far too many Jews and their rabbis are intent on a kind of zealotry that demands everyone pray, practise, and participate according to a strict set of guidelines.
The problem? Many Jews do not wish to engage that way.
For those unfamiliar with Secular Humanistic Judaism, it is a movement that offers a culturally Jewish approach. My congregation just celebrated our 50th anniversary – five decades of rich and meaningful celebration, education, and communal participation. Secular Humanistic Judaism is untraditional in many ways.
We are wholly traditional in that we adapt Judaism to keep it relevant. Judaism has always done this. Many of our traditions come from the people we have lived near, including latkes (eastern Europe), bimuelos (Spain), and dreidels (Germany). The reason Judaism has survived and thrived to this day is because we adapt: from Temple to Rabbinic Judaism, from state to state.
Now, we are adapting to a world that is increasingly secular and diverse.
Rabbis across all Jewish denominations, including Orthodox, are beginning to market their communities as “welcoming” and “inclusive” to people who are secular, intermarried, and non-traditional. Why then would they not welcome me?
Surely the increasingly large segment of the population that is like me deserves leadership. Surely there is value in keeping modern Jews connected to Jewish community. We need to look carefully at some of the narratives that are dominant in our communities. Specifically, the notion that secular/cultural Jews are not serious. In fact, we fill lecture halls, theatres, speaker events and holiday celebrations. Many of us read widely across Jewish texts – traditional and contemporary. There’s a common myth that the children of intermarried families will fully assimilate and will not be Jewish. But statistical data does not bear that out, nor do the lived experiences of we who serve those families.
The TBR could claim I’m not educated enough, but I hold five university degrees and my rabbinic ordination led me to study with some of the best Jewish scholars in Canada and many from Ivy League schools in the United States. They might argue that the fact that I am intermarried and officiate at intermarriages betrays Judaism, but, in fact, I am demonstrating how folks like us can remain Jewish and connected. Whatever their claims, their fears, they’d likely be allayed if they got to know me. But they refuse.
The truth is that me being kept out of the TBR is a loss for me and my community in terms of collegial support and recognition. But it is equally a loss for the Toronto Jewish community and their rabbis. We represent a half-century of serving Jews in an innovative way that makes sense and offers meaning for our modern world. We have what to offer.
The good news? Jews like me are used to having doors slammed in our faces. We are good at finding a window when met with such a door. The bad news? A lot of those gatekeeping rabbis will find they are defending a door few wish to enter. Jewish community – and, yes, Jewish continuity – will be harmed in the process.