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Rabbi Strauchler: Liberalism and Judaism

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Meg Stewart. FLICKR

On April 1, over 300 people gathered in Ottawa for an official lunch reception overlooking Centre Block and the Rideau Canal. The majority of people in the room were Jews from Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa who came to hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin speak before a row of Canadian and Israeli flags. They both spoke of the long-standing and mutually beneficial Canada-Israel relationship.

We were treated to a delicious kosher meal. One of my Montreal colleagues asked about the kosher status of the meal. Machzikei Hadas’ Rabbi Idan Sher assured him that the food was under the Ottawa Vaad and was acceptable. Later, I asked a colleague, “Who paid for our lunch?” He replied, “The Canadian tax payer.” I asked, “Is that Kosher?”

As we left the hall on Monday, I felt some populist guilt. Was it right for the rabbis of Canada to play a part in a somewhat questionable political game?

I had a couple of hours before my return train to Oshawa. I travelled with two colleagues to see Ottawa’s new National Holocaust Memorial. Reading the monument’s interpretive panels, I took note of the panel describing Canada’s role in refusing Jewish refugees from Europe – “None is too many.” There was an additional panel, which described the efforts of Canadian Jews to advocate for their brothers and sister in Europe. The panel made the point – Jewish groups were not powerful enough to change the government’s policy.  

This caused me to see my free lunch in a new light. If only there were kosher state dinners in the 1930s! If only the flag of Israel could have flown along Wellington Street then! As a Canadian Jewish community, we must cultivate and curate political power, if we are to survive in what remains a dangerous world. It was not simply kosher for us to eat lunch at the expense of the Canadian tax-payer. On some level, it was a mitzvah. We must engage in the democratic process and advocate for freedom – we must do so for the good of our Jewish brothers and sisters – we must do so for the good of all people.

The theme of a recent Yeshiva University Beit Midrash Shabbaton was “Can Orthodoxy and Liberalism Coexist?” I believe the question was wrong, if it refers to classical liberalism and the philosophical foundation upon which our Canadian democracy stands. We should not ask “Can Orthodoxy and Liberalism Coexist?” – We must ask, “Can Orthodoxy and Judaism exist today WITHOUT Liberalism?” I refer to liberalism not in the sense of the Liberal party or the welfare state. I refer to the idea, codified in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms that everyone has fundamental freedoms (life, liberty and property). Governments exist to serve the needs of their people, and to protect these basic rights; not visa versa.

Today, these concepts are under attack. Some argue that the nation-state must protect only some of its citizens, based upon their ethnicity. Some argue that the nation-state must look upon its citizens through the prism of their identification with historically marginalized groups and intervene to rebalance past wrongs. These are serious claims – but they are dangerous. They are dangerous to us as Jews and as human beings. To see a person based upon their ethnicity is not to see them as a person. It behoves us to advocate with whatever political power we have on behalf of the life and liberty of every person, irrespective of their ethnicity.

With this said, I imagine that there is another definition of liberalism that lies at the root of the question, “Can Liberalism and Orthodoxy Coexist?” Liberalism privileges the individual to the exclusion of the community and, to some degree, of God. It is this call to freedom that says my truth need not accord with anyone else’s. My rights entitle me to live for myself, without interference from anyone. This individualism interferes with any ability to judge the individual – be it by God or by man.

READ: RABBI STRAUCHLER: IN PRAISE OF JEWISH PRIVILEGE

During the French invasion of Russia, while many Polish Hasidic leaders supported Napoleon, Shneur Zalman of Liady openly supported the czar. While fleeing from the advancing French army he wrote a letter with the following words: “Should Napoleon be victorious, wealth among the Jews will be abundant… but the hearts of Israel will be separated and distant from their father in heaven. But if our master Alexander will triumph, though poverty will be abundant… the heart of Israel will be bound and joined with their father in heaven…”

As we enter the Pesach season, we reflect upon the idea of freedom, cherut. We recall the cry of Moshe – shelach et ami v’yavduni – “Let my people go so that they might serve me.”  The Torah makes an argument about the method by which freedom might be achieved – both in the times of Moshe and now. The first step for us to be free of Pharaoh was a call from God to mitzvoth. We were asked as a community to adopt a calendar – hachodesh hazeh lachem – and then we were asked as individuals and families to differentiate ourselves from our neighbours by taking a lamb and to bring it into each of our homes. While our conception of freedom might be built upon rights, specific obligations and actions were necessary for those concepts to be brought into reality. We cannot speak of rights without also speaking about obligations. We cannot be free, unless we are prepared to serve a cause greater than ourselves.

This is not just true on a religious level. This is true on a human level. It is true not just for Jews but true for everyone. If you want to be free, you must serve something bigger than yourself – otherwise you will become a slave. This was David Foster Wallace’s message in his famous “This is Water” Kenyon College Graduation Address (2005):

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

We must again flip our question about Orthodoxy and liberalism. For liberalism to survive, humans must serve something of higher meaning. As Jews, this means that we must serve God and that we must proudly continue the story that began at Passover thousands of years ago.

As we celebrate Passover, let us reset our own default settings. As we say – “Let my people go so that they might serve Me” – let us understand that serving something greater than ourselves is the key to our freedom. Let us commit to be conduits for real freedom. Let us share it with our children. Let us share it with our community. Let us share it within our great country. Let us share it with our world.