Our Sages instructs us: “Anyone who has the ability to protest the members of his household and does not is held responsible for the members of his household. For his city and does not—he is held responsible for his city. For the world and does not—he is held responsible for the entire world.” (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 54b)
In these fragile and fragmenting days, we seek insight and guidance from our sacred texts and from interpreters of our sacred texts, thought-leaders who saw our people through earlier times of struggle.
On the First Yahrtzeit of Rabbi Professor Eugene Borowitz
He was a beloved teacher, a “Rabbis’ Rabbi,” and the leading theologian of the Reform Movement for decades. He wrote about Covenant and what Mitzvah (commandment) must mean for a liberal Jew in the modern world. He asked us to ask ourselves: When do we feel “commanded” to act? Do we acknowledge God as The Commander? Where do our own autonomy and God’s power meet?
At a time, which once again calls for moral clarity and courage, Borowitz’s writings challenge us to seriously consider what is required of us in religious terms. On February 1, four of his devoted students – Rabbi Professor Michael Morgan, Rabbi Professor Rachel Sabath-Beit Halachmi, Rabbi Don Splansky, and Rabbi Michael Stroh — will teach from an important essay entitled “The Autonomous Jewish Self.” An excerpt:
The very most significant idea the Emancipation taught us, I venture to say, is the notion of the autonomous self…. Liberals today have lost the optimism connected with that 18th century notion but we are far from ready to give up its high estimate of the human value of self-determination. If anything, our experience with the moral failure of every kind of institution and collective has forced us back on the self as the proper, ultimate touchstone of righteous existence…. (Modern Judaism, 1984, 39-56)
On the Fifth Yahtzeit of Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut
Rabbi Plaut’s biography is a story of moral courage rooted in Torah. He earned a law degree in Germany; he wore the American Chaplain’s uniform in World War II; he fought to free Soviet Jewry and to defend human rights for all Canadians. His actions and activism were expressions of faith – faith in God and faith in humanity. Rabbi Plaut’s life in the synagogue and in the street was a pursuit of The Torah’s “Holiness Code.”
Can Anyone be Holy as God is Holy?
Such are the components of the way of life called kadosh (holy). Our chapter begins with the startling declaration that by these means we can and should try to be holy like God. The same Torah that stresses the distance between His sublime perfection and our earthy limitations urges us to strive to reduce that distance. The task is endless, but it is infinitely rewarding. Rabbi Tarfon said: “Do not avoid an undertaking that has no limit or a task that cannot be completed. It is like the case of one who was hired to take water from the sea and pour it out on the land. But, as the sea was not emptied out or the land filled with water, he became downhearted. Then someone said to him, ‘Foolish fellow! Why should you be downhearted as long as you receive a dinar of gold every day as your wage?’” (Avot deRabbi Natan, 27). The pursuit of the unattainable can be a means of fulfillment.
On the evening of February 11th, in celebration of our 160th Anniversary, Dr. Gary Zola, Director of the American Jewish Archives will give a sermon, entitled “Profiles in Canadian Jewish Courage.” Among those highlighted with be our own Rabbi Plaut and Rabbi Eisendrath.
Let these two occasions for learning be a springboard for our own acts of conscience. Let these treasured models of Jewish leadership encourage and awaken our own developing faith. Synagogues do not “do politics,” but synagogues are centres to stimulate words of faith and acts of holiness. Here is where we can articulate for one another what Torah and Jewish values demand. Here we can reflect — both in private prayer and in sacred community – upon covenant and commandment. If not here, then where?