Rabbi Yael Splansky
January 29, 2021
IHRA and Free Speech
“An almond tree blooming in Israel.”
In June 2019, the Government of Canada announced its adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism as part of Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy. The “working definition” attempts to set parameters for what anti-semitism is and is not. CIJA (The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs) has been leading the effort to have the IHRA definition affirmed by all three levels of government. See here for a helpful resource on IHRA in the Canadian context.
This week, in time for International Holocaust Education Week, the Union of Reform Judaism, the umbrella organization to which Holy Blossom Temple proudly belongs for one hundred years now, made its own statement affirming IHRA as a working definition of anti-semitism. You can read the full statement here.
I appreciate the URJ’s affirmation. And I was not surprised by how it included in its statement an expression of warning about how the definition may be used as a tool to chip away at freedom of speech. “Our commitment to principles of free speech and concerns about the potential abuse of the definition compel us to urge its use only as intended: as a guide and an awareness raising tool. The definition should not be codified into policy that would trigger potentially problematic punitive action to circumscribe speech, efforts which have been particularly aimed at college students and human rights activists. If the effect of application of the IHRA definition is to limit free speech, it threatens to divide the broad coalition needed to combat antisemitism.
I don’t believe the URJ’s affirmation needed to be couched with such concerns. I understand protection of Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment is bedrock in The United States. But it comes with a price.
I have come to appreciate Canada’s willingness to say that Hate Speech is definable and punishable. I remember during the tiki torch parade in Charlottesville, a Canadian participant was interviewed on CNN. When asked “Why are you here?” he answered simply, “I can’t say these things in Canada, so I came here to speak my mind.” And there was at least one Canadian flag seen flying during the recent insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.
The URJ leadership wants to ensure that the Jewish student activist campus is protected when she speaks out against demeaning checkpoints or unethical housing demolitions in the West Bank. I don’t believe the IHRA definition was created with her in mind. More than I fear it could be used to marginalize her, I fear a world where antisemitism has no margins. We know what can happen when hate speech goes unchecked.
The day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day was Tu BiShvat. Ecclesiastes asserts there is “A time to plant and a time to uproot what has been planted.” Let us plant ourselves in the good countries that shout down anti-semitism when they see it and uproot every form of bigotry and hatred wherever it festers.
Rabbi Yael Splansky
“The Power of Ritual”
January 22, 2021
Senator Jon Ossoff is sworn into office with his hand on a bible which belonged to civil rights activist, Rabbi Rothchild of The Temple in Atlanta. In his jacket pocket held copies of the manifests of the ships which brought his great grandparents from Europe. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
This week, while the world held its breath, we witnessed the transfer of power from President to President. There were visual cues: flags, lamps, colourful costumes. There were audible cues: brass and drums, predictable and unpredictable musical selections, and POETRY, oh the poetry. There was memory: of Past Presidents, of Biden’s son and Harris’ mother, of the 400, 000 American lives lost to Covid-19. And even with America’s commitment to separation of church and state, there were bibles for swearing upon, references from Psalms and Augustine, and plenty of “God bless America.”
All religious life knows the power of ritual. Ritual enables us to name the moment and sanctify it. Ritual signals when to grieve and when to celebrate. Through the power of ritual one’s status can be changed – from child to adult, from unmarried to married, from graduate student to authorized professional, from resident to citizen, from non-Jew to Jew.
What’s the difference between the pageantry of ritual and the performance of theatre? The power we give it. What’s the difference between the waters of the mikveh and the water of the swimming pool? The power we give it. What’s the difference between a mourner who wears the black ribbon and the one who doesn’t? The power we give it. What’s the difference between Cantor Rosen the day before the beautiful Installation Service last Shabbat and the day after? The power we give him. Ritual – especially communal ritual – is a power tool in the toolbox of the human experience.
If there is a milestone you wish to honour, a change you wish to acknowledge, a simcha you wish to celebrate, a loss you wish to commemorate, your Rabbis and Cantors can work with you to craft a ritual for the occasion. It may be private or with the family, in the home or in the sanctuary, simple or elaborate, spontaneous or planned. We are blessed with an impressive collection of sacred objects, sacred texts and melodies to create meaningful moments to lift the spirit, sanctify the passage of time, and affirm our place in God’s world. These rituals are yours for the taking.
As I reflect upon last Shabbat, I am still overwhelmed with joy and gratitude for the wonderful installation service that official welcomed be as the Senior Cantor and Music Director of Holy Blossom Temple.
At the senior leadership meeting this week, I reflected that it felt as if the service actually took place in person, with many of you there joining in this historic moment for my family and for this community. I am greatly moved by all the wonderful emails and messages I have received and I have found myself pressing the refresh button on the livestream at various times throughout the week.
I am grateful to everyone who took part in this service as well as members of the Cantorial Search Committee who sponsored this event.
In my remarks, I commented about “Middah K’neged Migdah,” or the idea of Jewish Karma. In essence it is the notion that the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence are viewed as deciding factors in their fate of future existences. Despite difficult circumstances during my transition, it is become increasingly more apparent to me that Holy Blossom has an incredible ability to rise to any occasion, despite the obstacles and to provide meaningful opportunities for us to engage together as a kehilah Kedosha; a holy community that works together to create extraordinary things. In essence, this is a part of the DNA of our congregation.
As we move forward together towards the hope of coming out of the darkness of this pandemic, I eagerly look forward to the many wonderful events and celebrations we will enjoy together in the years to come.
Cantor David Rosen
Senior Cantor and Music Director
When we announced to the congregation that Cantor David Rosen would be the Senior Cantor and Music Director at Holy Blossom Temple, we were very excited for the future. The future has already delighted us several times, and none more so than Cantor Rosen’s installation service. Cantor Rosen skillfully wove together a collection of beautiful music and collaboration with a meaningful worship experience. Seeing and hearing Cantor Rosen alongside Cantor Maissner, Cantorial Soloist Lindi Rivers, and the incredible clergy team served as a reminder that a fantastic match was made. Including guest Cantors and our choir was innovative and beautiful. We are blessed to have Cantor Rosen with us at HBT! We can’t wait to be part of many more experiences, especially when we can all gather together again for the amazing programs that Cantor Rosen has in store.
Rachel Malach & Jeff Denaburg
Co-Chairs, Senior Cantor Search Committee
Connection Amidst the Plagues
This week, as we stand in shock at the anti-Semitic vandalism attack in Montreal, as we brace ourselves for the increased loneliness of the lockdown, we turn in our Torah to the Plagues. In that story, we seek lessons to help us survive today’s plagues.
We are all familiar with the list of ten chastisements which God visited upon Egypt. And how after each, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart until things were unbearable for the Egyptians, and life was made harder for our people as well.
This week’s story contains the first seven plagues, saving the truly horrible for next week. This week includes blood, frogs, hail, lice and more – all of which made life less convenient for the Egyptians. And that was all – life was less convenient.
Next week’s plagues, according to Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, mark a transition from the unbearable to the truly destructive. From plagues that harry and annoy to those which demoralize and destroy.
The locusts destroy the economy and make sure that there is a coming shortage of food. The darkness is not just a normal darkness, but a darkness so thick that people are in isolation and cannot see their neighbours. According to the retelling of the plagues in Psalm 78, darkness was the capstone – this isolation was punishment enough. But with the isolation, as we know, comes death.
This is bearing out in the world around us today as well and in our congregation. For many of us the isolation at the beginning merely inconvenient – and now it is taking a harsher turn to be dangerous.
What can we do?
The darkness of Egypt prevented all communication. Our darkness is not so thick – and we can connect online or by phone.
I urge you to think of people you haven’t seen in a while and to reach out. Our clergy recently began a calling campaign for all of our members in long-term care facilities, and each conversation is priceless.
If you yourself are looking for a connection, come and join us as our community meets daily for services and schmoozing. There are also ways of volunteering to be a caller, such as this program that allows you to make a weekly commitment and matches you with someone with similar interests.
And if you feel like you need more help than our community can provide, please ask for that help.
In the midst of this plague, even with a vaccine in sight, we remember that in the Exodus from Egpyt, after each bit of progress, life was made increasingly hard, until eventually – we were free. May the time of freedom come soon.