Four Rabbis Walk into a Shul ...
Mar 20th 2016

A year ago, I embarked on a project into the as-of-yet unexplored possible. In Toronto, could four rabbis— Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist—sit together and discuss substantive issues of modern Jewish life in a public forum? The result was Young Rabbis Speak

What started as a one-time, exploratory event looking at a range of topics turned into a four-part series, to date focusing on Jewish Text and Authority, Jewish Identity in a Hyphenated World and Judaism, Gender and Sexuality. What has emerged has been an honest, open dialogue between rabbis who not only respect one another, but have grown a deep and abiding friendship. The conversations have not always been easy. The dialogue has surfaced fissures along several fronts. My Torah may exclude another. Hers may offend my sensibilities. From the conversations, though, has emerged the 21st century meaning of לתורה פנים שבעים ,that the Torah has 70 faces. 

Another amazing project has been the annual Tikkun Olam Shabbat davening and dinner—another multi-denominational effort. For the past three years, young professionals from various synagogues and prayer communities have gathered for a traditional Friday night dinner and to learn about the various ethical and practical dimensions of pressing humanitarian issues. Focusing on the Syrian Refugee Crisis, most recently we heard from a panel featuring Councillor Joe Mihevc, Lia Kisel of Jewish Immigrant Aid Service, Holy Blossom’s Rabbi Yael Splansky and Thanaa Sarif whose Syrian relatives Beth Tzedec is sponsoring to bring to Toronto. 

Equally amazing as the dinner and discussion has been the ability of different prayer communities to negotiate their differences and pray together in one space. The melding of various traditions has been as enlightening as it has been uplifting. 

As wonderful as the tefillah has been, such coming together is not something that I would want to experience weekly. Ideological differences manifest themselves in practical ways. At Beth Tzedec, we pray differently— liturgically, with respect to musical instruments, concerning the set-up of physical space—than our partnering shuls. This is a good thing. There are times to discuss what separates us. There are times to be together in the performance of mitzvot. There are also times to recognize and rejoice in what separates us by choosing to be apart. 

Some have called the stated future establishment of a Conservative and Reform prayer space at the kotel a “failure of Jewish unity”. By this they mean that, as a Jewish community, we have failed to find a middle-ground enabling all major Jewish denominations to pray in the existing kotel plaza. I disagree. Such a compromise would inevitably compromise the very idea of .שבעים פנים לתורה 

To be united does not mean to be uniform. To pray in adjacent spaces rather than in the same room (or plaza) is not a failure of Jewish life, but rather a celebration of its many understandings of text and approaches to God.