Shalom Life | September 23, 2015

'Young Rabbis Speak' Event in Toronto Tackles Issues Facing Modern Judaism

Multidenominational panel of rabbis discuss gay and interfaith marriage, inspire dialogue and unity within Toronto's varied Jewish community

By: Tanya Grabarnik

Published: June 9th, 2015 in News » World

'Young Rabbis Speak' Event in Toronto Tackles Issues Facing Modern Judaism

Photo: Gay Jewish Israelis show their pride

Credit: Haaretz


The first ever Young Rabbis Speak event took place Thursday night at Temple Sinai synagogue in Toronto. Organized and moderated by The Annex Shul's Yacov Fruchter, the panel discussion succeeded in bringing together a diverse group of rabbis to discuss some of the hot button issues facing Judaism today.

With the subtitle "Who is in? Who is out? Who decides," Rabbis Adam Cutler, Miriam Margles, Daniel Mikelberg, and Noam Cheses took turns elucidating their views on the boundaries of Judaism within the realm of homosexual marriage, interfaith marriage, Jewish unity, and conversion.

Referencing the legendary 'rivalry' between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, Fruchter set the tone for the discussion as a multidenominational space where individuals are encouraged to voice their viewpoints and concerns, "make space for the other," and to learn from one another when considering the varied ways to live Jewishly in the 21st century.

After describing the life experiences that brought each of them to their respective traditions, each panelist was asked to respond to a series of difficult questions, and to do so honestly and openly while speaking for themselves as individuals instead of their congregations or traditions.

Among the many highlights were Rabbi Margles' thoughtful examination of the concept of boundaries within Judaism, reminding us that as a persecuted and traumatized people, we are often ready to erect boundaries in order to protect ourselves, but may be blinded to how we hurt others when we do. Granting that boundaries are at times necessary, Margles encourages us as individuals and a people to consider where we might be motivated by fear and encourages us to move past simple survival. She also quoted the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who famously advised readers of Torah to "Read the texts until they read ethically,"suggesting that our understanding of Torah is not complete until we are behooved by it to act from a place of compassion.

When asked about what drew him to his current denomination and what some of the difficulties are, Rabbi Cutler related that, while the great value placed on intellectual honesty and tradition with the Conservative movement are points of pride for him, some elements of the movement trouble him. He also admitted to losing sleep over disagreements within the community around gay marriage, for instance, but stated that he would celebrate a homosexual union and welcome the couple into the congregation.

Describing how Jews can overcome their differences to become a united community, Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg pointed out that we share a God, which is our core essence, and a foundation, ultimately making the observation that that which unites us is greater than that which divides us. "We were never meant to be the same", Mikelberg said, adding that we should celebrate the core that we share.

Fielding a question about gay marriage, Rabbi Noam Cheses related that it is with a broken heart that he can't offer lifestyle support or ceremony to homosexual Jewish couples, demonstrating that even rabbis grapple with the seeming tension between halacha and modern values. Later in the evening, Rabbi Cheses described Jewish identity as something that one is both born with but also something that one must choose, and the beauty of experiencing an automic connection with Jews all over the world.

The questions posed were not easy and each rabbi struggled in their own way, often bringing to light the tension between halacha as they understand it and their personal inclinations, or the values of the culture in which they operate. Nonetheless, each panelist gave thoughtful, honest, and insightful answers that were stimulating and provided a unique entry point into thinking about these and other issues.

Yacov Fruchter promised another multidenominational panel discussion in the not too distant future, which holds the promise of even more thought-provoking discussion and greater engagement with Jewish texts, ideas, and halacha.

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