Rabbi Kliel Rose: Examining our spiritual balance sheets

Rabbi Kliel Rose, Beth Shalom Congregation in Edmonton AB

By Rabbi Kliel Rose

(EJNews) – In just 10 days following the printing of this periodical Jews around the world will gather to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the brand new Jewish calendar year of 5777.  The month leading up to this Holy day is known as Elul.  It is a period which is considered to be a time when G-d is particularly accessible to the Jewish people.

In this month where deep reflection and introspection are mandated, the shofar is sounded as we conclude each daily morning service.  This blasting of the horn is ideally supposed to be a wakeup call, reminding us of the impending High Holidays and urging us to begin our spiritual and emotional preparations for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Cheshbon Ha’nefesh, or literally an “accounting of the soul” is a religious practice observed by many Jews.  As we would with our finances we individually examine the credit and debit columns of our spiritual lives, where we’ve made a profit, where a loss, where we’ve built up capital, and where we’ve depleted it. The hope is that we can acknowledge on our personal balance sheet how effective our business plan has been in order to stay spiritually solvent in the coming year.

While this analogy might seem incompatible with a religious outlook, traditional sources do frequently apply business metaphors to our spiritual lives.  If I understand this correctly, the goal here is to be as meticulous in one’s spiritual accounting as with one’s own finances. Very often as individuals we make bookkeeping errors, not always intentionally but certainly on occasion when we may have forgotten or overlooked something.  These unintentional mistakes may end up having serious consequences, thereby requiring a method to remedy these same mistakes we have committed.

As true as that is on an individual basis it is equally necessary for us on a communal level to be involved with this introspective process, whether that is as a congregation, or as a faith based community.  It is all good and well when a rabbi or community leader reminds a community of its mistakes.  However, if that same individual rabbi bears no responsibility for the errors committed by a community then there is not a great deal of credence which can be given to that rabbi’s statement.

I’d like to acknowledge a mistake I made this last year.  It was not an egregious error nor did it harm anyone to the point of causing them any physical or emotional pain. Nonetheless, I owe an apology to our community for not supporting a cause which I/we should have noticed, moreover should have passionately embraced.

In May, 2015 Dr. Andrew Gow, a well-respected Professor of History and Director of Interdisciplinary Program in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta as well as a member of our very own Jewish community, wrote a letter in the Edmonton Jewish News titled, End of the Road for Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  How many of us read this article?  How many of us were troubled by what Prof. Gow shared when he warned of the imminent elimination of Jewish Studies courses in one of Canada’s leading universities?

Furthermore, how many of the folks who read this article took up Prof. Gow on his invitation to reach out to him with ideas and suggestions regarding techniques which would be used to help maintain the continuation of this important facet of academic life at the U of A?

As a reminder, two longtime faculty members and luminaries in Jewish and Biblical Studies at the U of A recently retired.  The University of Alberta currently has no one teaching about Judaism at all, nor about Hebrew Bible, nor even teaching Hebrew. In Prof. Gow’s words, “Due to constant funding cuts, the study of Judaism has essentially been declared – implicitly, by administrative decisions, including my own – to be of interest to too few students to warrant even one position. That’s a financial decision, not an academic one…”  According to Dr. Gow, the Faculty of Arts did reach out to local Jewish leaders and Jewish donors in Edmonton to gauge interest in funding a chair in Jewish studies.  The unfortunate reality is that “there was essentially no interest.”

In no way am I pointing fingers at our Jewish communal leaders or the committed Jewish philanthropists, who each, continually contribute in significant ways to our Jewish community.  My goal in writing this piece is for all of us (myself included) to recognize that we, as a Jewish community, missed the mark.  Whether we could have in any practical fashion saved the Jewish Studies options offered at the U of A is not my point but rather, I am raising a self-reflective communal question – why did we not find it valuable enough to, at the very least, come together in some cohesive manner and discuss the merits of what Dr. Gow presaged?  I find it regrettable that this issue was not worrying to us as a Jewish community.

Edmonton Jewry is so fortunate to have a vast array of outstanding Jewish agencies.  I cannot adequately list the number of positive items which are available to all of the members of this Jewish community.  So this is not a rebuke or a statement which is meant to be a critique of our local Jewish organizations.

To be fair, the notion of Jewish Studies in a university (by means of anthropological, historical and linguistic analyses of our tradition) is considered by some to be Apikorsut, heresy.  But their perspective – one I do not agree with – does not bother me.  What I find more disturbing is that in this vibrant Jewish community, where the vast majority of our members are university or college educated, we did not find Prof. Gow’s clarion warning to be at all distressing?

I would suggest, (and G-d-forbid this were to ever happen again) if there were ever a perceived threat of anti-Semitism or an attempt to negate a more public Jewish presence in our city, hundreds, if not thousands of us would gather – armed and ready – to counter this menacing threat to our collective comfort and survival as a Jewish community.  However, (with very obvious differences) the potential to generate more literate Jews (and possibly enlightening our non-Jewish neighbours about Jewish history, culture and religion) warranted no response at all?

My rabbinic toolbox is not usually filled with fatalism or doom and gloom.  In fact, I am often accused as being too optimistic.  Therefore, I will refrain from ending with any slight hint of despondency.  However, let me assert that we have again missed the mark – we have miscalculated something on our collective Jewish communal balance sheet by not trying harder to ensure that Jewish studies on the U of A campus is still offered and available – whether Jewish students (of all ages) choose to attend these courses or not.

What might be obvious at this point in my commentary is that I have yet to discuss why I think this is such a vitally important issue for our community to grapple with.  (Advance notice to my congregants at Beth Shalom, more of this is coming.  In fact, my sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah is titled, “Brexit and the end of Jewish Education.”)

Ultimately is there a potent argument to be made for why we need to have courses in the field of Jewish Studies (especially on a continent where universities at this time are forced to limit greater opportunities for intellectual exploration in favour of a more pragmatic set of educational values – learning for the sake of becoming a professional)?

I would suggest, as my dear friend and leading scholar of Judaic and Bible Studies, Professor Jack Sasson recently shared with me that “Jewish courses on campus should be understood as centripetal.  That is to say, it allows all to gather threads from a very wide field of disciplines – music, art, literature, politics, etc. – into a focused assessment of a community that has played a major role in culture for at least two millennia. In turn, Jewish Studies can be centrifugal, allowing specialists to evaluate how that community participated in a larger world for many centuries.”  And from my very biased perspective as a Jewish educator, Rabbi, spiritual and community leader, the corollary of these two forces could potentially lead to a more educated Jewish laity and conceivably a more committed generation of Jews who will G-d-willing see the need to invest themselves eternally in the journey of their own Jewish community one day.

If we really want to “save Judaism” so that it continues well beyond our lifetime, then let’s begin by offering Jews opportunities to expand their repertoire of Jewish educational opportunities highlighting the vast wisdom of our tradition.  How incredible would that be to have on our communal spiritual balance sheet this year?

Rabbi Kliel Rose is the spiritual leader at Beth Shalom Synagogue in Edmonton Alberta. 


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