Spearheaded by the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), the nationwide unified Shabbat, which will take place over the Shabbat of Jan. 22-23 (Parashs Bo), will be the first of its type in about nine years as well as the first time such an initiative will be taken for a non-Jewish cause.
I discovered this event while reading a story about it in the Toronto Star yesterday morning.
The article stated that:
“Rabbis across the country have been asked to dedicate their services to Darfur, to encourage their congregations to get involved, and to hand out pamphlets from Darfur organizations – including the CJC Darfur Action Committee.”
That pamphlet is also available on the CJC’s website (and by clicking this link.)
But beyond outlining the purpose the Shabbat, the article also quoted CJC national executive director Benjamin Shinewald, who said “because of own history of persecution, Jews feel an affinity to those targeted in Darfur, while the basic tenets of their faith compel them to take action.”
According to a CJC press release about the shabbat, the date was chosen because it falls a few days before the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (Jan. 27). The release also stated the “CJC’s intent is to use the date to say that the world’s apathy to the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust means that as Jews we must speak out against what is going on in Darfur.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I think this is a great idea. That a large Jewish organization can exercise its focus and support on a large and worthy international cause is a commendable thing, especially when the cause has nothing to do with Jews and the problems facing the Jewish community. That itself is recognition of unity when there’s a lack of entitlement to focus on internal community problems, or should I say a lack of problems to deal with, thus targeting that unity on world scale problems. It’s tikkun olam without question.
But as much as I want to believe that this kind of initiative will reverberate throughout all synagogues and communities in Canada, this is where my optimism comes to a halt. And that last breath of optimism is taken right outside the doors leading into my orthodox synagogue.
Not to say that my specific orthodox shul won’t care – every synagogue is obviously different in how they approach any kind of matter (hence the proliferation of shul politics). I just don’t see orthodox synagogues caring too much to be a part of this initiative. I genuinely believe this, which is very unfortunate. (And I haven’t spoken to anyone from my synagogue about this as of writing this post.)
There are two reasons for my take on this:
1) It’s not that they don’t care, of course tikkun olam is a meritorious undertaking, I believe that in orthodox synagogues, other matters take precedent – the community & the individual.
After becoming religious to me, it seemed very clear that two “Jewish things” reform and conservative Jews cared about was tikkun olam and Israel of course. Having been religious for a few years now and after gaining different perspectives in interacting and observing the activity of various types of Jews, clearly this notion wasn’t the entire story of reform and conservative Jews (and no disrespect to the work they do in those fields – they are vital to the progress of the Jewish people and hard work and dedication should be universally valued). My point is that with orthodox Jews, there’s this completely different undertaking of responsibilities and values that have high priority levels. That can vary from davening, learning, kosher supervision, to matchmaking (even that too). Once again, this isn’t meant to diminish the work of non-religious Jews, it’s merely an emphasis of how Judaism is valued on a different day-to-day scale with orthodox Jews. (Not better, different!! No Jew is greater than another).
To put things in a more simple way, orthodox Jews feel the need to take care of themselves before taking care of others. And how do you define “taking care” of yourself? I would answer that by the maintainance, or better yet the progress of one’s hashkafa (one’s personal inner spirit; it’s the direction and strength of their faith). And once that’s taken care of, that list of “others” usually has fellow Jews at the top of that list.
And it just comes off as tikkun olam is not that important.
Or maybe the application of tikkun olam is achieved through different means and methods as we see with Darfur Shabbat. This brings me to reason #2:
2) The way the CJC is doing this simply doesn’t fit the mold of how orthodox communities want to approach tikkun olam.
When I was in yeshiva, I was appalled to learn that Yom Hashoah would not be commemorated. The rationale from my rosh yeshiva was that observant Jews don’t views acts like standing for a moment of silence as effective ways of commemorating the lost souls from the Holocaust. He said a better way was to learn and pray in their merit, which is an everlasting act of building up a nesham (soul) in merit even after it has left the physical body.
While the above example may not explain why orthodox shuls won’t take part in the United Shabbat, it does show that observant and non-observant Jews clearly have different ways of engaging in public actions such as tikkun olam, while hoping for the same result.
While the CJC may think it’s effective to have synagogues passing around literature about Darfur on Shabbat, some rabbis may find it ineffective. There’s a reason the “two synagogues, three opinions” joke is so funny – it’s true!
And to argue with semantics, CJC is a member of a family of national Jewish organizations that come under the umbrella of the United Israel Appeal Federations Canada. Being under the umbrella of the UJA, you don’t have to look far to find examples of disagreements with UJA actions and practices. Heck, B’nai Brith doesn’t even agree with everything they do.
But looking beyond the reform and conservative movements’ infatuation with tikkun olam (or lack thereof from the orthodox movements), I still believe the initiative is a great idea. The Jewish community has a great opportunity to conspire others to take action and take awareness of the atrocities going on around the world.
So now that I have attacked the supposed unity of the Jewish community, I would like to reverse that notion and challenge the orthodox communities of Canada. Throw away the politics and take part in the United Shabbat. I don’t care if that participation lacks future commitments or comes off as face time. It’s worse to avoid the problem then it is to argue over how to solve it. In the end, there isn’t a soul who believes what’s going on in Darfur isn’t atrocious. We should know this best with the Holocaust and the rest of devastation that has shaped our Jewish history.