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12/16/2019 08:33:49 AM


On November 20, anti-Israel groups at York University resorted to violence in an attempt to disrupt a school-sanctioned panel discussion with Reservists on Duty, an organization of former members of the Israel Defence Force. This incident fits a pattern of conduct on university campuses, in which protestors attempt to silence speakers on topics they deem threatening. These incidents raise questions regarding what a university education should accomplish – for our own children and for society, as a whole.

Aristotle evaluated all things with respect to their “telos” – their purpose and goal. The telos of a knife is to cut. The telos of a surgeon is health or healing. What makes a knife a good knife? It achieves its telos by allowing a surgeon to perform a good incision. If it does not cut well – it is a bad knife – no matter how pretty it looks.

In his book, The Coddling of the American Mind, NYU Professor Jonathan Haidt questions what a university’s telos is. He suggests the most obvious answer, “truth.” However, he notes, many universities now embrace social justice as a competing telos to truth.

Haidt explains how truth and social justice come into conflict. As political diversity among professors has plummeted and as cross-partisan hostility has risen, the conflict has reached a tipping point. Students demand safety from ideas that they feel threaten them; students silence guest-speakers with whom they disagree; and students call for mandatory courses in social justice for everyone. (Haidt does not address the philosophical frontal attack on “capital T truth.”)

Haidt shows that the problem on campus is not one of politics but one of purpose. Some universities have forgotten why they exist. In sacrificing truth (and the academic freedom that enables it) upon the altar of social justice, these universities are no longer “good universities.”

A similar problem arises when we speak of a synagogue or Jewish community.

What is the telos of a synagogue? A synagogue exists to further the Jewish mission. What is that mission? Our goal as a people is to sanctify God’s name in this world. When our father Avraham spoke out in God’s name, he initiated this mission. We continue it every time we respond in Kaddish with the words, “May God’s great name be eternally blessed.” We can participate in this mission by living a life of righteousness and kindness - Torah and mitzvot. If a synagogue sanctifies God’s name, then it can be called a good synagogue. A great synagogue achieves this mission in a way that an individual cannot. It allows us to do together that which we cannot do alone. (This is even more true for a Jewish state.)

When I meet with Shaarei Shomayim’s new members, I emphasize this point. After discussing how the shul can serve their religious and social needs, I inquire, “How might you use the shul to gather like-minded people to do good things together that you cannot do alone?” “How can we utilize the synagogue as a platform to further our collective Jewish mission?”

In teaching the laws of prayer at shul between mincha and maariv, I recently came upon an argument by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (in his book Aruch Hashulchan) that underscores this point. Rabbi Epstein speaks about the difference between public prayer and the public reading of the Torah. He explains that public prayer is an outgrowth of our personal obligations to pray. However, Torah reading is an obligation that only exists when we come together as a community. There is no personal obligation to read from a Torah scroll; the opportunity materializes only when we come together as a community.

Similar to the modern university, the telos of the modern Jewish community is subject to competition. In some corners of the Jewish world, the competition is social justice. This is a limited threat in Orthodox circles. Yet, a greater threat exists, and it exists in all corners of the Jewish world. Let us call it, “mere continuity,” i.e. survival for survival’s sake, alone. To a great degree, this threat to the purpose driven Jewish life exists regardless of how “religious” a community is. Ritual can become rote and devoid of meaning. Babies are born; children are educated; couples are married; families are formed; everyone ages; and the deceased are buried and mourned. Young and old, Jewish women and men can go through the motions. We eat, drink, work, study and pray. A synagogue community might pretend that this is sufficient. Yet, if a community’s Judaism is only this, not only will it not achieve its telos – it will not even achieve continuity. Our people will hollow out, opt out, or both. No matter the amenities with which we laden our Jewish communities, a synagogue cannot survive without a sense of purpose. A synagogue must be a small embassy of Jewish sovereignty, a beacon that proclaims that the women and men who gather, pray and volunteer here are a people working toward a unique destiny. That’s what it means to matter.

I recently received a letter from Israel. Writing from his community (Moshav Mivtachim) 6 kilometres from the border with Gaza, while under missile attack in November, Rav Shachar Butzchak wrote to us:

You, the Jewish people who are not on the front line, you too need to ask yourselves: “What is our purpose?” No Jew is without a purpose – that just couldn’t be. Wherever I am, wherever I decide to live with my family, I must grapple with this fundamental question: “What can I give to the Jewish people, to the Land of Israel and to the Torah?” We don’t need you to appreciate our heroism while watching the never-ending TV coverage of the hundreds of murderous missiles aimed to kill us. We need you to take that appreciation and to translate it to action, to give it a purpose. To give as much of yourselves as you can to be G-d’s messenger in the world.

This is more than a call to arms. This is a call to purpose. “What can I give to the Jewish people, to the Land of Israel and to the Torah?” This question is for each of us to answer. This question is for us to answer together, as a synagogue community.

Shaarei Shomayim allows us to pool our resources in caring for the needs of the disheartened within and the weak beyond our community. Shaarei Shomayim is a platform for us to advocate with political leaders on behalf of our community and its values. This is true perennially. Yet, in this moment, there is a unique opportunity. Shaarei Shomayim can answer one of the great challenges facing our people and all people. We live at a time of intense secularism and assimilation. Shaarei Shomayim embodies a method for cross-generational religious observance and – at the same time - socio-economic engagement with our wider society. For generations, Orthodox synagogues were bereft of young people. Today, strollers inundate our building. We have something that works. We have something worth offering young Jews who want a meaningful value-laden communal life. We must work to share our formula for success with as many of our brothers and sisters, as we can.

“What can I give to the Jewish people, to the Land of Israel and to the Torah?” We can and must utilize our shul, Shaarei Shomayim, to help us answer that call.

Mon, 30 November 2020 14 Kislev 5781