Rabbi fosters religious-humanist approach to Judaism


When Ron Aigen came to Montreal from the U.S. in the summer of 1976 for his first posting as a rabbi, he was in for some big surprises.

For starters, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-born graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, with a degree in family therapy and community psychology, had been hired to become the spiritual leader of Dorshei Emet in Hampstead.

It is Montreal’s first and only Reconstructionist congregation and in the city’s then-overwhelmingly orthodox environment, this in itself should have been a major challenge.

Then, on November 15 of that year, the Parti Québécois took power in Quebec, and its language laws and 1980 referendum sparked a major anglo exodus that was particularly strong among the city’s Jewish community.

But sitting in his book-lined office, with two guitars near his desk, Aigen smiled when he reflected on what happened during those troubled years.

“The Jewish community lost a lot of members, from the exodus and attrition of an aging population, but our shul (synagogue) was booming.”

From a high of 112,000, according to the 1971 census—some estimates are as high as 120,000—the Jewish community has declined to around 92,000 today.

It is an aging community, with 22 per cent over 65, compared with about 12 per cent for the population of the island of Montreal.

Yet, the synagogue grew, from just under 200 families to close to 500, and the building that became its home in 1970 was demolished
30 years later and replaced by a modern, warm and comfortable structure.

The Reconstructionist philosophy, founded by U.S. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, is based on what Aigen calls a “cultural approach to Judaism.” The religion is seen as part of an evolving civilization.

“We emphasize religious humanism, which is not God-centred, but centred more on humanity, human development and well-being. We are open to God language, but not to a theology that believes in supernatural powers,” he observed.

It offered a strongly contrasting approach to the then-overwhelmingly orthodox synagogue community and it struck the right chord with those who wanted an alternative.

That characteristic of Montreal Jewish institutions is the result of being a minority within a then-English-speaking minority in a city that was overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, with a strong Protestant minority determined to hold its own.

Aigen said the community was a generation behind its American co-religionists in the acceptance and entrenchment of more liberal approaches to religious observance.

In contrast with Reform, Reconstructionist Judaism celebrates some traditional aspects of Jewish observance—ancient tunes and Hasidic melodies—but words and concepts matter, too. Aigen played a leading role in rewriting and updating old texts and anthologizing newer writing for use on Saturdays and the High Holidays, including a new Haggadah for the Passover seder.

The Yom Kippur liturgy, for example, includes poetry and epigrams from sources as diverse as the late Montreal poet A.M. Klein, modern philosopher Martin Buber, Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel and 19th-century Hasidic mystic Nachman of Breslov.

Readings are in Hebrew and English, with the occasional French prayer to the country and even some Yiddish.

Such innovations in word and practice are part of the alternative that Dorshei Emet was offering and that helped the synagogue grow while some traditional Orthodox synagogues are stagnant or closing.

Words and concepts matter, says Rabbi Ron Aigen, with cantor Heather Bachelor.

Words and concepts matter, says Rabbi Ron Aigen, with cantor Heather Bachelor.

When the late Lavy Becker, a volunteer rabbi, social worker and businessman, and his friends founded the movement in the early 1960s, there were only two Reform synagogues in the city and Conservative congregations generally had separate seating for men and women.

Male-female equality and family seating are among the reasons progressive Jews were attracted to the Reconstructionist movement.

One couple attends High Holiday ceremonies there because wife and husband enjoy sharing the experience of Kol Nidre night seated together. They also attend ceremonies at the orthodox synagogue the husband attended while growing up Côte des Neiges.

The first bat mitzvah, which accords the same right-of-passage ceremony to teenage girls as to boys, was conducted on March 18, 1922, when Judith Kaplan, daughter of Reconstructionist founder Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, recited the blessing and read a portion of the Torah from the central bimah (stage)—then off-bounds to women—and sang the closing blessing.

In what used to be an male-dominated religion when it comes to ritual, the Dorshei Emet cantor is Heather Bachelor and the president this year Rosana Caplan. Many of the volunteers who read from the Torah and direct the dynamics of synagogue ceremony are female.

Anne Bellman of Côte St. Luc recently joined, even as she continues to be a member of an orthodox synagogue where she has burial rights. She attended Dorshei Emet as a guest in the winter three or four times and recalled, “I liked what I saw. This is more of who I am.”

Apart from easy access for those with physical disabilities, she enjoyed the fact that all the prayers are sung by the rabbi and/or cantor in unison with the congregation.

“Everyone participates in singing the whole siddur.”

“It’s a very intellectual and intelligent congregation and I feel at home with their humanistic and people-centred approach.

“People are welcoming, not judgmental,” she noted, and she liked such ceremonies as baby namings, and the fact there is no assigned seating for the Kiddush luncheons that follow them.

Reconstructionist thinking breaks from tradition by according the same recognition to the children of a Jewish father as to Jewish mothers, provided they are being raised with some Jewish content. Recognition of patrilineal descent in determining Jewish identity of a child allows them to have bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies and participate in all community activities.

In keeping with the concept of an evolving civilization, traditional liturgy was expunged of elements that are no longer acceptable. The wives of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, including the latter’s wives, Rebecca and Leah, are given equal play in prayers.

These elements have attracted a diverse community to the movement here, including free thinkers who enjoy cultural references they identify with, seniors seeking community, parents with children preparing for bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, and those with a more questioning approach to traditional practices.

When there is a celebratory meal, all who participate in the service break bread together, not just those specifically invited. This extends an egalitarian and participatory flavour to a range of ceremonies.

One feels part of a family.

Full disclosure: I know because many of these qualities are what first attracted me and why I remain a member.


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