A rabbi for our time

The silence of the synagogue:Reuben Slonim’s double solidarity

by Ted Schmidt

As the catastrophic assault on Lebanon began, one which numbered over 1300 civilians in Lebanon,200 in Gaza and 40 dead Israeli innocents,all over the Christian world the words of a Jewish prophet was read aloud to diverse congregations.

Amos of Tekoa (a town near Bethlehem) had made his way to the famous northern shrine of Bethel, 19 kilometres north of Jerusalem. The humble prophet ,”a dresser of sycamore trees” was there to speak truth to state power legitimated by by a co-opted priesthood. The year was circa 750 BCE , the king was Jeroboam ll. Amos’ perennial message was simple:”Let justice roll like living water.”(5:21) Do not become Pharaoh;stop being Goliath. Amos was told to leave.

Invited to preach on this text at the historic Anglican church of Holy Trinity on July 19, I reminded the congregation that once Toronto had its very own Amos in the Jewish community. Rabbi Reuben Slonim (1914-2000) arrived here from Winnipeg in 1937, a newly minted rabbi, Beginning at the McCaul street shul, the first Canadian to head a Canadian congregation, Slonim spent fifty years reprising the theme of his first sermon: “I wanted a decent community organized for justice mercy and peace” he commented in his autobiography To Kill a Rabbi.

As the Jewish state became a reality in 1948, the Zionist Slonim, influenced by the moderate voices of Martin Buber and Ahad Ha’am, insisted that Israel must develop the land for all its inhabitants. The state must rest upon the foundations of liberty, justice and peace as envisioned by prophets like Amos. To his shock and near devastation, he was booed off the stage as a “Jew hater” and “Arab lover.” He had perceived in his own community, ” an astigmatism, a supreme egoism…this new state was their monument, their pride was in the externals, the army, consulates etc.”

As a journalist Slonim made thirty trips to the Middle East,covering wars and interviewing the major players. It was however the Six Day War (1967) which sealed his fate. He wrote: ” It had plunged modern Jews into an orgy of chauvinism from which they have never recovered.” Fired from his congregation he continued to champion Jewish universalist values. Torah for him triumphed tribe. “Ethical obligation must supersede ethnic identity. ”Reuben Slonim paid a ferocious price for his principled defense of those values. Like his prophetic ancestors, he had heard the voice of the victims. His many trips to Israel had given him a privileged view of Palestinian suffering which hometown Jewish audiences never saw and refused to hear.

In describing synagogues as “country clubs for the wealthy” Slonim was simply naming the change which secularization and consumerism had wrought in both Christian and Jewish communities. As Canadians grew wealthier the prophetic voice of both synagogue and church were muted. Torah and gospel were compromised . The spirit of commerce invaded both the sanctuary and sacristy. Both were held hostage in a suburban captivity unable to speak God’s unsettling words to their middle class congregations.

Today the rabbinate seems paralyzed unable to speak out against the state power of Israel like Rabbi Slonim did. While anybody with a scintilla of historical consciousness should grasp the visceral identification of Jews with Israel,in the end it is a state which has been inflicting disproportionate suffering on Palestinians for decades.

The major sin against Torah is idolatry: do not make an idol of the state. Only God is ultimate. The God of Abraham,Isaac and Jacob, the God of the prophets demands mercy and compassion. The” Holy One of Israel” can never be used to justify the subjugation of another people. This is the God Rabbi Slonim preached. Sadly we do not hear this echo in the synagogue today. For that matter such a God seems foreign to the Christianity which George Bush professes.

Both communities need to emulate Slonim’s double solidarity-with the security of the state of Israel but also with the suffering Palestinian people,the root cause of Middle East hostilities.

The good news is that moral voice is alive and well in Israel itself-.in the pages of Haaretz, in B’tselem which monitors the widely disproportionate human rights abuses, in the Rabbis for Human Rights, in the lives of thousands of brave Israeli secular who unlike Jews of the diaspora, see the ongoing humiliation and can no longer bear it. It is this flowering of the authentic Jewish spirit which Reuben Slonim would have loved.


1 Comment »

  1. 1
    Semper Says:

    Thank you for this memorial to a man I had never heard of.

    O for more like him.



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