Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

THE SHUNNING OF A PRO-PALESTINIAN RABBI

If Reuben Slonim were a controversial, literate politician, his memoirs would have been much sought after. Publishers would have competed to get him into print. Unfortunately, Slonim is not a politician; he’s a rabbi — a controversial, literate rabbi. Twenty publishers, made nervous one has to assume by his criticisms of Canada’s Jewish community, rejected this important and courageous book. Can anyone imagine a publisher turning down a politician’s memoir on the grounds that it’s “highly subjective”? Yet that’s precisely what Lester&Orpen Dennys told Slonim.

Slonim’s original intent was to fictionalize his story. Certainly, there’s no doubt as one reads To Kill a Rabbi (a title that makes the book sound like a mystery) that he has both the eye and mind of a satirical novelist. Moose Clarfield’s mouth, he tells us, “was shaped in a permanent pucker because of all the backsides he had kissed to get ahead.” Yiddel Axler “excelled in one respect. He could not talk for two minutes without going off into smut.” But Slonim was unable to make the book work as an autobiographical novel and decided to turn it into a memoir instead. At first I assumed that the names he uses are pseudonyms, but the photo section reveals otherwise. Libel lawyers, I suspect, will be receiving inquiries about this book.

Reuben Slonim was born in Winnipeg in 1914 and was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1937. That year he became Canada’s first Canadian-born rabbi when he was hired by the McCaul Street Synagogue in downtown Toronto. Almost from the beginning, the dictates of his fierce conscience led him into battles with his congregation. The Bible, he believed, was not a divine text but one written over many years by men trying to understand the meaning of life. Slonim would have liked to believe in the “warm coziness” and personal God of Orthodox Judaism but couldn’t. It seemed to him that the passion of the Orthodox for “neatness and order” far exceeded their capacity for “reason and pity”. He came to abhor orthodoxy of all kinds. “Nobody possesses the truth,” he writes. “We are all seeking it.”

From the beginning, he opposed the segregation of women in his congregation. He wanted women to be counted in the minyan (quorum of ten) and to be permitted to read from the Torah. When his congregants buzzed about the width of Slonim’s prayer shawl (too narrow) and his choice of places to eat (too broad), he preached that gossip is the “uglification” of others. When he conducted Passover services for Jewish airmen during the Second World War, he told them that when Hitler was defeated, they would have to find compassion for the German people. The military forbade Slonim from visiting the base again. When the war was over he agreed with survivors of the Holocaust that Jews must never forget what had happened, but went on to argue that never to forgive could only lead to a hardening of Jewish hearts. Forgivenness, he believes, is central to Jewish ethics. “If one believes in the redeemability of human beings, no one may be excluded.”

Central to Slonim’s philosophy is the importance of fully granting others their otherness, as taught in Martin Buber’s I and Thou. Thus Slonim never doubted that Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which speaks of “developing the land for the good of all its inhabitants” and of maintaining “complete equality of social and political rights for all its citizens, without distinction of creed, race or sex,” referred to Jews and Arabs alike. Over the years, as Middle East correspondent for the Toronto Telegram and from his pulpit, Slonim hammered away at this point. He castigated Israel’s educational system for separating Arab and Jewish children. “Why,” he asked, “are Arab children required to study Hebrew but Jewish children are free from the compulsion to study Arabic?”

Slonim stressed that Jews and Palestinian Arabs have similar aspirations:

In the period of struggle before 1948 Jews insisted on four basic premises: that there was a Jewish people; that it had a right to self-determination, political independence and eventually statehood; that its representative was the World Zionist Congress; and that the international community must recognize these claims. The Palestinians stand on parallel demands: that they constitute an identifiable people; that they are entitled to political sovereignty and an independent state; that they are represented by the Palestinian Liberation Organization; and that those claims can become effective only in an international context. The similitude of the two sets of claims is uncanny. The language in which they are couched in official statements is almost identical. Yet many Jews cannot find it in their hearts to grant to Palestinians what they have claimed for themselves.

Jews responded to Slonim with catcalls and death threats.

We are all the heroes of our own life stories and, as this memoir reveals, Reuben Slonim is no exception. Still, he is able to poke fun at himself — at his love of theatrics, for instance. More important, he speaks with shame of having succumbed to ambition in urging the amalgamation of the McCaul Street and University Avenue synagogues. “I wanted a large congregation,” he writes, “perhaps the largest in Canada, so that I might have power... to stand up to my adversaries who had plagued me for years.”

When I asked Slonim in an interview where he found the courage for his many unpopular stands, he said it had nothing to do with courage. If he hadn’t spoken out, he wouldn’t have been able to sleep at night. To those who argue that it’s wrong for him to wash Jewry’s “dirty linen” in public, and that he’s providing anti-Semites wth more ammunition, he replies, “History tells me that controversy did not undermine either Judaism or the Jewish people; only fanaticism and indifference did.”

If Slonim were an American or an Israeli, he would have had little difficulty finding a publisher and an audience for To Kill a Rabbi. Jews in the U.S. and Israel are more open to controversy than are Jews in Canada. I congratulate ECW for publishing this important book.

— Books in Canada, November, 1987

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