The following is a brilliant and evocative speech by the rabbi of Shaare Zion Congregation in Montreal. Congratulations to Rabbi Moses. Y’asher Koach. May his words and his teachings inspire our government and our fellow citizens to show respect and tolerance for one another. For good.

Glenn

Rabbi Lionel Moses

Rabbi Lionel Moses

Kol Nidre Sermon by Rabbi Lionel Moses, Shaare Zion Congregation, Montreal, Quebec

Friday September 13, 2013

For the Sins that They are Liable

Our God and God of our Ancestors

We have sinned

We have acted treacherously

We have strayed

Ten times on Yom Kippur we recite this litany of sins, five times silently, to ourselves, and five times out loud. For each letter of the Hebrew alphabet there appears to be a sin. For the letter Taf, the last letter of the alphabet, not one sin, but three. Then, no sooner do we finish this brief confessional, when we start all over again.

For the sins we have sinned against you under duress or with free will

For the sins we have sinned against you with hardness of heart.

Wo! Wait a second. That last one I recognize, but maybe it’s not me, maybe it’s not you, who is guilty of heartlessness, stubbornness, lack of sensitivity, lack of compassion. These days maybe it’s our provincial government, maybe it’s our premier and some of her minions who ought to be looking at our confessional and then look themselves in the mirror. Maybe they ought to read the line, “For the sin we have committed against you by wronging our neighbours.”

This week Ms. Marois took yet another hard line position by releasing her government’s proposal for a charter of Quebec values, a charter, which, if adopted, would require her government to amend the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. In her current view, not all human rights are guaranteed, not all freedoms are absolute. Religious expression would be subject to government regulations, if the government considers you to be a public employee.

We have all read the proposal. Its details hardly bear repeating. The objective of the Parti Quebecois is to create a religiously neutral Quebec society in order, they imagine, to unite the province under one set of values shared universally by every person in Quebec.

A lofty goal, but we Jews and many of the ethnic minorities who have succeeded in immigrating to Quebec have already experienced societies that have tried to impose a single religious or ethnic or even cultural stamp on their society with the expectation that everyone live by it.

For cultural homogeneity, think of North Korea. For religious homogeneity which is just a polite way of saying religious intolerance think of Iran or Saudi Arabia. For ethnic homogeneity, which is just a polite way of saying ethnic cleansing think of Darfur in Sudan or the Tutsis in Rwanda or the killing fields of Cambodia.

As Jews, we have experienced every type of intolerance and prejudice, racial and ethnic prejudice in Nazi Germany, religious intolerance throughout medieval Europe and cultural intolerance in the Former Soviet Union to name but a few of the better known examples.

In Germany, we also learned that intolerance can be legislated democratically. Intolerance breeds hatred and hatred leads to persecution and persecution results in the mass murder of innocent civilians. Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch from a law banning hijabs, turbans and kippahs in the public employee sector to the type of overt economic and physical persecution we Jews experienced in Nazi Germany or the Former Soviet Union.

But now, with this proposed charter of values, trained professionals including health care workers, teachers, university professors, crown prosecutors and a host of others who work in the public sector will have to choose between supporting themselves and their families by jettisoning their personal religious convictions or flagrantly disobeying the law and risk being dismissed from their job. In either case, this legislation will have an impact on the economic well-being of men and women whose religious convictions mandate that they dress in a particular manner.

The government should only interfere with an individual’s freedom of religious expression if it interferes with the person’s ability to do their job.

But ask yourself a question, when did a physician’s kippah or hijab or turban ever harm a patient? When did a kippah or hijab or turban at Revenu Quebec or the SAQ prevent anyone from getting the wine or liquor they wanted or an answer to a question about their taxes? The answer to these and a thousand other questions like it is “Never.”

The hijab, the turban, the kippah are never an impediment to service. Quebecers of all backgrounds and ethnicities, including we Jews, need to get used to a society that is not all white, not all Christian, not all Francophone.

Frankly, over the past thirty-five years, I think we Jews, along with most urban Montrealers, have accommodated quite well to the multifarious changes in society. More of us speak French, at least passably well. We are colour blind to racial diversity. Our Jewish General Hospital employs physicians who are Moslems and Jews, Christians and, I am sure, avowed atheists. I’ll admit that it took me a little getting used to, when I first saw physicians at the Jewish wearing hijabs. But I quickly learned that there is no difference in the medical care provided by a religious Moslem woman physician wearing a hijab and a Jewish physician wearing a kippah. Now I’ll fight for the right for both of them to continue to do so.

This proposed Charter of Quebec Values has given Mme. Marois a bit of a rush. Among Francophone voters who live outside the urban centres of Montreal and Quebec City, the Charter is supported by 66% of the respondents to a Leger Poll. I need not tell you how frightening such support for legislation that enshrines intolerance and xenophobia is. What it means is that a huge number of Quebecers never ride the metro, have never taken a class at a CEGEP or university with an instructor who is not Francophone, Quebecois, pur et dur.

Intolerance and xenophobia are functions of cultural isolation. The Quebecois population is not xenophobic and intolerant by nature. They are good folk whose cultural norms have been crystallized and cultivated by cultural isolation. Many have had little or no contact with Jews or Moslems or Sikhs and have no idea how vulnerable we all feel living in a place where the government touts xenophobia and religious intolerance under the guise of social unity.

We Jews have a responsibility and an opportunity to shed some new light onto what might become one more reason for young Jews and young ethnics and allophones to seriously consider leaving Quebec for another Canadian province.

We Jews have a 2500 year old tradition that teaches us repeatedly in the Torah, love and respect the stranger, the non-Jew, in your midst. Why? Because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. What is it about our Egyptian experience that we are supposed to remember to motivate us to love the stranger? Are we to remember that we were slaves to Pharaoh and abused, over-worked and mistreated? Perhaps, but the real motivation for being respectful of the stranger is that when we first came down to Egypt during a time of famine, we were welcomed by the Pharaoh, we were provided with food, with a place to live and a place to graze our cattle. The Torah goes out of its way to point out that ethnically, culturally, linguistically and religiously, we were different from the Egyptians, but the Egyptians welcomed us and accommodated us nonetheless. In fact, the rabbis add that during our stay in Egypt, partly as free men and women and partly as slaves, the Egyptians never forced us to change our names, or to abandon our language or religion. Remembering how we were welcomed by the Egyptians is the motivating factor, indeed the determining factor for how we should treat the stranger in our midst. And that is a lesson we must trumpet loud and clear throughout Quebec.

If the PQ wants to create a Charter of Values that all of us can rally behind, perhaps they might consider honesty, hard work and education as the neutral, secular, humanistic values that could unify our citizens and promote economic growth and stability at the same time.

Let our government look more closely at first and second generation immigrants. Immigrants typically work long hours running small businesses, often doing menial work well beneath their intelligence and skill-set level, all for the express purpose of putting a secure roof over the heads of their families, making certain that they are well fed and providing them with the opportunity to complete their education. Quebec would do well to follow the example set by such  immigrants and promote honesty and hard work.

Let our government reward contractors and public employees for finishing their work on time or ahead of schedule, rather than punishing the public with interminable delays on road work and infrastructure malfunctions.

Quebec would do well to promote education, rewarding innovative teachers and encouraging students to stay in school with incentive programmes that create better, more challenging jobs for those that complete their schooling. Education, honesty and hard work ought to be the key ingredients to a unified Quebec, a province that would then become a magnet for immigrants who would see freedom of religious and ethnic and linguistic expression as a reward for their own hard work and honesty.

Education, honesty and hard work would be key ingredients that promote productivity and attract business and investment, ensuring economic growth.

Mme. Marois , read my lips, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Our teacher, Hillel, taught “Whatever might be hateful to you, do not do to others.” What you are proposing is a subtle sin. You are dividing our province. You are wronging your neighbours whose language, whose ethnicity, whose religious symbols are different from yours. You are asking people to choose between contributing to the future growth of Quebec and maintaining external symbols that are so much a part of their personal identity and that in no way infringe on values held by others.

Mme. Marois, read my lips “J’y suis pour de bon.” That is the brilliant campaign slogan of Federation CJA for our annual campaign. “We’re here for good. We’re here to stay.”

Drop the nonsense of the Charter. Otherwise, some of our province’s best and brightest might just pack up and leave and you and I, Mme. Marois, would be the poorer for it.

Amen

Rabbi Lionel Moses was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1977. He holds a BSc in Chemistry and an MA in Near Eastern Languages, both from the University of Toronto and a second MA in Jewish Literature from JTS. He is currently a Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. In 2002, Rabbi Moses was awarded a Doctor of Divinity (honoris causa) by the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has served pulpits in Alabama, New York, and California. 

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