Thank you very much to everyone who has made this interesting morning and afternoon possible. It turns out that timing, as they say, is everything. We are just a few days from Hanukkah, which celebrates a time when the Jewish community did something quite revolutionary, in so many ways.
We know from the story that it was just a few people who initiated a rebellion against the “uncivil” civil law imposed upon the Jews, of certain things they were not allowed to do, including not so trivial matters like keeping the Shabbat, studying Torah, having circumcisions: in brief, the be-all and end-all of the Jewish community. At that point, the very few who wanted to fight it, the few who did fight it, miraculously prevailed against a mighty military machine.
Who would have thought then that there would come a time, thousands of years later, when a Reverend Father-Doctor-Deacon would bring together a symposium on Halacha (Jewish law) and civil society? That, in itself, is a Hanukkah miracle we should celebrate!
Let me begin by saying that, in terms of where we are, measured by where we were, we are living in incredible times. Consider the fact that we can debate this matter in public. If we hearken back to our ancestors, our grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and so on, they would have given their eyeteeth to be in that position. They were not. They had to go by what they were told they could do, and resisting was often a life-endangering position.
We are today in a position entirely unprecedented in Jewish life outside of Israel for the last thousands of years. What I would like to do here is more anecdotal, and certainly not comprehensive. I hope to share some of the things that have happened over the course of time related to Jewish and civil law.
The plan is to cover different types of examples, ranging from no-brainers to contentious issues, to actually employing the Canadian legal system to help the Jewish reality.
I probably will miss some examples, because so many have unfolded in the Canadian context. I will interject a bit of my personal connection to some of these cases, because they did involve me, not to a large extent, but regarding which I had direct knowledge of the matters at hand.
We start off with a very simple case that took place almost immediately after I came here, over fifty years ago. It seemed like a very simple case. Little did the participants know that fifty-two years later, I would be talking about it in public.
I received a call from someone who had just lost a parent, and was about to sit shiv’ah, the Jewishly mandated seven-day mourning period that follows burial. This person worked for the government. The accepted rule at that time was that you could take off five days for a loss, but that it was five days before the funeral.
In Jewish practice, we have the funeral right away, and then we have the shiv’ah afterward. This man was apparently told that he could not take the five days off, because the funeral would take place right away, and the rule was that the five days had to be before the funeral.
This did not make sense; it did not sound right. I remember writing a letter to whoever in the public service was responsible for carrying out this policy at that time. I have been trying to find the letter ever since this Decretum was decreed, and I cannot find the letter. I wrote that in Jewish practice, we have the mourning after the funeral, not beforehand. The funeral is right away after death, and is not the culmination of the mourning; it is the beginning of it. Could you allow this person to have the same amount of days off?
I did not ask for anything special, just the same amount of days off with pay. The person went to sit shiv’ah not knowing the answer. The answer came back very clearly and relatively quickly that, yes, it was eminently fair to have the same five days, but after the funeral.
This was my first experience with religious accommodation, a more particular nuance of what is referred to as reasonable accommodation. But it was an indication that we were living in a society that has some sense of, and values the importance of, religious practice.
I put this in the category of a no-brainer. That is to say, you have to be really stupid to argue against something like this, because it makes eminent sense. If, on the other hand, one were to ask for ten days off, five days before the funeral and five days after, that would be a different story.
There are others that we almost take for granted, but that happen all the time. Every rabbi in a congregation will be getting, from their congregants, requests for an accommodation. Most of the time, it happens when one is going to school and there is an exam scheduled for a Shabbat or other Jewish holy day. The request is to have the exam deferred, since writing on Shabbat is prohibited according to Halacha.
I do not know of any case of anyone in the last little while, except for maybe some cantankerous individual who has not accommodated their students. There may be others who have had different experiences, but, generally speaking, this is, again, just about a no-brainer. We do not take it for granted, but on the other hand, it is something that has to be normative.
I remember semi-humorously that, in one instance, a professor happily agreed to defer a test from a Shabbat to what turned out to be the first day of Sukkot (Tabernacles), a Jewish holy day on which writing is also prohibited. We did not gain much in that deferral, so we had to ask for a deferral of the deferral, which was granted. So it can be complicated, but with goodwill you can achieve much. And goodwill actually does play a large part in this.
Let me get into areas wherein we did have issues, but the issues were resolved quite nicely. One actually took place in late April. It involved the intervention of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and B’nai Brith Canada. Someone had put up a mezuzah in his condominium. A mezuzah is a small case containing a parchment scroll with excerpts from the Torah, the Bible. According to Halacha, these are to be placed on all doorposts for entry into a house or an apartment, and also all the rooms therein.
The condominium association had rules about not defacing anything in the exclusive common area, and told the fellow that he must take down the mezuzah, or put it on the inside. He did not like that, and asked the aforementioned Jewish organizations to take up his cause. From what I understand, this case was resolved quite simply; the condominium association apologized, and the mezuzah now stands.
Additionally, a neighbour of this person who also wanted to place a mezuzah has done so. It turned out this had nothing to do with being anti-Jewish. The issue was one of not wanting the external condominium property to be defaced.
In truth, the condominium association has a full right to insist that they do not want graffiti, or anything, on their outside walls. But in this instance it clashed with the notion of religious freedom, the freedom to have a mezuzah on the outside doorpost, which is a religious obligation.
We came to an accommodation. It did not go to the courts, but it easily could have. The condominium association actually apologized, as mentioned, not knowing that this was a religious value. This was clearly not a case of anti-Jewish bias or anything of that nature. Even in tackling issues, we need to be careful before levelling such accusations.
There was another case, less well-known, involving a condominium that had a Shabbat elevator. A Shabbat elevator is a regular elevator that is programmed to automatically stop at every floor on the Shabbat. It is immensely helpful for Shabbat observers.
Halacha prohibits the pressing of electronic controls on Shabbat. Having an elevator that stops automatically at every floor allows people who are unable to conquer the stairs to be able to leave their homes and attend synagogue on the Shabbat.