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Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Quebec Charter of Values, Hasidim and Reasonable Accommodations

Beitzah 6

Today’s Life Yomi is dedicated in honour of the recent birthday of Abie Kacew, by his children and grandchildren, Leanne & Norman Wasel and family.  Biz 120 in good health!

A couple of years ago, Hasidim in Montreal made national headlines over an unusual request.  En route to their synagogue was a gym with glass walls adjacent to the public thoroughfare.  Looking at immodestly-dressed women working out was religiously problematic for the Hasidim and so they asked the gym to place curtains on the glass walls.  Concerned, lest they offend anyone’s religious sensibilities, the gym obliged.

The Canadian public was up in arms.  On the one hand, we pride ourselves on our multiculturalist society that respects everyone’s religious rights.  On the other hand, how far are we expected to go in order to accommodate an individual’s religious fanaticisms?  The heated debate raged back and forth, until finally the government decided to initiate a nationwide enquiry into the question of “reasonable accommodations.”  The goal: Ask the Canadian people what should be considered reasonable accommodations to individual religious needs.

Was it reasonable of the Hasidim to ask that the gym cover their walls to accommodate their religious sensibilities?  

Rava taught: If a person died on the first day of Yom Tov, non-Jews should bury him.  On the 2nd day, Jews may take care of the burial. 
Rav Ashi adds: We may even cut shrouds to clothe the body and myrtle branches to use as a base for the burial. 
Ravina warns: Nowadays, due to the Chabarees, we are concerned for our religious freedoms and we don’t bury our dead on 2nd day Yom Tov.

Rashi explains that the Chabarees were an anti-Semitic nation during the time of the Persian Empire who would force the Jews to work for them.  On Yom Tov, the Jews were able to avoid working due to the holy day restrictions.   But had the Chabarees seen the Jews engaged in digging and other mundane activities (albeit for the purposes of burying the dead), they would have accused them of trickery, and subsequently forced them to work on Yom Tov.

Tosfos points out that we’re not just concerned about anti-Semites.   Really anyone that works for non-Jews and asks for time off work for Yom Tov encounters the same situation.  If I ask for Shavuot off and then my boss catches me out playing golf, she’s hardly going to believe me next time I tell her it’s Yom Tov.   Therefore, in order to avoid any misunderstanding with our employers, Ravina cautions against personally engaging in the burial on 2nd day Yom Tov. 

We live in a time of unparalleled religious freedoms.  In most Western countries, if you ask for time off from work for Yom Tov, your employer is legally required to oblige your request.  And such deference to our religious needs is not limited to the workplace.  Arrangements are made in every aspect of our lives to accommodate our spiritual requirements, from school examination rescheduling to government-funded synagogue security assistance.

Ravina reminds us that these privileges should not be abused.  We must never take this religious sensitivity for granted.  Indeed, we must bend over backwards to make sure that we do not even give the impression that we are abusing our privileges.  Rather have non-Jews attend to the needs of your dearly beloved departed than risk losing the right to take off time from work for Yom Tov in the future!

Nobody owes us anything.  They don’t have to give us time off from work.  Coming to America, many an observant Jew would suffer the weekly anguish of losing their job in the Lower East Side sweatshops, because there was no such thing as ‘religious accommodations.’  Unfortunately, some of us have become so comfortable and used to our present religious security and freedoms that we have begun to make unreasonable demands, such as the request to cover the glass walls.

But our non-Jewish neighbours only have so much patience.  Sadly, the consequence in Quebec has been a backlash against religious rights whereby the major political party is pushing to pass a bill that would prohibit any public demonstration of religion.  Spirituality would be relegated to the private sphere.  In the public domain, not only would requests such as the Hasidim’s not be tolerated, but even the wearing of a kippah in public would be proscribed!

And while this is only one Canadian province that is pushing for such legislation, once the wrecking ball gets rolling, there is no stopping it.  One province leads to another, until it becomes a nationwide attitude and proscription, G-d forbid.  One need only look at Europe to see our basic religious needs such as shechita and bris milah under attack to understand that we must never take any of our privileges for granted. 

Next time you take time off from work for Yom Tov take a few minutes to write a letter to your employer to thank them profusely for accommodating your request.  Don’t email it, do it the old-fashioned way – show them that you truly appreciate their generosity.  Then pull out another sheet of paper and write a letter to your local government representative.  Let them know how fortunate you feel to be living in a country that respects and protects your religious freedoms and needs. 

Don’t take it for granted, compared to most Jews in history, we are unbelievably blessed.    

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  1. Rabbi, have you considered asking your board for time of for holidays? :)

    1. You kidding me? They won't even give me Shabbos off!