Christian schools opening their doors to Jews, Muslims

  • April 20, 2011
Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum, the Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School’s founding scholarTORONTO - The next generation of Canadian rabbis will be able to point to the Catholic roots of their training — or at least of their school. The Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School will begin offering classes this fall in a classroom at the University of St. Michael’s College Faculty of Theology, part of the Toronto School of Theology.

Canada’s future imams will have a similar story. A master’s program in Muslim studies is taking shape at the United Church of Canada’s seminary, Emmanuel College.

The Toronto School of Theology is reconsidering its mission statement so the consortium of seven Christian theological schools can accommodate the emerging interfaith reality.

The expansion beyond the boundaries of Christian faith is “the right move at the right time,” said TST director Alan Hayes.

Adding the other Abrahamic monotheisms to TST injects broader and richer theological thinking, he said.

“We’re not trying to convert each other... It’s more that we’re trying to understand each other better.”

The interfaith encounter between the Yeshiva and the seminary at St. Michael’s won’t be a mushy melange of liberal Christians and liberal Jews exchanging platitudes, said Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum, the Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School’s founding scholar. The new Jewish school will be traditional, rigourous and post-denominational, said Tanenbaum. In an allusion to the cola wars of a generation ago, Tanenbaum claims the school represents “classic Judaism.”

“We have a definite stance. We have a world view,” he said. “By calling it classic, that classic means something. It has substance.”

The rabbinical school already has 40 applications, even as it waits for the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities to grant it a licence to award master’s degrees and a doctorate in Hebrew letters.

Toronto has one of the most diverse and vibrant Jewish communities in North America, but a preponderance of its rabbis were trained either in New York or Israel. One of the goals of the new school will be to train Canadians to lead and found congregations, said Tanenbaum.

The young and booming Muslim population in Canada faces the same problem — too many imams are preaching and teaching in Canada without recognized credentials, a poor grasp of English and a hazy understanding of Canadian law, customs and culture, said Imam Habeeb Alli.

“Those who are foreign trained might not understand the Canadian context,” he said. “And those who are living in Canada, of course they understand the realities of everyday life and what Canadian culture is and Canadian law, but they may not have traditional Islamic training.”

The median age of Canada’s 940,000 Muslims is 28. They’re having children and immigration from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, the Middle East and Africa is not slowing down. By 2030 Muslims will be 6.6 per cent of Canada’s population, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Like the Yeshiva at St. Michael’s College, the Islamic program at Emmanuel College seeks an identity separate from Islam’s various denominations — Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Ismaili, etc.

“This course is not meant to delve into the differences in each others’ denominations but to acquire training on issues that affect Canadian Muslims,” said Habeeb.

The Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School takes right-leaning Orthodox and left-leaning conservatives and brings them together with a common understanding of Jewish law, or halakha. While unafraid of engaging the modern world, the school will produce rabbis with traditional training. To get in, students will need an undergraduate degree and a demonstrated mastery of Hebrew and Aramaic.

Rabbis of the 21st century will face a different reality from rabbis of his own generation, said Tanenbaum. Tanenbaum’s generation was trained to lead large, existing congregations with institutional roots in the Jewish school system, cemeteries, health care, etc. The next generation of rabbis will address Jews who are more mobile, with shallower roots in the community and who may not feel at home in big, institutional synagogues.

“They (younger Jews) are looking for the small, rather than the large. The rabbi of the future will have to build that congregation from scratch,” he said.

For Muslims, Toronto is the natural place to find yourself at home in the entire ummah — the world-wide community of Islam. A school of Islamic thought with roots in the history of a particular country or culture may be less relevant to Canadian-born Muslims, said Habeeb.

Toronto isn’t just a mosaic of cultures from around the world, it’s a melting pot of Muslims.

“This is Toronto. You can’t get better,” he said.

Both programs will offer theological studies to people not necessarily interested in full-time ministry.

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