Identity | Rabbi in Outremont Briefly Ex-communicated

When you think of the Rialto Theatre in Montreal, you’re more likely to imagine Halloweeners dressed in drag lining up for the Rocky Horror Picture Show than a soirée with separate seating geared to the Hassidic community.  This October 4th the Rialto hosts an event exploring a controversy over a previously banned text that shook up the Hassidic community in Montreal’s Outremont neighbourhood.

Unlike Islam and Christianity, Judaism does not include a proselytizing mission. Jewish practice seems relatively oblivious to the other major monotheistic religions, except in times of conflict. However, a previously censored text of Maimonides’, aka the Rambam, states that when the Messiah comes, the differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam will dissolve.

When Rabbi Chaim Gruber fell upon Rambam’s text (Hilochot Melochim, chapter 11/4 in case you were curious), and began disseminating its teachings, he did not expect to cause uproar in the Orthodox Hassidic Community to which he belongs. Yet this rare text seems to touch a sensitive chord for those around him. When the influential neighborhood leader, Rabbi Yochanan Wosner, became aware of Gruber’s subversive teachings, he issued a public excommunication against him.  Gruber recounts: “It was such a big deal, as I was teaching nightly classes for about two weeks at his shul….The whole affair was a big yo-yo for the community which everyone was talking about.”  After further investigation into the text, a five-hour grilling by a local rabbi under Wosner, and a grilling by Wosner himself, Wosner came to the conclusion that the excommunication was unnecessary.  He then wrote a glowing recommendation letter exonerating Gruber and praising his “complete faith.”

Gruber believes Rambam is so controversial because it places Hassidic Jews “under logical obligation to view Christianity and Islam in a different light, in a way of finding the silver lining as opposed to totally ignoring it.” To reframe Christianity and Islam in this way is unheard of in the community, and uncomfortably flirts with the possibility of bringing people away from Jewish Torah observance, which is far from what Gruber intends. In fact, Rambam argues that everyone will follow Torah, and that Jewish practice will become widespread in Messianic times.

Gruber is determined to teach Rambam’s once censored text to anyone who may be interested.  And so, he is holding a free public, and kosher event at an unusual location, the Rialto – an old landmarked theatre on Parc Avenue. He suspects “that nearly all in the community have never even once stepped foot in the place.” What’s more, as long as attendees conform to “Hasiddish”  rules of conservative dress (i.e.: no immodestly tight or revealing clothes, no shorts, shirts/blouses to cover collarbone, sleeves past elbows, skirts 4-in./10cm. below knee) anyone is invited: Hassidic Jews, non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews.

The event continues to draw controversy. One angered rabbi recently issued a letter forbidding his congregants from entering such a secular space. However, other rabbis have allowed their endorsement to be used in event advertising.  Rabbi Elimelech Lowy, only living son and heir of Grand Rabbi Meshulam Feish Segal-Lowy, the Grand Rabbi of the Tosh Hassidic dynasty and  settlement in Boisbriand, wished the event “Success!”

Gruber’s public lecture is a unique opportunity to learn about religious tensions and utopias with an unlikely mix of people from the Mile-End/Outremont community.

The event, entitled “Redemption is Here” is free.   In order to accommodate members of the Hassidic community, the Rialto will have separate seating and entrances for men and women that night.   Rabbi Gruber asks that those who do not follow these customs not be offended, “but rather kindly consider it a themed costume party”.

Information and tickets for “Redemption is Here” on Oct 4th at 8PM are available through the Rialto, 5723 Ave. du Parc. (514) 770-7773.