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Jewish worshippers covered in prayer shawls pray at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem’s Old City on Sept. 4, 2013 ahead of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year which starts at sundown on Wednesday. (BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Jewish worshippers covered in prayer shawls pray at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem’s Old City on Sept. 4, 2013 ahead of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year which starts at sundown on Wednesday. (BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)


Why it’s been a good year for religion Add to ...

With Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, upon us now, it seems an appropriate time to note that the last 12 months have, actually, been quite positive for religion – at least, those of us who would like to see religion move into the 21st century. There have emerged significant new strains in Judaism, Christianity and Islam of modernity, equality and acceptance – these three religions appear more welcoming, more open-minded, than ever before. This is good news not only for reform-inclined religious people, but for all who wish to see religion flourish.

Two events this summer gave me renewed hope that my religion, Judaism, will one day be truly modern. The first was the auf ruf (a pre-wedding ritual for the groom usually celebrated at synagogue the Saturday before nuptials) of two men at a condo building in Toronto’s gay village – two men preparing to marry each other. The event was conducted in a modernized Orthodox style (but complete with traditional kugel and cholent for lunch), and the couple was married by a gay, Orthodox rabbi during Pride week. I don’t think I have ever experienced a more brave performance of religion.

What happened in Judaism in June, though, was a close runner-up. For the first time ever, three female Orthodox rabbis – they have assumed a different term, maharat, but the job description is virtually the same – were ordained (by another Orthodox rabbi). Meanwhile, egalitarian-style Orthodox prayer groups, in which women assume leadership roles, are springing up in every major city in North America and across Israel. There is no question that in the last year progress toward modernity in the Orthodox community (Conservative and Reform Judaism have long been fully modern streams) has been more palpable than ever. May the trend continue.

The sharpest modern twist in world religion this past (Jewish calendar) year, however, occurred in Christianity. The election of Pope Francis has sent shockwaves through that world – so many of his public actions and comments, and certainly his very apparent humility, suggest the Church is on the path to becoming more open and, crucially, willing to atone for, and fix, its past sins. You can’t ask for a better advocate for that monumental endeavour than the man at the very top, and Francis has given every indication he is up to the task. In particular, his recent “who am I to judge?” line about gay people was absolutely brilliant – the lesson not to pass judgment transcends all religious boundaries, and that’s why it made such perfect sense. One hopes he’s just getting started on the job of modernizing and cleaning up the Church.

Alas, the ongoing killing of Muslims by Muslims in Syria, the death toll now above 110,000 (at least 1,400 by a gas attack) with 1.5 million refugees and seven million displaced, suggests Islam still has a long way to go before it achieves modernity. And the situation in Egypt, where the military is back in power, having ousted a democratically elected (though not exactly democratic) government, is also discouraging, to say the least. Even in Turkey, among the most modern Muslim lands, there are fears the country is moving away from democracy under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

And yet there is a definite bright side: At the heart of the Arab Spring, especially in Egypt, is a deep yearning for freedom from oppression, political and religious.

Even if reform-minded Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa haven’t found a way to make Islam and democracy work together as yet, the effort to do so is clearly on display, and there is every reason to believe the democracy movement will re-emerge – and be stronger for its early failures. The Egyptian coup taught us that Muslims still have much to learn about democracy, but it appears an increasing number want to learn, and that’s the most important thing. It’s only a matter of time before the tide turns in their favour.

On Rosh Hashanah, so we are told, God judges humanity from above, and decides whether each person’s actions over the previous year merit another one on Earth. By the same token, the modern religious Jew is tempted at this time of year to do his own judging of God – to wit: does religion deserve another year of our observance? Looking back, I would argue the exciting directions religion took in the year now past warrant, at the very least, a stay of judgment.

Yoni Goldstein lives in Toronto. He blogs at Northern Bullets

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