Toronto’s David Novak to address papal conference

A Toronto academic who has been invited to speak at a conference on Pope Jean Paul II at the United Nations on March 27 says that he’s glad to pay homage to “somebody who was so favourably disposed towards Jews and Judaism.”

David Novak, professor and former director of the University of Toronto’s Jewish studies program, met the late pontiff in 1985.

“We have a notion of ‘Hakarat Hatov,’” he said. “We’re supposed to recognize someone who has been good to us and for us, so I’m happy to be there. I think I’m the only Jewish speaker there.”

The conference, “Jean Paul II: Contributions to Modern Thought on Social Justice and Peace,” is being offered under the patronage of the Prince and Princess of Lichtenstein, and will be opened by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Other speakers include former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Polish president Lech Walesa, and Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.

Novak was born in Chicago and studied at the University of Chicago and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Georgetown University in Washington D.C.

For 23 years he was a congregational rabbi holding several pulpits, including one in Far Rockaway, Queens, N.Y. He taught at the University of Virginia prior to coming to the University of Toronto in 1997. He has since become a Canadian citizen.

“My wife and I like it here very much. We’ve especially enjoyed the Jewish community. . . . I [also] enjoy the fact that in Toronto there are really some fine Talmudic scholars that I’m meeting with on a regular basis.”

Novak teaches a weekly course at Princeton University in New Jersey and is the founder and vice-president of a right-wing Conservative breakaway group, the Union for Traditional Judaism, which has a yeshiva in Teaneck, N.J. He also teaches a long-running Talmud class in a private home in Toronto. He is scholar-in-residence at Shaarei Shalom Synagogue in Thornhill and a member of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in the Glencairn-Bathurst neighbourhood.

He is the author of 13 books, including the newly released The Jewish Social Contract, published by Princeton University Press. Shaarei Shomayim is hosting a book launch next week.

The book is a study of how Jews negotiated their status in host societies and countries of the diaspora, from biblical times to the present.

“It’s about how I, as a Jew, can be a full participating citizen of a secular democracy in good faith, without regarding my participation in that secular democracy as being more important than my commitment to the Jewish people and the Jewish tradition,” Novak said.

He’s planning to speak at the book launch, at the Shaarei Shomoyim, 470 Glencairn Ave. at Bathurst, Sunday March 19, beginning about 9:30 a.m. (after morning prayers). Admission is free for members, $5 for non-members. ♦

© 2006

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