Guy Bouthillier, a Quebec nationalist, is a student of Jewish mysticism.

Speaking at Chabad-Lubavitch of Westmount recently, the past Montreal president of the S. Jean Baptiste Society – which works to protect Quebec francophone interests – admitted that he was as surprised as anyone in the room to be addressing a gathering about how he became a student at the center.

“When I reflect on this interesting development, I try to answer the same question you are probably asking yourselves,” said Bouthillier. “Why would I come here every week, sometimes twice? The obvious answer is outreach, to break down barriers, to discover a new world, and when you discover a new world, you are newborn.”

For a year, Bouthillier has been attending classes Wednesdays at 8:30 a.m., studying the Tanya, the foundational work of Chabad Chasidic thought, with Rabbi Yossi Shanowitz, the center’s director.

The Tanya is described as the magnum opus of the 18th-century founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. This is not a class for beginners, with its text-based curriculum and examination of the soul and its struggles.

But Bouthillier has plunged into it with enthusiasm. Shanowitz said he is one of his best pupils, with the most regular attendance and some of the more perceptive questions.

“He never misses a class, and he asks questions that are to the point,” said Shanowitz. “I can see that he grasps the subject. If I can’t make a class, he insists that it goes ahead anyway.”

Bouthillier was the guest speaker at the institution’s 10th anniversary celebration, a cocktail reception in honor of its main benefactor and landlord, Murray Dalfen.

Bouthillier, who was president of the ultra-nationalist SJBS from 1997 to 2003, was introduced to the Chabad House by Aaron Pollack, a friend of his since they were together at McGill University law school 50 years ago. Bouthillier affectionately calls him “Aaronchik.”

Bouthillier said he felt immediately welcomed by Shanowitz and his wife, Devorah. “He said, ‘Come back if you feel like it,’ so I did.”

He said in the course he has “learned more about man than G‑d.” After class, he usually stays around to continue an informal discussion of the weekly Torah portion.

During his presidency, Bouthillier made a historic overture to ethnic groups, but especially the Jewish community, for reconciliation. He initiated an annual commemoration of June 5, the date the legislature of Lower Canada passed a law in 1832 confirming full political rights for Jews.

This happened 25 years before a similar law was enacted by the British Parliament.

He noted that it was Louis-Joseph Papineau – who two years later founded the SJBS, and was the leader of the reformist Patriote movement behind the 1837-38 rebellion – who spearheaded this law.

Bouthillier also recalled that the Canadian Jewish Congress was founded on March 18, 1919, at a meeting at the Monument National, the headquarters of the SJBS. For many years afterwards, the Monument National would be the home of Yiddish theatre in Montreal.

Bouthillier frequently attended Jewish community events, and has continued to do so since stepping down from office.

Guy Bouthillier
Guy Bouthillier

On a Journey

While he has had considerable social and political interaction with Jews over the years, the Chabad classes have been an introduction to the foundation of Judaism. “It’s at the heart of what makes a Jew a Jew.”

Bouthillier said he grew up well grounded in Roman Catholicism through his classical college education, but broke with organized religion when he was 18 or 20. However, he never abandoned his belief in G‑d, whom he now refers to as Hashem.

Pollack said it should not come as a surprise that a man like Bouthillier, who has a Ph.D. from the Université de Paris, can handle the more esoteric aspects of Judaism.

Shanowitz said Bouthillier is the only non-Jew in the class, but that’s not because he discourages any seekers of knowledge. “We want people to walk into this place and feel it is their home,” said Shanowitz, a native of New York, whose wife, Devorah, a Montrealer, is his close partner in running the center.

Bouthillier said “a special spiritual chemistry” has formed between himself, his classmates and the rabbi from sitting around the table discussing deep concepts.

“Every time I leave, I feel lighter. It’s why I hasten to come back the next week.

“We are all Columbuses who have embarked on a journey, whose length and exact destination we do not know. But we do know we have a skipper in whom we can lay our trust. We know how strongly we are connected to Hashem.”

To show that he is not afraid of his reputation in some circles as a wild-eyed radical, Bouthillier repeated a joke the rabbi told him: It seems a good rabbi died and went to Paradise and was shown to a three-bedroom apartment where he was told he would spend eternity.

“What about that big house up on the hill?”

“Oh, that’s for Bouthillier when he comes,” he was told. The good rabbi remonstrated that he had been a faithful servant of G‑d all his life.

“The answer was, ‘When you spoke at the synagogue, everybody fell asleep. When Bouthillier speaks, everybody starts praying.’ ”

A version of this story first appeared in The Canadian Jewish News.