The importance of not being too earnest

Reprinted from the Shofar - Oraynu's newsletter


Rabbi’s Message:

Fun! At our summer book club meeting, I asked everyone to talk about one fun thing they did this summer. I hope you have spent the summer chasing after fun! I often dedicate my message in the Shofar to serious topics. I know people look to Oraynu and sometimes to me for guidance, or hope, especially in hard times. For that, come to Yom Kippur where I’ll discuss “How Humanists Handle Hard Times.” I hope that my commentaries at the upcoming High Holidays, along with our beautiful services filled with poetry and music, will inspire you. They do, indeed, centre on weighty topics. But we don’t need to be in High Holiday mode just yet. It’s the very tail end of summer and we should celebrate.

Often we Jews concentrate too much on what is serious. I’ve said before we need to be a little bit more “out with the ‘Oy’ and in with the joy!”. Looking into the life of Gene Wilder for our Yom Kippur Story of Transformation reminded me that in order to be serious, one also must laugh. I know this to be true from many spheres of my life. The most challenging parts of life are best met with a healthy dose of humour. I’ve seen people laugh in reminiscing about departed loved ones. I’ve seen Holocaust survivors make a dark joke, using gallows humour to cope with their trauma. I’ve seen parents face their child, having an epic meltdown, make a funny face, and change the whole mood. Yes, we are facing some very challenging times. We need to respond intellectually and emotionally. To do so, we sometimes also need to let go, we need to relax, we need to laugh, and we need to have fun.

This summer I made it my business to maximize the fun in each day. I said yes to so many wonderful things: cottage time, time with my family, playing in the park with my kids, outdoor movies and plays, dates with my husband, checking out new patios, delicious food and drink, all the ice cream I could handle, and more. I have been having a lot of fun and I hope you have too!

In the month before Rosh Hashanah, the month of Elul, one is supposed to study, to reflect, to get ready for the new year and the introspection of the High Holidays. Here’s your homework on how to do that this year: I want you to spend some serious time on fun. I want you to have it, and I want you to think about it. How do you most enjoy spending your time? If you could do one fun thing this upcoming year, what would it be? How can you bring more fun into your family or friendships? How can you make fun a priority in the upcoming year of 5778? I want you to think about it, perhaps write down a few fun goals, and then make a plan to make that fun happen. Why is this High Holiday prep? Because as we get ready to “cheshbon our nefeshes” (cheshbon hanefesh is accounting for the soul; the deep introspective work that leads to commitments for personal growth in the upcoming year), we will actually be more successful if we strive for balance. I hope your goals for yourself include tzedakah (charity, justice), learning, political engagement (whatever that means for you), helping others, and other serious pursuits. I want you to spend time thinking of those worthwhile plans and goals. I know that you, we, will all be more successful at them if we dedicate at least as much focus and attention on the lighter and brighter aspects of life. We all need balance. So, yes, at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we will be a little serious. Let’s make time before and after that to be a little frivolous. 

As we approach the end of summer, there is a poem I think of. It has to do with summer, it reminds me of the goal-setting work of the upcoming High Holidays, and it asks us to consider nature, our place in the world, and who we wish to be. I want to share it with you:


The Summer Day - Mary Oliver

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

So, before summer comes to an end, let’s devote ourselves to at least one fun goal. Perhaps a hike, spending quality time with a grasshopper or two. Perhaps a dinner with dessert first. Perhaps a walk with a good friend, a hot tea, and some juicy gossip. Perhaps time alone in a quiet spot with a magazine and a glass of wine. Perhaps find a spot in the city you’ve never explored before and spend an afternoon learning about it. At least one fun goal. Rabbi’s orders.

As we look ahead to our year, we have a lot coming up that will be fun. We also have programs that will be challenging, interesting, exciting, and more. I do hope to see lots of you this coming year. Until I do see you, I wish you wellness, happiness, peace and, yes, lots and lots of fun

After Charlottesville

Just sent this out to my congregation:

Dear Oraynu,

It has been a difficult week and I wanted to reach out and check in with you. The events in the United States reverberate here and many of you have been in touch with me with deep concern over the emboldening of Neo-Nazis/ White Supremacists, and a political leadership that can't seem to condemn them. The murder of Heather Heyes was shocking. We saw another terrorist attack in Spain. It seems that there is pointless, endless hurt all around.

I wish I could promise that things will get easier. I hope they do, but it seems we are in hard times indeed. I am not writing you with political analysis; there is plenty of that out there and that isn't my role.

At the High Holidays this year I am planning to speak about How Humanists Handle Hard Times but, given recent events, it seems that a preview is in order. If you are feeling sad, angry, fearful, anxious, please know that all of those feelings are normal and valid, Know also that there are some things we can do so that those feelings do not become feelings of hopelessness. Here's what I am doing. Some of these things may be useful to some of you.

- Stay informed -- read and support solid journalism and writers/analysts whose ideas you value

 -Unplug -- find the balance between being informed and being media-saturated. Take breaks from media/social media. Schedule time to read the news and schedule time when you will not

-Take care of yourself. In this world, self-care is nothing short of revolutionary. Eat healthy food, move your body, go outside, spend time with people who make you laugh

-Support causes that make positive change and work for social justice with money or with volunteerism. Ideas include the ACLU or CCLU, legal funds that support at-risk communities, places like Planned Parenthood, civil rights groups, Indigenous communities/initiatives, the political party of your choice, etc.

-Engage in political and social action that serves your vision for a better world. Join a demonstration (like last year's women's march or upcoming counter protests when white supremacists gather), sign petitions (check out Avaaz or the many online petition groups that send them right to your inbox), get in touch with your MP, MPP, city councillor about issues you care about (I've been engaging with mine around Indigenous issues since the Blanket Exercise)

-Take care of the people close to you. A lot of people are worried and upset right now. Check in with friends you haven't heard from, ask those in your family or community how they are doing, reach out to someone who is lonely or suffering

- Put pressure on the companies you support (via consumerism or via investment) to uphold ethical standards of business. Divest from places that support people/projects/politicians that are inconsistent with your values

- Be kind. We all have a small but important sphere of influence. Big social changes happen via everyday interchanges and exchanges. See, acknowledge, and be kind to the people you encounter at the coffee counter, the subway car, the driver next to you, the people on the street

- Be mindful. It can seem like terrible things are happening all around all the time. There are wonderful things too that, for balance and for sanity, we need to take in. Witness a sunset, savour a delicious meal, get into a great book, listen to beautiful music. This does not erase the problems and pressures of the world but it reminds us of the wonderful things in the world that are worth protecting

- Reach out if you need help. In hard times, it takes courage and bravery to admit that you need help. Ask loved ones and friends for company if that is what you need. Reach out to your Oraynu community if we can be of service. There are also many mental health services available in our community. If you need support, find it. If you need help finding it, get in touch with me and I'll help you

Some religious leaders are calling on their congregants to pray for things to improve. That's not our style; not our belief that the solutions to the problems of our world can be found outside of our world. We are it. How Humanists Handle Hard Times is that we take care of ourselves, each other, and the planet. We rest and then re-engage. We resist when necessary, rejoice whenever possible, and remember the lessons of the past to inform the direction we move in the future.

We will speak more about these issues at the High Holidays and at our gatherings before and after that. There is a lot of good sociological research that proves how important community is in hard times. So come out to events and programs and be in touch with Oraynuniks. We will face these hard times together.

Yours always,

Rabbi Denise

Our calendars, ourselves

Reprinted from the Oraynu Congregation newsletter:

How many times a day do you look in your calendar? Whether you use an online or paper version, my guess is that you check what’s happening with your day, week, month and year fairly frequently. I know some families who have colour-coded calendars and perform sync operations to make their calendars cohere that require a level of technical expertise and security clearance well above my pay-grade.

My own calendar is feeling very full these days. We’ve had a very busy spring at Oraynu and life with my family keeps me busy too. I am sure many of you can relate. A pretty big shift in my thinking I’ve been working on is rather than saying that I’m “busy,” I say that my life is very “full.” I am grateful to have a great family, great friends, and great work to keep my calendar so full. So I might as well enjoy the fullness rather than focus on the busy-ness. Perhaps that’s a shift you might find helpful too.

Spring/summer is the time we at Oraynu plan our upcoming year, so I’ve been working on our collective calendar too; it too is full! We have much to do and much to be grateful for! The Jewish year begins each September, coinciding with the new school year for parents, teachers, and kids. Thus, summer marks the ending to a year, a time to slow down and reflect. One of the things I love about Jewish life is how our calendar helps us regulate our moods, our lives. The final month of the year, usually coinciding with August/September, is called Elul. Elul is an important month, for it is meant to be set aside for study and personal reflection. The idea is that you take time to process the previous year before heading into the next one. This works well for many of us, as we take some personal time this summer. Whether you are sitting on a dock, exploring the woods, hanging out on patios, or going for country drives, I hope that you do make time to slow down and enjoy. This is the time of year when the calendar can be a little less full. This is true at Oraynu, often, as we slow down over the summer. However, this year I think you’ll find our summer programming to be fuller and, I hope, more uplifting. We hope you’ll find time for us in your summer calendar.

Next year you can expect a few changes, as well as the same type of great programming you’ve come to expect. Our Tikkun Olam Oraynu committee has a full roster of volunteer opportunities and social justice events. One of the new additions, is some intra-Oraynu tikkun olam work, as we explore topics in justice for our contemporary world. Look for programs like: do Jews have white privilege?; cultural appropriation and Indigenous/Black art; and, a discussion on issues in gender/sex, including the “pronoun wars.” The goal is that we explore these issues together as a community, hear each other out, and see if there are new directions we can learn and grow. I’m committed to being as conscious and just as possible, and I know you are with me. This will be a chance for us to put our values into action both internally as a community, and then use them externally as we come together to make a difference for others.

For me, the whole of next year’s programming schedule has been floating around my head. It has given me a chance to pause, reflect, and realize something about who we are as a community: we are more than a series of events and programs. We are greater than the sum of the parts of each speaker, film, holiday celebration, and music night. We are a community that comes together around our common identities and interests, each individual sustaining that community and being sustained by it. We hope to see lots of you in the coming months and in the coming year. If you can’t make it out, know that you are still a very important member of this thriving community, and we value that you are part of us.

What I am saying is this: our lives are consumed by what’s on the calendar. It’s easy to just go through the motions and forget to be present. What we choose to diarize on the calendar says something about our choices, our values, and our priorities. Whatever fills our days and weeks and months reflects us, but it doesn’t define us. We are in charge of charting our own course, our own destinies. We are more than what’s on the calendar.

This summer, and this upcoming year, perhaps spend some conscious time with your calendar. Decide where you want to schedule some time for fun, some time for reflection, some time for learning, some time for nature, some time for play. Perhaps remember Oraynu in your planning. And perhaps determine that this summer, this year, will be the time that you commit to doing whatever it is that you’re doing, whatever is on the calendar, with presence, focus, and joy. Strong individuals, building a strong community, and enjoying the fullness of life

Secrets and stories

This past Passover my daughter, who had just turned three, sang the four questions at our seder. It was a lovely moment for me. She also delighted in finding the afikomen, in dipping parsley in salt water, and in eating the traditional egg (she really likes eggs). As we and Jews around the world tell the story of the Exodus around our seder tables, we are part of generations who use the occasion of Passover to instil Jewish learning and identity. Passover, like other holidays such as Purim and Chanukah, is designed to excite the imaginations of children. These holidays work to teach our kids and remind ourselves as adults that we are part of a special, distinct group of people, and that our traditions help make us who we are.

Passover is a night of questions. So here is mine: does it matter that the Exodus, as we tell it, almost certainly didn't happen at all? Is it wrong to share this story and participate in all of the many traditions Jews have built around it, knowing that it is, in short, a fabrication?

Here's a related example: on Chanukah we celebrate the victory of the Maccabees. This is a story that is based in history. And yet, who were the Maccabees? Religious zealots who killed their fellow people who wanted to Hellenize, who were interested in literature, art, mathematics, sport, and expanding their cultural base. These are our heroes?

Passover is a time for questions. And, as Humanistic Jews, we are big believers in questioning. One of the things that first attracted me to this movement when I was a teenager, was that when I asked a question, people were excited and eager to share what they knew. When I had asked questions in more traditional and religious environments, my sense was that they were shielding me from information. And truth mattered to me then. It matters to me now.

So, am I a hypocrite for spreading the mis-truth of the Exodus story? Should I tell my daughter it's all make believe? She's three now. Is it ok for her to believe in fantasy for a while longer? How much longer? These are new questions for Passover and beyond in our age.

A few years ago I offered rabbinic support and some programming at the Society for Humanistic Judaism's youth conclave. Many Oraynu teens were there. We did an exercise on truth and fiction. One of the questions I asked was whether it mattered that the Exodus story wasn't real. And the teens, brilliantly, answered that stories don't have to be true to make them real. In other words, the events of the Exodus story don't have to be true for them to have real impacts on our lives, as we take their symbolic meaning and apply to it our current world.

In singing the four questions, and asking many more questions than those four, in participating in the rituals of the seder, in coming together to talk about our stories and our histories, we make an untrue story into an event that is real for us. Our struggles for freedom and justice, as individuals and as a people, are very real.

For many years I devoted myself to the study of literature. I also have a degree in History, but it was through literature that I really learned about the lives of people who have suffered in wars (Timothy Findley's "The Wars,",) live in places far from here, with their histories of colonization and resistance (Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart"), occupy identities and have histories different from my own, such as Black survivors of slavery (Toni Morrison's "Beloved"), and understand Canada very differently than I have as a white settler (Thomas King's "Green Grass Running Water"). All of these are fictional narratives of freedom struggles. They at times overlap with our own narratives as Jews. At times, they diverge. None of these are true stories, but all of them give us insight into the truths of these historical and contemporary realities. This is the complicated interplay between fact and fiction.

I believe in the power of stories. And I believe in distinguishing fact from fiction. I believe we can have our Jewish narrative tradition and also be honest about what is true.

So, when I tell my kids the story of Passover, I will be real with them as they grow about what we know and don't know. I will tell them that just because the events of the story didn't happen, the Jews have made the larger truths come alive every time we fight for freedom and justice. I will tell them that they are part of the Jewish people, a people no better than any other but, equally to any other, deserving of pride. And part of what is fun and meaningful about being Jewish is participating in our special rituals and practices. In telling the stories that are about and of our people, even if they are not about the actual events that happened to our people. And I will tell them that the first time they learned and sang the four questions, they made me a very  proud mama!

Creativity, connectivity, community

The very end of winter can be a tough time for people. The greyness outside, the lingering cold, the seeming endlessness of the season, all can make us want to hunker down. I am of the mind that winter can actually be a special time. As we go into a sort of hibernation-mode we can focus on generating some creative habits. I think humans need to create. In the making or bringing about of things, we put ourselves into the world. It helps us process some of what is bothering us; gives us an outlet. And it gives us the chance to add beauty to the world.

What does any of this have to do with being Jewish? Or a Humanist? Lots actually... There is a Jewish imperative to create. We are a text-based culture. For many they think of this only as writing, but our textual sources starting with the Torah demand interpretation. We call this interpretation midrash. And midrash can take the form of visual or other forms of art. Many Jews have expressed cultural identity and connection by creating Jewish art. From Judy Chicago to Mark Chagall, using Jewish themes in art both connects people to Judaism and deepens Judaism through these expressions. People have lovingly created Judaica in order to elevate our rituals such as lighting Shabbat candles or drinking wine with a blessing into a more beautiful experience. The story of the Golem is about people creating a mystical being (as opposed to a mystical being creating people) that houses its fears around antisemitism or other challenges. Art can be that repository for our fears, concerns and, like with the Golem, help us learn how to tame/control them. We mark Shabbat as a time for rest specifically because of the story of the world's creation. We make our own worlds each week and so need time to rest and reflect.

It has often been said that the impulse to create is one of the very things that separates humans from animals. We are creative beings. And as Humanists we have even more reasons to wish to create. We need our creativity to further life and the betterment/enrichment of life. We need creativity to find solutions to our problems. We need creativity to be able to imagine a better future. We aren't waiting for anyone else to address these human needs. We need to address them ourselves and the unique issues of humanity require the application of the unique creativity of humanity.

The creativity that goes into the planning and doing in one's own private life is itself important to note. There is creativity in planning and cooking meals, for example. Creativity in how we approach our work. Creativity in how we entertain children, for those who have children in their lives. Creativity in hobbies we pursue such as how we play a sport, an instrument or just, simply, play.

This winter I made a resolution to try to be more creative. I signed up or an online creative writing workshop. I signed up for an acrylic painting class. I went to a meeting of Choir! Choir! Choir which encourages anyone to come and sing along. I take a dance class. All of this has helped me both get out of my hibernation, but also use my quiet indoor time to a positive purpose. It has been energizing.

You've been hearing lots from me about social justice and Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. We are in some tough times. Part of my goal in pursuing artistic expression is tied to the challenges of justice we are facing. We need something that sustains us, quiets the mind, and gives us pleasure in order to maintain the energy and hopefulness required to do good in the world. And the arts themselves can give us metaphors for doing this work. A friend of mine related to me a metaphor of being in a choir. When holding a long note or several long notes, it is necessary to pause to breathe. However, if everyone stops at once then the music is interrupted. So choir members must rely on each other to hold the notes and keep the music going while each takes their turn to breathe. Then they must rejoin the singing so that others can breathe.

If you are feeling a little breathless, a little low on energy, and a little hopeless against the challenges of your life or in the broader world, I hope you find a way to take care of yourself. Art may be just the thing you need. And know that many of us are "singing" for you while you pause. Then, once you're feeling stronger, rejoin the singing so that your voice may contribute to the singing out for justice.

Creativity can lead to increased connectivity between us and the wider world. To truly engage our creative passions, and to make positive change, we also rely on community. If it has been a while since you've checked out Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, we hope to see you soon. We are a hub for Jewish, Humanist creativity and engagement, with programs on the arts, culture, and much more. As spring finally begins to make its appearance, perhaps its time to get out of hibernation and (re)connect with our creative and connected community.

Better together

My torah portion commentary in a recent Canadian Jewish News:


We are living in a tenuous time. Now, more than ever, we need our Jewish community to lean on and to work for social betterment. Torah has something to teach us about this. Seeing the leadership of his people, Jethrow, Moses’ father-in-law, is impressed, but also cautions Moses that “the thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” Many of us see ourselves as part of a liberation struggle. Whether it is an opposition to xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism, a desire to see action on climate change, deep concern for human rights for women and the LGBTQ community, the continuing shameful treatment of Indigenous Canadians, we see that there is indeed much work to do. And sometimes the task seems too heavy.

Moses was a leader, and we need strong leaders now, but he could not do his work alone, and neither can our leaders today. None of us can do it all, and nor should we. Whether it’s elected leaders, religious/cultural leaders, or leaders of social movements, leadership is nothing without broad-based, holistic, democratic, and participatory engagement. Moreover, we all win when we work together to create change, to bring forth liberation. The act of working together is part of the liberation itself.

I have been heartened to see Jewish communities everywhere standing up against injustice. Across the whole Jewish spectrum, we are united in our desire for justice and peace for all people. I am heartened by the caring and concern I’ve witnessed in my own congregation, and between congregations and movements. We cannot do this work alone. We need each other. I’m with you.

Truth and Reconciliation on Race

When I was studying for my Ph.D in South African literature, I became fascinated with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). After the end of apartheid there was no feasible way to bring all perpetrators of crimes and violence to justice. Firstly, many of the acts that should have been illegal were sanctioned by state policy. Secondly, there was so much secrecy and such a lack of transparency in government, military, and other institutions that there was no way to find evidence for the numerous crimes committed. And the sheer number of crimes meant that no system could possibly address and redress it all. So instead of trying to foster a model of punishing those responsible, the model became one of peace-building. Rather than pursuing punishment, the TRC’s goal was to pursue truth. If one testified as a “perpetrator,” and sufficiently convinced the tribunal of full disclosure, there was to be no punishment. There was no requirement to show remorse. And, of course, victims could also come forward to tell their stories.

My work focused on women’s testimony (the lack thereof and then, after special encouragements were made for women to speak their own stories, their handling, representation, and impact). But that is a story for another day. Except to say that it fascinated me that this tribunal provided a space for the previously voiceless to have a voice. And a model of restorative justice that, while problematic in many ways for many people, really did bring forth a national narrative of healing. In Canada, we have been undergoing our own process of finding truth and reconciliation with a TRC of our own. Our TRC is focused on First Nations, Metis, and Inuit (FNMI) communities. The treatment of Aboriginal/Indigenous Canadians has been abhorrent. In particular, the history of the residential schools, where thousands of children were taken from their families, mistreated, and robbed of their culture, has never been fully understood or addressed. Up until this day, there are missing and murdered Indigenous women whose disappearances have not been properly investigated. And there are many other examples. My brother is a criminal lawyer who recounts many stories of being shocked by the mistreatment of Aboriginal Canadians in our criminal justice system. And the statistics are clear. Nationally, 1/3 of all prisoners are Aboriginal Canadian. In some areas in Western Canada, that figure is closer to 1/2. It is clear there are systemic and widespread issues that need immediate attention.

There have been many comparisons made between the treatment of FNMI communities in Canada, and the groups classified as “African” under apartheid’s system of classification. Our reservations are a lot like their Bantustans, which are under-funded and lacking in resources. Our institutions, including health care and education, have a history of discrimination and violence towards these populations. Our government has little representation from members of these communities, as South Africa’s government reflected only a tiny minority of the make up of its citizens.

My work in South African literature eventually turned to the Jewish experience. At once part of the “white” majority, which had clear and obvious privilege, but also a targeted minority, on the receiving end of antisemitic violence and discrimination, the double-edged position fascinates me. And in Canada, again, I see similarities. We as Jews are, generally speaking, both a tiny minority still exposed to antisemitism and, simultaneously, part of the privileged race/class groups of our society. Just as I could never understand Jews who could reconcile themselves to living in apartheid South Africa, knowing what we know about oppression, I could never understand anti-Aboriginal racism amongst Jews here. I see it as a Jewish imperative for reasons coming from our history, from our traditions of pursuing tzedakah (justice) and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), and loving/living with/respecting the “strangers” we live amongst (nevermind that from the Indigenous point of view, we are the stranger!) to understand and honour FNMI peoples.

Aboriginal Canadians are amongst the many groups experiencing systemic racism and discrimination in Canada (and we see parallels in other countries as well). My main realm of understanding how systemic racism works is through the education system. I have taught both secondary and post-secondary classes, and teach at a School of Education and Professional Learning (where we teach new teachers about teaching). In the research on equity and education it is clear that students of minority backgrounds and students of colour experience disproportionate marginalization in classes, have much lower graduation rates, and frequently report experiencing racism (from microaggressions to overt hatred) from students and staff. This reflects my own experience. I recall teaching a high school history class and remarking that the textbook included one or two pages on Aboriginal Canadians, one or two on Black Canadians, and the rest on the history of "Europeans" in Canada. One of my assignments is for students to find topics of interest that are not in the textbook, simply to show that our "history" is selected and curated. Even initiatives such as "Black History Month" make clear that we are not integrating the histories and lived experiences of many of our communities into our curriculum regularly. There is "history." There is "Black history." If they are not the same then the former should surely have a racial or cultural marker as does the latter. If one walks down the corridors of the average school, one rarely sees representations of people of colour in powerful roles. High school and University level English literature syllabi have been largely unchanged for decades. In my tenth grade classes we're still doing Shakespeare and Harper Lee. I love Shakespeare and Harper Lee but it worries me that the majority of students graduate without ever having read a book by a person of colour, and have never had to think about what that means. It wasn't until I began a PhD in post colonial literature that I read widely in the literatures of Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia and beyond, and began to realize that there was (literally) a world of ideas and dialects and experiences I had never accessed.

What does any of this have to do with being a Jew? There are the above concerns about Tikkun Olam. We as Humanists have a particular desire to see and value all of humanity equally, so these trends should worry us. But for me, our insider/outsider status in North America of the minority group with social power, of the once stranger who is now largely assimilated, of the original wandering cosmopolitan subject in a world that is increasingly globalized and cosmopolitan, gives us a unique opportunity to build bridges. Our concerns as Jews: exile, diaspora, language, cultural separation and assimilation, nationhood, and belonging, are largely the issues of the other minority groups amongst whom we live. We can talk real about what it means to be different. We can talk real about what it means to be excluded and persecuted. And we can make sure we are never part of a "majority" that silences those experiences. But only if we acknowledge that systemic racism exists, in our schools, in our systems of justice, in our workplaces, and beyond.

We as Humanistic Jews are in favour of reason and truth over mythology. Much of Canadian and American society has been founded on the idea of "equality." That we are equal before the law; have equal opportunities in education and employment; and share equally in the resources of our respective nations. And yet, there is overwhelming evidence that suggests that equality remains a dream and not a reality. It can be difficult to acknowledge the fictions and frictions that surround us. But doing so is necessary for us to live full lives as Jews, as Humanists, and as human beings in a very complicated and still very unfair world.

Orlando, Ourselves (Reprinted from The Shofar)

Rabbi's message - Orlando, Ourselves (reprinted from The Shofar) This appeared in the most recent issue of Oraynu's Newsletter: The Shofar

Like many of you, I have been shattered to hear the news about the mass shooting in Orlando. The fact that the target of this crime was gay people, and Latino people, makes it especially egregious. We as Humanists honour the sanctity of all human life and we find it horrific when any population is the victim of hate and violence.

At Oraynu's Annual General Meeting (AGM) this week, I spoke about how, by chance, we have been together on the date of some horrific global events. On the night of the Paris attacks, we had our "Passing the Torch" evening, saying goodbye to Rabbi Emerita Karen Levy and officially welcoming me as your congregational rabbi. On the night of a large event we hosted discussing and debating Israel, we heard of the attacks in Belgium. And our AGM was held in the wake of the news from Orlando. Each time, we have said that we are happy to be together during difficult times; we draw solace and support from one another. And each time we wish those who are in pain and mourning the strength and courage needed to get through it. At the AGM I quoted Audre Lorde who said, in a very different context, "without community, there is no liberation." We are one another's community, and that is significant and meaningful during wonderful and difficult times. But this time, to be honest, repeating the same words of hope did not feel like enough. Many religious groups come together to pray at times like these. We don't, for we don't believe in the efficacy of prayer. Rather, we believe in the efficacy of human action. Yet, what action can we take to prevent these horrific atrocities? What can we do?

The Society for Humanistic Judaism reissued its previous statements on support for gay rights and support for an American ban on the legal purchasing of assault rifles. Ours is a public voice of which we can be proud: we have been a leader in fighting for same sex marriage, honouring and appreciating LGBTQ leadership in our communities, and providing Jewish homes for families who have felt excluded elsewhere in the Jewish world. But, still, for me, this hasn't been enough. Not this time. Not after seeing the faces and reading the stories of all of those young, hopeful, beautiful lives that were lost. And not after learning that the assailant, who frequented that same gay bar and had contacted people using a dating app for gay people, was likely dealing with his own internalized homophobia, not knowing how to manage the feelings that he might be gay himself.

We have to do more to name the very real issues that confront our society. As Canadians, it may be tempting to assume these problems are American in nature. But, truly, we have our own societal issues with racism and xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, and a deep cultural contempt for, leading to violence against, women, all of which were part of the story of Orlando.

As Humanistic Jews, we care about our own community and the broader human community. But let's not let our record of being on the right side of justice make us complacent. The very very hardest work to do when it comes to social justice is pursuing the hidden and internalized assumptions, biases, and internalized prejudices within ourselves. The full Audre Lorde quote is: "Without community, there is no liberation... But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretence that these differences do not exist." And this is, I believe, where and what our work is now. How do we think about and manage difference? For in ignoring it, as individuals and as a society, we can see that we give rise to terrible, terrible suffering. This issue I challenge us to think about racism in Canada in the Oraynu orates section. What did we think of the Black Lives Matter protests this past spring? I was moved by them. I was also moved in the past few months, particularly in the aftermath of the Jian Ghomeshi trial and the news coverage of the Stanford rape, to consider how pervasive the contempt for women still is in our society, and how "rape culture" is emboldened by it. Yes, at a place like Oraynu, led by three female rabbis and enriched by many strong and wonderful women, it can be easy to think such issues do not affect us. But they are us. All of us have internalized misogyny -- women and men -- and all of us need to work on it.

Finally, as I write this, the Pride celebrations are ramping up in our own city and around the world. Pride in Toronto has always been a special time. My first Pride marches were in the late 1990s when I joined PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and held up signs for "AIDS Action Now." Toronto's Pride celebrations then were certainly a party, but they were also decidedly political. In the years since, we have seen tremendous progress on gay rights. We have legalized same sex marriage. LGBTQ people are more visible, and welcome in all spaces, than ever. Pride in Toronto went from being an event for the marginalized to the very mainstream. We boast over a million people at our Pride parade, one of the largest in the world. It is both a symbol and celebration of how far we've come. And, yet, we have Orlando. This year, Pride takes on once again that more political tone. Yes, it's a party, it's a celebration, and it's filled with joy. But it's also certainly an act of publicly taking up space. The old chant goes: "We're here, we're queer."

And it's the taking up of space that concerns me and us now. We need to be present, vocal, and wholly engaged with these political issues of our time. We need to do the hard work of unlearning our own internalized racism, sexism, and homophobia. And we need to educate others to do the same. As Jews, as Humanists, as citizens of the world who wish to come together and not have to mourn. Not have to repeat the same words to build solace and strength. Words are not enough. We need action.

Pesach birth/ rebirth

Pesach is my favourite holiday of the year. I love getting together to tell stories, old and new, experiencing rituals that Jews have practiced for centuries, and the themes of renewal and redemption. As many of you know, I recently gave birth so, in particular, I am conscious of the opportunities the season, of Pesach and of spring, has to offer in terms of thinking of rebirth. We are born once, but we can be reborn many times. Religious societies sometimes speak about being “born-again” when someone accepts a new deity or religion into their lives. But to me, the idea of rebirth is a fundamentally human concept. Change is hard work. If we wish to reinvent ourselves, renew ourselves, come into a different understanding of who we are and what we wish to do, we need to turn inwards and do the hard work of reflection.

It is typically the high holiday period when we speak about this kind of reflection and renewal, but Pesach is another time that I find it’s worth a check in with myself. How am I doing with my goals for the year I set at Rosh Hashanah, now that half the year or so has passed? Have I rested during the winter season? Am I now ready for a burst of energy and life that comes with the awaken- ing of spring? What metaphors can I find in longer days, fuller light, buds opening, and birds returning?

The story of the Exodus itself is rife with themes of birth and rebirth. The midwives, Shifrah and Puah, usher Moses safely into the world and protect him despite the decree that the Jewish child be killed. Moses’ mother, Yocheved, consents to him being sent down the Nile in a basket, and his sister Miriam watches over him. Pharoah’s daughter finds Moses and keeps him in safety. All of these women, matriarchs of one kind or another, safeguard the child at once for his own value and because he represents for them the hope and redemption of the future. In the story, no one knows that he is special and is to be the deliverer of their people. But a baby always represents the endless possibility of one human life. It is precisely in the unknown of who and what they will become that we draw hope and strength.

In our adult lives we can also draw such strength from the unknowns of the future. Moses invents himself again and again. He moves from living with the Pharoah to becoming a shepherd in Midian with Tziporah and Jethro (his wife and father-in-law). He then sees the burning bush and finds a new path, overcoming a speech impediment and a fear of his own ability and power in order to become a great teacher and leader. Other characters also exhibit the themes of rebirth and reinvention. Miriam uses song to lead the people to overcome their own fear and march into the desert — the unknowns before them as vast as the desert landscape. The people choose to follow Miriam and Moses, trusting that the future they are enacting will be better than their enslaved past. Nothing is easy in the desert and the people make mistakes, as do their leaders. But this is the hard process of reinvention. There is beauty and joy in the struggle and the journey, as well as in their result. These are the metaphors for our own lives we find in this powerful story. We can choose to move into unknown future with courage. We can unchain ourselves from that which has been holding us back. We can start anew.

At Pesach, the egg symbolizes fertility and the circular nature of life. The greens on our Seder plate remind us of spring. And if your family chooses to put an orange or a potato or a beet on a Seder plate (newer additions that symbolize various contemporary ideas… look them up!), then you are actively engaging with the process of renewal that the holiday symbolizes. Not everyone is welcoming a new baby into their families. But everyone can appreciate that this time of year calls us to think about life, its preciousness and fleetingness, and how we can step into a fuller and freer version of our own.

Israel: Perspectives and Possibilities

If there is one issue that can divide a congregation, a family, or even one’s own sense of certainty, it is Israel. Questions of security, of peace, of justice, all consume us as Jews and as Humanists. The truth is, there are no easy answers. I was a graduate student at York University, a hot-bed of activism on the issue from all sides, and remember thinking that student groups would try to out-yell one another on the issue. During the complex and often painful “Students Against Israeli Apartheid” week, Jewish students would run their own counter-programming. Sometimes one side complained that the other had unfair treatment around security. Sometimes one side would try to shut down the other’s program. It always occurred to me that the most productive thing each group could do would be to attend the other’s events. How can we ever find a peaceable and workable solution unless we start listening to each other? When I was in Israel I saw Jewish and Palestinian groups working together to find peace. They weren’t necessarily to the “right” or “left” of any political organizing. Rather, they felt that if they were ever going to find a way to co-exist, they had to learn how to talk, listen, work, and live together. In Canada, the discourse on the subject of Israel is highly polarized and polarizing. Many of you have confided in me that you feel isolated in your Jewish families and circles of friends because of how they feel about Israel. Some have felt too Jewish to be part of the “left” (which is often antisemitic) and too left to be part of the “Jewish” spaces (even the intimate non-organized ones) that are often inconsistent with views some feel are Humanistic. Some of you have felt that the Jews with whom you associate are not pro-Israel enough, for we face real and existential concerns as Jews, and feel that these are downplayed.

The reality is, there are no easy answers. I have often felt that anyone who thinks they have a simple solution to the questions and problems of Israel does not understand the situation. For me, a Humanistic and Jewish point of view is one that respects the Jewish experience, and also respects the rights and sanctity of life for all. I wonder whether and how it might be possible to be both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. I wonder whether and how it might be possible for our community to model what respectful dialogue and disagreement look like. I wonder whether instead of feeling like we can’t talk about Israel in order to remain a close community, we start talking about Israel, trusting that it is within a close community that doing so is safe.

For all of these reasons, we created the event Israel: Perspectives and Possibilities. This isn’t a debate. This is an opportunity to hear differing points of view from a place of loving and understanding Jews and Israel. This is a place to challenge our own perspectives as we open ourselves to those with whom we disagree. And it is is a place to reaffirm who we are and what we believe as we hear arguments that support what we think and feel. This is a place where we hold space for each other and acknowledge that we may not always agree with one another, but we always care about and for one another. I hope to see you there.

ISRAEL: Perspectives and Possibilities

March 22 at 7:30 pm in Toronto

Jews in the GTA have differing and multiple views on Israel. Come hear dialogue from leading speakers and thinkers on Israel as they answer questions about peace, security, and much more. Speakers include: Steve McDonald (CIJA), Karen Mock (JSpace) and Joan Garson (NFN). More

Truth and Reconciliation at Tu B'shvat

When I was studying for my Ph.D in South African literature, I became fascinated with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). After the end of apartheid there was no feasible way to bring all perpetrators of crimes and violence to justice. Firstly, many of the acts that should have been illegal were sanctioned by state policy. Secondly, there was so much secrecy and such a lack of transparency in government, military, and other institutions that there was no way to find evidence for the numerous crimes committed. And the sheer number of crimes meant that no system could possibly address and redress it all. So instead of trying to foster a model of punishing those responsible, the model became one of peace-building. Rather than pursuing punishment, the TRC’s goal was to pursue truth. If one testified as a “perpetrator,” and sufficiently convinced the tribunal of full disclosure, there was to be no punishment. There was no requirement to show remorse. And, of course, victims could also come forward to tell their stories.

My work focused on women’s testimony (the lack thereof and then, after special encouragements were made for women to speak their own stories, their handling, representation, and impact). But that is a story for another day. Except to say that it fascinated me that this tribunal provided a space for the previously voiceless to have a voice. And a model of restorative justice that, while problematic in many ways for many people, really did bring forth a national narrative of healing. In Canada, we have been undergoing our own process of finding truth and reconciliation with a TRC of our own. Our TRC is focused on First Nations, Metis, and Inuit (FNMI) communities. The treatment of Aboriginal/Indigenous Canadians has been abhorrent. In particular, the history of the residential schools, where thousands of children were taken from their families, mistreated, and robbed of their culture, has never been fully understood or addressed. Up until this day, there are missing and murdered Indigenous women whose disappearances have not been properly investigated. And there are many other examples. My brother is a criminal lawyer who recounts many stories of being shocked by the mistreatment of Aboriginal Canadians in our criminal justice system. And the statistics are clear. Nationally, 1/3 of all prisoners are Aboriginal Canadian. In some areas in Western Canada, that figure is closer to 1/2. It is clear there are systemic and widespread issues that need immediate attention.

There have been many comparisons made between the treatment of FNMI communities in Canada, and the groups classified as “African” under apartheid’s system of classification. Our reservations are a lot like their Bantustans, which are under-funded and lacking in resources. Our institutions, including health care and education, have a history of discrimination and violence towards these populations. Our government has little representation from members of these communities, as South Africa’s government reflected only a tiny minority of the make up of its citizens.

My work in South African literature eventually turned to the Jewish experience. At once part of the “white” majority, which had clear and obvious privilege, but also a targeted minority, on the receiving end of antisemitic violence and discrimination, the double-edged position fascinates me. And in Canada, again, I see similarities. We as Jews are, generally speaking, both a tiny minority still exposed to antisemitism and, simultaneously, part of the privileged race/class groups of our society. Just as I could never understand Jews who could reconcile themselves to living in apartheid South Africa, knowing what we know about oppression, I could never understand anti-Aboriginal racism amongst Jews here. I see it as a Jewish imperative for reasons coming from our history, from our traditions of pursuing tzedakah (justice) and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), and loving/living with/respecting the “strangers” we live amongst (nevermind that from the Indigenous point of view, we are the stranger!) to understand and honour FNMI peoples.

This past week, the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism hosted a Tu B’shvat Seder alongside an Anishinaabe teacher/consultant named Kim Wheatley, with support from Ve’ahavta, a Jewish social justice organization. Tu B’shvat is a holiday focused on trees (a new year for the trees), and in modern times has become a Jewish earth day. The number four is significant on this holiday, particularly for those following the Kabbalistic tradition of a Tu B’shvat Seder (four glasses of wine, four types of fruit). It occurred to me that in Indigenous cultures, the number four is also of significance: four colours, four directions, four seasons. And much of those teachings resonate with the meaning of our holiday.

The partnership was beautiful! Eighty people came together in the spirit of sharing and community. We incorporated cedar tea and maple syrup into the Seder, we heard Jewish songs as well as Kim’s powerful singing and drumming. We ate fruits and nuts representative of our holidays, and we got to know one another. One evening, of course, cannot completely foster reconciliation. Our community has also been engaged in social action and advocacy projects in support of FNMI communities such as letter writing through Amnesty International to clean up polluted air and water, clothing drives for Toronto’s Native Men’s Residence, and apple picking in support of the Native Women’s Resource Centre who used the apples to bake pies to benefit advocacy towards an inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women. As Jews, as Canadians, as Humanists, we care about these issues and wish for our country to pursue justice and peace for all who live here and, in particular, Canada’s first inhabitants.

Gathering in and Letting Go

There is no shortage of difficult news in the world! Lately we have seen horrific violence in Israel, and terror attacks in Beirut, Paris, and Nigeria. We as a global community are on edge. In particular, I want to address the Canadian response to the Paris attacks (which, for a variety of reasons, had the most coverage and greatest response).

We mourn for the victims and with their families. We experience what people typically experience in these most atypical circumstances: shock, horror, sadness, fear, anger, hopelessness, and on and on. In some cases, we can find solace or hope in those who respond by helping, by risking themselves for others, by expressing a commitment to love and life in the face of hate and death. And we align ourselves with those committed to creating a better world, or, Jewishly, working for Tikkun Olam.

In today’s climate, there is a sort of hashtag solidarity that emerges. This time, the hashtag #PrayforParis became popular. But many of us Humanists noted that it is not prayer, but action, that can change the world. Notably, the Dalai Lama said something similar. A believer in God and Buddhism, even he urged that we cannot rely on external forces to create change. We must rely on ourselves. The Paris attacks showed the worst of what humanity is capable of; we need to always work to find the best, to be our best.

In Canada, there has been an immediate response highlighting both sides. On the one hand, a Mosque was burned down in Peterborough, Ontario (where I lived and have worked for many years). This ugly display of Islamaphobia shook us. But then the community responded by raising in excess of $100,000 to support the Mosque in its rebuild. Churches and the one synagogue in town offered up their buildings for Muslim prayer during the rebuilding. The community spoke loudly and clearly that the actions of a few do not represent the feelings of the many. It was a horrible event, with a beautiful response.

Similarly, many Canadians began raising objections to bringing in refugees from Syria, themselves fleeing the kind of terror that is behind the arising fear. Although security experts have stated that the risk in ISIS smuggling operatives through the channels available to refugees is very low, there is understandable fear. And yet there is another current that sees the refugees as part of the core of humanity affected by terror and violence. There are those seeking to protect as many people as possible. We need to be brave (not naive, brave) in the face of fear, terror. And we need always to pursue justice.

As we work to gather in refugees (my own community, the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism is working to sponsor a family), we also must work to let go of our fear, our learned racism and xenophobia. We must learn to build bridges across difference. We fight terror and radicalization in many ways, but part of that fight is acknowledging that love and hope need to be stronger than hate and despair.

Although this sentiment comes from Chasidism, in some ways very far from Humanism (in some ways quite close), I am reminded of the familiar sentiment: Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tsar me’od. The whole world is a narrow bridge, but the important thing is not to be afraid.

Ve-zot Ha-berakhah - on elegy, on engagement, and on ending

We looked last time at the Song of Moses, and in this, the final section of the Torah, we have the blessing of Moses. Moses blesses the tribes of Israel like a patriarch would bless his children just prior to his death. It is notable that his actual children or nephews are not given blessings. The point, perhaps, is that the family that matters in the story is that of the Jewish people in its entirety. The poetic form of the Song of Moses is here, ending the narrative of the Torah with the beauty of form and language that helps mark its significance throughout the ages as an important literary text. The ending offered is bittersweet: Moses is about to die, but Israel is moving ahead in "safety" and "happiness." This ending rings true, there is not a sweet and easy summation to the long and difficult road of the people, but they are prepared and ready to move ahead. In order to keep the positive and inspiring message at the narrative’s end, there is a reinforcement of the idea that Israel is superior to the other cultures around it. Moses says:

O happy Israel! Who is like you, A people delivered by the Lord, Your protecting Shield, your Sword triumphant! Your enemies shall come cringing before you, And you shall tread on their backs (33.29)

The Torah is meant to be the grounding of the Jews as a people throughout the generations. The writers know that hard times are coming. This passage suggests Jewish superiority and separation to and from others. It is also, in a sense, an early superhero myth, with the kind of strength of imagery and language that describe figures like Superman much later in Jewish literature. While we take issue with the idea of chosenness and superiority, the idea that the people are special, and protected, and living out a promise and a destiny that is pre-ordained, did give Jews solace and strength during centuries of exile. We look back on our story for being foundational to our people and appreciate its power on our ancestors through the chain of our predecessors, even as we know that the writing is not always true, and not always consistent with our contemporary values.

Moses knows he is not to enter the land, but he can see it from atop Mount Nebo. This is a complex metaphor for the relationship between Israel the people, and Israel the land. We too sometimes feel that we are far from the reality of Israel that we desire. We have so much attachment, sometimes coming from our relationship with Torah (sometimes too much driven by a belief in its authenticity tying our people with the land), to “haaretz,” but we still have work to do in creating the kind of just state that Humanistic Jews imagine. Like Moses, we see the opportunity for some kind of reconciling of land and peoplehood, but we know we are not quite there yet.

The parshah makes clear that Moses has transferred his position of leadership to Joshua, and that the people respect and follow him. This is a leader’s final act: securing a legacy and succession that leaves the people with a plan and with promise. Moses has taught us much of leadership, and thus it is fitting that the parshah, the book of Deuteronomy, the Torah as a whole end with a praise of his leadership qualities and influence.

Jews often refer to Moses as “Moshe Rabeinu,” Moses, our teacher. And in many ways Moses as a character and as a narrator for our central literary text, has taught us much along the way. One of the things the text teaches is that the text continues to reverberate and make meaning through the generations, because of the interpretations Jews throughout the ages have brought to it. One example is a lovely idea Rashi brings to the text. The parshah begins: “Moses blesses the people before his death” (33.1). Rashi, always arguing that redundancy is impossible in the text, asks why it says “before his death” because, obviously, he cannot bless the people after he dies. It seems unnecessary to include the phrase. Rashi reads the text in light of the Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, in which we have the famous phrase from Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Rashi comments on Deuteronomy 33.1, that Moses blesses the people before his death, “if not now, when?” thus tying together the Torah and later textual traditions. Rashi is reminding us, through Moses, that we all have a finite amount of time to accomplish what we set out to accomplish. Moses must bless the people now, for this is his last opportunity. What would we do or say if we knew we were in our final moments? The text challenges us to live as though life is short. It reminds us, ultimately, that humanity is in the hands of humanity. Moses is praised as a member of the people, because of the importance of the people, and his leadership shows us that we have the power to transform ourselves and each other. The Torah is a challenge to find the traditions and stories that lend meaning to our lives and help us renew our commitment to our peoplehood, our community, our Jewish identity, and our desire to see a better world. Moses embodies that challenge. At the end of the Torah it is clear that it is not just Joshua, but rather all of us, who must step forward to replace him as the one who defines the destiny of the people.

CONCLUSION It has been a wonderful project to try to reflect on the Torah – that weighty and fraught text made up of many texts. Humanistic Jews approach Torah as literature, part of a canon of Jewish literature that tells us something about our heritage, culture, and common symbolism and language. Of course, this collection is only one of many possible Humanistic commentaries. There is much more to say. We must be open to the richness of the canon of Torah and its commentary. We must also be open to the other texts that enrich Jewish life. Next steps, or suggested further reading, of texts we could and should interpret Humanistically are the rest of the books of Tanakh (the prophet and writings sections), as well as Mishnah, Talmud, commentaries from Nachmanides, Rambam, Sforno, etc. We too need more Ginsberg, Bialik, folk tale, oral storytelling texts. We need Mendelsohn and Buber, Amichai and Rilke. We need Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, Anita Yezirerska, and Leonard Cohen. All of these writers are part of the Jewish canon, but none are so foundational and well-known as Torah.

Dividing this commentary by the weekly parshot puts Humanistic Jews into connection with the communities around the world reading these texts each week at the same time. This common reading time, if not interpretation, is something no other Jewish text enjoys. The Torah and the people are in many ways strangers, and in many ways inextricable. This is part of what the weekly commentaries uncover. I love the study of literature. Nothing else can open up new worlds, expose bias and perspective, challenge with contradiction, and offer unlimited imaginative possibilities. Any text is always both being and becoming – like the Jews and their communities. This commentary focuses on the issues of its writing, but also and much more importantly – of its reading. The humanistic lessons we bring to the text, and we draw from it, can offer renewed meanings for our selves, our lives, and the text itself. As we dialogue with the commentators of the past and present, we situate ourselves in some of the most debated Jewish conversations. Through this process, we better find our own Jewish voice, and also our own Jewish claim to tradition. Humanistic Jews pride ourselves on saying what we mean and meaning what we say. How wonderful to be able to do this in interpreting the central text of Jewish literature, history, and culture.

HA AZINU - on poetry, on punishment, and on posterity

As we near the end of the Torah, in this last parshah of the weekly cycle (the last parshah is read on Simchat Torah to restart the cycle in the new year), we really see how the Torah blends history and literature. In an academic paper for my rabbinic training, I discuss the elements of Torah that combine fiction and fact, something akin to “memoir” or historical fiction. In this parshah, Moses is recounting his life and the story of the exodus, the making of the Jewish people, and the disappointments and triumphs. The section is written with clear knowledge of the later exile, and so history is being written backwards. This is one of many examples of biblical prophecy in retrospect. It is easy to know what will happen when you write the story after it already has. The content of this parshah is less interesting than the form and style. The structure is poetic – this is called the “Song of Moses,” and reminds us that the root of the word “history” is “story”. Here we have the narrative of our people.

Moses begins by saying that his discourse is to come down as rain (32.2). The words of the song are flowing down to the people. Rain is necessary for growth and for the flourishing of life, but it can also drown us. This seems, to me, to be like Torah. Our traditions can strengthen or enslave us, and we learn them through words, devarim (the Hebrew name for the book of Deuteronomy). The text repeatedly references the peoples’ rebellions and how they do not deserve the God who has saved them. Moses notes that God might have even considered destroying the people but, knowing that this would embolden other peoples to doubt the strength of the Israelite God, he reluctantly spares them. In the Song of Moses there are many references to such other Gods, and even a sense that the writer(s) believed that the Israelite God was more of the chief God in a pantheon, than the one and only God. Some of the awkward editing makes it seem as though polytheistic references were edited out. Moreover, the images/names for God in this section – “the rock” and “El” come from the surrounding culture. Reading Torah is always most interesting when we can glean glimpses of what has been excised, what is the story behind the story, what is unsaid as well as what is said.

The text also has merit for its form. There is something to be learned from the language here. The theism is bolstered by the powerful words and imagery the Song evokes. One example is the description of God taking the Israelite: He found him in a desert region, In an empty howling waste. He engirded him, watched over him, Guarded him as the pupil of is eye. Like an eagle who rouses his nestings,
Gliding down to his young, So did He spread is wings and take him, Bear him along on His pinions (32.11)

This passage about God as protector is filled with literary devices such as metaphor and simile, and strong imagery. Many commentators have focused on the metaphor of God as eagle, because it is so striking. There are passages that focus on the protection God provides, and others that focus, in equally stunning poetry, on his vengeance:

I will make my arrows drunk with blood- As My sword devours flesh- Blood of the slain and the captive From the long-haired enemy chiefs (32.42)

Here the imagery is much more frightening. Both passages highlight the power of the God-figure, but here the power is less inspiring and more terrifying. These contrasting images of God make it clear that different ideas of what/who God was have been combined in the Song. Moses tells the people to love God, but his Song really suggests that it is less important to love, and more important to fear and obey. The God-figure of the Hebrew Bible is powerful, and powerful language is used to describe him, but he is the cause and reason for following the law. Torah, as we reach its conclusion, is always both law and story, each reinforcing the other.

Moses' song is his swan song. He knows he will die. It is interesting to consider that if we each knew exactly when we were to meet our end, and we knew we had a platform, what ideas and words would we find it most important to convey? What messages about our legacy, our hopes for the future, what we have learned while on earth? Moses is made very clearly mortal in order to show that he is not a god. We are to identify with his humanity. And so the text asks us to say goodbye to this this leader, teacher, this guide of ours, and to do carry on the peoplehood he helped to create and to free.

Va-Yelekh: on didacticism, on death, on dreams,

We are in the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is a time for apologies and forgiveness. A time to make amends. For traditional Jews, this was the time to worry about whether you'd be inscribed in the book of life. It is fitting, therefore, that the weekly parshah, Va-Yelekh, moves from last week's theme of life into the theme of death. Moses is saying farewell to his people. Notably, the text narrates his own death (odd that he is still speaking – he tells the story of how he dies) and the Torah being formed as a written document (again, it is rare for a text to encode its own encoding). These are signs that the Torah was written for people, by people. So what are we to learn from Moses as a character? While he is not a historical person as far as history shows us, his figurative power – as a deliverer and a leader – have been hugely meaningful to Jews throughout the ages. Moses notes that he is 120 years old. He simply cannot go on (this is the maximum age, scholars suggest, that God can allow a human to live). Moses names Joshua his successor, and gives him a bit of a pep talk as to the qualities he has that make him deserving, and those he needs to lead. Moses is a good role model for leadership – he goes as far as he can and then creates a legacy. Moses, in this scene and throughout the biblical narrative, reminds us of the frailties and mistakes of humanity, but also that we can meet challenges, inspire others, fight for freedom, and blaze new trails. He is a Humanistic hero in many ways and, just as we experience sadness for the death of any literary character with whom we connect, his death saddens us as well. For Humanistic Jews, we do not believe there is a book that tells who shall live and who shall die. The hard truth is that no one knows how much time any of us has. For this reason, we are compelled to make maximum meaning out of the time we have. Moses inspires us to imagine what we can do for ourselves and others to better our circumstances. Whatever is our own "promised land," our lives are about its pursuit

Rosh Hashanah commentary 5776

Rosh Hashanah and the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) are upon us once again. Of what are we in awe? Of our own capacity for teshuvah, or turning. We look back to see who we have been so we can look ahead to who we wish to be. We are in awe of our communities that make us stronger, that lend compassion and empathy, humour and happiness. We are in awe of our world which continues to be both beautiful and heart-wrenching every day.

This year at Rosh Hashanah services, we read from I Samuel, a traditional reading that describes Hannah's struggle to conceive a child. She silently prays to have a child, and promises to dedicate his life to Temple service just after weaning. This is what happens. It's a difficult part of Tanakh (Hebrew bible) to connect with. Here is how I tried to make some sense of it for us as we embark on the gratifying journey of self-exploration this year, 5776.

Hannah is a figure who elicits much compassion. She is earnest, she is kind, she is self-sacrificing. Religious communities include this reading from First Samuel in order to highlight the efficacy of prayer. Hannah committing her first son, Samuel, to live and serve the Priests at the Temple, provides a perfect role model that religious leadership, from Priests during the Temple period, to rabbis afterwards, would wish to uphold. One's personal goals and dreams can be fulfilled with prayer and service to one's religion. However, religion may also demand of you that you sacrifice your dreams and goals. It cuts both ways.

In case this is beginning to sound like the kind of sermon many of us may have dreaded in shule growing up, fear not. At Oraynu, we do not demand of you total sacrifice; we are not interested in raising your first born children (although we'd be happy to educate them at our children's school!). For us, Judaism is actually the exact opposite of how it is portrayed here. It is a structure, culture, set of traditions and practices, by which our personal dreams and goals may be fulfilled, not compromised.

The tension in this passage between dreams realized and then sacrificed, for Hannah gets to have a child but then must give him up just after weaning, is a tension we all live with, we all can learn from. It is no accident that this is one of the Haftorah readings that are included in Rosh Hashanah, given that the holiday's Torah readings centre around the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. Isaac was also born to an infertile woman, Sarah. In fact many of the foremothers in Jewish lore are infertile. Why? What does it signify?

For many of these women, infertility was the test of their faith, and their faith was affirmed when their prayer of having a child was answered. In the story of Sarah, when she is told at the age of 90 that she is indeed pregnant, she bursts into laughter -- she simply can't believe it! Her child, Isaac, is named for that laughter. Just as Isaac is nearly sacrificed to prove Abraham's faith, Samuel's life must be sacrificed or at least devoted to the temple to prove Hannah's. To be sure, the idea of faith is central. But the repeated metaphor of having children to make that theme come alive in the texts, is also crucial. What better metaphor to choose to illustrate total longing, total sacrifice, total devotion than children? Not everyone is a parent and not everyone wishes to be. But for those who are, for many of us we would have done anything to become parents. We relate to Hannah who will promise whatever she needs to. And once we become parents, we, too, are tested. Indeed, children represent the fulfillment of our greatest wishes and hopes, and simultaneously our greatest test, the demand for our greatest self-sacrificing. Not all of us are parents, but all were children. We know of the sacrifices our caregivers made for us. These relationships aren't always perfect, but we know that we are all the products of the giving of others.

What is the lesson in all of this? Surely not the efficacy of prayer. Surely at least not just that. I think the text demands us to consider that whatever it is we wish and hope for, will only be worthwhile if we are willing to work and even sacrifice for it. This is a very Jewish idea! For example, to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah at Oraynu and across the Jewish world, one must engage in serious study, in community service, in thoughtful contemplation about our tradition and what it means to us today. One must get up in front of a crowd (not easy for any of us, particularly at that age), and prove our earnest wish to become the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. This adolescent must give up time spent on other commitments, from social outings, to sports, to school clubs, in order to make this a priority. It is the sacrifice that makes all that learning and doing meaningful. These youngsters say to our community: we choose this. This matters. It won't be easy, but it will be worth it. And it is worth it, because all of that learning, contributing to society, engaging with one's culture, surely gives more than any of those single other events. I often tell parents that I understand that hockey, music lessons, chess club, they are all important. But, to me, nothing is as important as Jewish education because when our children are adults, it is unlikely they will all be world-class hockey players, or violinists (although, let's hope some will!), but they will hopefully all still care about being Jewish.

As the Bar or Bat Mitzvah takes the brave step of standing in front of their community, they realize that they are loved, respected, and included in this group. They are someone who matters to all of these people. We come to watch the individual, to support them. But we get much out of it too. We get to see the future of our culture in blossom. We get to see ourselves reflected in our youth, just as they get to see themselves reflected in us.

This is the story of Hannah and Samuel. She trusts her God, we could read that as her tradition, culture, community, to provide for her. And in response, she gives all that she has back. Again, fear not, this is not a clever plea for donations! But it is a suggestion that we all benefit from a community to which we contribute. We hear all the time from Oraynu's most active members that the more they volunteer, serve, and participate, the more they get out of it.

This is also the story of building a meaningful life through hard work. For parents, we know that children need us, of course, for their care and survival. But emotionally, we need them so much more! We provide for them, but the joy and fulfillment hey provide is so much more! This is not limited to having children. Any career, any relationship, any project that is deeply meaningful to us, must also be deeply demanding of us.

We sit here today, at this most deeply meaningful time of year, in community. Like Hannah, we sacrifice for this privilege - it is our time, it is the cost of our membership or the tickets, it is the choice to be here and nowhere else. Like Hannah, we hope that what we provide in return is deeply significant, and in some way, helps everyone here meet their own goals. We are a group of very diverse individuals. Our individual selves and dreams matter. We are here to examine what we wish to accomplish, change, or experience this year. We are here to wonder about who we have been and who we wish to become. And our community matters. We are here, like the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, to be seen and to truly see others. By being here, every one of you matters. We could not be a community without you. And we hope this community matters to you as well.

Rosh Hashanah is about renewal. Metaphors of children speak so naturally to this idea. Birth and rebirth, fecundity, hope for the future, and, yes, sacrifice to make our deepest desires come to fruition, all of this is symbolized by the birth of a child. There is also the child-like, not childish but child-like, being within each of us, yearning to see the world with the kind of wonder we all did at our beginnings. Let the metaphor speak to us about our own renewal. How can we, this year, focus on our own rebirth or re-creation? How can we look to our future with the same hopefulness and wonder as we see in children and they see in us and the world?

There is one more aspect of Hannah's story that I find insightful. Hannah prays silently, she says, with her heart. It is not the words that matter, but her deepest intention. We are caught up in a world that is filled with signs, images, words, language. We are bombarded. And we participate. We text, we write, we talk. We live loud lives. In Humanistic Judaism, we do believe words matter. We pride ourselves on saying what we believe and believing what we say. But there is also something to the idea that something in us, something special and even sacred, is beyond language. Today is an opportunity to connect to the community beyond ourselves, and also to connect to that deepest part of ourselves. What is our deepest hope, desire, dream? What is it that I truly want to do, to achieve, to have, to experience? And, like Hannah, we can ask what is demanded of me to realize that dream? What must I sacrifice? And what, immeasurable, but much much greater than that sacrifice, is there to be gained?

Nitsavim: on the heart/mouth dialectic, on Humanistic values, and on how we choose life

In Nitsavim, Moses tells the people that the Torah is for everyone – “it is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach” (30.11). Anyone and everyone should have access to the teachings of the Torah. This is one of the motivations for my commentaries on Torah; too many Jews feel Torah is the domain of the religious or the orthodox. But it is our cultural legacy too. And, besides, if we don't know what it says, we can't argue back when Torah/bible is used to justify things with which we disagree. This parshah says that the Torah is “not in the heavens” or the “seas,” “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (30.12-14). The connection between the heart and the mouth is meaningful for Humanistic Jews, because we reject the idea that we should say words we do not believe. We hold value in speaking the truth of our hearts and minds. The line “not in the heavens” will be familiar to many readers from the “ovens of Achnai” story from the Talmud. Without rehearsing the entire story here, it is a story of how humans, particularly rabbis, were given the power to make decisions on earth. The problems of our times are our own to solve. This is an idea that served early rabbis, but continues to serve Humanistic Jews as well. We know that the solutions we seek are “not in the heavens,” and while the Torah may not provide all of the truths and solutions we seek, it does provide us with a narrative body that asks some of our key questions.

One interesting aspect of Moses’ warning in this parshah, particularly given that we read it immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah, is that, if someone turns away from God “The Lord will never forgive him; rather will the Lord’s anger and passion rage against that man, till every sanction recorded in this book comes down upon him, and the Lord blots out his name from under heaven” (29.19). Last week we saw the first mentioning of the writing comprising the Torah as a “book,” reminding us not only of its narrativity (and I discuss its literary value), but also of its later writing and attribution to an earlier time. We spoke also of the influence of surrounding cultures on what became Jewish culture. No more is this evident than here. Many of us are familiar with the traditional idea that during the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God is keeping names in a “Book of life.” Those who have sinned and not repented are blotted out of that book. The idea comes from a Mesopotamian idea that there is a book containing the divine decree for each individual. One of the ideas that most Jews take seriously at (for many) the one time of year that they fully participate in Jewish life, is taken from another culture. Humanistic Jews are less worried about the way in which the book of life idea may be borrowed, and more concerned with the way in which it encourages people to renounce control over their own lives. There is no book. There is no plan. None of us knows how long we will live, and, for this reason, it is necessary to do the work of asking for forgiveness, and forgiving ourselves. This is the meaning we draw from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In this parshah, Moses tells the people to "choose life." By that he means, believe in and obey God so that one secures their place in the book of life. I believe that to be a Humanistic Jew is to choose life. We do not look forward to a “world to come,” and we do not defer entirely to “tradition” and the past. We are in the present. We are committed to building our own futures through rational decision making and a commitment to follow our hearts. We take responsibility for ourselves and our world. That is to choose life. How we choose life is an individual expression of the concept. For me, I hope that I engage and grapple with the people, issues, and challenges of my community. I hope that I maximize my participation in the things which bring me joy and sustenance. I hope that I find moments to laugh and play, as well as to work hard. I hope that I make my family and friends feel loved, and that I appreciate the love they offer me. I hope that I spend time in nature, with books, with company, and alone. I hope that I devote equal energy to my intellectual pursuits and my emotional ones. I hope that I care for my body, enjoying the rush of endorphins that come with exercise, but also knowing the value of rest. I hope above all that I let passion guide my choices and that my life becomes fuller and fuller as a result. Let’s all think of how we can better “choose life” for ourselves.

Ki Tavo - on gifts, on guilt, and on great writing

This parshah begins by outlining how one must bring a basket of first fruits to the Priest to give thanks for the work of God in freeing the people. Connected to the holiday of Shavuot, a thanksgiving festival at harvest time, the idea of giving thanks makes sense as a preface to this section which is all about the rewards for obeying God and the punishments for failing to do so. A lovely tradition on Shavuot is to give a fruit basket to a neighbour or friend. This is in thanksgiving not only for the fruits of the season and the farmers/growers who cultivate them, but also for the gifts of friendship. Gratitude is good for us – it not only humbles us but can enrich our lives. Sometimes we have days when it is hard to see what is positive in our lives. If we force ourselves to pay attention to that for which we’re grateful, we remind ourselves to put our challenges or problems (even when significant) in context.

This parshah gives blessings – if the people follow the law and believe in God then they will be blessed with fertility, abundance, and dominion over themselves and the land. If not, however, terrible things will happen. We find curses that come in various forms. It is important to put such curses in a historical frame. This section of Deuteronomy was clearly written after the experience of exile and the influence of Babylonian/Assyrian rulers and cultures. But, of course, the piece is being written as though prior to the Israelites even entering the land. The curses that describe a future possibility (this will happen if…), are actually describing the past and present. Many of the curses, such as living under foreign rulers whose languages the Israelites do not speak (28.47-57), are much like some of the prophetic literature we find in the book of Jeremiah, for example, that blames exile and defeat on the people’s immorality and lack of belief. Note morality here really is defined as obedience – if the people do as their told good things will happen, and if they don’t then they bring bad things upon themselves. If only our actions existed in a cause/effect schema that was this simple! We know that people are afflicted with hunger, disease, infertility, and other problems outlined in the curses of this parshah, independent of how ethical and good-hearted they are. In fact, one of the reasons so many Humanistic Jews turn away from the idea of God is that we see how good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people, and we let go of the idea that we live according to any kind of divine plan or divine justice. Luckily, we are much more interested in morality than obedience; we do not define “goodness” as doing what one is told, but rather trying to effect positive change according to the way we rationally understand the world. The blessings and curses of this section neither excite nor terrify us, but this does not mean that they are useless either.

We typically read the bible as a literary document, but acknowledge that it can teach us about history as well. We do not take literally the idea that Moses delivered this speech to the people. But we do understand something about history from the text. Firstly, this portion resembles Assyrian vassal treaties which similarly outlines punishments for disobedience. Scholars find that our text was highly influenced by such treaties, and thus we have a record of how our ancestors dealt with and incorporated ideas and texts of their surrounding culture. Another interesting historical piece comes from a slippage in the text. We are to believe that Moses has delivered everything orally, with the exception of the tablets he brought down at Sinai. But there is a moment here where his character says, “if you fail to observe faithfully all the terms of this teaching that are written in this book….” (28.58). At this point in the narrative, Moses has written nothing down and there has been no mention of a “book” of laws. This type of anachronistic detail reveals that later writers attributed their writing to earlier times, which gives us a fascinating look at why they wanted to write this text, these stories and laws, for the people of their own time, but not the time of the supposed events. Looking at the Torah as history is dubious – it gives us clues to our history but, as we see above, rarely offers a straight and factual historical record. What it does offer is powerful storytelling. Few commentaries spend enough time and attention on the language of this parshah. While some find the curses to be a warning, and other a sign of a vengeful God, I simply admire the strength and force of the writing itself. Here are some examples of curses that are incredibly well-written: “the stranger in your midst shall rise above you higher and higher, while you sink lower and lower: he shall be your creditor, but you shall not be his; he shall be the head and you the tail” (28.43-44). What metaphor! What parallelism! Another example describes the desperation and hunger that will come under this foreign domination: “And she who is most tender and dainty among you, so tender and dainty that she would never venture to set a foot on the ground, shall begrudge the husband of her bosom, and her son and her daughter, the afterbirth that issues from between her legs and the babies she bears, she shall eat them secretly, because of utter want, in the desperate traits to which your enemy shall reduce you in your towns” (28.56-57). Here we see that the natural order of things is reversed. The imagery is so powerful in its macabre and disturbing conjurations. This is meant to inspire awe (and fear), and it does. Too many commentators, worried about the theological implications of a God who curses his supposedly “chosen people,” and blames their misfortunes on them when he is supposed to be all-powerful, ignore the language and its beauty. Humanistic Jews, not reliant on the idea of an all-powerful God, can dispense with the theological somersaults and enjoy the literary value of this and other parashot. This section of Deuteronomy, screams for literary analysis. It's such a shame when Jews overlook the literary value of our central texts. Who needs gothic literature when you have parashat Ki Tavo?

Ki Tetse - on rebelliousness, on rule-making, and on renouncing one's faith

Maimonides counts 72 laws in this parshah, for it reads as a law code without narrative elements. Instruction after instruction is given, but embedded in each rule/law can we find cultural values. The first is that the “rebellious son” should be stoned to death. This is a textual moment that betrays absolute intolerance to difference within the community. If one’s son worships another God, he is to be stoned. The Talmud takes this passage and nullifies it, explaining that there are so many specifications necessary for the son to be deemed “rebellious,” that such a stoning would be impossible. The Jewish intellectual tradition had to always attempt to hold in balance the idea of divine writing of the Torah (thus nothing therein can be wrong) and the human values that sometimes conflict with it.

It seems unthinkable that someone would watch their own child die for any act of rebelliousness, yet this passage reminds me of those who sit shiva for their own children who intermarry. Like the prohibition against “idolatry” (worshipping Gods other than Yahweh), banning intermarriage is about keeping Judaism a closed and fixed group. It is a step up that contemporary Jews only imagine their children are dead (in sitting shiva), as opposed to actually killing them, but there is a long way to go in terms of how we find real humanity in Judaism. We, like the early rabbis dealing with this passage, must reconcile how we find meaning in the text, but also (and more importantly), how we find values that are extant to the text but more meaningful for our lives.

One of the other rules given in the passage prohibits cross-dressing. There is no textual explanation for why cross-dressing should be banned; Rashi’s theory is that for women the only reason one would cross-dress is to commit adultery (disguising oneself to be able to have the freedom to be alone with a man), and the only reason a man would cross-dress is if he were homosexual. As both adultery and homosexuality are banned, Rashi reasons, cross-dressing should be banned as means to these things. Of course, there can be many reasons why people cross-dress (in fact, there is strong evidence that most cross-dressers are not gay. Presumably, there is no causal link between cross-dressing and adultery either). What is fascinating is that the biblical prohibition of cross-dressing shows that some people were doing it. In recent decades, queer rights movements have made it much safer for Jews to be “out” in many communities. There is much more work to be done in terms of equal recognition of marriage across the movements, the place for transgendered Jews in segregated seating, etc. But both of these (marriage and mechitza) in orthodox communities are inextricable with patriarchal Judaism – something that has never been friendly to sexual diversity. As Humanistic Jews, it is interesting that our biblical roots encode the fact that such diversity has been germane to Jewish culture. Jewish communities are and should always be at the forefront of the struggle for rights for queer and trans people, and should especially be welcoming of these and all people in our spaces.

There are some astonishing laws given pertaining to women. A woman's parents must prove she was a virgin by holding up a bloody sheet after consummation, if a question arises. There are shocking rules about rape and how it may be proven. Women are, in general, seen as property and have few rights, as is made clear in the rules detailed for Levirate marriage (a man must marry his brother's widow).

So far we have seen many laws and rules in the parshah that are distasteful for Humanistic Jews (and humanistic individuals in general). But there are also laws which show a real consideration of how to live fairly. The parshah says that slaves should be protected from harm (we are, of course, opposed to having slaves, but in favour of the idea that the weak/powerless should be protected). The parshah also says that one can eat from a neighbour’s vineyard or field as one passes, but one should not take anything away. Here we see an interesting approach to the balance between feeding the hungry and discouraging theft. Similarly, there is a prohibition against gleaning (the JPS text says “do not pick over”) the vines of fields after harvesting. Leave the leftovers for the “stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” (24.20-21). Thus the non-Jew, the orphan, the widow – all of those without a structure of familial and community support, should be provided for. There is an emphasis on hospitality and care-taking here that is laudable. There are, indeed, many rules relating to avoiding economic exploitation of others. It is clear that the text is very concerned with avoiding a cycle of poverty being passed down through generations, and very concerned with providing for the basic needs of all. This is something to celebrate.

We have another rule which is special because it becomes important for a particular set of midrashim relating to Elisha ben Avuyah. The rule is that if one takes eggs from a nest, one should shoo away the mother (so that, presumably, she can lay eggs again and there is no permanent cost/damage). There is a midrash of a boy whose father tells him to take eggs from a nest. He obliges, climbs a tree where the nest is, and, remembering the rule, shoos away the mother. Elisha ben Avuyah sees the boy and thinks that he is fulfilling not one but two commandments: to honour one’s parents and to protect the mother bird. Elisha ben Avuyah knows that those who follow commandments are promised a long life. He thinks that the boy, in fulfilling two commandments, will be given a long life and – at just that moment – the boy falls from the tree and dies.

After this, Elisha ben Avuyah can no longer believe in the truth of what he has been taught; he questions the link between Torah and justice, and he essentially renounces his faith. Rabbinic texts refer to Elisha ben Avuyah as “Acher” (other), for his status as an apostate separates him from his community. Many of us who find Humanistic Judaism have had the experience of feeling “other” in our families, synagogues, and Jewish communities because we too reject the idea of a good and moral God who, despite being all powerful, creates suffering. Whether through the horrific experience of the Holocaust, or the more quotidian yet still highly painful witnessing of poverty, oppression, and injustice in our world, we cannot accept that our world is the result of an omniscient, omnipotent, God. While we all struggle to find the line between our truth and our place in our family and community (we do not have to have the “existence of God” argument at every Shabbat dinner), we are delighted that, unlike Elisha ben Avuyah, we have access to communities that are welcoming of our views. We need not remain “Acher,” and our questioning attitudes can be the basis for strong intellectual and emotional ties in community.