Happy 2018 - it’s not too late to make resolutions!

We celebrated Rosh Hashanah back in September, but most of us also mark this time of year. Given that we have two “New Years” (more even, there are actually four in the Jewish calendar, the next being Tu B’shvat, the New Year of the trees), it’s useful to pause and reflect. Did you commit yourself to any goals at Rosh Hashanah that need attention now? How have the last few months been? And what are you seeking in the months ahead?

Some of you might be setting resolutions. Others might shrug the tradition off. There are other ways I’ve been exploring this year. Check out the work of http://www.susannahconway.com/ who has a New Year’s workbook or, if that’s too much to take on, a little challenge to find one word that will be your anchor this year. Words she suggests might work for you are: presence, mindfulness, hope, peace, rest, joy, laughter, strength. Is there a word that you hope will be thematic for you in 2018?

You might be more interested in asking yourself some questions for reflection. These ones are useful: https://nosidebar.com/intentionally/

As Humanists, asking hard questions about the world and about ourselves is part of our philosophy. As Jews, it might be interesting to consider whether our worldview, our goals/resolutions, and our way of being in the world is inflected and informed by Jewish values and experience.

Do you have any resolutions centred around Judaism for this year? Here are some ideas:

-Learn something new about Judaism (one way is to check out Rabbi Eva’s fabulous adult learning sessions)

-Research a historical period/place and how Jews lived. For example, what was life like for Jews living in the Ottoman Empire? Or Jews in China?

-Start a new Jewish practice: light Shabbat candles each week, start doing Havdallah on a monthly basis (there are Humanistic ways to do these rituals), celebrate a holiday you’ve never celebrated before with your family

-Attend a, or attend more often a, Jewish-themed film, speaker, book talk, etc

-Do some text study online or in a group. Torah, Tanakh, Talmud, even Kabbalah…

Sometimes a year is too daunting to consider. Perhaps we can commit to one Jewish value/idea to inspire us and work on per month. Here’s an example (you can sub in your own Jewish values if you wish):

January - tzedakah (charity/justice)

February - chesed (loving kindness)

March - hochma (wisdom)

April - yetzira (creativity)

May - rachamim (compassion)

June - sameach (joy)

July - seder (organization and order)

August - Tiferet (balance)

September - rodef shalom (pursue peace)

October - achrayut (social responsibility)

November -hakarat hatov (gratitude)

December - ahava (love)

If you’d like to ask me about Jewish sources or insights into any of these concepts, please drop me a line! I’d love to chat.

The new year ahead is like freshly fallen snow (of which we’ve had plenty!): somehow pure, a little bit like a blank canvas, something inviting us to muck it up and make our tracks all through it. No one’s year will be perfect or pristine. But I hope all of us experience adventure and laughter, joy and peace, health and happiness.

Happy 2018! Let’s make this a great year, together.

#metoo - Thoughts from a Female Rabbi

This piece is the rabbi’s message from the October issue of the Shofar, newsletter of the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. http://www.oraynu.org

 

As my social media feed was flooded with #metoo messages, I was really struck by how this is a Jewish problem. For context, actor Alyssa Milano started a twitter/facebook post called “me too” and asked women who had ever been sexually harassed or assaulted to post “me too” as a way of highlighting the prevalence of violence against women and girls. It was very effective and effecting. A lot of women I know shared their stories and experiences, and it made me deeply sad to realize how every one of us has a story, has countless stories.

If you read Jewish media, you can see Jewish responses. Actor Mayim Bialik wrote a terrible op-ed in the New York Times that suggested that she didn’t experience this type of harassment and threat because she isn’t traditionally beautiful. Here’s the thing though: this type of abuse of power isn’t about beauty. It’s about power itself. And blaming it on how the woman looks, dresses, or behaves, continues to take the focus off of the perpetrators. And who are these perpetrators? They are the people in our own communities.

Here’s a recent “me too” story of mine: I was officiating a baby naming this past summer. I was standing in the kitchen of the home before the ceremony was set to begin, speaking with the mother of the baby. Her father, whose granddaughter was about to be celebrated and named ceremonially, said this to me: “You’re the rabbi? I was about to make a pass at you!”. What were my choices in this moment? There were a lot of things I wanted to say to him. And if I had been in a different situation, I would have. But I didn’t want to embarrass his daughter and I didn’t want to create tension at the simcha. So I let it go. But guess what? I can’t let it go. It’s part of my experience now as a rabbi, as a woman, as a human. I have to wear it. I have no doubt that he has forgotten this moment and has visited this type of “joke” on woman after woman both before and since.


I’m sure right now you’re thinking something like: “this isn’t really such a big deal. Who cares? Men of that generation grew up thinking this sort of thing was ok.” Notice how we are completely conditioned to find a way to either make the woman in a harassment situation responsible (“stop being so sensitive”) or to excuse the harassment (“boys will be boys”). Guess who is getting off the hook? The harasser. And because that’s the way the discourse works, more serious forms of harassment are equally excused. Women don’t talk about these experiences because they are so often minimized, dismissed, explained away or, worst of all, we are told we did something to “invite” it and/or are overreacting. The whole culture around harassment makes it safe for harassers to keep harassing and unsafe for women to object. So we really shouldn’t be surprised when such silence surrounds other forms of harassment and assault. The dynamic is set up to protect the perpetrators and blame the victims.


What’s the function of that “joke”? It is about him putting me in my place. I have no doubt that my male colleagues in our movement and across the Jewish world have never or rarely had anyone say anything similar. And if they have it still isn’t equivalent. As a woman, I have had so many such jokes, comment, thinly-vieled threats thrown my way that it has become commonplace. What is this “joke” really about? It is about questioning my authority. Mostly, I believe, it is about this man intimating that he has the right to make a joke at my expense. And my job, if I want to go along to get along, to not create a scene, to not be the “type of woman/feminist” who just “can’t take a joke,” is to laugh. I gave a little chuckle. I chuckled at my own expense.
What is the cost to all this? There is a cost to me. There is a cost to his daughter who was standing there (the one I didn’t want to embarrass but was embarrassed by her father all the same). There is a cost to the baby girl who was named that day. All women and girls lose when, in the subtle and countless ways we are made to participate in our own marginalization and oppression, we undermine our very humanity.


I’m sure if you ask most people about this man they would tell you that he is a “nice guy.” That’s what struck me about all the “me too” posts I saw. Most perpetrators of these moments of harassment, assault, and abuse would never acknowledge, may not even realize, the harm they are causing. We have all of these “nice guys” out there visiting terrible pain on the women they often love and, certainly, the many women and girls for whom they harbor contempt. And, yes, I’m singling out men. I know sometimes the perpetrator is a woman. But if we do not acknowledge that this is an expected and encouraged aspect of masculinity, that the vast majority of perpetrators are men, we aren’t going to get at the root of this problem.


Harvey Weinstein, whose fall from grace began this particular cultural moment, is Jewish. Notice that we so often celebrate the Jews who are successful and note with pride that they share our culture. We don’t do that with people whose reputations are not so good; who are infamous as opposed to famous. I am not for a moment suggesting that Weinstein’s predatory impulses stem from his Jewish background. But I am saying that we need to check in about our attitude to this type of behaviour when it is happening by people we know or people who are “one of our own.”
Years ago I was facilitating a women’s self-defence class and a Jewish woman raised her hand and said that there is no problem of violence against women in the Jewish community. It is a myth I have heard repeated many times, even among Oraynuniks. I want to be clear: violence against women and girls is happening in every community. If you think it isn’t happening in yours, it means no one is talking about it. And if no one is talking about it, that means that the perpetrators are not being held to account, women and girls are not being taught to resist, and the culture itself is permitting and promoting the predatory behaviour. I worry that Jewish culture, especially because of external threats, has made it hard for victims of sexual harassment and assault to come forward. In tight-knit communities, you just don’t name and out one of your own. And in traditional communities where/when women had little power, there was no point to making a disclosure as one’s own life would certainly only get worse.
Many people knew of Weinstein’s actions and said nothing. I have sympathy for the victims who said nothing to avoid tanking their careers. I don’t think the burden falls on the victims of sexual harassment and assault to stop it. I think it’s all the bystanders, those who knew and had power and protected him, that deserve some scrutiny here. There are times that some of us have known someone who crossed the line. Did we say something, even if it was awkward or difficult? Can we speak out, even when it outs someone we like or love?


There are stories of sexual assault from our earliest Jewish sources. The biblical Sarah is forced into the harems of Pharoah and Avimelech, and Abraham does not object (but God does). Similarly the biblical Dina is raped (some cool revisionings of the text ascribe her more agency though), and so is Tamar. Vashti and Esther in the story of Purim are seen as feminist heroes but are objectified terribly. And so it goes.
Why are these stories important? For women readers of Jewish texts, they can serve as a sort of “me too;” a reminder that these stories have been part of the lives of women forever. They also remind us that Jewish culture is no different from other cultures. These problems are our own. And it is within our own communities that we must combat them.


I know that at Oraynu we have female leadership and a long history of standing up for equity and gender justice. And yet I hate to think we might submit to a “you’ve come a long way, baby” attitude around gender justice. There is more work to do. Here are some questions to discuss with your partner/family/community of friends and neighbours to get ideas going about how to work towards a world where my daughter, and the little girl from that baby naming, don’t all have their own “me too” stories:


Do you talk to your children (if applicable) about consent? Do you make sure no one can hug or kiss them without permission? Do you honour their “no” and their bodily autonomy every time?

Who does the bulk of the housework and childcare (if applicable) in your home? Even if you think it’s equal, check in. Sometimes people are surprised by all the invisible work that gets done.

Who is responsible for creating family gatherings, special events, remembering birthdays, etc?

Who leads the organization of the household: coordinating appointments, knowing what events are coming up, keeping everything on track?

Who takes care of other people’s emotional lives? Is everyone receiving equal care?

Does anyone feel overburdened or overlooked?

If someone has or does experience(d) harassment or assault, is there space to discuss it? Are they taken seriously? Are they heard and believed?

Does everyone agree that things are fully equal?

It is my belief that all families and communities can work to create a better balance, to foster a truer equity. As Jews, Humanists, and citizens, this is our job. And, as all of those “me too” posts tell us, the time has surely come.

Jewish Mother's Day

Jewish Mother's Day11:31 AM — Denise Handlarski

I'll bet you didn't know there was a Jewish Mother's Day! I only found out this past year myself. The day is in honour of the biblical matriarch Rachel who dies in childbirth and who cries for the children of her people living in exile. 

Some people take the biblical narrative literally. Some see the stories of our matriarchs as narrative figures who prefigure a kind of feminine and feminist strength. Either way, how nice that feminist Jews around the world mark this day as a day to commemorate, honour, and celebrate Jewish mothers.

I'm so grateful to be part of a Jewish doula group called Imeinu (our mothers) who will get together today by teleconference and/or in person to discuss birth, babies, and the beauty of motherhood. I have so often seen how lines of sisterhood are drawn around issues of motherhood, and I find it moving and inspiring.

For more on the significance of today, this is a blog by Wendy Na'amah Klein, coordinator of the Imeinu doula collective, all about it.

https://imeinu.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/jewish-mothers-day-anniversary-of-the-passing-of-our-great-matriarch-rachel/

Attitude of Gratitude

It's the season for all kinds of giving thanks. I am ambivalent about the holiday of Thanksgiving because of its colonial history, but I love the idea of setting aside time to be grateful. If you're like me, this is something you have to work at. I can be naturally critical; I have high expectations of myself and sometimes therefore have (too) high expectations of others. I generally have a positive, happy, hopeful outlook but I can get a little mired in blame, grudges, and negativity. So I actively cultivate a practice of gratitude. I know that sounds a little "woo" for some people, but there is good science to show that a positive outlook, gratitude, and shifts to attitude make a big difference in overall health and happiness.  

So what does this look like for me?

I notice. Every single day I take time to think about the people I love most and how precious and beautiful they are. My partner makes fun of me for commenting every single day how beautiful our kids are. But I really do want to notice this every single day. They are beautiful in every way -- so intelligent, creative, inquisitive, adventurous, happy, and fun. So much beauty in my life comes from them and I don't want the drudgery of parenting and housework to cloud my ability to see that.

I meditate. Not as often as I should but I know that this practice helps me work on my overall mindfulness and presence and I think both are essential for quality work and relationships.

I say thank you. I try to really be focused and present when I say thank you whether it is to a colleague, a family member, or my barista. I make eye contact. I smile. I wish them well. I am really intentional about how I say thank you both for the person I'm thanking's benefit and for my own. I want to feel the thanks I'm giving so I remember I'm lucky to be receiving something.

I consciously shift my attitude. I am a sleep-deprived person with two big jobs and two little kids. It's pretty easy for me to get grumpy. I'm working on noticing when I'm grumpy and trying to change my state (through breathing, exercise, noticing what's awesome about the moment I'm in, etc.)

What does all this have to do with anything?

Jewishly, this is the time of year to have an attitude of gratitude. We've come through the High Holidays, full of reflection, goal setting, atonement, recommitting to one's values. Now is the festival of Sukkot -- a harvest festival where one is meant to put up a "hut" and invite guests. Why the guests? The history of the "ushpizin" is interesting in itself but here's a modern take: if you could have anyone in your sukkah, fictional or real, living or dead, who would it be? Why? Ideally, there are things we would want to learn about and from that person.  

Guess what? Every person around us has the potential to be someone we can learn about and from; eveyrone around us might change our lives in small ways (letting us move ahead in the grocery line, offering a smile on a crowded subway car, buying a coffee if we're short on change), or big ways (becoming someone important in our lives, helping us profoundly, giving unimaginably). And we have the power to affect others too.

If you know me, you know I'm a believer in stories. I love literature. I love hearing about people and their paths. Recently in my job as a professor, I got to take my students into our traditional tipi (I'm lucky enough to teach somewhere with a strong Indigenous program and focus), and I asked students to share a story from their culture. We started with Indigenous Canadian stories about the power of stories themselves. And then people shared stories from all corners of the world.

We spoke about how many cultures have a harvest festival at this time of year, and often story sharing is part of those festivals. From Indigenous Canada, to the mid-autumn festival of Vietnam, to my own Jewish culture, there is a time and place to come together, trade narratives, and listen and learn. Of course, this is about more than the stories themselves. This is about how families and communities bond and grow.

I'm so grateful for the wonderful people in my life, who allow me to be part of their unfolding story. At this time of year, a time to celebrate abundance, and humanity - from guests, to strangers, to those closest to us, it's nice to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. We all have challenges and sometimes things are hard. They are made easier when we focus on what we're thankful for.  

Yom Kippur 5778 - Belief, behaviour, belonging

Yom Kippur commentary (following our Stories of Transformation: "Paperclips" and "Gene Wilder")

“We are the music makers, we are the dreamers of dreams.” If there was ever a Humanistic Jewish line, that’s it! The purpose behind the Stories of Transformation is to inspire us to make our own music, to dream our dreams and, of course, to make them reality. Yom Kippur is traditionally understood as a day to repent for one’s sins so that one may be written in the Book of Life. We prefer to see it as a day to reflect, not repent, and to express who we hope to be and what we hope to achieve in the coming year. This way, we author the next year’s chapter in our book of life; not a mystical book, but the metaphorical story of our lives and our collective impact as individuals and as those in the Jewish community.

There is an old Jewish joke about Yom Kippur. There is a man in an Orthodox synagogue who is fasting. He disrupts the service constantly, calling out: “Oy, am I toisty! Oy, am I toisty’!” Partly because he is disruptive to others, and partly because of compassion for the man, the rabbi tells him he is permitted to drink some water in order to continue with his prayer. The man drinks. A few minutes later all in attendance hear a resounding shout: “Oy, was I toisty!”

Like all good Jewish jokes, this pokes fun at both Jewish convention and Jewish stereotype. The convention is that we suffer on Yom Kippur. The stereotype is that Jews never suffer in silence.

Suffering is an interesting concept when it comes to repentance. The idea is that on Yom Kippur one “afflicts their soul” so that they may feel truly sorry. But this sorrow should be about those we have wronged or hurt in some way. It seems to me that afflicting one’s soul does nothing for these others. Is not the whole idea to focus outward? To worry about others we’ve harmed or hurt and how we can do better? The more one experiences suffering, or affliction, the more they simply concentrate on themselves. Perhaps this is a wasted opportunity on this special day.

It isn’t wrong to focus inwardly; it is necessary. But the overall goal must be to find the tools that help us behave better, act according to our values, in the year to come. Sometimes, as the joke highlights, what goes on in services doesn’t meet that need. This was me many years ago in a synagogue.

Teenage Denise would be thinking: “I’d love to connect to the spiritual and somber themes here; I believe in reflection for personal betterment. But oy, am I toisty. And also there’s a lot in here that sounds pretty suspicious to me. A book of life? I just didn’t believe in it. I’ve been pretty bad this year and yet I still plan to be around for next year’s Yom Kippur. I wonder if I’ll be less hungry then. I wonder what’s being served at the breaking of the fast.” None of this was particularly helpful in bettering my outlook or behaviour. Don’t get me wrong, there was also much in those services that touched me. There are good reasons to fast. This isn’t to disparage the way Jews around the world and through the centuries have marked Yom Kippur. Rather, I want to focus on the point of tension where we look inside ourselves without getting lost; how we use introspection to better our outward action.

It’s hard for us to get out of our own heads at the best of times. Once we add hunger, thirst, a long Torah service (if this feels long to you, I get it. The most traditional thing you can do this Yom Kippur is be bored when the rabbi speaks), once we add all that, who can pay attention to anything lofty? Not so conducive to personal and communal transformation.

I don’t believe in suffering as a tool of soul-searching. So, what do I believe?

It’s my hope that we try as much as possible to define ourselves according to what we do believe, rather than in opposition to that which we do not believe. Rather than asking you to suffer, and certainly than to suffer in silence, this Yom Kippur, I’d like you to consider three aspects of your life and what you do to foster them. They are easy to remember - think of the 3 Bs: Belief, behaviour, and belonging. For these 3 Bs comprise who and what we are.

Research suggests that, in a religious or cultural context, it is these three things that lead to affiliation and fulfillment. We are shaped by we think, what we do, and where we go. And these become mutually constituting and reinforcing factors. If I attend a great lecture or service, it might change my thinking, which might influence my actions, which might affect the next choice I’ll make in attending a lecture or service at that same place.

White supremacist groups, of which we’ve seen a rise if not in their existence, certainly in their expression, offer the 3 Bs. If we are serious about opposing them, we need to be serious about the 3 Bs too. Today in Peterborough Ontario, where I have lived and where I work, Jews must choose between Yom Kippur services and counter-rallies against a permitted white supremacist demonstration. This Yom Kippur and this year I want us to use the 3 Bs to enhance our strength as individuals and as a community so that we are poised to take on these challenges.

So let’s free ourselves from the traditional model, even the traditional Oraynu model, of a Yom Kippur service. We are going to look inwardly and connect outwardly. I’m asking you in a moment but not yet, if you are comfortable (but feel free to be brave and get outside your comfort zone), to take a minute or two, introduce yourself to someone sitting near you who you don’t know and answer the following. If you can’t think of answers to all of these, that is just fine. It means it’s a good question for you to ponder over the year to come. But, you may just have these answers. I’ll be asking you to share: 1 thing you believe, about anything. It could be a belief that Game of Thrones is the best show ever made. A belief that humanity can solve climate change. Go anywhere you wish. Then say 1 thing you do that you are proud of, be it a hobby, social service, your job, a role in your family, etc, again, anything goes. Finally, name 1 place or community where you belong, be it Oraynu, an online community, a gym, your family, anything, any place where you feel you belong. Again, please turn to someone and share a belief, a behaviour and a site of belonging for you. You’ve got about two minutes to both share your 3 Bs and hear someone else’s. And… go!

And just like the Jew in the joke… it’s hard to get you quiet! :)

Here’s the thing: at Oraynu, we are a community of believers. We are often seen by others as a community of non-believers. But that’s not true. We are completely united, and influenced, by what we believe.

We are approaching the 50 year anniversary of our community. Five decades of people coming together to do Jewish in a way that feels right to them. Here is what has connected all of us: we wish to be music makers, we are dreamers of dreams. It is such a beautiful affirmation of life to publicly declare by participating in a community like ours that we courageously face the challenges of our world and pledge to try to meet them; to affect change because we are the ones who both create and solve the problems of the world. And we need each other to do it.

I have said to you for many years that the Stories of Transformation service is my favourite of the year. I love thinking about the small differences individuals, like Gene Wilder, and communities, like the one in the Paper clips story, make. I love the focus we place on taking what we believe: that humans and humanity are worthy of a better world and that humans and humanity can create it. We take those beliefs, and we translate them into behaviour. Here is an example:

This past spring we held a program called the Blanket Exercise, which takes participants through an experiential walk through Indigenous Canadian history with an Indigenous perspective. It is followed by a talking circle for people to share their reflections.

We had a full house. More than a full house - we were pretty crammed together standing on those blankets. I knew this community would show up for something so rooted in education and justice, for we believe in both. In the talking circle, people pledged one after the other their desire to help make change in Canada for Indigenous folks. We have signed petitions, we have contacted our MPs, we have written letters, we have educated our friends and family about their misconceptions. We have done this all because we know that, for any sense of integrity and authenticity, our beliefs and behaviours must align. So many of you wrote or spoke to me after that program to express how much it meant to you. The learning, of course, but, more than that, the opportunity to do that learning in the safety and comfort of our Oraynu community. We hold each other up at Oraynu; listening to one another, respecting one another, even if we disagree, and affirming one another’s individual goals and whole selves. Belief, behaviour, and belonging. We got it covered.

Why is this important? Precisely because I don’t want for this service to be an exercise in thirst: literal thirst or a thirst for something more inspiring. I want you satiated today and all year long. The way to become so is to engage your beliefs, to align them with your behaviour, and to find communities of belonging that will reinforce your values and affirm who you are. Belief, behaviour and belonging are important for individual growth and happiness. To me, this is a worthy goal in itself but it is not the only goal. It is my goal that we take our collective beliefs, behaviour and belonging and turn it outwardly, so that we can affect broader change.

The stories we just heard exemplify this. Gene Wilder was persecuted for being Jewish, and then he found like-minded Jewish comedians to work with, be in relationship with, and create work with that would be affirming to others. He took his belief in comedy as a healing force, and applied it through his work and community, behaviour and belonging, to help create cancer support and fundraising groups. Belief, behaviour and belonging for a higher purpose.

Similarly with the school group we heard about in the Southern U.S. They believed in education for social betterment. They did something about it. They did it with their peers. Their small group achieved a lot: they united a global village of those wanting to learn about the Holocaust to ensure similar genocides are prevented in future. Belief, behaviour, belonging.

Not all of you are Oraynu members. Perhaps one day you will be, but for now those who aren’t are our treasured guests. And we wouldn’t encourage you to join until you knew us well. You don’t get married on the first date, as it were. We want you to engage with us, see if we are a good fit for your beliefs, see if we can impact your behaviour, see if we can give you a sense of belonging. But if it isn’t with us, I hope you’ll find another group, or several groups or communities, that fulfil the goals of the 3 Bs. I hope you are able to find your people in achieving your own personal goals.

Today marks the conclusion of what we call the Days of Awe. Ten days at the start of the Jewish year set aside for personal reflection, for making amends, and for goal setting for the next year. I am in awe of the concept itself. What a gift, what an opportunity, to consciously and mindfully set a course for our year.

I am in awe of our movement and community. The founder of our movement, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, over 50 years ago, sat down with members of his Reform community for an honest conversation. He said, not only do I not believe most of what we say in our prayer service, but I’m convinced many of you don’t believe it either! Together they founded the Birmingham Temple in the Detroit area. A movement was born. 10 years ago Rabbi Wine died. He left a legacy of a movement, an educational arm, many congregations and communities, and a way of putting philosophy into action. If our movement can be summed up in one sentence, it is: We say what we believe, and we believe what we say.” Communities were established and thrive today around the 3 Bs: belief, behaviour and belonging. We are living examples of what can be achieved when we have all three cohere.

So, this year, be the music-maker of your own life. Dream your dreams, articulate them, make them happen. As much as we can, let’s try to shift our focus from our own suffering to that of others.

Let’s try to consider how to practice our beliefs, how to find the people who can help us do that, and how to be our best selves, to the best of our ability, at least most of the time. The goal is never perfection. The goal is transformation. And we have the power to transform our own lives and those of others. To all of you here today, I thank you for being with us in our close and courageous community, and I wish you all a wonderful year ahead.

Rosh Hashanah 5778 commentary - "How Humanists Handle Hard Times"

 How Humanists Handle Hard Times

(Note: this commentary was part of our High Holiday service and followed a reading of the biblical David and Goliath story)

A little later in this service we will consider Hillel’s words: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” This is not only an oft-quoted line from Jewish wisdom, but it is, in my view, crucial to the whole Jewish experience. It is certainly crucial to the story of David and Goliath. David makes a name for himself here. He is drawn to action, to battle, leaving his defenseless sheep with an unknown keeper and throwing himself into the fray. We think of him as heroic because we know the end of the story. But what if he had failed, would his actions still have been considered heroic or would they have been considered foolish? We can never know the outcome of our choices fully and, so, it begs the question… does the Hebrew Bible tell us to take risks, even when that means putting ourselves and others in danger? Is self-sacrifice an honour, Jewishly? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. We are told in Talmud that each life is precious; that to save a life is as though one has saved the whole world. Perhaps we can extrapolate then that to end one life is as though one has ended the whole world. Would that have applied to David, had he died? Does it apply to Goliath? How do we determine whose lives are worth sacrificing and whose worth saving? And what of the sheep? Did they deserve their abandonment? In the long view of Jewish life through the ages, which of these characters best represents the Jewish people? The sheep? Eliab, who admonishes David for leaving them? David himself? What about Goliath?

The Hebrew Bible is always complex but in this story it is uncomplicated in its notion of right and wrong. Three times, David says that the “Philistine,” Goliath, defies the “armies of the living God.” The text tells us that because Yahweh is on the side of Israel, Israel can’t lose and David, even as a youth untrained in the art of war, will prevail. And he does. There is a lovely circularity to the logic: God is on David’s side so he must win; David wins, thus proving that God is on his side. Clean and simple. Note, however, that David’s own actions are what lead to his victory. This is not divine intervention; for David must first convince Saul that he can fight, which he does through the force of his argument, and then he must defeat the hulking Goliath himself, which he does with cleverness and the force of his arm.

Humanists lack the certainty of believing that what we do is pre-ordained and divinely justified. It must be nice to live a life with that kind of conviction! What is not so nice is when that kind of conviction leads to war and suffering. For we know that plenty of people from all religions have felt divinely justified to enter into battle with their enemies. It turns out it is tough to tell who is defying the “army of a living God” when each side believes they are religiously compelled to defeat the other. Humanists therefore must find our conviction from another source; from within.

I woke up the morning of November 9th 2016, in what I would call a state of depression. I barely left my bed for two days. I found it difficult to summon the strength to care for my children. I phoned it in at work a little (yes, even rabbis do that on occasion). The results of the American election were in and, I admit, I was shocked. I hadn’t anticipated the result. Mostly, my belief in humanity was shaken. I could not believe, I still find it difficult to believe, that millions and millions of people voted for someone who was a known and proud racist, contemptuous of women and people with disabilities, someone who exemplifies greed and indifference to suffering. I understand the many reasons for this and have no desire to rehearse them here. I am not talking about the failings of a political system, or party, or a desire for change, or the hurt, misunderstood feelings of the masses. I know all that. You know all that. I’m not talking here about what we know. I’m talking about what we feel. And in those days after the election, I felt truly bereft. I had lost my faith in people, the only faith I ever had.

So what is a Humanist to do if she no longer has faith in humans? This was the source of my depression, and I call it depression with the fullness of understanding of the seriousness of the term. I felt shaken to my foundation and I no longer saw the point in continuing my work. Why lead a Humanist community when humanity is unsalvageable? Why continue pursuing, through community, the ideals of tzedakah, justice, when justice so rarely wins out. I worried, I still worry, for the future my children will inherit, with food and climate insecurity being at the top of a long list of seemingly insurmountable problems. And I couldn’t shake the feeling of pointlessness. Why bother?

I imagine this is what it feels like to lose one’s faith in God. Some of you may have been through something similar. It is a total paradigm shift; the world is not as it was and never will be again. So, now what?

I couldn’t stay in bed forever. At a certain point, we all must face our reality and decide what to do next. I am so grateful to have been given a good Humanistic Jewish education and to be in this community because I honestly don’t know how I would have gotten out of my funk without both. Firstly, I know from my Humanistic Jewish education, from Sunday school to youth group to adult education and, yes, to rabbinic school, that my Jewish history and ancestry compels me to keep fighting, even when things are tough. In fact, it is especially when things are tough that we toughen up ourselves. We keep on fighting. It’s the lesson from our biblical narratives like Moses, and, yes, like David versus Goliath. It is also the lesson of Jews who found their way through the generations of exile and violence. We would no longer be a people if we folded when the going got tough. And so much the more so for a Jewish Humanist. I am not waiting around for any deity to save me, my people, my fellow peoples. So who am I waiting for? We don’t expect to be saved; we expect to save ourselves.

The day after the election I had a tearful conversation with Rabbi Adam Chalom, Dean of the rabbinic school I attended and a rabbi in Chicago. Some of you had a chance to learn with him this past spring. One of the things he said was: “you’re strong. Don’t forget it.” And he was right. And so now I want to say the same to all of you. Many of you are struggling with the political realities of our time. Many of us also have our personal struggles, be they sick or struggling family members, our own health problems, financial pressures, loneliness, and more. But you are here today, which signals to me and all of us here that you believe that things can be better in the year to come. If you had lost that belief, shaken though it sometimes is, there would be no reason to mark the Jewish new year. So, you came. You sit here waiting to be inspired by someone who struggles too, someone who is just like you in their humanity and in their hope. And I say to you: “You are strong. Don’t forget it.”

The founder of our movement, Rabbi Sherwin Wine, called Humanistic Jews to lead “lives of courage.”

For it takes great courage to go against trends that are harmful and destructive. I like the idea of a life of courage precisely because it does not signify an easy life, for there can be no such thing as a life that is both easy and meaningful. Life is full of struggles and that is the way it should be. We are made who we are by how we find strength and courage in the face of adversity and fear. There is no courage without fear; there is no strength without hardship. And you are strong, don’t forget it.

I remember in those November days we Oraynuniks got together in the home of Roby and Jim Sadler. Roby, our office manager, is probably the one person in this room you’ve all connected with at some point. It’s fitting for her to host an evening of shared concern and connection. We went around in a circle each discussing our concerns and then, I believe, I heard a shift to a discussion of courage. Alone we all had our individual heartaches but together we were emboldened. We knew we would face whatever was to come as a community and, as important, a community that believed in humanity and in humanity’s capacity for justice. So I say again, I am really grateful to you, Oraynu, because although it is my job to inspire you, to offer support, to lift you up when you need it, you do the same for me.

What does any of this have to do with David and Goliath? I’m not saying Trump is Goliath although, with the portrayal of someone who has become a giant in the eyes of “his people” but who is galumphing and generally not so smart, it’s tempting. Forgive my party politics from up on the bimah – I couldn’t resist. What I am saying is that this is a political and historical moment that, I believe, calls us to be David. Our people, Jews, and our people, the people in our world more broadly, need heroes now. We do not have to be the boldest and the best, for David isn’t. We do not have to be experts, for David isn’t. We do not have to be armed with swords or the best tools for whatever our particular battle is, for David isn’t. We have to be willing to fight the good fight.

Here’s where we diverge from David. The slingshot is a nice device the writers of this section of Tanakh included. It is reminiscent of both childhood innocence and crude conditions; again, David’s victory is pre-ordained because he has the right God on his side.

Any of us could wield a slingshot, and Jews throughout the ages have looked to this story for inspiration particularly because we have so often felt outgunned and outnumbered. We believe ourselves to be people who rely on our wits and use whatever is available to us. But are we also the people who do what David did next? Goliath is dead, must David take Goliath’s own sword and behead him? Must the children of Israel plunder the camp of the Philistines? Is this still right?

Here is my concern for the Jewish people. We believe ourselves to be David. But at some point, I worry we become more like the other children of Israel who plunder the camp. I worry that, at a certain point, we become Goliath. When any of us attains societal power and privilege, do we lose the ability to care about those we may step on to get where we’re going?

It is difficult for me to read the narrative of David and Goliath and not think of Israel, the modern state. Is Israel David? Is it Goliath? Well, yes and yes. And for us here in the diaspora too – whether we vote for those we perceive as “strong,” knowing others will be hurt, whether we turn a blind eye to the problems of racism, poverty, gender discrimination, environmental degradation because they are too big for us to tackle alone and, anyway, truly tackling these problems might mean giving something up. Whether we think of being Jewish as a site of victimhood or a site of strength. Whether we tune out news and politics because they can be depressing and we have a life to lead here. I’d say we are all guilty of becoming a little too much like Goliath, a little less like David. And, or, a little too much like the David who is willing to leave his sheep and head into the fray. We can sometimes forget who we are, what we are here to do, and why it matters.

We live in tough times. The world turns on, of course, and we know the problems go on too. I have been so proud of how our community has risen up against Islamophobia and the continued ill-treatment of Indigenous Canadians. How we have been engaged in deep ecological experiences, and advocacy. How we are renewing our sense of vigour around volunteerism and helping others. And how we take seriously the need to care for one another in our community in these tough times.

We are Humanists… we answer Hillel: we are decidedly and avowedly not only for ourselves, but we are for ourselves. And we know that the time for courage, the time for strength, the time to act is now.

I wish for you continued hope and strength in the year 5778. I wish for all of us to know joy and peace. I wish for our community and the other communities of which we are all part to be sources of support and inspiration. I wish for us laughter and happiness. Above all, my intention and hope, for this particular year is that we find courage where there is fear and we find and remember our strength. We are strong. Let’s not forget it.

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:

Yitro

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 info:www.tinyurl.com/IsraelPanel

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.