Nothing is promised

I teach at a university, and specifically, I teach people becoming teachers. I have been in that role since 2012 and have had many fantastic candidates come through my classes. There is one that I can say is one of the best of the best. I watched him teach last year and thought, “this guy is better than most of the career teachers I’ve seen.” The school he was placed at tried to figure out how to hire him even though he still had a year left to finish his degree. And this person is not only a gifted teacher, he is a fabulous actor, a wonderful friend, a terrific student, a genuinely good-hearted person. I’m sure he saves puppies and sews booties for new babies on the side. Ok, maybe not that. But he is a truly terrific person through and through.

This past week he came to me and told me he has cancer. He is an otherwise healthy, twenty-eight year old. He doesn’t smoke, barely drinks, stays active, and takes good care of himself. Cancer.

I don’t need to tell you that this kind of thing happens without rhyme or reason and simply isn’t fair.

I don’t need to tell you that in the absence of believing in some higher power with some master plan, we have to boldly and bravely look at the chaos of the universe and accept our place in it.

And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, for we’ve all heard many times, that stories like this are a reminder to be grateful for what we have, and it’s our job to remember that nothing in life is promised to us. We are lucky if we are healthy. We are lucky if we get to live out our lives until old age.

So this message isn’t that. I do think it’s a good reminder to practice gratitude. But, for a moment, let’s just stick with the unfairness of it all. Because that’s where I’m stuck just right now and sometimes we have to just sit with it. I know that the “right” answer is to focus on the positive. But right now I want to focus on the pain of it. I am trying to really feel things lately, not simply reason or explain or distract myself away from them.

I am sad for him and his loved ones. I am sad for all those who suffer needlessly and senselessly. I am a little shaken by how unfair things really are. And I’m angry — why? Directed at whom? There’s no reason or purpose to it. Sometimes we just feel angry.

As Secular Humanistic Jews we tend to move towards the rational. Obviously I think this is a good thing. Lots of people have called our movement “Rational Judaism.” I’m a fan of using our brains, accepting science, figuring through problems, and evaluating our world through empirical data. I’m pro-reason. And (not but, and) sometimes it is reasonable to be unreasonable. Sometimes we just have to get through tough feelings and emotions, and sit with them, and accept that, sure, the world is made of chaos, and cancer doesn’t discriminate, and someone is going to get it so why not him... we can use our brains all we want but the feelings are still there and still matter.

I don’t call what we do and who we are “Rational Judaism” because, to me, being rational isn’t the point or purpose. I connect to Judaism to fulfill my spiritual and emotional needs. I have a university to foster the rational stuff. The rational has to do with how we access Judaism — we want it to be human-centred and earth-centred, based in a knowable reality. We don’t want our Judaism to conflict with what we know from science, archaeology, or other empirical data. So we work to create a Judaism that thrives without the supernatural. But we can’t stop at what we *don’t* believe. We have to move to what we do believe: Jewish culture adds meaning, depth, and beauty to our lives, community empowers us, our purpose is in doing good. The rationality isn’t the purpose. The emotional/spiritual is the purpose and we just don’t want the obstacles to rationality to get in the way.

This is my invitation to all of us to allow ourselves to hang out in the realm of the emotional a little bit more. Let’s give ourselves permission to really feel our feelings.

I won’t stay mad/sad at this situation forever. I know I will eventually move on to a place of acceptance and hope.

I have every confidence that this student of mine will be fine; he has good care and a good prognosis. I know for sure that my amazing colleagues are already doing all we can to make sure he is cared for and supported. There is lots of reason for hope. I understand that all of this will ultimately make me reflect with gratitude on my own health and the health of my loved ones. For now, though, I get to feel what I feel. It takes practice but it’s the only way to fully experience this crazy ride called being alive. And now, especially now, I want to really experience it.

Peak Tikkun Olam?!

Last week in the Canadian Jewish News there was a provocative little piece called "Have We Reached Peak Tikun Olam?" You can read the piece here: https://www.cjnews.com/living-jewish/have-we-reached-peak-tikun-olam 

Here's what I wrote in response:

Csillag's article asks the right questions but comes up with the wrong answers. The piece is getting at a divide that is growing in Jewish communities and Jewish life; a divide that raises questions about the "what" and "why" of Judaism. In my congregation, we centre our services, programming, and activities around Tikun Olam. We are, in our identities and practices, the types of people Csillag is calling out: we have no interest in "mitzvah" as commandment, but are very motivated and concerned by and with "mitzvah" as good deed. For us, Jewish ethics, learning, text, practice, are all in the service of creating goodness in our lives and in the world. Yes, this perspective represents a shift in Judaism. Many Jews in the non-Orthodox world need a reason other than "because Judaism says so" to engage and practice. The choice is that we find this reason -- for many of us it is, indeed, Tikun Olam -- or we accept that these Jews will leave Judaism behind. I prefer the former, not only because it keeps Jews Jewish but, more importantly, because of the collective impact we can have when we do let our Judaism inspire us to Tikun Olam. Judaism has survived because it has evolved; our task is to find the Torah that is right for our day. That's what the "Tikun Olam Jews" are doing. We are not at peak Tikun Olam. In fact, we are just getting started.