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: 

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.

Indigenous Issues and Us

My congregation hosted a Chanukah event featuring Jesse Wente, a Canadian media personality with an Indigenous background. It was a wonderful evening. Wente is a dynamic and inspiring speaker who urged us to remember that Canada's 150 years is "cute" compared to the 15,000 years that Indigenous peoples lived here on Turtle Island.

He spoke about land acknowledgements, respecting the nations fighting pipelines, and that this is our time to go beyond being "allies," instead becoming "accomplices" in "conciliation." He noted that "reconciliation" implies there was a good relationship in the first instance. We need to create that relationship for the first time.

Many people who were there have been letting me know how inspired they were. We want to do what we can to support Indigenous peoples, both because of our Jewish call to tikkun olam, to repairing the world, and also as people who live in this country, and so want to do right by the people who live here and have experienced injustice.

Judaism tells us to "honour the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Indeed, to the Indigenous peoples of this land, we are strangers still. And they were welcoming of our ancestors when they arrived; we should be gracious in our dealings with them.

If you are inspired to be an "accomplice," there are a few things you can do. Firstly, he suggested we all give input on the Broadcasting Act as it is being revisited now:

If all of us write in that we demand fair allocation of time and resources to Indigenous media, so that all Canadians can hear the many stories of Indigenous peoples, we can make a real difference. Mr. Wente spoke beautifully about how if we know each other better we will care for each other better.

He also suggested attending a Pow Wow to meet Indigenous folks and get to know them.

At my community’s Indigenous/Jewish Tu B'shevat seder a couple of years ago, we signed petitions asking government to clean up Grassy Narrows, an Indigenous community poisoned by mercury from a nearby mill. The story is back in the news:

Ask your MP and MPP to clean up Grassy Narrows now. Check out this site for more resources:

For me, the reason to be Jewish is the teachings about how we treat the stranger, each other, our world. I am inspired by all who walk with me.  Happy to be accomplices with you!

Latkes and light and learning, oh my!

Who's excited for Chanukah? My kids sure are! And so am I. There are two ways to look at this holiday:

1) Chanukah isn't a major Jewish holiday; it celebrates some religious zealots that Judaism has chosen to valorize; we only do it big because of Christmas


2) Chanukah is a super fun holiday filled with things that are so good for us: light, play, comfort food, family. Let's Jew it!

I'm choosing the latter. Of course everything under point 1 is true. But everything under point 2 is equally true.

I didn't get the whole big deal about Chanukah until I had kids. One night when my daughter was two years old we sang the song "Chanukah oh Chanukah" which includes the line "let's have a party, we'll all dance the horah." And so she asked: when is the horah starting? And just like that a tradition was born. We dance around the kitchen each night. It's silly and awesome.

We also play dreidel each night, we decorate the house, we cook together (my children basically only eat beige food so latkes and applesauce are perfect). We host family and friends many of the eight nights. We make special dedications on candles about things that are important to us. And we laugh a lot. It took me having kids to get why all of this was so important. I have so few regrets in my life, but one of them is that I didn't take the opportunity to make this holiday as special as it can be much, much earlier.

So make this holiday wonderful - celebrate and embrace it for all the fun it can be!

To get you in the mood, check out Bohemian Chanukah, this year's Jewish song adaptation of awesome.

Until next week,





Chrismakkuh and Chanukah

Lots of us are gearing up for the holiday season. Some families do Chanukah and some do something more like Chrismakkuh. What does your family do?

I've been thinking a lot about how families make the holidays their own. Part of what I appreciate about the holidays is the chance to create new traditions. At my husband Charlie's family Christmas dinner, they always make sure I have a lasagne. Why lasagne, you ask? No, it's not traditional for either Christmas or Chanukah. But I'm a vegetarian and even though there is plenty of food I can have, they wanted to make sure I have a main dish I can enjoy while they're all noshing on turkey.

I now associate Christmas with lasagne. Charlie, who isn't Jewish, associates December with Chanukah, something new to him.

We have negotiated all the things people negotiate: lights, tree, presents, how we blend or don't blend the holidays. Our way isn't your way, but everyone has to find what works.

Even in families where Chanukah is the only holiday being celebrated, you might come from different family traditions or ways of celebrating. Everyone has to negotiate how to make the holidays meaningful for them.

It's worthwhile to figure out how to make the holidays fit with your values.... how many gifts and for whom? Can tzedakah be part of the holiday giving? This year we made a list of people who help us, everything from garbage collectors to postal workers to hairdressers, and we're making cookies for them. It's a good time of year to spread some cheer.

For more on this, check out my Chrismakkuh guide:

However you are celebrating, I hope it will be with great joy.

Until next week,



Dialogue Across Difference

Isn't it funny the assumptions we make about each other? At Oraynu's Holocaust Education Week event, historian Max Wallace spoke about how lots of historians have ignored or discounted records from the Orthodox Jewish community. Max said working with these records and the people whose tireless work to end the Holocaust gave him a lot of respect for the orthodox, even though he himself is "the most secular Jew you'll ever meet."

I would say as well at more religious Jews sometimes make assumptions about us and how we do things. Yesterday I spoke in a sociology class at York University. This class looks at contemporary Jewish life and I was there to discuss Secular Humanistic Judaism. Some of the orthodox Jewish students said they had never heard of us and what we do. They said that even though we disagree about many things, they're glad we exist to keep Jews connected to Judaism. It's big of them to say so.

This week I started a conversation on Facebook with Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, an orthodox rabbi who is also a Jew of color,a man, a millenial, and a person living in New York. There are differences in our identities and approaches. There is also so much common ground! Our first conversation was on race and the Jewish community (it's up on the Rabbi Denise Handlarski facebook page if you want to check it out). Our goal is to show that talking to each other is the best way to dispel myths and assumptions. And that we can care about others, even when there are substantial differences in points of view.

We all certainly tend to hang out in a "bubble" - and social media algorithms ensure that often what we see confirms and reinforces things we have seen and thought before. It's hard to leave that bubble! But the bubble is bad for us, limits us. If we can listen and truly hear people who come from different places and perspectives, we will go a long way in creating a more gentle and peaceful world. One conversation at a time.



Isaiah and I having our conversation. Here’s the link if you want to check it out:

Isaiah and I having our conversation. Here’s the link if you want to check it out:

Let there be light!

We are now in the Jewish month of Kislev. This month we celebrate Chanukah and join cultures around the world whose festivals are made to increase light at this dark time of year. As I write this (a few days before you’re reading it), it is Diwali, and because I live in a South Asian neighbourhood there have been sparklers, fireworks, special sweets and celebrations in the streets. It has been a powerful antidote to the endless grey skies and the early darkness.

Chanukah is a bit early this year, and so our own festival of light will be all wrapped up before that other winter holiday which gets quite a bit of attention at this time of year. It’s a chance to let the light continue to shine - from Diwali to Chanukah, to winter solstice, to Christmas to Kwanzaa (Dec 26-31). Many festivals of light and joy at the time of year we need them most.

The Jewish contribution, Chanukah, is ours to uphold, but we can imagine ourselves in a chain of people(s) everywhere, increasing light. I love that image.

Chanukah is a bit of a shapeshifting holiday — its traditions have evolved over time and the places where Jews have lived. This year’s iteration for us will be inspiring and challenging — feelings the holiday naturally provokes. I hope you’ll be with us.

Wherever you are at this month, I hope you find lots of light and love to brighten the short, dark days.


I Heart Hashem and Humanism

I was recently at a retreat for Rabbis Without Borders. This is a program that offers rabbis selected for their innovative work. We get training, opportunity for study, and the chance to form collegial relationships with rabbis across the Jewish spectrum. I knew I would be the only Humanistic rabbi there. I approached the first retreat last spring with a little bit of trepidation. Sometimes people, especially rabbis, in other movements, are not very friendly to us. I can take it — Humanistic Jews are built tough. But, still, four days of it (and these days run from 7:30 am - 9:30 pm) could be a little wearing.

The rabbis, however, were overwhelmingly kind. And curious! The truth is, they know a lot of their own community members are more like us than like “them” in some ways. There are so many people who don’t find prayer meaningful. So many Jews who would call themselves atheist/agnostic/cultural/secular/spiritual but not religious. They want to learn from me how we do what we do. I’m proud to represent us.

I also learn so much from them. There is so much creativity and innovation out there. I hope you’ll come to upcoming programs where I get to showcase some of what I’m learning and put it into action.

One thing that has been especially touching, is that I have formed a bond with an Orthodox rabbi named Isaiah. He is a really interesting guy — he grew up in the Chasidic community as a Jew of colour. He is a fantastic musician (you can check out his band Zayah online). He runs programs for Jews and for rabbis to try build bridges in the Jewish world.  What he sings, and teaches, is very theistic in nature, of course, but he is often driving at the same overall messages as I am. It’s all about kindness, tzedakah, joy, meaning, beauty.

I was voluntold to lead a service at this past retreat. The idea is to showcase how one’s movement does it, or highlight one’s particular style. At the spring retreat many rabbis said they’d love to see Secular Humanistic Judaism in action. So I agreed to lead a morning service this time around.

Something you may or may not know about me is that I am not a good singer. I see this as a strength; you should always feel comfortable singing if I’m around because you’ll never be the most tone deaf person in the room! However, when leading a service, I need back up. I asked Isaiah to help me by playing guitar and singing. The songs were Hine Ma Tov and the Humanistic version of Refuah Sheleimah, the song we sing to wish others healing.

Isaiah didn’t plan to subvert my message or anything. As I mentioned, the days at the retreat are long. And so he rolled out of bed and put on a shirt without much thought. The shirt said: “I (heart image) Hashem”. So there we were, co-leading the service, a Humanist and a Hashem-worshipper. The service itself was completely secular.

Afterwards, some people asked me if I was offended. I said, “of course I’m not offended!! I’m delighted!” Imagine a world in which we all helped one another live out our beliefs and values, even and especially when they contradict our own, in the spirit of cooperation and caring. I think Isaiah did something wonderful: he showed others what it looks like to be a helper, a friend, and a mentsch.

As we move into the colder winter months, and we begin to hunker down and hibernate, remember Isaiah and I, up there on a bimah, singing (one of us badly) together, delivering a message of hope and healing. Who can you reach or reach out to in the same spirit?


After Pittsburgh

I know all of us are feeling the impacts of the synagogue shooting this past Shabbat. And we are feeling it in different ways. I am aware that what I feel in my body and my mood is a grief. It's a similar grief I feel when someone I know has died. It's also a similar grief I felt when there was a shooting at a Quebec Mosque, or the Pulse Nightclub (targeting queer folks). The grief comes, as all grief does, in waves. Sometimes it's when I have a quiet moment. Sometimes, inconveniently, when I'm trying to do other things.

If you've been following my facebook page, I've posted several updates there, including a piece I wrote on Saturday called "Love and Rage." You can find it here (and follow that page if you want updates -- I'll post there way more often than I'll send emails. We all get so. many. emails.). I also posted about a gorgeous interfaith vigil I was privileged to speak at, and called for supporting HIAS, or JIAS, Jewish organizations that support refugees and who were also the target of the Pittsburgh murderer.

Here's what I haven't posted but I'll share with you:

1) I was teary during parts of my speech at the vigil. I couldn't help it. I hate feeling vulnerable in public but, there it was, I couldn't control the tears. My friend commented that what I'd said was powerful. I replied it would have been more powerful if I could have held it together. She said that it was powerful precisely because I couldn't hold it together. What I'm learning is that we need to feel whatever we're feeling here. The grief, the rage, the love. All of it.

2) I got beautiful comments about my post. But I got a couple of comments telling me I'm naive to think we can fight hatred with love. I am not saying we need to love blindly and to our own self-detriment. I am not saying we should allow others to harm us. But I am standing by my call for love. The less love there is in the world, the more hatred and indifference. And it is hatred and indifference that leads to othering and violence. So I'm gonna double down on the love.

3) One thing I have learned from powerful teachers of mine is how revolutionary it is to take care of yourself, especially when the world is saying you are not worth it. You are so worth it. Do what feels good now: stretch, walk in the sunshine, call a friend, do some yoga, see a therapist, have a bath. Take care of  yourself now. Right now. Eat that pint of ice cream or have that glass of wine (I've done both) but then get off the couch and go to work, first making yourself better and then making the world better.

4) You, we, are not alone. At my vigil, faith leaders of many religions spoke. I've received messages of support from people who aren't Jewish, but who know I'm in pain. Yes, this is a scary time. Yes, antisemites have been emboldened. But so many people are with us.

5) Words matter. Trump has stoked the sentiments that led to the shooting. In Ontario, where I live, Premier Doug Ford supported a virulent antisemitic white supremacist in Toronto's mayoral election, and when called out couldn't quite bring himself to condemn her or her views. But he spoke at the vigil in Toronto last night. Trump also has issued statements feigning concern (and some spectacular ones that reveal how he really feels). I am not tolerating this hypocrisy. I'm telling Jews I know who vote for these leaders exactly why it's dangerous. It was dangerous when we were not as obviously the targets. It's still dangerous now. And as Jews we should know better.

6) What next? Well, that's the question, isn't it? Not much is different for me. I am still going to work. For me that means providing Jewish experiences that bring meaning to people's lives and help promote justice in the world. It also means working with teachers to help make schools more equitable. Now more than ever I know my work is needed. I'm not giving up and I hope you don't give up either.

The folks over at are offering each other support at this tough time. I hope you have support. If you don't, reach out to me. I may not be able to hold back my tears, but I'm a great listener.

Take care (really. Do that),

Rabbi Denise

Ghosts, Goblins and Gemara

It’s almost Halloween, a very important holiday in my house. Fun fact: Charlie and I got engaged on Halloween (and then watched the only scary movie we could find as we were post-cable but pre-Netflix - it was House of Wax starring Paris Hilton. I can’t say I recommend it).

I have always loved the energy and excitement of Halloween. I love how, when you think about it, it’s weird that all these kids dress up, go to homes of people they don’t know, accept candy from those people, stay up late (all no-nos all other times). It’s a holiday for rule-breakers and outliers. It’s perfect for secular Jews who, generally speaking, are up for a little rule-breaking and a little partying.

The other thing that’s neat about Halloween is that it’s a holiday that emerges from other holidays: The Celtic festival of Samhain was incorporated into the Catholic All Saints Day and its All Hallows Eve. There are resonances with Mexico’s Day of the Dead. While this has nothing to do with Judaism, it is similar to how our own holidays evolve over time. Take Chanukah, borrowing from other festivals of light, a historical holiday, then the rabbinic overlaying of a narrative about “miracles,” and the ways the holiday has been shaped by other winter festivals, particularly Christmas. It’s not a process unique to Judaism, but it is a pretty foundational practice in Judaism, to reinterpret things to make them relevant for the day.

The Gemara is the Talmudic rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah, which is the oral commentary/law coming from Torah. It’s text on text on text. Like Halloween, new meanings are layered on to create a compendium, confluence, convergence, of ideas and practices.

Halloween is ghosts and goblins meet Gemara; how we make it work for us now, where and who we are. So, while Halloween is not a specifically Jewish holiday, we can enjoy it through a Jewish lens. Make whatever traditions you have (even if that’s watching a terrible Paris Hilton movie), your own.

Until next week,



The Deluge

Earlier this month the Torah cycle ended and started anew with the Book of Genesis. If you've never read any Torah, it's a pretty fascinating exercise. Secular Jews don't normally make Torah reading or study a regular practice, but I have found it to be really interesting to see how our people have thought and constructed our foundational stories. A great resource to start experimenting with Torah for any newbies is They are digitizing Torah, Talmud, have source sheets up, and more. Check it out if you're interested! This blog started with secular commentaries on each of the weekly parshah. You can search them by name or simply go chronologically. Fun, right? 

This week the parshah is Noach (you know him better as Noah). You likely encountered the story of Noah and his ark in school or your early education. It's strange that we make it a kids' story given how violent and apocalyptic it is. Not just the flood, but what happens with Noah and his family after (you'll have to read it to find out).

Jewish environmental groups take the story of Noah as inspiration. We are facing terrible storms and other devastating effects of climate change. There was the recent earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia, for example. It's not just Noah, we live in a deluvian time. And predictions are that it's getting worse.

The Noah story provides us with some interesting symbols - the olive branch and the rainbow. Both are symbols of peace. The rainbow in particular is a nice symbol because it is made possible only by the rain itself. We need the harder times to see the beauty that can emerge from it.

I see that in the beauty of environmental and other forms of social action. People are coming together in all kinds of ways to make positive change. There is lots of work to do, and lots of difficult moments and things to encounter, but there is beauty too.


Chesed in Cheshvan - or a month of loving-kindness

There has been lots of difficult stuff in the news lately. For some balance, I'd love for you all to check out this article about a wave of kindness for seniors started by just one person:

Just one person created a ripple effect of so much kindness and goodness! Inspiring, isn't it? We can all do that.

We are now in the Jewish month of Cheshvan. It is the only month without any holidays (much to the delight of rabbis and congregants everywhere who need a break after all those Fall Festivals!). I think it's an opportunity to move our focus from celebration to chesed - the Jewish value of loving-kindness.

This month I'm trying to practice more chesed. The Jewish concept goes beyond kindness into the realm of caretaking. I'm thinking of how I am with my kids, trying to play and even set limits with a loving kindness. I'm also thinking of random acts of kindness and gifts for strangers I can plant around... a little note that says "Open me" and then inside says "Whoever you are, accept this $5 Starbucks gift card and have a drink on me. Love, a stranger". Things like that. I also definitely want to put loving kindness into how I am with friends and family -- listening attentively, loving fully, being present.

Happy Cheshvan! Let's make it a month of chesed.

#metoo is a Jewish issue

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t stomach watching or listening to the Kavanaugh hearings. We’ve been down this road too many times: powerful man has been able to outrun his aggressions against women; women who come forward are subject to scrutiny and badgering. It remains far too easy for people (often men) in power to harm people (often women) with less power and get away with it for too long. If you are uncomfortable reading these words, I’m going to invite you to consider why that is. Do you naturally go to a place of “#notallmen” or “innocent until proven guilty”? Of course not all men. Of course people are, legally speaking, innocent until proven guilty. But our tendency as individuals and as a society is to immediately consider the plight of the abuser, not the abused; the harasser, not the harassed. This needs to change.

Here’s another thought exercise. I run this one with high school students quite often:

If you hear someone tell a racist or sexist joke, you have a choice to make: laugh to go along with it, speak up and tell the person that you are offended, say nothing. Most people, frankly, say nothing. Why? Well, some people have had the experience of speaking up. If you say to the joke-teller “that kind of joke is offensive to me. It hurts people to perpetuate those stereotypes or use that language,” what will their response be? We know intuitively that the joke-teller will not say: “So sorry to have caused offense. I apologize. I will consider my own biases that led me to tell such a joke.” Of course that will not be the response. The response is that the person who spoke up gets called names: too sensitive, no sense of humour, a killjoy, and, the f-word, “feminist.”

Notice the dynamic: the joke-teller feels so entitled to tell the joke that someone who objects is in the wrong. And the accusations at the one who objects are hurled by the original joke-teller and, importantly, the bystanders/others all around.

It is not safe to speak out in our world. So much the more so if you are a woman (including and especially trans/non-binary women). Now not only are you subject to the “you’re too sensitive” stuff, but also the sexist stuff: “you were asking for it; you were flirting; a guy can’t say anything without getting accused these days” and a host of other words women and girls get called that I won’t name here.

We KNOW these are the dynamics. Yet we are often still, so powerfully conditioned to think in this way, on the side of the harasser/abuser. In this, the era of #metoo, we have an opportunity to make real change.

Here’s how Judaism is part of the problem and can be part of the solution: One doesn’t have to scratch very far under the surface of our texts and traditions to see that we, as a culture, have condoned violence against women. However, Jewish groups today are mobilizing to use the teachings of our tradition, ideas like “Shalom Bayit” - Peace in the Home, or “Tikkun Olam” - repairing the world, to advocate for the end to harassment, assault, and abuse. This is up to all of us. 

Today is Simchat Torah - the day Jews conclude and start anew the reading of the Torah cycle. We start with Genesis, first woman, the first relationship between a man and a woman, and lots more to do with the establishment of patriarchy. Our job is to read old texts with new perspectives and to use them, as well as contemporary articles and thinking, to help make the future fairer. 

Fake News

I'll be frank: I'm very concerned about the political attacks on democracy right now both in Ontario and in the US. Whether I agree with the leanings of a political leader or party, I expect those in government to uphold, not erode, the freedoms we are guaranteed. I'd like to see a much more participatory form of democracy, for I see too many people feeling so unrepresented that they lose all hope.

Years ago when I was teaching literacy to at-risk teens, I would tell them that literacy was not a tool for writing boring English papers. It was a tool of self-empowerment. We did exercises to examine the bias of news articles and other sources. They wrote letters to the editor themselves (one pregnant teen I taught was published, talking about the lack of resources for teen parents in Toronto). These teens had never been told their voices were important.

Most people reading this have perfectly good literacy skills, and likely do believe that, in some way, their voice is important. So my message to you is a bit different. However, this moment seems to call for a back-to-basics approach.

Someone I often disagree with politically, recently referred to mainstream coverage of an issue as "fake news." So, here we are, in Canada, having seemingly bought into the hysteria around propaganda. Here's my handy rabbinic breakdown:

- There is fake news/propaganda. You should be able to detect it. Does it seem untrue? Are sources checked? Is the news source itself reliable/reputable? Is the bias obvious/overwhelming? That's fake news.

- Most of what is called "fake news" by some politicians, by the alt-right, and by others who dislike the coverage, is not actually fake news. Clapping loudly to drown out questions by reporters does not lead to fake news. Nor does it encourage critical coverage. One should ask what the clapping is meant to hide. I find the coverage by many mainstream/corporate media channels insufficient, but it isn't fake.

- All "news" has bias. Journalists are taught to be "objective," however the media conglomerates, the individuals themselves, the advertisers, all create some bias in the news we consume. It may be the stories that get covered versus ignored. It may be the slant the article/story takes. There is bias. Watch for it.

Freedom of the press and freedom of speech are fundamental democratic principles. Government-controlled news sources are not a way forward if we are wanting unbiased (or less-biased) reporting. I hope this is an issue you're willing to raise your voice over.

I used to tell the teens, but sometimes must remind myself that my voice matters. I'm a critical reader and have the ability to express myself in writing. I plan to be all over the media and my political representatives, holding them to account. Join me.

Yom Kippur Sermon/Commentary: Civility, Certainty, Divinity, Diversity

Written for Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. This followed Stories of Transformation about Argentinian journalist Jacobo Timerman and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.



At Rosh Hashanah we asked the question: can humanists be happy? (For those who weren’t there, the answer is yes or, at least, I hope so). The impetus for such a question comes from the fact that as humanists many of us have a natural inclination to be critically-minded. This is good — our world needs far more critical thinkers. However, we are sometimes too critical of ourselves and others. And then it can be not so good.

Honesty time: Have you thought someone — a political figure or someone in your life — to be one of the following in recent months: an idiot, completely without moral compass, unworthy of your time/interest, less than human?

Here’s the thing, we are living in an incredibly polarized time politically and socially. And think of how this thinking is applied to “the other side” in many ways: a person is an “idiot” because they are a “left-wing snowflake” or a “right-wing ideologue.” A person lacks a moral compass because they can’t see that refugees need a safe place to land. Or they are without that moral compass because they can’t see the strain on resources that are already at capacity and the vulnerable people here who need support now. People are unworthy of our time or interest because they are in circumstances of their own making, poor because they live in the wrong communities, don’t pursue an education, use drugs and alcohol. Or people are unworthy of our time or interest because they have no sensitivity towards exactly the kinds of people described in these terms so, why bother trying to engage? I’m sure none of us wishes to admit that we see others as less than human. That last one is tricky but we sometimes fall into that trap of dehumanizations unwittingly whether calling someone else  “an animal,” referring to them as certain body parts — you know the ones I mean, or calling them a “basket of deplorables”.

I wish to avoid false equivalence here. I do believe sometimes ideas and actions are unjust and cruel. I’m not saying “everyone has a right to their opinion.” I’m saying everyone has their opinion, and we are more effective when we seek to understand that person and how they came to think in the way they do.

What we have is a bizarre turn where we are so convinced of our position and perspective, and the stakes are so so high — literally to many of us matters of life and death — that we become very ugly towards each other.

What I love about the Ruth Bader Ginsburg story is not so much her fierce pursuit of justice, or her brilliant ability to articulate her dissensions in both powerful words and poignant fashion. I love those things, of course. What I love about her most of all, however, is her deep and close relationship with Justice Scalia, a political foe but a personal friend. To me this suggests more than her rise in the face of sexism, more than her astute legal mind, more than her awareness of the significance of her bench, it showcases her deep humanity. She is able to see the person behind the politics; she is able to retain her humanity and the view of her opponent’s humanity, even when fervently disagreeing. And the stakes are high. It is precisely because they are high that we need this focus on the whole person, on their humanity, on speaking to and even loving someone whose values you may find deplorable but whose human value is not in question.

I want to admit to you publicly on this day that we account for our souls and make public declarations of where we falter: I am terrible at this. I am not sure I could have dinner with Scalia. My own brother and I have certain discussion topics that we intentionally avoid so that we don’t try to throttle the other over dinner. I have no-go zones that I simply will not discuss, debate, or, frankly, develop a personal connection with someone if they hold opposing views. I’m sure you have some of these red line issues as well. For some it’s women’s rights. For some it’s Israel. For some it’s climate change. I guarantee you two things: there are people in this room who disagree with you on one or more of these issues. And they are here for the same reason you are: to use this opportunity given to us each year to reflect, to pursue self-betterment, and to foster a more meaningful life.

If we could find a way to dialogue, even when we disagree, we could open our minds and hearts in ways that we can’t accomplish just sitting and listening to the rabbi, engaging though she may be ;)

I’ve been working on this dialogue across difference thing. One of my red line issues is being pro-choice. I so strongly disagree with the anti-choice perspective, finding it rooted in misogyny, religious fanaticism/fundamentalism, and basic scientific misinformation about issues of gestation. I will admit to having thought thoughts like “these people are idiots with no moral compass who are not worthy of my time who are — insert name of body part, or item from the basket of deplorables here.” I would either not engage with the anti-choice segment or, if I passed them with their graphic signs, for example, I might shout out an expletive or insult. I would never really engage.

Please understand, I still feel just as passionately and strongly about this issue and still, if I’m honest, know in my heart that I’m right. The challenge is that they know in their hearts that they’re right too, even though our ideas are diametrically opposed. So, what to do?

I recently had the opportunity to try build and flex this dialogue across difference muscle when I posted publicly on social media my “top ten things to say to abortion protestors” and, unsurprisingly, received some comments that were from the anti-choice side. I resisted the urge to name-call, to dismiss. I engaged. There was one person in particular who said some things that were filled with contempt for women. I asked him to consider that contempt; I said I’m sure his heart was in the right place but to me these issues are about women’s rights and autonomy, things I care passionately about. That’s right — I used “I” messages instead of simply criticizing him and his point of view.

Do I think I got through to him? No. But often these discussions, especially when occurring in public, are not about the person on the other side of the argument. It’s about the people watching from the sidelines, either looking for models who share their point of view, or who are open to being convinced by the opposing one.

In being resolute in my argument, but respectful in my discussion, I affirmed his humanity and, importantly, my own. Part of what I was doing was saying “Hey, look. I’m a woman. I’m intelligent. I’m worthwhile. My rights matter.” It’s much easier to dismiss someone’s humanity when they are dismissing yours.

I noticed something after that discussion. I felt lighter than I usually do when entering into arguments, especially online arguments! Could it be that treating someone else with respect actually feels good? At Rosh Hashanah I discussed the false dichotomy between righteous indignation and happiness.

I want to tell you — in that moment, I felt super righteous. I had been cool and convincing. I also felt happy at how I had handled myself. There is an adage that I find very true: there is no such thing as winning an argument. We need to be civil with each other.

Let’s talk about the notion of civility for a moment: on the one hand it is a no-brainer and, on the other hand, it is a most dangerous proposition. The root of “civil” is “civis” for citizen. Who counts as a citizen though? Does it include the immigrant or the refugee? Does it include the Indigenous peoples? Think of the brutal history of colonization globally: a civilizing mission; a mission driven by the idea that the people indigenous to the majority of the planet were not fully human yet.

Indeed, today, there is such an interesting use of the word civil. A few months ago, when the US started separating immigrants and refugees from their children, and then placing those children in cages, the spokesperson for the White House reminded people to be “civil” when discussing it. I was struck by how that term is still being used to oppress, to suppress dissent, to whitewash. It’s not dissimilar from the approach of the colonizer who took seriously what they called the “white man’s burden” to civilize others.

Let’s not forget the role religion plays in these civilizing missions. Colonizers across the continent of Africa used it to “civilize” the people there. People seeking refuge in North America now are catalogued by religion and treated accordingly. The idea of the citizen is very fraught indeed.

And yet I take seriously what it means to be a citizen — of my country and of the world. I dislike it when politicians refer to their constituents as “taxpayers.” I am a taxpayer but does this buy me access or a voice? My children are not taxpayers, but they are citizens. Same for some elderly people, some people with disabilities, some people down on their luck. As citizens, we deserve equal protection under the law — exactly what Ruth Bader Ginsburg has spent her life and career fighting for.

To me, what it means to be a citizen is to fight for those rights. To stand up for my fellow citizens, of my country, of the world, and be serious about the equal protections we are owed. It’s why I care about abortion access, climate change and environmental justice, anti-Black racism and the treatment of Indigenous peoples across our country and the world. I have a responsibility to engage — I am a citizen.

I am also a Jew. And Jews have often been called uncivilized. We have been subject to the same types of categorizations and civilizing missions that others have experienced and continue to experience. Part of the idea of the uncivilized Jew is simply a reflection of deep antisemitism. It is garbage. I want to rescue part of the image, however. Jews have been known as a “stiff-necked people,” meaning that we are stubborn. Part of our stubbornness is our refusal to bow before leaders and gods with whom we don’t agree or in whom we don’t believe. For Humanistic, Secular, atheist, agnostic Jews, we keep in line with the very Jewish tradition of refusing to bow before what we perceive to be false gods. It is in our ethos as a people and as individuals. I value our stiff-neckedness. I want to be stubborn where it matters. I have my red lines. I don’t think that makes me uncivilized; it does make me an engaged and vocal citizen.

This idea that the cagers of children should call on their opponents to remain civil really throws into harsh relief how dangerous the term can be. Some of these same people are incredibly disrespectful, discourteous, and dangerous in their attacks on their political opponents, calling them all manner of things including “snowflake,” “Pollyanna,” “Fake news.” I notice a trend for people to call for civility in exactly the moment that they are violating civility, and undermining the humanity, of others.

We have to do this better. It is frustrating, believe me I know, to be the one who remains calm, poised, and, yes, civil, when the other side is the opposite of all those things. But there is no winning an argument. And the stakes are high. We have to dialogue across difference and “they” will never be civil to “us” if “we” can’t be civil to “them.” You can’t see the scare quotes I placed around all those words - us and them. But they are there. Because, ultimately, there is no us and them. As I said, we disagree, even in this room, even where we agree on so much. Ultimately, finally, there is only us — we humans, fallible and frail, trying to live out our lives. Being citizens of the world we must share.

This talk is entitled “Civility, certainty, divinity, diversity”. I think civility is challenged by the other three ideas. Our certainty. My certainty that I’m right and your certainty that you’re right. I’m part of a cohort of Rabbis Without Borders — rabbis reimagining how to make Jewish life meaningful and relevant for our people. One of the books we discussed together was by Rabbi Brad Hirshfeld, entitled You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right.” In it, he discusses the violence done to Jews and Judaism when we are shouted down, ostracized, made to feel ashamed for who we are. Many of us in this room have experienced that from outside and inside Judaism. We are subject to antisemitism. We are subject to people telling us we’re not “real” Jews or we’re “Jewing” it wrong. We are subject to questions about our choice in partner or the validity of the Jewishness of our children if we are intermarried. We are subject to the sting of feeling a lack of belonging - with our people, without our people. What if we agreed that someone doesn’t have to be wrong for us to be right?

Jewishly, what if we agreed that it makes sense to worry about Jewish continuity even if and as we celebrate intermarriage?

What if we took seriously the idea that the person who votes differently to me has very real concerns that they care about and that’s what compels them to vote the way they do?

What if instead of calling each other snowflakes, deplorables, and worse, we actually listened to each other?

For us to retain our civility we must sometimes question our certainty. And when we feel certain we must acknowledge that the other side does too.

Civility, certainty, divinity... well, if you’re here in this room you are probably suspicious or skeptical of the idea of the divine. I don’t believe that any supernatural force, certainly not the God of the bible, is going to counsel me on how to navigate these tough times. I am extremely anxious, as are many of you, about the certainty that comes with the belief that one’s ideas are divinely inspired or inscribed. There is just no arguing with someone who, yes, conveniently, yes, sometimes uncritically, believes that their political and social points of view all happen to match up perfectly with their religion or god they worship. I advocate for dialoguing across difference; I’m still working out how to dialogue with divinity. What I have in place of a belief in the divine is a belief in my fellow humans. This belief, like all beliefs, gets tested. It wavers. But it is foundational to how I move through the world. The very meaning of what it is to be humanistic is that we place our faith in each other. We often hear about the “divine spark in every person.” I like that metaphor, not because we are made in the image of a god. I like it because, to me, humanity is holy. It’s the only phenomenon on which I can place my belief. I’m not saying people are gods. I’m saying if we treated each other like we could see the spark of divinity inside each person we’d be living in a better world.

Civility, certainty, divinity, diversity. I’d love my political opponents to get a little more comfortable with diversity. I am so proud to be part of this community that meaningfully and truly celebrates diversity. There are Jews here of all skin tones and backgrounds, Jews by choice, Jews by birth, Jews by marriage. There are people here who are intermarried, in-married, and unmarried. Some of you awesome folks are LGBTQ, some are allies. And, yes, we are diverse politically too. Members of my staff and board here vote differently than I do — I admit I find it astonishing. And yet, we love each other.

Right now, I find that civility is threatened by certainty and the divinity of humanity is strengthened by diversity. I want us to hold fast to our beliefs, and at the very same time, reconcile some of these contradictions and challenges.

When in doubt, ask yourself WWRBGD? What would Ruth Bader Ginsburg do? I think we can agree that she’d remain civil, even when certain. She’d acknowledge the divinity in her fellow human and celebrate the diversity of humanity. On this day of atoning, of accounting for our souls, of acknowledging our faults and faultlines, and of actualizing our goals of who we wish to be moving forward, she’s a pretty great role model. I don’t believe the year ahead is going to be a particularly easy one. We face many challenges as a community and as individuals. What I wish for you is what we spoke about at Rosh Hashanah. Find ways to let joy in. Try to occupy the nexus between what’s meaningful and what’s pleasurable. Seek out ways to elevate the sense of your own humanity and that of those around you. Love yourselves and love each other. Even if the year ahead is filled with challenges, may it be a meaningful, rewarding, good, and yes, sweet year.



My shirt for Yom Kippur: Resisting Tyrants Since Pharoah. Shirt by and in support of T’ruth: Rabbis for Human Rights  

My shirt for Yom Kippur: Resisting Tyrants Since Pharoah. Shirt by and in support of T’ruth: Rabbis for Human Rights  

Speaking and silence

You'll be receiving this just before erev Yom Kippur, right before our evening Kol Nidre service. This is a solemn service, but also the most beautiful. We mourn, we commemorate, we also reflect on our year, our trajectory, our deepest selves. The ancient melody of Kol Nidre grounds us. Some describe it as haunting. Others call it meditative. For my mother, the melody always makes her cry -- it pulls her heart towards the memories of her forebears, those she knew and loved and those in the long history of Jewish generations.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time when we encourage one another to speak up and speak out. Speak out against injustice; ask for forgiveness; tell your truth about yourself. You also hear the rabbi speak about the year to come, what it may bring, things to focus on. We hear the shofar - the blast that wakes us up to the task and road ahead. It is a time of many words, songs, sounds.

Right after Yom Kippur this year, I am leaving for a silent retreat. I want to balance the cacophonous Days of Awe with a few days of rest and silence. This is not to forget all those words, the songs and their resonant meanings, rather it is so they may have time to sink in. I want to drop into the silence so that I can drop deep into myself, solidifying the promises I've made for the year to come.

We live in such a noisy, chatty culture. We can feel bombarded by sounds: traffic, children whining/crying, people asking for our attention, conversation, argument/disagreement, the dings and buzzes of technology, news programs, songs, radio, background noise, smoke alarms, the quotidian noises of daily life. These comprise the soundtrack to our lives. They are often beautiful and wonderful sounds, such as the voices of loved ones, the simple clink of dishes in the sink, even the hum of traffic can be soothing.

At the same time, I really think we all need to find ways to slow down and seek some quiet. This doesn't have to be in the form of a retreat. Meditation, taking a quiet walk, simply sitting still for a while can invite stillness and silence into our lives. We need that more often than we are likely getting it. We need to take a break from all that noise.

My goal this year is that I be able to truly listen. I want to hear, really hear, the people in my life. I want to hear the question behind the question, the unarticulated need, the joyful telling of a story. I'm taking this time to pause, taking a break from talking, partly to quiet the never-ending chatter in my own mind. It's my hope that it will free up a little space for hearing others more clearly.

What will you do after these High Holidays? Is there something you can do to extend the awesomeness of the Days of Awe into the rest of your year?

Rosh Hashanah sermon - Can a Humanist Be Happy?

This was the Rosh Hashanah commentary from the service at Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, September 2018 (5779). Note: it followed the reading of Jeremiah 31: 2-20, which is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah.


Stop me if you heard it: The Brandeis University rowing team has failed every time. They send an observer to watch the Yale and Harvard crew teams, and he reports back, "guys, we're doing it all wrong. We need EIGHT people rowing and ONE person yelling!" This joke works because of the stereotype that Jews yell, disagree, can’t steer together.

Jeremiah tells us that when the exiles return there will be immense joy, there will be celebration, there will be singing and dancing. Mourning itself shall turn to joy. But, with respect to Jeremiah, as the people who are more likely to call out “oy” than to experience “joy” we are perhaps still waiting for the prophecy to come true.

Quick exercise and please try not to overthink: If you have children or grandchildren in your life: what’s the one thing you want most for them in their lives?

And here’s one for you? What do you want for your life most this year?

Do the answers match up? #1 answer when parents are asked what they want for their kids is not a fancy job, or a spouse, or wealth. It’s happiness. When we set our own goals, they are often for these parts of life that we think might make us happy, but usually we do not set out simply to be happy ourselves.

Paul Golin, the Executive Director of our movement organization  the Society for Humanistic Judaism, was here this past June. He asked what job Judaism is doing in our lives, which I think is a really worthwhile question. It’s a question I put to you. I answered that I thought Judaism could be a force to make people’s lives happier, and Paul was surprised. He said something like, “wow, happy. I never considered happy. I’m not even sure I’m capable of happy. What I have is something more like righteous indignation.”

If you know me at all, you know I’m actually quite a fan of righteous indignation. I believe we are living in an incredibly pivotal political time and the very real fights we face around climate change, racism and discrimination, sexism and sexual violence, immigration and refugee rights, food security, and many more, are deserving of our fervour, our ferocity, and our fury. I’m a big fan of anger when it motivates us to act. I think we are entitled to be angry — there is a lot going on that should make us angry. But when you think about what you want for the children and grandchildren in your life is it to walk around being angry all the time? Of course not. We need to find a way to balance the righteous indignation with the joy. Can a Humanist be happy? I sure as hell hope so!

You are likely familiar with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The bottom of the pyramid is filled with things we need to survive: food, shelter, water. As we go up the pyramid there are things like love and belonging. Further up is esteem, and the highest need we have, a need we are capable of achieving only if all the other needs are met, is self-actualization. I like a lot of what is in this theory, but I have two criticisms: firstly, while it is important to focus on the self, I believe we as humans actually need to focus beyond our selves. There is nothing on that pyramid about doing good, pursuing social justice, helping others. I think if we are to truly reach self-actualization we have to look outwardly as well as inwardly. The second criticism I have is the shape... the pyramid. Maslow suggests that we can’t focus on love and belonging until we have basic physiological needs met. I disagree. I think people who do not have the basic means for survival often experience incredible love and feelings of belonging. I also think the love and belonging help us find the tools to survive, for we are motivated by our own survival and that of the people we love.

I’m going to return to some of these concepts, particularly love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. I think they are key to our happiness as individuals and as a people.

But first I want to explore more about why this happiness thing is so hard to come by, perhaps especially for Humanistic Jews. Partly it’s that most of us do not believe in a grand plan, in fate, in things being by design. When someone believes in those things, I think it is easier to resist despair. We not only have no faith that these things will all turn out fine because they are preordained, but we don’t necessarily have faith that the humans on whom we rely have the will or the skill to address the challenges we face.

I think there is something cultural at play too. In Michael Wex’s book “Born to Kvetch,” he discusses how Yiddish encoded something in the Jewish psyche. He says Yiddish is not a “have a nice day” language. One doesn’t ask “how are you?” Because the answer will be “how should I be?”

And yet there are examples of Jews who make happiness their mission, sometimes literally. The Chasidic movement is so successful because it has a goal of making Jewish practice extremely happy and joyful, almost frenetically so sometimes. The Chasidim sure bring the party, and you know what? They’re right. There is much with which I disagree in Chasidic and other branches of Orthodox Judaism. But Chasidism got the joy piece right. Why be or do Jewish if it doesn’t help make you happy? I stand by my answer to Paul Golin. I think Jewish identity, practice, ritual, and experience can absolutely help you up Maslow’s ladder, from offering love and belonging, to reasons for self-esteem and the esteem of others, and to self-actualization. Judaism also helps with the social justice piece that Maslow forgot.

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about happiness. We have traditional sources on this.

The Mishnaic sage, Ben Zoma, expresses it very succinctly: Eizehu ashir? Hasame’ach bechelko. “Who is rich? He who is happy with his share.” Good advice.

Anne Frank noted, “We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are different and yet the same.”

And many people who are not Jewish have much to offer in understanding how we can increase happiness in our lives and strengthen the link between doing Jewish and being happy.

In The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, we learn techniques that Rubin tried for a year to help make her more happy, a project she claims was successful, she is truly happier now. I’m a fan of Rubin’s. I get her daily “moment of happiness” emails with a quotation about happiness or something meaningful and I find it helps me start my day. One of the biggest takeaways from the Happiness Project for me, is one of the simplest. One of her rules for happiness is, “Be Gretchen.” She writes about how she always felt insecure about how she didn’t particularly care for music. She saw how much meaning it brought to others. She wanted to like it. She tried to like it. But she doesn’t really like it. She is happier focusing on the things that really are suited to her. In all things, be Gretchen. Or, you know, insert your own name. Later in the service we’ll here of the midrashic Zusya, a story from our own tradition with a very similar moral. Be yourself.

How does that map out Jewishly? Well, focus on the aspects of Jewish culture and practice that are meaningful to you and here’s the real trick: DFBA - don’t feel bad about it! If you are the kind of Jew who could not care less about Torah/Tanakh ( Tanakh is the Hebrew bible... like what we read from Jeremiah..) if you just went to sleep - if you’re that kind of Jew- guess what? DFBA! It’s ok! It’s better than ok! You now know your link to Judaism isn’t bible. But you’re here - so what is it? Personal betterment and fulfillment? Community and the traditions and people of our ancestral past? Social justice? Judaism has something to offer as we seek all of these things, and also shows us how these things connect. So, be Jewish your way. Be Gretchen or, rather, be you.

Last year I spoke about belief, behaviour, belonging. I returned to the concept a few weeks ago when reading Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness, a book that I wholeheartedly recommend. In it, Brown speaks about the human need for belonging — the middle of the Maslow hierarchy.  Brown’s definition of “true belonging” is: when we are truly and authentically ourselves and feel accepted.” But, of course, we won’t always be or feel accepted. So we must foster self-acceptance... it is a book for what she called outliers. Those who buck trends. Those who, in her words, brave the wilderness.

“True belonging” — makes me nervous. It sounds and feels a little too much like True believer. Our community is a community of misfits, skeptics, and outliers. I wouldn’t have it any other way. We have found each other in the wilderness. I love that metaphor because it reminds me of Passover - the Exodus story (sorry for the bible-haters...)  of Jews who wandered for 40 years. And still we wander... outliers.

The wilderness for Brown is being an outlier; being brave enough to stand up and stand out from the crowd. In her words, “Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness” (49).

That’s us in multiple directions: some here left traditional Judaism and found this form of it which feels more authentic. Some left a family or community of disconnected Jews and found us and increased their Jewish experience and engagement manifold. Some married or partnered into Judaism and discovered us. But, for most of us, choosing to be in a Humanistic Jewish space on the high holidays is a sign of our outlier status. My mission is to help my community brave the wilderness - to lend support and foster community around the idea of being in the wilderness, a lonely, scary, but also beautiful space, open with possibility.

We have to sort out where we stand alone and where we stand with others. Brown notes that:

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are” (196). Be Gretchen.

Braving the Wilderness talks about the how of being true to oneself and being in community and society with others — I’ll take that up on Yom Kippur when I discuss “civility, certainty, divinity, diversity.”

Some of Brown’s best tenets are: “people are hard to hate close up. Move in.... Speak Truth to BS, be civil... Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart.” (7)

I love this last one best of all. We need a strong back to carry the load of working for justice, speaking our truth, being who we are. We need a soft front to stay vulnerable — it’s hard being truly who we are out in this harsh world. The soft front makes us loving, open, available. And the wild heart. If I could wish one thing for you this year, it’s this wild heart. What would or could you do with this year if you listened to your impulses? If you pursued an unrealistic dream? If you gave generously, danced maniacally, laughed and loved exuberantly?

Her book ends (spoiler) with a sentiment I feel is perfect for the start to the year:

“There will be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty. Someone, somewhere, will say, ‘Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.’ This is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself, ‘I am the wilderness.”

I connect Brene Brown’s words with the reading of Jeremiah. The idea here is that we are coming out of the wilderness and so will rejoice. I’m thinking though that we never really come out of the wilderness. I think most of us are stuck in one wilderness or other for a long time. There is no true Promised Land. I’m not speaking of the dream and vision for the state of Israel precisely, but we can go there for a minute. It’s clear that there is more to do. We can apply this to our own lives too. With respect to Jeremiah, I’d like to invert the meaning of the passage: I don’t want to wander through the wilderness and expect joy on the other side; I want to know how we bring the joy to the wilderness.

Does being the wilderness, or being in the wilderness, make a person happy? Partly. It means that we are struggling for something, and often that something is beautiful and precious. Braving the wilderness gives our lives meaning, and meaning is key to happiness.

Tal Ben-Shahar, a Harvard professor focusing on positive psychology, notes in his book “Happier,” that we have words like “pleasure, bliss, ecstasy, and contentment” which “are often used interchangeably with the word happiness, but none of them describes [it] precisely (4)”.

In our service we note that there are many words in Hebrew for joy; these are part of the seven wedding blessings: gila, rina, ditza v’chedva.

All these words... but identifying a true definition for happiness still seems so elusive. I generally see myself as a happy person, but I’m so often not *aware* of being happy. Mostly we all just feel sort of regular. People who are generally unhappy are likely much more aware of it, but even they might sometimes experience pleasure, bliss, gila, rina, etc and not take stock of those feelings or how those feelings are aiding in increasing their overall happiness.

Ben-Shahar says that rituals help aid happiness (8), which is part of why it’s so important to mark holidays like this one, including all of the attendant rituals we experience here and at home — reading Torah, lighting candles, apples and honey. These are all part of what is happy-making about holidays. The specific experiences bring us joy and meaning, and the rhythm of the ritual happening annually also increases our happiness because it offers both the comfort of regularity and the excitement of the special — we do it every year but only once a year. For Ben-Shahar the real ticket to a happy life, or at least a happier life, is when our lives are filled with both pleasure and meaning. We need a mix of both pleasure and meaning for our lives to feel happy because either one alone is not enough. All pleasure all the time might sound good, sometimes it might sound really good!, but ultimately we get bored, feel unfulfilled, and cannot serve others if we are only about our own immediate pleasure. All meaning all the time feels a little weighty. We need time to let go, recharge, enjoy the fruits of our labour. Where pleasure meets meaning is where we can start to find real happiness.

When I ask you what your goals are for this year, maybe some are about pleasure: vacations you want to take, experiences you want to have with special people, etc. And maybe some are about meaning: social justice work you will pursue, career goals and milestones, working on developing or sustaining close relationships. All of these are worthwhile things to focus on this year. Sometimes we feel our dreams or goals to do with pleasure are too frivolous, unserious, undeserving of our attention, our money, or the sacrifice of others. “What right do I have to take off for the weekend with my girlfriends when I have a full house and a full inbox?” But what happens if we don’t focus on our own pleasure? We resent the people in our homes and those at the other end of the emails.

You may have heard me say before that I try not to tell people that I’m “busy,” but rather that my life feels “full.” It really does! I feel so grateful for meaningful work, meaningful family, meaningful friendships, meaningful ideas I get to read, discuss, and contemplate. I really do have a full house and a full inbox. Does this fullness leave me feeling fulfilled? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. The fullness of it all can certainly lead to overwhelm, which I know is something many of you experience.

To be happy, we need the meaning and the pleasure. My best moments are ones like this when we are together, enjoying, truly enjoying our holiday, our community, our time to focus inward. There is a lot of pleasure here (at least I hope there is!). We even have honey cake afterwards! There is also, I like to think, some real meaning. I often feel happier after having attended a service or celebrated a holiday. The meeting of pleasure and meaning is why.

So, my challenge to you is finding out ways to bring pleasure and meaning together more often. I’m not saying that because I like you and so I want you to be happy. I do like you. I do want you to be happy. But it’s not just for you. I want you to be happy because I know that a lot of hurt is happening in our world right now. I know that when we are happy, when we are moving through the world like we love ourselves, we are more likely to bring happiness to others. We are certainly less likely to cause harm to others.

The happiest people I know are also the most generous, most giving, most caring. They can afford to be this way because they operate from a place of abundance and not scarcity. I want you to be happy because I know that if we could harness the power and potential of everyone here today when we are at our happiest and strongest, we could achieve incredible things in this world. And this world certainly needs us now.

As I look around, I see wilderness. I see pain, fear, hurt, anger. Lots of searching. Lots of frustrated wandering. The story of our people is this story. And we know what to do with it. The Chasidim know, the wedding couple filled with gila, rina, ditza knows, when we think of what we wish for our children and grandchildren, we know. Our lives must be purposeful. To achieve self-fulfillment, the highest level for Maslow, and to reach a happy life, a high value in and of itself: we need all of it: joy, anger, righteous indignation, struggle, meaning, purpose, pleasure, wilderness. I wish you all that and more this coming year. Shana tova u’metukah. May it be a very good, very sweet, and very happy year for you and yours.


What to do between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?


Here we are! The Days of Awe, as they are known. I hope you are having a wonderful and meaningful Rosh Hashanah!

The Jewish New Year offers so many opportunities for reflection, growth, and betterment. I love the fresh-start-feeling I get at this time of year! Here are a few things you can do to set yourself up for a great year!

 Purge, clear, clean

Do you notice when you have a clean and clear space it makes for a clean and clear headspace? Take the time to do a little fall fix up of your home. This will also come in handy if you're having guests over!

Do you 10Q?

I love this website that sends you a question to answer each day of the High Holiday period and then sends you back your answers the following year! Check it out here.
Set some goals Set aside some time to write down some things you’re happy about from the last year, some things you’d like to change for this year, and some things that would make this the best time ever.

Make amends

Many Jews use this time of the year to ask for forgiveness. Write that letter/email or, better yet, make that phone call. Reach out and see if you can mend an old wound or reconnect with someone.
Get Outside!I always practice tashlich, casting away, on Rosh Hashanah. Visit a natural body of water and use something to symbolically cast away that which is no longer serving you. Note: the tradition is breadcrumbs but there are ecological concerns with that and so I've begun using sticks and leaves and pebbles I find near the river. Being in nature grounds us, connects us with the world, and is the perfect place to be inspired.

Focus on what matters

Did you get to spend Rosh Hashanah with family or friends? Did you taste the sweetness of apples with honey and/or pomegranates? Did you get to mark the holiday meaningfully? If so, you’re pretty lucky. Remind yourself to be grateful for all the good in your life.

Shana Tova!

Rabbi Denise


Are You a “Bad” Jew?

Are you a “Bad Jew”?  Admit it: you’ve thought it. You’ve said it. Sometimes apologetically or sometimes defiantly: “I’m a Bad Jew”. Why? Oh, the usual reasons. Don’t observe Shabbat, like bacon, are intermarried, don’t speak Hebrew, have no idea what the holiday of Shavuot is all about, etc.

We’re entering the High Holiday, Fall Festival, Jewiest time of the year. So I want to capitalize on this moment and tell you something serious, even sacred. You’re a good Jew if you’re a good person. 

Here’s a little bit of text for you (I’m a rabbi, after all. I’m gonna throw a touch of text your way from time to time) from the Prophet Isaiah, about the fast on Yom Kippur (Isaiah 58: 5-7):

Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast?

No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and to not ignore your own kin.

Yes! Right? I mean, Yesss! Most Jews are “bad Jews” if the metrics are fasting on Yom Kippur, keeping kosher, or lighting Shabbat candles regularly. Guess what? It doesn’t matter! You know how people say “You do you”? Well, I say, “You Jew you.” Jew it your way.

The bottom line is this: Judaism is not meant to be a religion or culture of relics and traditions that are devoid of meaning but people do because they feel obliged.  Judaism is meant to be a living tradition and culture that brings meaning to your life and goodness to the world. Isaiah knows what he’s talking about. What good does it do to fast, to afflict your soul, to pay for the High Holiday tickets, but then be a crappy person? No good at all. It’s not about any of the things you feel like a “bad Jew” about. It’s about how you treat others and how you treat yourself. That’s it. The Golden Rule. That’s all. It’s about Tzedakah, for charity and justice. Focus there this year and I promise, you’re a good Jew, a good person, and in for a good year.


Gratitude after the fire

A few months ago, a friend of mine awoke in the night to the smell of smoke. She yelled for her partner and together they got their three children, one still a small baby, out of the house. As they looked back, they saw smoke all around. The fire fighters said they thought they made it out with about thirty seconds to spare. They were in bare feet, underwear, and too little clothing for the cold night. They lost everything they owned.

As I heard about this, the story touched my own terror. It made me think of how I would feel if I lost everything I owned. The fire had spread from the neighbouring house. How would I feel about the person who started it? Would I be angry? Filled with anguish and despair? Overcome with the challenge of rebuilding and finding a place to live in the meanwhile? Grief over all the mementos lost?

I don’t think any of us can know how we’d feel in this situation, but I know how my friend and her family have reacted: a beautiful, deep, overwhelming sense of gratitude. The mother/grandmother of the family puts it this way: “I breathe in and breathe out fall on your knees gratitude that everyone is ok.”

I reached out to the woman, this mother of three who is suddenly without a home, and all she has to offer is gratitude that her kids are safe, gratitude to her friends, family, and community who have come together to quickly raise clothing, funds, and other necessities to get them through this time. All I get from these people who have a right to be bitter is gratitude and more gratitude.

I’m really touched and inspired by this family of strong and courageous women. They would be forgiven for being grouchy, angry, bitter, resentful, jealous, spiteful, and hardened by this. They would be justified. But they are choosing to focus on the positive that comes out of bad situations. What a gift that is to themselves and those kids, who will learn about grit and resilience from this. They will never forget this time.

Many of us might be walking around feeling grumpy, angry, bitter, and we might feel justified in that. We might have real reasons to feel that way. However, for many of us, whatever it is that we are dealing with also likely has a positive side. The more we can focus on that, the more we can grow in our positivity and resilience, the better the outcome for ourselves and the people around us.

I say this with our community in mind because I know a lot of people who are Humanists struggle with gratitude. We may think, “to whom, exactly, am I supposed to be grateful?” People who believe in the supernatural force often called God have someone to thank, and someone they can believe made any good things happen, or has a plan for when bad things happen. This isn’t my belief, but I really do try to practice gratitude daily. I am not grateful to God. I am grateful to the world, to my family and community, to my children, to myself, for the beauty and joy that I find all around me.

There is lots in my life that I wouldn’t describe as beautiful or joyous. I spend a lot of time commuting. I really hate sitting for long periods of time and I really dislike driving, and yet I spend about ten to fifteen hours a week exactly this way. Sometimes on my commute I’m dealing with weather, or aggressive drivers, or construction, none of which is wonderful. When I find myself in this situation or other unpleasant ones — someone being hurtful, an unexpected and expensive home repair, all of the things that fill our lives and can make us angry or unhappy, I try to ask myself: “what is awesome about this?”

I don’t like driving but I get to listen to audiobooks and podcasts that stimulate me. Someone says something that hurts my feelings. What is awesome about that? They are letting me know something about myself that I can confront and perhaps help me grow. They are letting me know something about them that can heighten my empathy (mean people are usually just angry or fearful themselves), or can help me know who in my life is truly trustworthy and good for me. Something in my home breaks? I’m lucky to have a home, and people in it who I love so much, and these instances are small inconveniences in the grand scheme of things.

The more I practice this intentional form of gratitude, the more I am able to let go of the feelings of negativity more quickly and more fully. Frankly, it’s a better way to go through life. I am working on my own resilience. I can be too cynical, too grouchy, too judgmental. That isn’t great for the people around me, and it isn’t great for me. I want to be a force of light and positivity for others, and the best way to be that is to feel lightness and positivity within.

Humanistic Jews have the wisdom of both Judaism and Humanism to draw from, and there is lots in both about becoming the best version of oneself. I see it as a Jewish responsibility to take care of myself and to take care of others. In the Hebrew bible and Talmud we are told to honour our parents, love the stranger, and respect our bodies and health.                                                                                                        In Humanism, we are told that the cosmos is chaos, and so whatever good there is on earth is ours to create and enjoy. We believe life is limited to our time here, thus it is short, so we might as well find a way to see the good in it.

I am not asking you to keep a gratitude journal, take up meditation, or stop and ask yourself “what is awesome about this?” every time something goes awry. However, I’ve tried all of these things out and believe that some kind of practice of gratitude, which will help foster an overall attitude of gratitude, is a good thing to do. Gratitude helps us experience joy more fully, and helps us minimize the damage of fear and pain. Gratitude can strengthen relationships (think of the impact of someone pointing out all they appreciate about you! We tend to focus on only the things we wish we could change). Gratitude can make us healthier, happier, more giving, more gracious. If you’re a Humanist who has felt excluded from a practice of gratitude because you don’t believe in anyone pulling all the strings, recognize that the puller of strings is you, and you deserve to feel proud and grateful for all the good you create.

I’m grateful to you for reading this. Please like, comment, or share to let me know how this resonates with you. What are you most grateful for?