Two ears and one mouth

This week I’ve been thinking about respectful engagement and disagreement. This past term I was teaching a course called “Advanced Topics in Social Justice” at the graduate-level. My students are mainly teachers. They come from different backgrounds in many ways: urban and rural; middle class and working class; religious and secular. The divide between religious and secular became very pronounced in that class, particularly as there was a brilliant student from the Catholic school board who contributed passionate and well-thought-out opinions that quite often diverged from the opinions of others in the course.

Sometimes teaching courses in social justice can be an exercise in mutual and self-congratulation. We mainly agree and we all locate ourselves against common enemies such as sexism, racism, and homophobia. This can be nice, but it isn’t particularly good for learning. And as an educator, learning is always my true objective.

My teaching in social justice is quite different. I teach people becoming teachers who are often actually quite Conservative/conservative in nature. Many are from traditional families and small towns. Many disagree. My job is to get us to talk, to engage, to consider ideas from new perspectives. Not to agree, necessarily. Truthfully, however, I am generally pretty steadfast in my beliefs. This past term with this particular Catholic student changed me a little bit.

Here are some of the social justice issues we discussed in the course: public funding for religious education as an equity issue; the Federal government’s policy of discontinuing funding for any charitable group that has an anti-choice (anti-abortion) agenda, prayer spaces in schools, sex education and the kinds of inclusions possible. I, like most of you, have a very pronounced belief in separation of church and state. I believe it is fundamental to democracy and human rights, not to mention diversity, equity, and social justice. My student, however, would say things like: “if you believe in freedom of religion, prayer spaces in schools are essential” or like: “I have no problem with the progressive sex education curriculum but why is there no mention of love? Religiously, sex is about an expression of love between partners and a love between self and God, who created the body.” I have to say, he made me work a little harder, think a little deeper, and, most importantly by far, reach a little further in the extension of my empathy.

I can be one of those secularists who dismiss religion too easily. I sometimes think of religiosity as relic, partly because it doesn’t feature very much in my own life. We all have a bubble and my bubble tends towards the secular. However, I really wish to avoid becoming fanatic about my atheism/secularism, for that is just the flip side of the coin from religious fanaticism. I can and should still have beliefs, but I have to respect the beliefs of others. To me it is a no-brainer, for example, that separate school funding needs to end. I still believe this; my student vehemently disagrees. But we heard each other out. Considering the other side of this issue helped me sharpen and better articulate my thinking. It also reminded me that if the funding were to end, real people would feel really hurt but that, and that matters.

My student reminded me that if I really believe in social justice, I have to care about what others care about. I have to learn to listen with more openness and respect. This extends to personal relationships too. Sometimes when I disagree with my partner, I notice that neither of us feels heard. We have children together, own and run a house together, eat dinner together. We have to be on the same team! So I have to hear him; he has to hear me. One of us has to give in (and it shouldn’t always be the same one of us!). Sometimes it is better to be happy than to be right. That is, sometimes we might have to let something go in order to achieve peace.

Here’s where it becomes difficult: both sides must be willing to do this. Sometimes one group on the side of an issue, or one person in a relationship, tries to listen and show compassion. The other doesn’t. That is a failure of empathy and both sides lose.

We are about a week away from an election and so our environment is politically charged. Let’s do our best to hear each other — to note that even when we disagree, the other side is not “stupid” or “ridiculous.” Let’s show each other some compassion and grace. Notice the talking-heads on tv — they never listen or hear each other. Let’s be better.

I love the Amichai poem above. I also love this from Epictetus: we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.

Until next week,

Rabbi Denise

Ubuntu and Humanistic Judaism

This upcoming weekend, I’m thrilled to be officiating a Bar Mitzvah of one of our Oraynu students. This Bar Mitzvah and his brother (who also graduated from Oraynu) are both bright, creative, humourous young men. Their parents really exemplify Humanistic Jewish ideals: they are caring, they are committed to community and to bettering the world, they believe in equality, they are loving and giving parents, and they are kind, decent, warm people.

All Bat and Bar Mitzvah are special. This one is particularly wonderful for me because this student chose to focus his research on the Stephen Lewis Foundation and, in particular, the Grannies Against Poverty and AIDS (GAPA) program in South Africa. These grannies take care of their grandchildren, most of whom lost their parents to AIDS. Stephen Lewis is the Humanistic Jewish hero, but the grannies, as the Bar Mitzvah boy says, are the true heroes for all they do.

This family traveled to South Africa to meet some of the GAPA families. There, they learned of the concept “Ubuntu,” which means “a person is a person through other people,” also sometimes quoted as “I am because you are.” I came across this concept frequently when doing my PhD research on South African literature. What I did not consider at the time is how nicely the concept works with Jewish wisdom.

Hillel, the Jewish sage, is frequently quoted as having said: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only or myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” In the Bar Mitzvah, we are discussing how this Jewish idea pairs beautifully with South African “Ubuntu.”

What we call “Jewish values” are not uniquely Jewish, but they are rooted in Jewish wisdom. What we can “Humanist values” are values that take seriously the worth of each human being and their right to thrive. It’s sometimes a nice reminder that cultures different from our own share some of our same beliefs. It’s a nice reminder that we are all in this together. I love that Humanistic Judaism allows us to take from Jewish and global cultures and find the values, ethics, and teachings that lend meaning and inspiration to our contemporary realities.

If, like me, you find this to be a significantly more meaningful way of approaching Bar/Bat Mitzvah than, say, you had when you grew up, you’re not alone. The facebook group Humanistic Jewish Discussion had a post about this recently. Check it out here if you’re interested:

While you’re at it, join that group to get updates. And “like” Oraynu’s page too:

Until next week,


Mother’s Day and #metoo

A belated Happy Mother’s Day to anyone who identifies as a mother! Mothering is a particular identity. It often (but certainly not always) involves pregnancy, labour, and birth, all life-changing and life-giving processes. It often involves a great deal of caretaking and caregiving. It often involves taking a lot of criticism, correction, and unsolicited advice from family, Facebook, and “friendly” strangers in the local coffee shop. It often involves long nights, thankless jobs, and a great deal of monotony. It also often involves getting to watch the people you love the most learn, grow, change, and laugh.

I love being a mom and I love my kids and family, including my own mom (who is an Oraynu member. Hi mom!) very much. I’m not sure I love Mother’s Day as a tradition. Its creator apparently felt the same way (see a Washington Post article on this, here). It is a commercialized “holiday” that, at best, involves long waits for brunch and, at worst, gives people licence to under-appreciate moms for the rest of the year. What I do love is spending Mother’s Day with my family. Our tradition is a hike, a farmer’s market, and cuddles. I have wondered how to mark Mother’s Day with my congregation Oraynu but, given my objections to the day, had not found a way yet, until this year.

Our staff came up with a perfect idea and it was truly a delight: we hosted a havdallah and High Tea in honour of Mother’s Day (men / dads were welcome too, although none attended!), and raised money to pay it forward with cupcakes for women in a shelter.

I was so excited to be able to drop these cupcakes off at the 50-bed Red Door Shelter in Toronto. Red Door has both a family-housing shelter and one, the one we donated the cupcakes to, for women fleeing abuse. See photos above and below: Kim serving Ruth tea, our gorgeous spread, and me with the cupcakes for the shelter.

This year, perhaps we are more aware than in previous years, that many, many women experience violence in the forms of harassment, assault, and partner-abuse. If the #metoo movement taught us anything, it is that this behaviour is pervasive across all sections of society. The Jewish community hasn’t always been great at acknowledging that this is our problem too (#ustoo). This is starting to change, which is why I was so proud that Oraynu chose to gift the courageous and strong women who are moving to make their lives safer and better, with a Mother’s Day treat of their own.

So happy Mother’s Day to all who celebrate. I hope it was meaningful for you. We all deserve a treat – that’s for sure! If you’re interested in learning more about Judaism and the #metoo movement, I’m presenting two sessions on the subject at this Saturday’s JCC learning program for Shavuot. The program runs all night (midnight cheesecake!) but my sessions are early. The program link is here.

Hope to see you!

Get out there!

And just like that it was spring. As I write this, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, the daffodils are blooming, and the world seems alive with possibility once again. I don’t know about you, but I spent way too much time inside this past winter. Some days I barely left my circuit between the couch, the fridge and the bathroom.  Yet I know that I feel better when I make time to get outside.

I’m passionate about protecting the environment. For people to really care about the environment, it is important that we connect to the environment. It is a tenet of eco-education, for example, that we need to have students be in nature for them to want to protect nature. We only value that from which we derive meaning, pleasure, and sustenance. Of course, nature provides all of those things via food and habitat, but we are sometimes too far removed from the natural processes for these things. We don’t grow or raise our own food (much of it, anyway), we don’t build our own shelters, many of us don’t work out of doors. We are cut off from the natural world. This is a problem because humans need, by nature, to be by nature; that is, we are healthiest when we ensure we get more time outside. It makes us feel better, sleep better, and enjoy life more.

There are Jewish laws and traditions that remind us to protect and conserve the natural world. In the bible, one of the first things the Israelites are commanded to do when they enter the Promised Land is to plant trees and allow them to mature before eating the fruits in order to ensure that the trees are not damaged (Leviticus 19:23). Deuteronomy 20:19–20 forbids the destruction of fruit-bearing trees even when waging war against a city. The Jewish sages later extended this biblical law into a general prohibition (known as “bal tashchit”) against wasting or destroying anything unnecessarily. So, one could say that getting outside to connect with nature, to inspire us to protect nature, also makes us better Jews.

As Humanistic Jews, we particularly value community. Another problem with our tendency to stay inside is that the more disconnected we are from the natural world, the more likely we are to be disconnected from our communities. Hasn’t it been nice going out into our neighbourhoods this past week and seeing neighbours we haven’t seen since, say, Halloween? Being cloistered inside often means being alone or without much contact with our broader community. None of this is good for us.

This May I have taken on the One Nature Challenge, sometimes called the 30 x 30 challenge, launched by the David Suzuki Foundation. The challenge is that you spend 30 minutes outside each day for 30 days. Ideally this is spent enjoying nature: walking in a ravine, gardening, sitting in a park. Walking counts but preferably not in a busy, traffic-filled area. If you’d like to sign up for the One Nature Challenge you can sign up here.

We are so lucky to live where we do.There are ravines and parks all over Toronto. To the south we have gorgeous beaches and the Toronto islands; to the north we have incredibly hiking trails, lakes, and large provincial parks/conservation areas; to the west we have the Niagara escarpment, the waterfalls near Hamilton/Dundas, and the Greenbelt; to the east we have the Kawarthas with their incredible lakes and rivers, and forests that go on and on. I hope this spring and summer we each make time to get out and enjoy nature, redouble our commitment to protect nature, and connect with our communities as we wander.

Until next week,


Lessons from Surf School

A couple of weeks ago I went on a quick, last minute trip to a small town in the Dominican Republic. My main goal: learn how to surf. I am not naturally athletic but have discovered the joy and fun of trying out new activities. Surfing has always scared me and I’m really of the belief that we miss out on a lot of life when we let our fear determine our actions. I packed a little bag and boarded a plane alone in search of adventure.

My first day, in need of groceries for the week, I had to figure out how to take a “bus” (they call them “guaguas” and they are really little vans that pile in as many people as possible and then barrel down the one road very fast). I was out a little after dark, wondering if that was safe for me by myself. I got myself back to my little guesthouse and said hello to some neighbours. And then I crashed for about nine hours. I was out of my comfort zone. Good. That’s what I came for.

My second day, I took my first ever surf lesson. It is not as hard as I thought to stand up on a surf board, but it is quite hard to *stay* up. I had a lot of thoughts flying through my head as I got knocked around by the waves. It seemed to me that surfing offered me a lot of life lessons, particularly as a Humanistic Jew. Because that’s who I am, I really believe in values like doing things for oneself, even while depending on others (we believe in our own power to transform; we believe in community to help get us there and to help make transformation meaningful to others). I believe in the power of nature/the natural world to inspire awe. I believe in making and meeting new challenges. Not all of us are going to learn how to surf, but all of us can learn a thing or two about what the experience teaches. Here are some specific lessons from surf school:

-Go with the flow! The waves come at you no matter what. There is no point in resisting them. Learn how to catch a wave and ride it.

-Listen to your surf instructor. He (mine was a he) knows what he’s talking about. Trust experts.

-Look up, look ahead. Sometimes when we’re nervous of falling we keep our heads down. We’ll go much further if we look to the horizon to see where we’re going.

-Don’t overthink things. Sometimes it’s better to just trust your gut and go.

-You’ll get knocked down and around. Get back up and try again.

-When you least expect it, challenge turns to fun.

-You don’t have to be great at everything. In fact, sometimes you get a lot more out of doing something you are not that great at.

-Sometimes a mantra/meditation/intention helps. Mine was: strength, balance, horizon. Not a bad mantra/meditation/intention for life.

-The ocean is powerful, beautiful, amazing, dangerous. The world is powerful, beautiful, amazing, dangerous. Who do you want to be in those waters?

Overall, I am no surf whiz. I will not abandon my life to buy a board and move to Bali. But I was able to ride some good waves to shore. I was scared; I did it anyway. What will you do that scares you?

Passover and the wilderness

I hope you had wonderful Passover seders and, for those who celebrate Easter, a terrific Easter as well. Passover is my favourite holiday of the year. I love the ritual, the storytelling, and the focus on children. I have young children and it has been beautiful to watch them begin to engage with some of the traditions that I remember as a child. In particular, this year my daughter sang the whole of the four questions in Hebrew. She took learning and practicing really seriously, and she really shone at the seder. She also was an expert negotiator when it came to returning the afikomen in exchange for a present. I can remember being her age and doing these same things. That sense of continuity is meaningful.

There is also a sense of change that is meaningful. Each year we tell the story of the exodus, but each year we do it differently. There is a tension between tradition and change that all Jews, but particularly Humanistic Jews, wrestle with. When I grew up, we told the story as though it were literal. Now we tell it as myth. When I was a child, we spoke about the “four sons” uncritically, including the “wicked” and the “simple” child. Today, we speak about how the metaphor of the “four children” tells us that we need all kinds of people in the world, and that sometimes what someone perceives as “wicked” is really someone who is critically-minded. And on our “night of questions,” we encourage questioning. We want to instil that sense of inquiry.

For adults, the seder reminds us to check in with ourselves. The meaning of Passover does not end at the seder. Rather, the seder is a call to ensure we are doing our utmost to enjoy the freedoms we have, fight for the freedoms still needed in the world for ourselves and others, and to ensure that our freedom does not impinge on that of others. How do we reach our own “promised land?” A better world…

The above quotation by Michael Walzer has been meaningful to me for years. This year just before Pesach I read Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness, which is about having the courage to be an outlier, to speak one’s truth even when it is unpopular. The book reminds me of Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of Humanistic Judaism, who spoke of leading “lives of courage.” Sometimes it is hard to foster change when the pull of tradition is there. Humanistic Jews give tradition a vote but not a veto. We do not practice traditions that conflict with our contemporary values. We value tradition, but we do not value it above everything else. Sometimes at our family seders, or at other times of the year, we need to brave that wilderness.

Walzer and Brown both speak of togetherness. In order to brave the wilderness we need to find “our people.” Sometimes this is our family. Sometimes it is chosen family — friends who feel like family. Sometimes it is community. A Jewish congregation, like the Oraynu congregation where I serve, is often the place where we brave the wilderness together.

Passover is eight days of changing our usual habits to make space for thinking of what kind of freedom is possible in our lives and our world. I look forward to walking the wilderness with you.

Goals/resolutions check-in

If you were reading my blog or receiving this email blast in January, I wrote a piece about New Year’s resolutions. I understand that the Jewish new year is Rosh Hashanah. I also understand that if you live in North America, you also experience January as a new year. In my own life, I actually find I mark three periods of transition in a year: September with Rosh Hashanah and the start of the school calendar, January as a new start (especially after the vacation time and slipping of good habits that December inevitably brings), and spring time as a time of rejuvenation and renewed energy. We are inching towards spring and a couple of months have gone by since the resolutions post, so I wanted to check in. How are you doing with your goals? If you didn’t set goals maybe now is a good time. They don’t have to be the usual ones: weight loss, finances, general organization and management. Maybe they are fun goals: try surfing, eat a whole cake, spend a day doing only things you wish to do. Or maybe they are more meaningful. I suggested a way of looking at the year in terms of monthly themes to focus on:

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)

I love the way these Jewish values can lend meaning and structure to my life.

I am a real believer in goal setting. As a humanist, I feel strongly that if I want something to be different in my life, it is me who has to make it different. I don’t believe in the efficacy of prayer. I believe in the efficacy of hard work with clarity about my own intentions.

One of my personal goals this year was to learn more about how to achieve goals (does this make me sound like I’m boring at parties?). I have been reading interesting books, learning about things I know nothing about (like sales, like building websites, like habit formation techniques). I decided 2018 would be a year of big goals for me, and to make them happen, I had to learn more about, well, how to make them happen.

If you do have goals that are meaningful to you, whether they are immediate or long-term, check in with yourself right now. Are you on track? If not, what could you be doing to get on track? How is your 2018 going? If you’re having a bad start to the year, what can you do to change it?

Many people I know have found 2018 to be a difficult year so far. There may be good reasons why that is so — from school shootings to serial killers, the news has been bleak. There are also, of course, personal challenges such as sickness and loss that some are dealing with. However, as we ushered out 2017 people were saying things like “good riddance to a terrible year!” Prior to that, 2016 was known as the “worst year ever” due to some very high profile deaths and an election result that was disappointing to say the least. Do you see the trend? 2016 was bad. 2017 was bad. 2018 is bad so far. If this reflects you and your thinking then I want something more for you. We can’t control the messiness of the world. But we can control the small corner of our own lives and our own small sphere of influence. What can you do to make this year a great one for you and for the people around you? Let’s stop wishing time away until an imagined future when things will be better. They will never be better! Or, more accurately, they will never be perfect. To a large extend the future is shaped by what we do today.

Purim Jews and Passover Jews

We are now in the period between Purim and Passover. On Purim the tradition is to drink until one confuses Haman with Mordecai. We remember the peril of the Jews, and our oppressors. We say the name Haman and/as we blot it out with noise. We remember in order to forget. We get to go on living, but always with that noise in the background reminding us we are not quite safe. In the bible, we are told to remember the name Amalek, another would-be Jew-killer. What does this constant remembering do to us?

On Passover the sentiment is quite different. We recall the metaphorical journey out of Egypt. And the bible tells us to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. One act of remembering, the Purim-style act, is about our own self-protection. And one act, the Passover-style, is about using our experience to foster empathy over others.

You’ll hear people talk about “Purim Jews” and “Passover Jews” citing this difference. Does Jewish history make you more likely to feel insular, craving a Jewish community that will provide you with a sense of safety and the comfort that comes from being with those like oneself? Or are you a “Passover Jew,” using Jewish experience to foster connections with others who have been slaves, exiles, imperilled?

Of course, the dichotomy is false. The nice thing about these holidays being close to one another is that they remind us that it is natural and reasonable to be both interested in self-protection and also interested in the well-being of all humanity. Striking a balance here is important for obvious reasons. We should not be self-interested to the point of cruelty to others. We should not be so giving to others that we victimize ourselves. You know the Hillel quote (if not, look up “Hillel quote” and you’ll find it).

I was born in South Africa and when I was young I remember being so puzzled by Jewish South Africans who had been happy to be part of apartheid’s despicable treatment of Black people. Did they not know better after the persecution of their own people? I worry about these types of Jews, the “Purim Jews,” and what they do to us as a community. Not only do they perpetrate terrible crimes and injustices in the name of Judaism and Jewish survival, but they also lessen and weaken the Jewish experience by framing what it means to be Jewish in apocalyptic terms.

Think about it: do young people feel drawn to be Jewish when it is framed as a responsibility and terrible obligation? Or do we excite people about being Jewish when it is framed more as a joyful and beautiful experience?

What in our own humanity gets reduced when we feel we cannot be generous to others because we are constantly in self-preservation mode? And what of those others? Are they not deserving of the care that we crave?

If you’re Canadian you likely know of the recent miscarriages of justice in the deaths of Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine, two Indigenous youths who, in two separate stories, were killed. They were also failed utterly by our Canadian institutions, including the legal system. I haven’t spoken or written about this yet because I couldn’t do so without oscillating between tears and blinding rage. But I can’t stay silent about this. We need to change things in Canada to foster meaningful reconciliation. Our systems of education, the law, child protective services, aren’t working. The Jewish community has been painfully silent about these cases and, with some exceptions, Indigenous issues more broadly. I see it as a Jewish imperative to do something about this. We were strangers in the land of Egypt. We are settlers on this land. We need to start loving our neighbours. I have written letters to my MP in support of legal reform and donated to funds to support Indigenous youth. It is not enough but it is something. If this issue doesn’t move you then focus your energy where you feel it is important. But if you are similarly outraged, I really encourage you to use your voice at this time. We can’t afford to be “Purim Jews” now, there is too much at stake.

Passover is on its way, with its themes of rebirth and resistance. Passover is my favourite Jewish holiday of the year. I love the ritual. I love the creativity with which people infuse their seders. I love matzah pizza. Mostly what I love is the metaphor of this Jewish story that has been the cornerstone of Jewish identity and experience for generations. We were in bondage, now we are free. With that freedom comes the obligation to help others achieve freedom.