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D'var Torah by Jenny Isaacs, Social Justice Scholar-in-Residence - October 14, 2017

21/11/2017 01:06:40 PM


Good morning. Shabbat Shalom. I am honoured to have been chosen to be the Social Justice Scholar-in-Residence for this new year, 5778. Over the past many years, I’ve had multiple opportunities to connect with the Darchei Noam community. Each time has been positive and enriching and I look forward to the year ahead of connecting in this new way.

My first time at Darchei Noam was as the Assistant Coordinator of the Shinshinim Program when I was part of the UJA’s Israel Engagement Team in 2012. Our cohort of shinshinim had remarked that a highlight of their year was getting to learn about new ways of being Jewish that they hadn’t been exposed to back home. However, they expressed that although they were intimately getting to know the denomination of the institution they personally worked at, they wished they had more opportunities to get to know the full breadth of denominations in Toronto.

So, me, the secular humanistic member of our team, and my modern orthodox colleague, organized a day of firsthand exploration of different streams of Judaism. We each led a session about our own way of doing Jewish, and we visited a Reform synagogue, a Conservative synagogue, and of course, your own beautiful Reconstructionist Synagogue. As an aside, after our conversation with Rabbi Tina, me and my colleague turned to one another and each said, “hmmm, maybe I’m a reconstructionist?”.

In 2015, Darchei Noam generously opened its doors to host the Heart to Heart Community Reception. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Heart to Heart, it is a joint program of Givat Haviva and Hashomer Hatzair – Camp Shomria Canada. Our mission is to support a new generation of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel to become leaders who recognize the importance of building shared society and possess the relationships and skills needed to make it a reality. Our core program is a three-and-a-half-week summer camp for Israeli teens. Half of our participants identify as Jewish Israeli, and half identify as Palestinian citizens of Israel. All of our participants live within a 15 to 30-minute drive from one another, but despite their geographic proximity, they live very separate lives and for many of them, Heart to Heart and the school-based program from which we draw our participants, Children Teaching Children, is their first opportunity to really meet and get to know the quote un quote other.

Over the course of the program, our participants sleep in the same cabins, eat the same food at the same table, swim together, play together, laugh together, and go canoeing together. They also take part in an intensive educational curriculum based on team bonding, trust building, communication and listening, exploring identity, history, and politics, and building empathy and understanding. All as necessary components of cultivating leadership for a shared society.

The camp program is followed by four days in the GTA where the participants are hosted by locals. They have the chance to get to know Toronto and the GTA and explore our approach to multiculturalism and diversity and to learn from our successes and our challenges. A highlight of the Toronto portion is the Community Reception when members of GTA Jewish, Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, and other communities come out to sit together, eat together, laugh together, and learn together as they hear from our participants first-hand about their experiences in the program and how they plan to take it forward when they return home.

I wanted to share these two personal connections that I have to Darchei Noam, because in reflecting on them as I prepared to come here today, it occurred to me that they both encapsulate the three concepts I want to discuss, that I see reflected in this week’s parsha: the value of distinction and diversity, the importance of engaging with multiple narratives, and the power of partnerships. I truly believe that these are three core concepts that we must bring into our social change work.

In the case of the shinshinim, our approach to learning about Jewish pluralism was not to talk about all of the commonalities across denominations, but was rather to create an opportunity to explore each denomination as its own unique piece of the Jewish puzzle. By meeting leaders from each of the synagogues we visited, our shinshinim were able to learn about the different narratives each congregation held on core topics and they were able to better understand each other’s experiences throughout the year as they each worked in their own Jewish environment. Finally, it was only through partnering with the different communities that our shinshinim were able to have access to so much rich learning.

When it comes to Heart to Heart, it might seem more obvious where these concepts come up. Our participants learn to see each other as distinct individuals, not only members of a larger group. They learn to value and appreciate their differences by getting to know one another, they learn about each other’s narratives both personal and collective through the activities of the program, and they build partnerships with one another that they can mobilize towards building a shared future.

But Heart to Heart, and specifically the Community Reception like the one held here in 2015, also extend that opportunity to our local GTA community members. For many in attendance it is their first time really talking to someone from a different community, or hearing a new perspective on what it means to be Israeli, so we often find that a condensed mini Heart to Heart occurs during the event among our attendees.

But back to today and my next big, meaningful Darchei Noam experience. I have to say, I was particularly thrilled when it became clear that this first dvar would be parshat Bereshit, a parsha that I find particularly fascinating, not mention that it’s exciting to start at the beginning.

And in the beginning…Bereshit barah Elohim et ha shamayim ve et ha aretz…You might know where this is going. God creates light. Va’yar Elohim et ha-or ki-tov. God sees that the light is good. So, what is the next step? V’yavdel Elohim bein ha’or ooh bein ha’choshech. God separates the light from the darkness. This is how we come to have day and night. It is also where we are first introduced to the Jewish concept of holiness as distinction. In Judaism what is Kadosh, holy, is that which is separate, that which is distinct. And this concept is embedded in our very first account of the creation of our world. Over the course of the first six days, God creates a number of important distinctions. Between light and darkness to give us day and night. Between water and water to give us the sky. Between waters and land to give us the earth and the seas. It is through the distinctions, through the differences created, that we are given our most fundamental home, planet earth. On the fifth and sixth days God begins to create living creatures. First the fish and the birds and then the land animals, and finally, us humans. Each with their own stated dwelling place and food source. The diversity of living things put on the planet are put into relationship with both one another and with the earth itself.

The tool that God uses to create these distinctions is language. V’yomer Elohim. God says. Let there be light. Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water. Words have the power to create, to transform. Words have the power to validate, to lift-up, to inspire, to bring awareness, to call for justice. But they also have the power to promote hate, to reinforce negative or harmful ideas, to hurt.

I’m reminded of an issue close to my heart and which I’ve been reflecting on a lot this week. This week I attended the Awards Reception of the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics at York University. My good friend, Dawit, who is probably one of the most inspiring people I know, won the Joseph Zbili Memorial Book Prize for achievement in advanced Hebrew. Dawit is from Eritrea. He fled his home because of the oppressive regime in power there. He traveled through Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya, and Egypt, ultimately arriving in Israel where he was immediately imprisoned for several months before being dropped off with nothing but a document stating that he was not legally able to work in a park in Tel Aviv. Dawit was one of many Eritreans and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel who faced immense hardships and discriminatory policies that make daily life and contributing as much as they would like to to Israeli society incredibly challenging. But the piece that I want to share is this. In the early days of African Asylum Seekers arriving to Israel, two terms were used in the media – asylum seekers and infiltrators. Quickly, the term infiltrator won out, and the public understanding of who this population is and why they are in Israel, and therefore the public response to the community, has been based on that concept. Infiltrator. Imagine how things might be different if Dawit and others like him had been referred to as an asylum seeker rather than an infiltrator?

So, when we think about distinction, it is important to remember that often actions follow from words and that it is through language that we have the power to create distinctions. It is up to us to use that power to create and value the diversity that makes our world so interesting and to ensure that it is not being used to reinforce problematic notions of that which may seem “other” to us. To see distinction, difference, and diversity, as kadosh, holy not as something to fear.

I’ve already told you that I am a secular humanistic Jew. Although this certainly isn’t the case for all secular humanistic Jews, I grew up without ever opening a tanach. I knew, perhaps by osmosis, many torah stories – it’s harder to live in this world and not be familiar with the basic story of Genesis, of the creation of the world and of Adam and Eve and the garden of Eden.

For the last few years, I have been co-coordinating Base, a pluralistic downtown Beit Midrash for us under 40ish types. Through Base, I was able to find a comfortable space to explore traditional text in a judgement free environment. One where I didn’t feel any pressure to relate to the text in any particular way, I could just explore it for myself. So, it was then, only a few years ago, that I actually held, opened, and read from a tanach for the first time. And of course, I wanted to start from the beginning.

I’ll admit to you, that when that moment came and I finally read the primary text, I was shocked. Perhaps you’ve already noticed, but in Bereshit we do not find THE story of the creation of the world and THE story of Adam and Eve. There are the STORIES of the creation of the world and the STORIES of Adam and Eve.  

In the first story, which I’ve already discussed, we learn about the creation of the world through a day by day account of what happened when. We learn that on the sixth day, god creates the land animals and then God, using the power of language, creates humans by saying “Let us create man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth. Va’yvra Elohim et haadam betzalmo, betzelem Elohim bara oto Zachar ooh’nekevah bara otam. And God created man in His image, in the image of God he created him; male and female He created them.” God goes on to give further instructions regarding food sources, sees that it is very good, and then proceeds to rest and declare the seventh day as holy. This accounting ends in saying “such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created”.

Now, there are a number of interesting things happening here, and, you might notice NOT happening here. For one, there is an awful lot of use of the plural which I won’t get into but I do find fascinating. Let US. THEY shall rule. Secondly, humans are given dominance over other living things. This was a questionable move as we can see that humans have not always done the best job of caring for the earth to its detriment, our detriment, and certainly the detriment of other living creatures. But one thing that is NOT happening here is that whole creating woman from Adam’s rib thing or the whole story of the Garden of Eden.

Before we tackle that seeming hole in the plotline, let’s ask ourselves, what might the world be like today if that was the whole story? How might our worldview be different? How might our self-understanding be different? How might our relationship to the earth and to each other be different?

Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created. Period. End of Story. All is explained.

Not so. The story continues. Or rewinds. Or switches perspectives. We get a new narrative. This time, less focus on the chronology of the acts of creation of the world. More detail on that whole creation of humanity bit. We are back in the beginning “When the lord God made earth and heaven…” In this narrative we learn that “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth.” That “he blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” So, which is it? A different story completely, or simply a different perspective on the same event?

In this narrative we are prompted to conjure a visual on that moment of the creation of man. We can picture it. We learn that he is placed in the Garden in Eden that God plants. And we learn quite a few details about the garden as well. Then God decides that it is not good for man to be alone. So, God decides to make a ‘fitting helper’ for him. Here enters wild beasts and birds. The man names them. But among all these creatures, no fitting helper is to be found. So, God sets a deep sleep upon the man, takes one of his ribs, and fashions it into woman.

You probably know the story from there.

Creation of the world of story 1 plus creation of man and woman of story 2 equals dominant narrative of genesis. But what’s actually happening in the text is two different narratives. Two different accountings of this most fundamental series of events that tell us who we are and our place in the world. And they potentially contain, mind you, different or even competing values. So, this first section, of what is arguably the most or one of the most foundational texts of Judaism and perhaps the world, alongside telling us how the world came to be, who we are, and our place within it as humans, is presenting us with the idea of multiple narratives.

Now isn’t that something?

We likely hold a variety of beliefs about the origins of the torah. But regardless of whether you believe it is divinely inspired, or written by people who were a product of their time, or times, I’d like us all to try reading the text through the lens of this multiplicity of narratives as an intentional choice. What might the author, or authors, be suggesting to us in offering two stories? Not one. Two. And with them, the possibility to imagine more. I think this is signaling us that there are multiple valid ways of understanding what happened. AND that it is valuable to learn, understand, and explore them all.

Think for a moment about what might be different if we kept this lesson in the forefront at all times. How might our worldview be different? How might our self-understanding be different? How might our relationship to the earth and to each other be different? What might we be able to accomplish that we otherwise couldn’t?

In Heart to Heart, learning about each other’s narratives, both personal and collective, is one of the most impactful aspects of the program because it creates a moment of cognitive dissonance that opens a new space for thinking differently, creatively, and collaboratively. I think the transformative power of navigating multiple narratives is a tool that can, and should be mobilized in any and all social justice movements.

This past year, I had the opportunity to participate in the Blanket Exercise. The Blanket Exercise is an experiential teaching tool that enables participants to explore the historical and current relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. I would highly recommend finding an opportunity to participate in it. Over the course of an hour or two, you are taken through a narrative of Indigenous Peoples experience spanning pre-contact with Europeans until today. I found it to be an incredibly emotional and empowering journey. As a result of being exposed to that narrative, I feel a renewed and clarified sense of responsibility for being part of the work of reconciliation. That’s the power of engaging with multiple narratives.

I want to come back to our two narratives of Adam and Eve. Each version of the story has the potential to be interpreted in a number of ways. A cursory reading might suggest that story one is a story of equality of partnership. God creates man and woman at the same time. Story two, might be interpreted that woman is subservient to man, created second and there only to fulfill his need for a helper and companionship. I think that there are many different, and perhaps more sophisticated, feminist, and queer interpretations for both these stories. But, the underlying message in both stories is that partnership is of value. Whether God set it up from the beginning, or as a result of a realization of a deficiency in his initial plan, God makes the judgement call that humans ought to have partners.

With the permission of Judaism’s rich history of interpretation, I’m going to take this value judgement that partnership is a good out of the context of a romantic or sexual partnership as Adam and Eve’s turns out to be, and into the context of social justice movements.

There’s just too much to do. One person couldn’t possibly get it all done. Furthermore, one community is limited by its own assumptions, normative narratives, and experiences. In order to truly make an impact that is rooted in the value of diversity, we must engage with multiple narratives by creating partnerships with people who are different from ourselves. Both individuals and communities need to learn how and when to lead the struggles that most impact them, and how and when to support others’ in their struggles. We need to talk to each other. We need to learn from each other. We need to remember that it’s our collective responsibility to ensure that each living thing has its dwelling and its food source. Whether that means working to end poverty, homelessness, and housing and food insecurity, or by working to protect the environment and combat the adverse effects of human caused climate change. We need to remember that although we may be different from one another, and have different narratives, or perspectives on what’s going on, we are interconnected, and it is our differences are what make us kadosh.

So, it’s the beginning of the new year. Personally, I’m feeling a mixture of freshness and motivation to hit the ground running in making the world a better place, and the unique fatigue of being overly chaged. Luckily, Judaism has this unique offering of multiple cycles always in play. So, while this is not the first Shabbat of the year, this is the first Shabbat of our new cycle of reading the torah. This is our chance to step into the newness. To be reminded that there are multiple ways to understand the world around us, and that we have the power to use our words, and our actions, to create holiness, and build the partnerships needed to transform the world.

After Kiddush we will have the chance to explore all of this much more and learn more about each of the social issues I have discussed. Whether you join us after Kiddush or not, I want to encourage each of us today to think about where our passions lie when it comes to tikun olam and how we can apply these three concepts: the value of distinction and diversity, the importance of engaging with multiple narratives, and the power of partnerships to enrich our social justice work.

Thank you so much, and Shabbat Shalom.

Thu, 23 May 2024 15 Iyar 5784