I still believe in religion

In the aftermath of the horrible attacks that shook my birth country (France) and Lebanon, I face a particular challenge from my concerned agnostic or atheist friends : How can you still believe there is a G-d? They ask me, and how can you still defend religion when so many atrocities are committed in its name?

My answer to them is that they are absolutely right. That anyone who believes in a G-d who intervenes in the world to reward and punish is forced by history and the world itself to reexamine this position. How can I not only believe, but love and worship a G-d who lets thousands upon thousands of innocent, brave and bright souls be abused, assaulted, killed? Doesn’t that make me an accomplice of the fanatics who keep sinking to new lows of morality in the name of, paradoxically, some divine moral order?

“Where is your G-d?”

The thing is, I always believed in G-d, and I have wrestled with these same questions since I was a fairly young child. But I have never believed in a G-d that rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. I do not believe in divine punishment, but I do believe that our actions, and thoughts, bear in themselves the seeds of their consequences. It is not quite a karmic view of divinity, but it can help to think of Karma to better understand my understanding of G-d’s relationship to his-her Creation, including humanity. When one commits an offense against Man, he contributes darkness to the world, and creates conditions in which fewer and fewer people can thrive. Sooner or later, the darkness affects the perpetrator himself. The criminal is not smitten down by the hand of G-d, but the consequences of his actions shape the world he lives in.

From a very young age, children are acutely aware of injustice in the world around them; a five year-old’s motto is often a passionately uttered “it’s not fair!”. I was not exception. To this day, seeing people who want to live die, people who hope and work hard be hit by illness, violence, humiliation, people who trust be betrayed, brings tears to my eyes. And so as the years – and tears- went by, my spiritual and religious encounters progressively shaped, or revealed, my “emunah”, my notion of G-d and the divine.

“Emunah”, often translated as “faith” in English, is probably better translated as a kind of deep seated intuition, something felt deeply in one’s soul and is beyond reason, a deep conviction of sorts, that is neither intellectual nor emotional, but very much spiritual.

Emunah is an innate conviction, a perception of truth that transcends, rather than evades, reason.

Tzvi Freeman on chabad.org

That acute sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, precludes for me any possibility of believing in a G-d that rules justly over our world. I simply cannot believe in a G-d that would require me to abdicate my intellect and to close my eyes and heart to the desperate cries of the world.

But that same instinct is also what makes me certain there IS a G-d, an intentional force, at work in the universe and in the world. I do not believe that G-d, thus understood as a moral intention for all of Creation and humanity in particular, intervenes directly in the form of impressive miracles and dramatic apparitions. G-d created a world in which joy and tragedy are both possible, because, on the one hand, the laws of nature account for both life and death, and because, on the other hand, Man is a moral being, free to choose the path of good, or the path of evil.

Human beings live in a world of good and bad, and that makes our lives painful and complicated.

Harold S. Kushner When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Life is both amazingly resilient and extremely fragile. The same natural order that makes birth possible makes death inevitable. Man is free to choose evil, and often does, whether by lack of direction, ignorance, moral confusion, or weakness, or simply because it appeals to the animal side of his being. But man, unlike animals, also has the ability to elevate everything he does: he does not simply mate but falls in love, does not simply eat but cooks, does not simply speak but sings.

Perfecting a world in which the main protagonists are free to write their own part is no small task.

G-d can inspire and give strength to those who chose to seek them, but he-she cannot undo what has been done, he-she cannot make man’s decisions for him. G-d wants us to make the right decision and has given us a formidable code of ethics – Torah – to guide us. But the complexity of human experience makes even such divine contribution vulnerable to interpretation and misinterpretation.

“I can accept G-d, but why religions?”

Again, friends and loved ones who ask me this question are on to something. It’s all fine and good if there is a divine force at work in the world, but why do we need popes and rabbis and temples? Who needed the Crusades or the Inquisition? Who needs child molesting priests? Why can’t all religions get along instead of constantly trying to eliminate each other?

I am in complete, unequivocal agreement with them. But none of those evils has much to do with religion, other than the fact they were committed in the name of religion or by people who represent a religion. But isn’t religion responsible for what is being done in its name? I don’t think so, no. I believe religious leaders and all people of faith should do their best to counter the deleterious discourse and revolting acts perpetrated in their name by reaffirming the real values behind their faith, but I do not believe they are responsible in any way.

It’s a tragic case of ID theft, with monumental consequences. If someone steals your identity to commit serious offenses, should you be held responsible?

If someone goes around spreading lies about you, with just enough truth in them to make them believable, and turns people you know and people you do not know against you, are you at fault? Of course, those who know you well will not fall for the lies and will support you, but there are those who will believe what they have heard and not bother checking. Because of those lies, you may not get the same opportunities as before, because your future employer or potential partner recognizes your name and puts your application at the very bottom of the pile. Strangers may cross the street when they see you or give you reproving looks. The teller may refuse to serve you, your own children may question you. But what can you be expected to do, really, other than continue to be yourself and wait for the truth to prevail?

And so it is with religion, particularly Islam these days, but attacking Islam on the grounds that it is a religion is basically an attack on all religions.

How many among us who claim the Kuran is nothing but incitation to violence have bothered reading it? And of those who have read part or all of it, how many actually understand it? I cannot say that I do. I rely on the examples set by Muslim friends, on my conversations with them and on my own study, to know that Islam is a religion of tremendous wisdom, and that Islamic civilizations have made contributions to the world that we today take for granted.

Their Kuran does not threaten my Torah, and vice-versa. I find wisdom in all of the great sacred texts, and that only informs and reinforces my admiration for Judaism. In the same way, the more I learn Torah, the more I understand and admire other religions.

“But religion is just glorified brainwashing! It preys on vulnerable people!” my concerned friends protest. Here again, I think they are absolutely right. Too often, religion is willful delusion, brainwashing, manipulation, corruption. Too often, religion is wielded as an instrument of power, because it is so influential. Too often, it is adopted as a means to evade the world rather than confront it, to wash one’s hands of what needs to be done while keeping a clear conscience, or trying to. “I won’t give change to this homeless man, because I need the change for a coffee, but I will pray for him.” How wonderfully convenient!

Religion is indeed powerful, because it appeals to the divine part of us. It is almost irresistibly appealing, because we crave that connection with the eternal, with our higher selves. We crave also the discipline it offers, the structure it brings to something essentially fluid and chaotic.

The problem with religion is not a problem with religion. It is a problem with the human condition.

The same weakness that leads one to embrace religious fanaticism pushes another to embrace political extremism. Stalin was not a particularly religious man.

People who torture, invade and slaughter in the name of religion are not concerned with religion at all. They are concerned with feeling good about themselves, finding a purpose to their life, or with gaining riches or power. The brave people who started the #NotInMyName movement on social networks know it, I know it, and, deep down, my concerned friends know it.

The world is chaotic, human beings are complex. I don’t believe in G-d for any particular reason. I simply do, and always have, as long as I can remember. I am not embracing Judaism because it saves me the trouble of thinking for myself or because it distracts me from the real concerns of the world. It does in fact the opposite. My budding religious practice allows me to deepen the connection with the divine, within and around us all, and to become a better contributor – hopefully – to humanity and to the world. Religious practice, like all practice, may not make perfect, but it makes better. I find new growth in the answers I find in it, and perhaps even more in the questions and thoughts it provokes.

I wrestle with Torah. I wrestle with the world. I wrestle with the same dilemmas, outrage and indignation my concerned friends feel. I share the same burden and the same responsibility to improve the world through constructive actions. I turn to Torah as a source of courage, inspiration, and discipline, all of which are essential to the work ahead, because G-d cannot do it for us.

Shalom. Shalom.








Three Beautiful Books for Jewish (and all other) children

Three illustrated children's books

It takes some work these days to find children’s books that are not a bunch of rhyming words pasted onto computer generated, simplistic illustrations, a cash grab disguised as an attempt to teach our kids letters, numbers, shapes and the likes, or the tired expression of overextended brand name X or Y (looking at you, Dora).

The more I frequent public and community libraries, the more little gems I find, like the following three books, discovered hiding in plain sight on the shelves of the Greenberg Families Library at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre.

Why Noah Chose the Dove, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, illustrated by Eric Carle.

What to expect from a collaboration between the wonderful Yiddish author who gave us The Golem and Yentl, and the fantastic author-illustrator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Mixed Up Chameleon but a little marvel of a book?

Having heard that Noah is soon to take on his ark only the best of living creatures, all the animals set out to set themselves apart, boasting about their unique qualities and demeaning others’. All except the Dove, who humbly says: “Each one of us has something the other doesn’t have, given us by God who created us all”.

Noah then goes on to reassure anxious animals: he tells them that he loves them all and that they will all have a place on the ark: “I love all of you, but because the dove remained modest and silent while the rest of you bragged and argued, I choose it to be my messenger.” What a nice way to introduce the concept of humility to children, and to remind adults that, although we often experience it that way, life is not about competition.

Never Say a Mean Word Again, A Tale From Medieval Spain, by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Durga Yael Bernhard. This little story of two boys who started out as enemies and inadvertently become friends is part of the Wisdom Tales series, which is in itself a treasury of beautiful tales from different cultures and regions around the world, and a great source of unique children’s literature.

In this story inspired by the life of Samuel Ha-Nagid, Samuel is instructed by his impressive father to “make sure Hamza never says a mean word to [him] again”, after Samuel accidentally spilled water and food on Hamza’s tunic. Hamza did not want to believe it was an accident and called Samuel names before running away. As he tries to follow this difficult instruction, Samuel ends up spending a lot of time with Hamza, and the two become good friends. In the end, Samuel’s father asks “Then you did what I asked?”. And Samuel realizes that he did, in fact, do exactly that. A really lovely and timeless story.

The Hidden Artist, by Leah Chana Rubabshi, illustrated by Phyllis Saroff.

This is another take on explaining God to young children as the God of B’Rreshit (Genesis).This gorgeously illustrated poem about a little boy who marvels at the beauty of the world around him is a simple reminder of the abundance and beauty that surrounds us and that we so often forget to look at. Surely, only an artist can be behind such a wonderful world? It is published by Hachai, a Jewish Publisher, and God is called “Hashem”, but only once, at the end of the book, so don’t let it deter you if you are not Jewish: you can always explain that a Jewish person wrote the book, and that Jews call God “Hashem” 😉 There are so few quality books out there that appeal to our little ones’ sense of wonder, don’t deprive yourself of this one.

Another thing to love about this book is that the pages are laminated! They don’t tear, and you can wipe them off in a jiffy in case of accidental snack-time reading spillage. I do try to teach my kids to respect books and treat them well, but I am very grateful when I can let them enjoy a book by themselves, and they certainly appreciate the freedom as well.

What about you? Which books have enchanted your world, as a parent or as a child? I am always looking, so please share 🙂

I am a bad convert

Or maybe an excellent one, depending on how you look at it. I certainly “wrestle with God” as Jews are commanded to do, or more exactly with Jewish practice. It all comes down to the “selectively observant” mention in the subheader of this blog, but the truth is I often feel more deprived, unfulfilled, or frustrated than selective. Sure, I am proud of the fact that I always try to understand both the letter and the spirit of any law or tradition. I find the exploration of the historicity of Jewish law (i.e. how it evolved over time and under what circumstances) exciting, inspiring and fascinating, but the bottom line is:

I observe Shabbat, but in my own way. I keep Kosher, but in my own way, I practice taharat hamishpacha, sort of, I celebrate all of the major holidays and put effort in preparing for them, both logistically and spiritually, but, the thing is… I am not sure any of that makes me legit in the eyes of any Jewish community, and I can’t find where to belong.

Both my esteemed teacher and the Beit Din probably had hopes that I would be a little “further along” both the doing and the learning by now. They would probably look at my unconventional ways and declare my conversion a failure, recall it  perhaps, if that’s even possible.

And so what? Why do I care so much? I am not sure. I have always been one to do my own thing. I was never a big fan of group think or conformity. I’m not exactly a rebel or an original though. In fact my life is quite ordinary, but I have always preferred solitude to pretense, if pretense was the cost of company.

So why did I even convert? I could have practiced without the need to make it official, it turns out a lot of people do… I just felt compelled to, but that too, I had to do on my own terms. I searched high and low for a rabbi and found one who lived in Montreal. Adam and I drove two hours each way every Sunday evening for two years to enjoy the wonderful teachings of Reb Arie Chark. I didn’t do it halfway, but the trouble began when Reb Arie suggested I found a congregation to call home and a rabbi to convene a Beit Din. I was fortunate to find Rabbi Popky, who was also a wonderful teacher and whose philosophy jived very well with mine. Yet no congregation has felt quite right.

I know I am Jewish, I’m pretty sure God has no particular issue with the way things are, so why am I not content with the current state of affairs?

The beauty of being a convert is that you get to figure out  what works for you from scratch. You get to write your own traditions, to bring your own understanding to millennial, century or decades old practices.

That of course, is also the greatest challenge of being a convert. Nothing is self-evident. There is no deeply rooted emotional attachment to this or that practice to guide you, no memory of the smell of challah baking in the oven, or of a family gathered late into the night around a Seder table. Everything is brand new, it’s a colossal effort.

There is so much to learn and understand, I often feel like one lifetime is not enough, especially with weeks currently going by faster than I count them.

And then there is what I simply can’t do on my own: incorporating or creating family traditions requires that the family be on board, and, although they most often are all for it in theory, practice is another challenge entirely when every new idea must be submitted, debated, explained before you can jump in and make a jolly, joyful mess of it.

The Beit Din is just the beginning, I knew that then, I know this now. I knew also that it would not be easy, yet I never imagined that the hardest part would not be how to incorporate this or that observance, but to decide what observances to incorporate. This difficulty has turned into urgency now that the little ones are here. They look up to us, they look up to me, and other than beautiful, complex, rich theories and stories, I feel that I don’t have much to offer them. Yet.


Freedom by Pesach

Freedom is the freedom to chose our masters.

Among many other wonderful things, Pesach is a celebration of freedom. A people long enslaved learns to be free, regains faith in its God, and finds its way home through a long, arduous journey.

As Jews in North America today, we enjoy tremendous freedom to practice our religion as we see fit, we are free to express ourselves and our opinions, we are free to chose in virtually every area of our lives.

Passover gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect on the amazing gift that is freedom, to value and cherish it. But it is also a chance to clear the slate and take stock of all the things we voluntarily enslave ourselves to.

At our first seder table (the traditional meal, meaning “order” in Hebrew), we talked about freedom and what it meant to us. Our guests and us took turns thinking about something we would like to free ourselves from during the coming year. I mentioned my desire to go off an anxiety medication (which I did, gradually and with professional guidance), a friend mentioned her wish to stop “playing it small” at work and to gain confidence, another mentioned his fear of commitment, and so on. It was a liberating experience (pun intended).

We enslave ourselves to our jobs, to toxic relationships, self-defeating attitudes, electronic devices, our social media profiles, bad habits, resentment, disappointment, grief, the list is endless. It is not the job, the relationship, or the life event in itself that is the problem. The problems arise when we let those determine how we feel about ourselves and about life in general, when we lose our balance and let it affect how we treat the ones we love.

So, this coming Pesach, my wish for you is that, in the midst of all the cleaning and cooking and planning, you find a few minutes to take a walk or sit by a window, and think about something you would like to be free of by Pesach next year. May you find strength in HaShem and in the beautiful story told on two very special nights.

If freedom is the freedom to chose our masters, let’s chose them wisely (and maybe let’s just stick to One ;).



My simple shabbat prep list

My Shabbat prep list isn’t too long, although I do put work into it. The hardest part was committing to it, but once the weekly ritual became a habit, it did become a very special time for us, and now for the kids. We started very simply, with lighting the candles, buying challah and saying the blessings. Over time our practice has grown into what it is today, and we will keep adding to it as we grow, too.

Currently, I am at home with Julian, so I have a lot of flexibility when it comes to organizing my shabbat preparations. I can do a lot of it on Fridays for example. That is a luxury I will soon lose, when I go back to work in mid-April (I timed it so it would be after the Passover seders, at least!)

My current routine:

Thursday night

  • Take challah out of the freezer and set it out to rise (I buy them frozen at the College Square Loblaws, which has a well stocked kosher section)

Friday morning

  • Change linens (bed sheets, bath towels and hand towels in the kitchen)
  • 1 load of laundry

Friday during the kids’ nap

  • Prepare meal and put in the oven on “keep warm” setting, so it’s ready when we are.
  • Prepare one other easy dish in slow cooker, for lunch the next day.
  • Program coffee machine for the morning. (I wish someone invented a safe programmable toaster…)

Friday evening

  • Set table (including kiddush cups, siddurim and special blessings). I try to get Sam to help with that one, but it’s hit and miss.
  • Set out candles, tzedakah box, kippot
  • Tidy up kitchen, so that clean up time from dinner is minimal
  • Turn off computer and cell phone

I know I will have to change and adapt it soon to accommodate a full time work shedule… Working moms out there, how do do it?

Getting my feet (and everything else) wet at the mikvah 2/2

Source: Flare.com

Source: Flare.com

It had been four years since my first immersion. I cannot tell you exactly what made me suddenly want to go to the mikvah. Until recently, I had mostly considered the rules regarding Tarahat ha’mishpacha (family purity) as  little more than a scheme devised by rabbis to increase the Jewish birth rate, or an outdated remnant of a time when female menstruation was mysterious, repulsive and scary. It was one of the chapters I had put on the “maybe some day” shelf when I converted.

The mikvah itself had always appealed to me greatly. There is something extremely compelling about the act of immersing oneself. Judaism is far from alone in its belief in the cleansing powers of water.

It was a nice, quiet drive, by myself at night,  with some old-ish pop-punk tunes playing at a volume my late thirties can still handle. I don’t often get the car to myself these days, so already, pulling out of the driveway, it felt like a bit of a treat.

When I pulled up into the parking lot, I saw that two other women were waiting by the door: Sam’s former teacher from his brief stint at a Jewish preschool, and his future Sunday Hebrew school teacher… I was a bit baffled by the serendipity of it all.

Truth be told, I felt a bit awkward. I didn’t try to hide my inexperience, although strangely I felt the need to justify it. There is so much I don’t know about Jewish customs, the kind that is not written down anywhere but passed down through families and communities. I am always afraid of saying the wrong thing.

“So what made you decide to come after four years?” asked Sam’s former teacher. There was nothing judgmental in her tone, she really just wanted to know. For lack of a better way to explain it, I said I started “missing” it. And I was curious. The time just felt right to take it off the “someday” shelf and try it out.

After some friendly chatter, the mikvah attendant let us in. I was lead to the same preparation room I had used four years before, and I remembered enough about the process that it felt somewhat familiar. The meticulous shower, combing of the hair, trimming of the nails, and so on. I chose the smallest of the three bathrobes to wrap myself in and buzzed the attendant. I could hear her pronounce the word “kosher” as one of the other two women came up from her immersion, meaning that every part of the body had been fully immersed.

I did not wait long, five minutes maybe, and she knocked on my door. She asked me if I needed her to check me, and I said yes, it being my first time in a long time and all. She quickly took a look at my back and invited me to enter the pool.

I had expected the water to be rather cool, but it was warm this time, almost like a bath. It was surprisingly comforting on a cold winter night.

I went under, making sure to lift my feet and to go deep enough for all of my hair to be submerged, but when I came back up, the attendant told me that the top of my head had not gone below the surface. I quickly swallowed my embarrassment (how do you mess that up??) and did it again, this time letting more air out and taking my time.

There is something incredibly peaceful, for those few seconds, suspended under water. It feels like the world is suddenly light years away. Everything is quiet, warm, easy.

This time the attendant pronounced my dunk kosher, and I said the blessing: Baruch atah Adonaï eloheinu, melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu bemitzvotav, vetzivanu al netilat ha’tvilah.

I immersed a second time, opted not to say the prayer for the restoration of the Temple, simply because I have not decided how I feel about it yet, and instead said a silent personal prayer.

I immersed a third time, trying to stay under a second or two longer. It really is so darn peaceful, and soft, and warm in there.