Editorial: Jewish Jurists Serve to Remind Us of Justice

Sept. 23, 2020 – As Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement approaches, we turn our minds to justice – appropriate, given the recent death of the legendary Jewish American Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Justice Ginsburg was a wisp of a woman but whose heart was Olympian and whose soul burned fiercely on behalf of those less fortunate, especially women who have, for much of the past century, been treated like second class citizens in the United States. Her decisions were wise, pointed, and filled with the juice of needed change and progress.

Justice has always played a central role in Judaism. Great Jewish biblical heroes, prophets, and philosophers have pointed to the key Jewish precept, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice shall you pursue.” It appears initially in the Book of Deuteronomy and is part of a set of regulations that bestow on the Jewish people a code of moral behaviour.

Why is the word “justice” repeated twice? The Torah is a very precise book. Each word has been measured for meaning and argued over by great rabbis over many centuries. Perhaps the most widely accepted explanation comes from the most broadly respected rabbi of the 11th century, Rashi, who explains that not only must judges make wise decisions, which accounts for the first “tzedek,” but, as importantly, those in a position of choosing judges must also choose wisely, referring to the second “tzedek.” This gives the people comfort knowing that the courts of justice are populated by good and decent people making judicious decisions.

There is another, more modern interpretation. Some believe the second cry of “justice-tzedek” emphasizes the Jewish values of treating the stranger fairly, feeding the poor, and extending love to our neighbours despite our differences.

In North America, Jewish men and women have figured prominently in the choice of judges. To our great fortune and that of society in general, these Jews have embraced their Jewish values of pursuing justice.

Undoubtedly, “Notorious RBG,” as Ginsburg came to be known, was one of many such Jewish jurists who graced courtrooms in the United States and Canada and did so with a Jewish heart. They were perhaps not as well-known, but certainly as deserving.

From Tillie Taylor, Saskatchewan’s first female Jewish magistrate; to Nathaniel Nemetz, former Chief Justice of British Columbia; to Samuel Freedman, Chief Justice of Manitoba. All three played a key role in the jurisprudence of western Canada.

On the east coast, Constance Glube was the first Jewish woman appointed Chief Justice of Nova Scotia.

In Quebec, where antisemitism was more prevalent than elsewhere in Canada, Jews nonetheless held senior judicial positions: Alan Gold was Chief Justice of Quebec’s Superior Court, and Harry Batshaw and Herbert Marx held sway as a Quebec Superior Court justices (Marx had also been Quebec’s justice minister.)

Ontario also saw the appointment of many Jews to the bench, including Charles Dubin as Chief Justice of Ontario; John I. Laskin, a justice of the Court of Appeal for Ontario and a former legal counsel to Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC); and Sydney Harris, a judge of the Ontario Provincial Court and former national president of CJC.

Today’s Ontario bench features another past president and legal counsel of CJC, Edward Morgan; Justice Katherine Feldman; Justice Paul Perell; and recently appointed Justice Edward Prutschi.

And of course, Canada’s Supreme Court has been positively influenced by some of Canada’s most eminent jurists. Bora Laskin also a former chair of CJC’s legal committee was, famously, the first Jewish Canadian to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. Others on the land’s highest court were Rosalie Abella, the first Jewish woman to reach Canada’s high court, as well as Morris Fish, Michael Moldaver, and Marshall Rothstein.

Each of these jurists not only upheld the highest legal ethics, but did so as proud Jews who were raised with the understanding that in the Jewish tradition, justice and atonement are the highest ideals.

We at the Canadian Jewish Record are proud of those in our community who are lights unto the nation. As we encounter a very special, socially-distant Yom Kippur, may we all be judged for our good deeds. And may those we hurt either by deed or word forgive us.

Book Review: The Power of Ritual by Casper ter Kuile

The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices, by Casper ter Kuile (HarperOne, 2020)

Sept. 3, 2020 – By AURORA MENDELSOHN

How has a non-Jewish graduate of the Harvard Divinity School become this year’s coveted speaker for Jewish organizations like the Foundation for Jewish Camp and Moishe House, and numerous high-profile synagogues?

In The Power of Ritual, Casper ter Kuile, now a “Ministry Innovation Fellow” at Harvard, has tapped into a view of ritual that resonates deeply with a Jewish audience, particularly those who struggle with traditional Judaism yet still seek meaning through observance.

The author sets out to free people to draw on the redemptive power of ritual without necessarily being tied to belief in God, a religion or a religious community. While exploring both religious and secular sources, he examines four aspects of connection that ritual can provide.

The first connection is with ourselves. The ability to connect with our authentic selves is often drowned out in the pursuit of status or money. The ritual described for enabling those connections is familiar: Each Friday at sundown, ter Kuile lights candles, sings, and turns off his phone and laptop for 24 hours. He reads for pleasure or engages in playful and creative pursuits. He does not travel or work. Yes, the first ritual described is Shabbat. His reasons for observing Shabbat are informed by a Jewish perspective and are dotted with references to Abraham Heschel’s classic book, The Sabbath.

Another ritual for connecting with ourselves is engagement with sacred texts, which is also deeply familiar to Jews. Studying Torah and Talmud are integral parts of Judaism, and methods of textual study permeate Jewish thinking. Ter Kuile expands the concept of sacred texts to include any text studied in the correct mind frame.

As a co-host of the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” ter Kuile uses Jewish study techniques like hevruta (paired study) and pardes (a multi-level engagement with text) to seek spirituality in the books of Harry Potter. The result is more meaningful than one might expect, and illuminates the powerful tools our tradition provides for sacred interactions with text.

Ter Kuile highlights two rituals that enable us to connect with others. The first is shared, communal meals that are repeated. This type of meal is the main aspect of Shabbat that many secular Jews observe, often without naming it as a ritual and without acknowledging its importance.

The second is connection through fitness communities like Soul Cycle. The description of people bonding through the vulnerabilities exposed during extreme physical effort seems genuine. But as someone connected to an organized community, I found the connection less reliable, both in the bonds formed and in the long-term viability of communities governed by corporate interests.

Ter Kuile suggests two practices for connecting with nature. The first is pilgrimage, which he redefines as walking with a purpose and focus in mind, and being present in nature. In modern Judaism, we see this practiced in the Jewish Renewal movement and less explicitly in the many Jewish camping movements.

The second is a liturgical calendar that connects people to the seasons, which is part of Judaism and many other religions. Ter Kuile selects from and adds to these to create seasonal rituals that help ground secular city dwellers in their place in nature.

The final chapter offers ways of connecting with transcendence without defining transcendence as divine or supernatural. Borrowing from the themes of traditional prayers, ter Kuile translates adoration, contrition, and thanksgiving into accessible practices the reader can choose to adopt.

What The Power of Ritual has done is unbundle many meaningful rituals from their traditional sources. While ter Kuile’s observance of Shabbat sounds very similar to how I celebrate (minus blessings and shul), hearing about the power of its many aspects from a non-Jewish author grants people permission and legitimacy to create their own versions of Shabbat without feeling obliged to take on the whole traditional package.

What remains to be seen is the cost of that unbundling. The advantage is increased access. But ad hoc rituals and spiritual communities make it harder to a find a single community that addresses one’s changing needs over many stages of life, and to ensure that practices endure in one’s life and across generations.

For both secular people and religious people who struggle with the content of belief, The Power of Ritual is an accessible and potentially transformative introduction to religious observance.

Aurora Mendelsohn
Aurora Mendelsohn

Aurora Mendelsohn is university administrator. She blogs about Judaism, ritual, feminism and parenting at Rainbow Tallit Baby.

Parshat Pinchas: History Has its Eyes on You


In Parshat Pinchas, toward the end of the Book of Numbers, a census has taken place, presumably to assign land rights for when the Hebrews enter the Holy Land. The logistics unfold predictably until the five daughters of Zelofechad arrive at the Tent of Meeting requesting an audience to express their feelings of injustice regarding the culture of inheritance.

“Our father died in the desert…and has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son – Give us a holding among the brothers of our father” (Num 27:3-4).

This is an extraordinary event in the Torah: Not only do these five women summon the courage to come forward; not only do they make a dignified case to inherit in this very male-centric society; not only are their names listed (Mahla, Noa, Chaglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah); and not only is the matter worthy of consideration, it is taken directly to G-d. At this stage, this would have been enough.

Then, without equivocation, Hashem tells Moses, “The plea of Zelofechad’s daughters is a just one… transfer their father’s share to them. Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter’” (Num 27:7-8).

To say this passage is unusual is an understatement. Women are mentioned in our Holy Books, but rarely are their names listed, and even more rarely are they seen outside their roles as mothers or wives. More often than not, women in the Torah are noteworthy for the manner in which they assist or challenge men who make up the main narrative than for their own agency.

The women are treated in a respectful manner and the matter progresses seamlessly – no drama, no controversy – just a comforting message: Sometimes, when conditions are right, an injustice can be brought to those in power, considered, and corrected and not just for those in the immediate situation but as a legacy for those who come after. How wonderful!

Another thing that makes this instance remarkable is what doesn’t happen: In order for Zelofechad’s daughters to get their birthright, the men, who would have inherited, don’t dispute the women’s appeal. They just let it happen. Whether gracefully or ungraciously is unknown; there is no mention of anyone challenging the fairness of the request or complaining about G-d’s ultimate ruling.

An occurrence like this gives us faith in right-mindedness. There are times when the right thing to do is so obvious that anyone with a little seykhl (common sense) can see it: Wearing masks in large crowds, helping to change a culture in which Black people are in danger, petitioning for better health conditions in seniors’ residences, speaking out against antisemitism when the tinfoil-hat crowd creates outrageous conspiracy theories, and so on…

As one of our more well-known quotes urges: Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof – Justice, Justice, Shalt thou pursue (Deut. 16:20).

I had the pleasure of streaming the Broadway show Hamilton last weekend. Although my knowledge of U.S. history is limited, the George Washington character chants a song that feels very relevant:

“I know that we can win
I know that greatness lies in you
But remember from here on in
History has its eyes on you.”

Chaverim, history has its eyes on us. What will we tell our great-grandchildren about how we conducted ourselves during this complicated time? Will we be gracious and brave even if it means sacrifice? Are we on the right side of history?

At this time of upheaval and adversity, let us have the strength to tap into the greatness that lies in us and may we conduct ourselves with the integrity and dignity that defines the best of our tradition.

Ilana Krygier Lapides
Ilana Krygier Lapides

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller. She is currently studying online with the Jewish Studies Learning Institute as a rabbinic student and will be ordained in June 2021.