Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and Jewish Values

My sister is regularly my teacher. With a commitment to engaging in substantive steps toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, she has started a new practice when she leads workshops on Unconscious Bias (which she does regularly). Rather than sharing a Land Acknowledgement, she begins with a Pledge. The Pledge is an evolving statement of specific commitments to learning, understanding, relationship and actions she is incorporating into her life. I am inspired by this as a personal commitment, but also see it as valuable for us as a Jewish community. What could be the DJC’s collective Pledge, at this stage in our collective engagement, rooted in the specifics of Jewish history and identity, and grounded in the Jewish values and wisdom that animate our shared work for reconciliation? In conversation with some of the members of DJC’s Social Justice committee, I am highlighting here some of the mitzvot and Jewish values that can guide the DJC’s pledge of learning and action in this work. Each one deserves to be unpacked for the specific framings and embodiments that Judaism teaches.      

First, it is worth stating that vows and pledges have deep roots in Judaism. Words are understood to hold the power to create worlds. In classical Jewish sources, if one makes a neder/vow or sh’vu’a/oath, there are consequences if one doesn’t fulfill the promises made. This is the reason we recite Kol Nidrei (“All my vows”) each year, to annul the vows we made in the past year so that we can reevaluate what we have fulfilled, where we have not acted in alignment with our words and to recommit with renewed clarity and commitment in the New Year.  

Tikkun Olam – Repair of the World. This obligation is often cited as a general and overarching commitment to address brokenness and to work for repair. The term originates in the Aleynu prayer, asserting that it is our responsibility ‘le’taken olam bemalchut Shaddai” to repair the world in alignment with Divine sovereignty or Presence in the world. This frames social justice through the lens of holiness, elevated purpose and transcendent meaning. It asserts that the world ought to be a place of repair and wholeness for all its creatures and that it is our role to be partners with the Divine in bringing this vision into reality. Tikkun Olam also calls us to turn our awareness toward the world, to recognize where harm or brokenness exist. This call is not dependent upon the harm we have personally caused, but looks for the places where it is in our capacity to bring healing.

Teshuva – Repentance, return, restoration. Teshuva is generally oriented toward repairing the harm I have more directly caused or participated in. The mitzvot related to teshuva require that we not only address the wrong-doing itself, but that we clean up the negative consequences that have rippled outward from our harmful actions or inactions. Jewish relations with Indigenous peoples in Canada have historically been a complicated mixture of oppressor and partner. Learning about the ways that Jews as settlers have historically and currently participate in and benefit from systems of oppression and inequity toward Indigenous peoples is an important foundation for accountability, repentance and change. 

Emet – Truth. Judaism extends an obligation to seek out truth – to see it, understand it and act in accordance with it. There cannot be teshuva or tikkun without it. In classical sources, Emet is one of the names for God. The Hebrew word, emet, begins with the first letter of the alphabet and ends with the last letter of the alphabet. It is inclusive of everything, leaving nothing out, not turning away from realities, no matter how painful or horrifying they may be. And so emet is not only about cognitive information, but also taking truth into our hearts. For example, while Indigenous people have always known that hundreds of children died in residential schools, for so many of us non-Indigenous folks, the recent revelations of mass graves of Indigenous children has moved these truths from realities we have partially listened to or vaguely recognized and shaken them into the truths that are increasingly penetrating our hearts and deeper awareness.  

Tzedek/Din/Mishpat. these are all words for Justice and different imperatives to bring about justice. “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuterononly 16:20). Judaism understands justice to be a state in need of constant and diligent pursuit. Pirkei Avot 1:18 asserts with clarity, “The world stands on three things: On justice, on truth and on peace.” Without justice, the world falls apart. Even the word tzedakah, often translated as ‘charity’ has, in its Jewish framing, not ‘caritas’/love or generosity as its engine but tzedek, that which is right and just, driving how and what we give. Putting our minds toward tzedek raises issues like honouring Indigenous land rights and equitable distribution of resources.   

Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor. Pirkei Avot 2:21 asserts that “It is not your obligation to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” This is a call for all of us to engage. We are each obligated to take steps in the direction of right relations and to make our next steps the right size so that we are not frozen by the overwhelm of how much there is to learn and to do, but so that we also take on enough challenge to move the work forward. 

Massoret – Honouring Heritage. As a Jewish community, we have much to learn from Indigenous communities about honouring our own heritage as the foundation for healing. I would argue that we need to work to repair the impact of antisemitism’s legacy on the Jewish soul and psyche in order to most wisely and compassionately discern how we work in solidarity with Indigenous peoples. This can include: restoring knowledge of our ancestral languages, honouring our ancestors and reclaiming Jewish ancestral wisdom and practices, healing from the ravages of assimilation, enlivening our relationship with land – Jewish land-based practices that fill the Jewish calendar and traditions as well as bravely and wisely exploring our relationship with Israel. 

There are many more mitzvot and values that could be included here, many more teachings to guide our work. This is meant to stir commitment for the next steps forward together. 

The Social Justice Committee has posted a list of actions the DJC has taken so far in our collective commitment toward truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

Save the Date for our upcoming program in the fall – Kairos Blanket Exercise

If you would like to get involved, please reach out to the Social Justice Committee at djcsocialjustice@gmail.com.

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