NOT A LUXURY
BY SHAUNA VAN PRAAGH,
LAW PROFESSOR AT MCGILL FACULTY OF LAW
In November of this academic year, the McGill Jewish Law Students Association asked me to speak at a community Friday night dinner open to all law students. I was honoured and delighted to have the opportunity to share reflections on the ways in which my identities intersect with what I write, how I teach, and who I am as a jurist. We all bring our stories, our experiences, and our relationships to our projects; examining and sharing them in all their complicated messiness is crucial to understanding ourselves and creating connections to others.
Audre Lorde insists, “poetry is not a luxury.” As I suggested to the 60 students gathered around a Shabbat table, jurists—like poets—work with words, incorporate lived experience, and inspire contemporary choreography of human interaction. Like poets, jurists carry a heavy burden of responsibility to repair the world; it is a burden that never gets lighter even if necessarily shared by those whose identities overlap with, and enrich, our own. So here are some of my thoughts on the intersections of my identities with my roles and responsibilities in law, an exercise profoundly linked, in my view, to the questions and insights provoked by feminism. I will reflect on three domains of life as a legal scholar: first, the research questions I ask; second, classroom conversations; third, community enrichment. Along the way, I talk about three things that a capital “J” has come to signify in my life.
First, research and writing. When I chose a topic for my doctoral work at Columbia University, I decided to focus on children of faith in the contexts of child protection, custody, and education. In all of my handwritten notes, a big “J” always indicated Judaism, or Jewish, or Jews. “J” has become shorthand, next to “M” for Muslim and “X” for Christian, “JW” for Jehovah’s Witnesses—all important letters and communities in my research.
My interest in the implications of strong recognition of community affiliation in children’s lives continues, and a selection of titles of some of my published articles provides a glimpse of longstanding interests: “La diversité des enfants: un défi pour l’État pluraliste”; “Dance Me to the End of Law (Rules, Laws and the Dance of Diversity)”; “‘Open Doors’ – ‘Portes ouvertes’: Classrooms as Sites of Interfaith Interface”. In all of my work, I focus on individuals, community membership, the importance of autonomy—however messy—and the avoidance of easy adoption of orthodox, monolithic, or top-down understandings of identities.
My writing and thinking about Jewish (or big “J”) communities in particular has been deeply influenced by engagement with Israel as a Reform Jewish feminist jurist. Just after my second year in law school, I went to Israel for the first time as a volunteer human rights intern with the Israel Women’s Network. The remarkable women I met taught me to explore, question, and imagine the transgression of walls and borders. Israel has many of both: built and sustained to support, defend, enclose, separate, demarcate, protect, and divide. Much energy goes into ensuring people know on which side they belong. As I reflected on my most recent stay in Jerusalem—30 years after my first visit, and this time as a Visiting Fellow at the Halbert Centre for Canadian Studies—there are always ways in which walls can be permeable, dynamic, fragile, subject to redesign, transformation, or even tearing down.
Second, classroom conversations. If big “J” in my research notes designates Judaism, “J” in my teaching designates Justice. As a law professor, I guide my law students through the places where jurists and judges contrast law and justice, the spots where legal rules sometimes don’t feel fair, the ways in which the administration of justice or access to justice might seem shaky and in need of attention. One of the challenges for law students is how to keep the big “J” in view, to feel the weight of that letter on their shoulders, to recognize their potential as participants in the constant nourishing of the big “J” of Justice.
Over 25 years at McGill, one notion in the private law of obligations has stayed central to my teaching. In English and Canadian Common Law, it is referred to as the “neighbour principle”; in Quebec, it is embodied in Article 1457 of the Civil Code. In Jewish law, it is located in Leviticus chapter 19 verse 17: “Love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” Hillel famously pointed to this principle as the Coles notes version of the Torah: “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbour – this is the essence, all the rest is commentary.”
Just in case you don’t know the “neighbour principle” passage by heart, here is Lord Atkin in the 1932 case of Donoghue v Stevenson: “The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law, you must not injure your neighbour… You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour.” Allen Linden, tort law professor, textbook writer, and judge, states the neighbour principle’s importance as follows: “It inspires those noble thoughts and deeds of which we need more in the modern world, not less. It challenges us to dream of a beautiful world where people care about one another, feel responsible for one another, and even—dare I say it—love one another.”
While religion might explicitly make it into the titles of much of my published work, it is the notion of proximity that, for me, clearly marks the pursuit of big “J” justice—proximity in the sense of metaphysical neighbours (as in the law of obligations), and the proximity of literal neighbours in the residential neighbourhoods of diverse societies. How do we live together, respect each other, flourish in shared space, shape our responsibilities, and constrain the harmful consequences of our actions?
Third, community enrichment. When I became a bat mitzvah 40 years ago at Temple Israel in Ottawa, I included in my commentary the famous lesson from Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?”. The questions posed by Hillel have shaped my life, my learning, my understanding of law, my parenting, my mentoring, and my teaching. They taught me to answer questions with more questions, never to be content with a simple answer, constantly grapple with self and community, look in and reach out at the same time.
The interweaving of identity into my life and work underscores the message of the first question, If I am not for myself, who will be for me? The second question, But if I am for myself only, what am I?, serves as a strong reminder to participate in broad and complex communities. On the Saturday night of the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, I went to the opening evening of Montreal’s annual Festival Sepharade. I went to hear Tzachi Halevi—an actor from Fauda, and a musician who sings in Arabic, Hebrew, English, French, and Spanish. A member of the audience asked Tzachi what it meant to him to be a Jew. “Why are you asking?” “It matters to us,” the audience member replied. Tzachi is a Jewish Israeli, fluent in all the languages in which he sings, and recently married to a well-known Palestinian Muslim journalist. He incredulously asked, “It matters to all of you to know what being a Jew means to me?” I imagined him thinking, it’s absolutely none of your business. I too think the answer must be intensely personal, impossible to capture succinctly, resistant to any external characterization. Tzachi did reply: “It means I am a human being.”
That response is beautifully mapped onto the fact that within a week of going to hear Tzachi, I had taken one of my sons to hear the Montreal Symphony Orchestra play Tchaikovsky, had gone with old friends to hear Karen Young sing Joni Mitchell, and had watched contemporary dance illustrating the challenges of mental illness choreographed by Montrealer Jane Mappin. My world, my relationships, my identity may be imbued with my Judaism, but none feels constrained or solely shaped by my faith. So too with the communities to which I belong as a jurist, and the student groups I have supported and mentored over the past years—including the Indigenous Law Association, the “Law Needs Feminism Because” advocacy group, and LEX who are engaged in outreach to high school kids.
The experience of being the literal and symbolic “other” is woven into Jewish identity—it is part of the fabric of Jewish history. But it goes hand in hand with belonging, with participating, with a willingness to engage in tough conversations, with collaborations across the permeable borders that shape community, with imagining and identifying with individuals and groups who know the phenomenon of otherness all too well, and with the burden of building and sustaining structures of justice.
I promised a third big “J”, and I will conclude with what I think it is and how it belongs in this last set of reflections on the complexity of community connections. It is a “J” that comes from my parents, both of whom are journalists. When they talk about where they studied to prepare for their careers and where they both later taught, they talk about J-school. Big “J”, for them, obviously stands for journalism.
The letter “J” in my life stands for Jews, for Justice, for Journalism. Central to understanding each are people, stories, and the importance of learning from the past in order to build the future. A threat to any one big “J” is always a threat to all three. To me—as a Jew, as a jurist, as the daughter of journalists—right now seems like a good time to underscore those connections. If not now, when?
 Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984) 36.
 Donoghue v Stevenson,  UKHL 100, AC 562.
 Allen Linden, “Viva Donoghue v Stevenson!” in PT Burns (ed), Donoghue v Stevenson and the Modern Law of Negligence (Vancouver, The Continuing Legal Education Society of British Columbia, 1991) 230.