You Shall Pursue

September 19, 2012

Pussy Riot! A Religious Person’s Argument for the Separation of Church and State

Filed under: Choosing Life, Social Justice — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 12:37 pm

This is slightly old news, but I think that it bears talking about. For those of you who were not following the story, Pussy Riot is a Russian punk band that was sentenced to two years in prison about a month ago for a protest concert in which they broke into Cathedral of Christ the Savior in order to stage an anti-Putin protest video. The video is below:

The women were charged with, among other things, “the insult and humiliation of the Christian faith and inciting religious hatred” and it is this charge that I wanted to take a minute to write about, as it was the subject of the closing speeches at the sentencing.  The band members speak eloquently of how Putin’s government uses popular sentiment towards the Orthodox faith as a tool of state control and power, and how vital it is to protest this link in pursuit of a just and politically free Russia. Yekaterina Samutsevich, one of the band members, explains it this way:

Implementing this thoroughly interesting political project [re-imagining the Orthodox Church as a tool of the state] has required considerable quantities of professional lighting and video equipment, air time on national television for hours-long live broadcasts, and numerous background shoots for morally and ethically edifying news stories, where the Patriarch’s well-constructed speeches would in fact be presented, thus helping the faithful make the correct political choice during a difficult time for Putin preceding the election. Moreover, the filming must be continuous; the necessary images must be burned into the memory and constantly updated; they must create the impression of something natural, constant, and compulsory.Our sudden musical appearance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” violated the integrity of the media image that the authorities had spent such a long time generating and maintaining, and revealed its falsity.

There is something terrifying to me, as a religious person and as a liberal, in the conflation of State power and religious power. For, make no mistake, religion is tremendously powerful. And therefore it is a weighty responsibility what we as religious people do with the power of our words, teachings, and rituals. As a member of a minority religion, I recognize the dangers that come when the majority religion is too closely allied with the political process.

American freedom of religion is what allows American Judaism to thrive, and it is also what allows religion to serve as an agitator for change. I think that, in large part because of our minority status, Jews are disproportionately involved in social justice movements, protests, and other forms of striving against State power. We have the ability to stand firm in our convictions, even when they go against the majority political winds. And while religion’s relationship to power is very complicated in America (see: the uproar when the Democrats tried to remove the word “God” from their party platform) there has always been resistance coming from the leadership of all faiths in this country.

When the power of religious authority allies itself perfectly with the power of the State, that means that there are two hugely influential and well-organized groups legislating in lockstep. As  we seek to bring change, it is important to police our borders as strongly as possible. Otherwise, as in Russia, there are ever shrinking avenues of organized dissent for those dissatisfied with the current social order to turn to.

September 14, 2012

Jewish Community: Specialists, or Generalists?

Filed under: Jewish Communitty, Spirituality — marleyweiner @ 2:10 am

This is the second time I am responding to something that PunkTorah has written, but this man speaks truth. While hopefully we as a Jewish community are more attached to our communal institutions than to Chipotle, I think this post makes an important point about how we as a society have shifted around religion, and how we might be able to draw people back into engagement with the Jewish community.

Fifty years ago, the synagogue and the JCC was the be-all end all of Jewish social engagement. Because of discrimination and the nature of social organization, Jews needed to socialize with other Jews, which made affiliation more or less the default.

However, things have changed. The current generation is one of niche specialists. We look for the organizations that are meeting our needs in the most immediate and effective way, and then flock to those organizations. We use social media to create the sort of programming and events that are meaningful and engaging to us. And we are cheerfully vocal when an institution or event does not meet our expectations. The only way to cater to that level of expertise is to specialize.

However, we are also a generation that believes in lateral engagement and active participation. Once we find something that appeals to whatever need we are trying to fill, we will actively add our input, give of our time, and help to steer the conversation in new and exciting ways.

This does not mean that I am advocating for different organizations to create “programming silos” so that a person has to reach from one unconnected Jewish organization to another to get their various needs filled. If anything, serving today’s specialist culture demands even more communication. Rather than a centralized institution that is one thing to all people, I envision different smaller organizations with different mission statements, leadership, etc. coordinating and cooperating to make sure that awareness of different programming is shared. One institution focuses on adult learning, another on meaningful prayer experience, another on Jewish arts, another on Social Justice, and yet another on childhood education. Each organization would necessarily be smaller, more streamlined, and have the ability to operate independently to serve its one or two mission goals.

The best Jewish example that I can think of this is Hadar. Hadar has two branches, the minyan and the yeshiva. While the population and leadership overlaps quite a bit between the two groups, they are independent of one another in a lot of ways. The yeshiva focuses on excellent Learning opportunities for young adults, and also provides an “open yeshiva” for people of all ages that is VERY well attended. While they offer davening during study hours, their primary function is not as a provider of services. The minyan, in contrast, offers traditional egalitarian services for anyone who wishes to attend, primarily people in their 20s and 30s. They offer some limited Shabbat lectures after services by community leadership, but they do not offer a religious school or other extraneous services. In order to serve these two needs, services and Jewish Learning, Hadar has two branches that take a laser-like focus on each part, and both the minyan and the yeshiva are well attended.

In recent weeks, I’ve been reading a lot of Kaplan. He advocated for geographically run and funded Jewish communities that would allow community members access to any of the local organizations. I don’t think that this is practical for any number of reasons. Competition is almost always too deeply entrenched in our communities, and people’s increased mobility means that they are far less likely to buy into any one community for forty or fifty years. However, communication (if not co-funding) across different Jewish organizations has the possibility to make sure that people are being directed to the communal services that they need most. The trick is training our Jewish professionals to understand that someone who you refer out will remember your kindness and helpfulness, and they may come back when their needs match your mission more closely, or refer friends and loved ones to your organization.

President Obama’s High Holiday Address

Filed under: Jewish Communitty — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 1:33 am

So I’m busy freaking out about classes, lesson planning, and the High Holidays. But I wanted to share with you this Rosh Hashanah greeting from President Obama. Shanah Tovah everyone!

September 13, 2012

Biblical Civilization: Class 2

Filed under: Rabbinical School — Tags: — marleyweiner @ 7:23 pm

We are required to write short journals about our experiences in, and reactions to, our Biblical Civilization Class. I decided that I wanted to blog them.

In our second class, we talked about the distinction between history and historicity. Historicity being the study of the nature of history, and how history is composed, transmitted, and viewed at different points. One could theoretically say that the Bible is a history (at least it is used as one today), but it’s not terribly verifiable when compared to the archaeological record, etc. That does not, however, mean that the Bible does not have important truths. I am always looking for language to express the distinction between TRUE and ACCURATE, and I love the way that history vs. historicity frames it. It allows us to acknowledge that ALL history is operating under some sort of bias, and it allows us to examine those biases and other agendas without chucking the whole thing out.

September 10, 2012

Glorified and Sanctified

Filed under: Choosing Life, Spirituality — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 12:04 am

My aunt died on Thursday. She had been sick for a long time, with various illnesses, and her passing was, if not a relief, than at least something expected. As the religious Jew in the family, I decided to take on the obligation of the shloshim, the thirty days of saying kaddish, which is the Jewish prayer of mourning.

The thing about kaddish is that it makes no mention of death, in fact, it is structured to celebrate life and the God that breathes life into all of us. The title of this post is a rough English translation of the first two words of the prayer. It praises God, lists God’s worthy attributes, and prays for peace. Kaddish is supposed to be said in a minyan, a public gathering of ten or more Jews, which gives mourners the opportunity to make a public declaration of their grief, even as they recite words of praise.

My aunt’s life is certainly something to be celebrated, even in this time of mourning. She went quietly in her sleep, and while she died young, there was a lot that was good about her final five or so years. Her only son is married to a wonderful woman, and she got to see and spend time with her granddaughter. All of these are blessings. She was a witty, sarcastic woman who loved her family and built a good life for herself, also blessings. She will be missed terribly.

On Friday, saying kaddish for the first time at my home synagogue, I discovered that it was also the yartzeit of a dear friend of my mother’s who passed away when I couldn’t have been more than five years old. It has been twenty years, but I still remember her, and her parents were there to hear their daughter’s name read. After services, I went up to them to ask after their son-in-law (who taught one of my confirmation academy classes) and their grandkids (who are about my age). And they told me that it was still hard, which makes sense. Twenty years later, I think that it is a tremendous blessing that they could have a venue to greet someone else who remembered their daughter and share, for a minute, their love and their loss.

Judaism is a religion of memory. We come together every year to remember those whom we, of course, can never forget. To declare publicly to our communities that we have loved and lost important people, and to praise God on their behalf. Aunt Pam, you will be missed, and you will be remembered.

September 6, 2012

Shabbat in the Wilderness

Filed under: Rabbinical School, Spirituality — marleyweiner @ 1:19 am

Orientation this year kicked off with a two day retreat at Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist Movement’s overnight camp in the Poconos. It felt like MUCH longer. I came in not yet having met all of my future classmates, now I feel like I am at the beginning of a bunch of beautiful new friendships.

We started the event with team-building exercises, which are silly and fun and forced us to talk to each other. I may or may not be shamlessly stealing most of them for use with my future students and programs.

I have had, let’s say, an interesting relationship with Jewish community since I became a part of it. On the one hand, coming from a family that is secular Jews on one side and non-Jews on the other, I crave groups of like-minded co-religionists (super Reform terms FTW!). On the other hand, I tend to get picky and critical about the Jewish community in its execution, especially for young Jews in their 20s and 30s and the emphasis on low-barrier programming that will lead to intra-religious marriages. It has been challenging for me to find a Jewish community that will engage my mind and encourage the sort of religious practice that I am looking for that is simultaneously nurturing to my fragile, not always cohesive sense of self-identification. I have found bits and pieces of that at KZ, as well as at Columbia Hillel, but it’s never been a perfect fit.

Davening Kabbalat Shabbat at Camp JRF was a profound moment of homecoming for me. Many of my fellow future rabbis have similar uneasy relationships with Jewish community, the rabbinate, and finding their authentic sense of Jewish self. Ironically, it is in our non-normative status that I think so many of our strengths lie. And there is something profoundly burden-lifting about being able to talk about simultaneous fierce love and deep critique of Judaism and have my classmates get more or less where I am coming from. At this retreat, we spent a lot of time processing; talking about our relationships to ritual, community, Shabbat, and any number of other things, and it is a breath of fresh air to be with other people who are so thoughtful and enthusiastic about their evolving Jewish practice.

I also did yoga and went on a silent nature walk which one of my classmates created as the result of doing similar nature walks as a child at a Quaker summer camp. I love the blending of different faith traditions to create a more robust, grounded, and spiritual Judaism. Part of this next year is going to be self-care; making sure that I remain grounded, peaceful, and secure in my faith while everything changes around me. This is a year of new beginnings: I started classes again as a grad student today, I’m in the classroom teaching for the first time in years. It’s tremendously exciting, and kicking the year off with a moment of spiritual wholeness will, I hope, make all the difference.

September 4, 2012

Thoughts from Orientation

Filed under: Rabbinical School — marleyweiner @ 2:10 am

So orientation happened you guys! And there were so many things, I can’t even tell you. So I’ll try to outline what exactly I’ve been doing for the last week, and then give you some posts with thoughts about what I’ve been discussing, learning, sharing, etc.

  • Friday August 23- Saturday August 24 was our class Shabbaton. We did team building exercises, shared Shabbat as a community, told our personal journeys as a class, and saw a pretty epic interpretive dance version of Where the Wild Things Are (heckyeahalexweissman).
  • Monday and Tuesday- building orientation. I now know how to get into the library, the kashrut policy of the kitchen, and lots of other very useful things. They introduced us to a bunch of the faculty, and explained the ins and outs of the new movement and curriculum restructurings going on. LOTS to take in all at once.
  • Wednesday and Thursday- Reconstructionism mini-course. MASSIVE crash course on the history, theology, and practical decision making within the Reconstructionist movement. Some of this I already knew from studying Kaplan in college, but the more I study the movement, the more I realize that it is a great fit for how I conceptualize Judaism (maybe because Kaplan was also a sociologist?)
  • Friday- Rabbinic code of ethics. I plan to write an entire post on this. SERIOUSLY INTENSE STUFF.

In between all of this, we’ve had barbecues, hangouts, a bunch of Friday night dinners and Saturday morning lunches, and LOTS of baked goods. And here are my overall impressions of how this time is shaping up:

  • I’d like to reiterate that my classmates are really interesting. Their stories are theirs to tell (and if any of y’all are blogging, we should do a link around) but they come from so many diverse backgrounds, life stories, and approaches to Judaism. I am looking forward to them challenging the hell out of me for the next five years. Also, they are really nice, gracious, funny, genuine human beings. I am intensely lucky to be in a school that selects not only for intellect and aptitude, but for mentchkeit. Which my classmates have in abundance.
  • There is SO MUCH TO LEARN. The more I am here, the more I realize how many gaps I have in my knowledge, understanding, etc. It’s honestly kind of overwhelming. That being said, the culture at RRC is one where people are not afraid to admit the gaps in their knowledge, and where people are genuinely invested in helping you succeed. Which is nice, because otherwise I would be panicking (hint: still kinda panicking).
  • This is the big scary one: in certain ways, my life as a private citizen is sort of over. I’m bound by our Code of Ethics same as any rabbi who has been in the field for decades. I’ve known that this was going to happen, but not I’m really confronted by the practical realities of that. It’s both more and less onerous than I thought it would be.

Most of all, I’m really really excited for this. I don’t know that I’m ready, per se, but I have a feeling that I am no more or less ready than anyone else, and that my new community is totally okay with that.

Classes start Wednesday. Yay!

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