You Shall Pursue

January 25, 2013

Tu B’Shevat: I Am Planting

Filed under: Jewish Communitty, Spirituality — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 10:00 pm

Tu B’Shevat is the Jewish New Year of the trees. As the world begins to awaken into spring in Israel, we take the time give thanks for the beautiful beautiful world that we have been given, and to reflect on how we can preserve it for the centuries to come.

A translation of the chorus:

As my ancestors planted for me, so I will plant for my children.

January 24, 2013

Building Relationships: One Way to do Jewish Community Well

Filed under: Jewish Communitty, Rabbinical School — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 3:40 am

This week, I’m taking a mini course about community organizing. While I was expecting a lot of instruction about how to be radical and political, all of today was about learning how to share your stories and passions in such a way that it builds relationships and common understanding. According to our instructor, the best way to effect social change is through making people talk to each other. Now, after years of talking about relationship building in the Jewish community, I feel like I’m finally developing the skill set I might need to make it happen.

I feel like we as a Jewish community keep talking about how to attract members, how to convince the members we have to take leadership positions, and how to get people to invest financially. And yet it is really rare to hear about rabbis or executive directors sitting down one on one with the average congregant (as opposed to the people already in leadership positions) and ask about why they are passionate about synagogue life, and what they hope to get out of their membership. Relationships are ongoing, built person to person and network to network, and if we don’t meet with people on a personal basis, how can we inspire in them the feeling that they should invest in the organizations that we have built?

The other important and deeply challenging piece of community organizing that I learned today is the importance of sharing stories. It’s not just about listening to the stories of others, but about opening up and feeling comfortable enough in your vulnerability to share stories of your own. Part of learning why people are passionate about an organization or a cause is sharing your own passions, interests, and worries around that cause. An organizing relationship is still a relationship, and relationships are a two way street of sharing and vulnerability.

What an amazing thing it would be if rabbis made time every summer to sit down for coffee with as many of their congregants as possible and talk about what attracts people to staying a member of the community? If the leaders of the congregation would share one-on-one the specific moments of triumph that keep them invested, whether that is a Bar Mitzvah, a meaningful adult education class, or a challenging question from a congregant. Think of how many people would feel more engaged, more welcomed, and more heard in that simple act of opening up and sharing.

January 21, 2013

New President, Same as the Old President!

Filed under: Choosing Life, Social Justice — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 9:54 pm

Barack Obama speaks so movingly and compellingly about the triumph and dignity of properly compensated, just, and meaningful labor. It’s a beautiful thing.

… I also want to take a public speaking class from him. That man is CAPTIVATING.

Reconstructionism Part 7: You Might be a Reconstructionist if…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 2:20 pm

I know a lot of “closet Reconstructionist Jews.” People who publicly identify as Conservative, or Reform, or non-denominational, or post-denominational, and yet their world outlook is more similar to Reconstructionism than to the movement that they are living their lives in. Heck, when I was at JTS for college, I was VERY invested in the Reform movement, but my friends used to tease me that I was the Reconstructionist of the group. And now here I am.

Kaplan wouldn’t have had a problem with this; he wasn’t actually a Reconstructionist either (exaggerated for impact). He spent the majority of his professional life at JTS, his first synagogue was Orthodox, and while RRC opened during his lifetime, he was never on its faculty (athough he did lecture there on and off). Kaplan saw Reconstructionism as a Jewish philosophy that could be applied to the other movements of his day, so that there could be “Reconstructionist Conservative Jews” or “Reconstructionist Reform Jews” or “Reconstructionist Orthodox Jews.” His vision worked out in some ways, and not in others.

While Reconstructionism now has its own seminary, its own affiliation network for synagogues, its own publications, and many of the trappings of a movement, there is still an acceptance within the movement of diversity of identification. I came into my rabbinical school interview as a “post-denominationalist,” which I still am in a lot of ways. The admissions board let me in, and what’s more important, they were comfortable with my liturgical, practical, and political disagreements with the movement and treated my desire to stay a little bit outside the boundaries with nothing but respect.

In other words, if you think this whole “Reconstructionism” thing sounds interesting, there’s no reason that you can’t identify as a little bit Reconstructionist! You might be a Reconstructionist if:

  • You believe that Judaism has been changing ever since people started calling themselves Jews. You think that this is a good thing.
  • You want to talk about how Judaism is problematic, but you don’t want to abandon Judaism all together.
  • You believe in a God who acts through the natural world, and probably doesn’t cause supernatural miracles.
  • You care about Jewish law, but aren’t necessarily interested in having every aspect of your life dictated by halakhah.
  • You are invested both in your Jewish community and in being an informed and participatory American.
  • You are comfortable with liturgical changes, especially liturgical changes that mess around with God and chosen-ness language.
  • You care about social justice. A lot.
  • You enjoy thinking things through (and often in endless discussion loops that drive your friends and loved ones crazy).
  • You want to be in a Jewish community where the laity is expected to fuel major aspects of the decision making.

This list is not comprehensive, and you do not need to identify with every aspect in order to call yourself Reconstructionist. However, it is my personal summation of the major characteristics that give Reconstructionsim its special flavor.

For more information on Reconstructionism, the movement offers an online course that is designed to teach about the history and thought of the movement. And feel free to ask questions!

January 20, 2013

Reconstructionism Part 6: Reconstructing in the 21st Century

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — marleyweiner @ 2:23 pm

The whole point of being a Reconstructionist is that I am committed to continually re-inventing (or reconstructing) what it means to be Jewish. I think that, due to its commitment to embracing an evolving Jewish culture, Reconstructionism is uniquely poised to fill a growing niche in the Jewish community; that of young, diverse, thoughtful Jews who are looking for a Judaism that blends tradition with a commitment to creativity and an investment in the broader American project. While my last five posts were pretty heavily theory focused, in this post I’d like to take a look at the concrete actions that the Reconstructionist movement is undertaking and should continue to undertake to move us into the twenty-first century.

A hugely important part of Reconstructionism today is the creation of new rituals. Our lives today are markedly different than they were half a century ago, and we as Jews need to evolve new rituals and liturgy to acknowledge many of the diverse new experiences that a Jew may undergo during his or her lifetime. The Ritualwell website run by the Reconstructionist movement is a compendium of texts and scripts for undertaking new rituals, such as gender transition or gaining citizenship, as well as new takes on old rituals, such as marriage rituals for same-sex couples or prayers for adopted children. These rituals can serve as a tool for any Jewish person to mark the changes of their lives in creative, Jewish, and life-affirming ways (and you don’t need a rabbi to perform most of them!).

Another is evaluating how Reconstructionism can enter Jewish conversation in a louder and more public way. Reconstructionism has been a small movement for a long time. I think that this is due, in large part, for the tendency for Reconstructionist thinking to be subtle, complicated, and time consuming (and sometimes obtuse). We are not a movement that can me summed up in a few sentences (heck, I don’t believe I’ve done a thorough job of summing us up in six blog posts!) and that can be difficult when trying to explain the movement to people unfamiliar with Reconstructionism. The question I get asked most often is “Are you closer to Reform or Conservative?” which is not a question that has an easy answer, given our complicated relationship with Jewish Law combined with EXTREMELY liberal politics.

As a member of the Reconstructionist movement, I want to see us out there in the blogosphere, writing, advocating, and generally making our voices heard. I want Ritualwell to become as much a go-to resource as for liberal Jews looking for resources and information. I want the movement to have funny t-shirts based on the sayings of prominent Reconstructionist thinkers. I want us to have a youtube video that goes viral. Part of that is creating the resources, and part of that is just continually disseminating those resources in our communities. While traditionally we have sacrificed accessibility for subtlety of thought, I think that it is time for us to try both tactics, which is why I include short links as well as longer, more in-depth posts on this blog. I want to make sure that we have introductory resources that are easy to digest, so that people can dip their toes in before jumping into the deep end.

And last, Reconstructionism must continue to be on the vanguard of social justice commitments in Jewish spaces and in the wider world. The Jewish community is ever more racially diverse, and we as Reconstructionists must lead the fight against racism in the Jewish community. After all, if history teaches us anything, it teaches that white and Ashkenazi has never been the only way to do Judaism. We must continue to fight for gay and lesbian rights, not only to marry, but also against discrimination in schools and in the work force. We must begin to build safe and welcoming communities for trans* and genderqueer Jews, ensuring that they have a safe space to be supported ritually and socially, while fighting against the staggering discrimination against this group in broader American society. And we must honor the oldest charge of the Torah, and fight hard for the poor, the powerless, and the stranger in our camps, from immigrant justice to the rights of domestic laborers to welfare reform that actually helps those on welfare to access the services they need.

As a religious person, it saddens me to no end how many progressive voices call out religious people as turning their backs on the disenfranchised. As liberal religious people, it is important for us to do our work not only as part of religious coalitions (and interfaith work is hugely important) but also within secular networks with similar goals. Our presence as religious people with a progressive agenda allied with secular activists has the potential to provide a different, and more palatable vision of what it means to be religious to those who share our goals.

We as a movement have so many good things to say. The more that we are able to raise our voices in unexpected places, the more we will be able to share our message.

An Anthem for Healing

Filed under: Choosing Life — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 8:09 am

Mountain Goats- You Were Cool

January 18, 2013

Well, this seems a bit outrageous

Filed under: Jewish Communitty, Social Justice — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 6:09 pm

Well, this seems a bit outrageous

Seeds of Peace is not a terrorist organization. Jews of color are real Jews. And shame on anyone who behaves otherwise.

A Tool for Teaching Big Scary Concepts to Kids

Filed under: Social Justice — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 5:57 am

There is this nifty new tool called the Up-Goer 5, that forces a person to write using only the 1000 most common words in the English Language. A favorite feminist blogger of mine, Ozy Frantz, has used this to write easy-to-understand definitions of some complicated social justice topics. I may use this as a classroom tool to help my kids process some of the topics (like mitzvot, prophecy, and God) that we’ve been working on this year. I may also, when I’m done with my series on Reconstructionism, use the tool to define difficult theological and religious ideas.

January 16, 2013

Reconstructionism Part 5: Chosenness

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 2:30 pm

Initially, I planned to write a post detailing the various ways that I disagree with classical Reconstructionist thought. However, I realized that many of my critiques had homes in other posts, but that there was one main area which did not properly lump with other ideas; that of “chosenness”. Simply put, classical Reconstructionist thought rejects the idea of “chosenness,” while I embrace it, but in a modified format.

Classical Reconstructionist thinkers did not believe that the Jews are the Chosen People, and as a result of this ideological shift, they excised all of the “chosenness” language out of the siddur. For example, in the Aleinu, instead of saying that God has “made us different from all the nations of the earth, and situated us in quite a different spot, and made our daily lot another kind from theirs, and given us a destiny uncommon in this world,” the Reconstructionist siddur says that God has “given us teachings of truth and planted life within us.” Similarly, anyone visiting a Reconstructionist shul will find that the language of the blessings over the Torah and the Kiddush are different as well, to reflect similar concerns. This, combined with an emphasis on egalitarianism that injects female Biblical figures back into the text, is the most immediately visible result of Kaplan’s theological and philosophical project. He saw the concept of “chosenness” as irredeemable and supported excising it from Jewish self-identity.

Many Reconstructionist thinkers advocate for doing away with “chosenness” in worry that it leads to chauvinism and self-centeredness among Jews, and contributes to outsiders’ perceptions of Jews as an insular, self-aggrandizing people. I have heard this critique leveled by Jews as well as non-Jews who interact regularly with the Jewish community, and I think that, at times, it is accurate. I recently wrote about the near-famous tendency for Jewish communal institutions to throw up ridiculous barriers to a true welcome. And part of this may well be fueled by the idea that we are “chosen,” and therefore somehow better.

But I do wonder whether Jewish insularity comes not from our rhetoric of Chosenness but rather from our unique history of 2000 years of existence as a religious minority. In a world where we can freely jump between many Civilizations without fear of recrimination, I wonder if this particular coping mechanism has come to its natural end. That, of course, does not mean that we don’t need to work hard to dismantle it as a community, but I wonder if we can hold onto the idea that the Jews are “Chosen” while divesting the term of the pernicious idea that this means that the Jews are somehow inherently better.

I feel chosen to this Jewish path.  While it was always up to me what to DO with my Judaism, it was never a question whether or not Judaism would speak to my soul. And I don’t think that Judaism is unique in having a remarkably strong pull; I think of my friends who are devout Christians and I am sure that they are just as much chosen to their paths as I am to mine. But I think there is a tremendous value in acknowledging that as a people, a community, a faith, there is something unique and precious about Judaism. When I speak of being one of the Chosen People, it is with a profound sense of gratitude, that this path exists for me to walk down. When I say that I am one of the Chosen People, I mean that I am one of the people whom God has chosen for Judaism, no more and no less.

The value I see in the rhetoric of “chosenness” is one of group solidarity. If we are chosen to become part of the Jewish community, either through birth or through conversion, then we owe it to ourselves to figure out what that means, and how we as people want to interact with the complicated brilliant legacy of Judaism. In a world of individualism, sometimes at the cost of genuine human connections, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for us to demand connection and support of one another. And I see the  rhetoric of Chosen People as one potential way that we can build those connections and that sense of communal obligation.

January 14, 2013

Reconstructionism Part 4: Activism and Halakhah, How do we Make Jewish Law Work for Us?

Reconstructionism is in a bit of a strange place when it comes to halakhah (traditional Jewish law). When speaking about Jewish law, Mordechai Kaplan said that halakhah must have “a vote, not a veto.” But what on earth does THAT mean? Some Reconstructionist Jews would classify Reconstructionsim as a “post-halakhic” movement; one that cares about Jewish law but does not consider it binding. From a feminist perspective, many Reconstructionist leaders and thinkers have HUGE problems with halakhah, especially given the misogyny that governs standards of women’s behavior in the Oral Law. Still others feel that halakhah must be one of several religious and secular moral authorities employed when making a decision about communal practice. And still others (such as myself) are interested in having a conversation about how we can, as liberal Jews, use halakhah to our advantage.

One of the reasons for the debate about the place of halakhah in Reconstructionist Judaism is that, much as Reconstructionism cares about Jewish text and history, this is a movement that derives much of its identity from its social justice commitments. The second class of RRC rabbis was co-ed. We were the first rabbinical school to admit openly gay/lesbian students. The movement has accepted and welcomed interfaith families for decades. And we spend  a LOT of time and energy training clergy around issues of sexual violence, racism, trans* and genderqueer identities, and how to support and nurture people who may face discrimination from the Jewish community. Many Reconstructionist leaders have found from personal experience that traditional methods of halakhic interpretation shut out people who wish to find a place in Judaism. So how do we bring these two impulses to work together, the impulse for social justice and the impulse towards living in the bounds of Jewish Law?

Because my classmates are amazing, I want to link to this piece by Leiah Moser which encapsulates a lot of where I feel that our movement should be moving in regard to Jewish Law. I care about living my life in relationship with text; it is so important to Jewish history, culture, and identity. But our texts are changing and evolving, they always have been. If you read even a few pages of Mishnah or Talmud, you find contradictory opinions published all over the place. And the best part is that THEY DON’T TRY TO SOLVE THEM. Seriously. In the old days, the solution was often to plunk contradictory opinions down on the same page. Of course, there is legal interpretation, and the way that the law played out in the real world, but the real world application did not invalidate the fact that Judaism has a history of treasuring and preserving wildly differing opinions.

In addition, there are very old examples of rabbinic legal workarounds for religious issues that the rabbis found troubling. For example, the death penalty. The Bible is full of instances in which a criminal must be put to death (murder, certain instances of rape, persistent disobedience to parents) but the authors of later legal works write legal workarounds so as effect the practical abolition of the death penalty. The authors of the Mishnah and the Talmud were tremendous innovators. And I think that we, as liberal Jews, can follow in the footsteps of our rabbinic ancestors and reclaim Jewish law for ourselves.

I think that we as thoughtful, liberal Jews have the right and the responsibility to engage with halakhah in order to serve our ethical and moral obligations. Much of the reason that I was drawn to Reconstructionist Judaism is that it seems interested and willing to engage in issues of Jewish Law and text from a civilizational standpoint. These texts make us who we are; how can we make that work for us?

And there is much innovation around this area. Ideas such as eco-kashrut, that takes Jewish ideas about ethical and conscious eating and applies them to current questions about sustainability and the responsibility we have to both food workers and meat animals, Or groups like American Jewish World Service, which publishes curricula teaching the Jewish sources on world hunger, poverty, and other social justice topics. The more that we can thoughtfully raise up the work that is already being done in these areas, the more we can begin to reclaim Jewish Text and Jewish law as a powerful force for social good.

So many Jews feel a powerful connection to Judaism through their social justice commitments, and often they feel that they are secular Jews because that is the primary source through which they show their Jewish identity. However, their commitment to improving the world, to making sure that people can lead lives of dignity without want or fear is such a primal Jewish value. If we can show them that they are walking in the footsteps of the rabbis in terms of their social justice concerns, and if we can live up to the shining, justice-inspired parts of our own legacy, Judaism will be the richer for it.

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