You Shall Pursue

February 19, 2014

On Calling in and Service

Filed under: Social Justice — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 4:28 pm

A while ago, I read this fabulous article about engaging and building community with people even when they perpetuate oppression, and how we can build towards a less oppressive world in a loving way. The author, Ngọc Loan Trần, speaks movingly of the human cost that both oppressive speech and shutting down loving bonds as a result of speech can bring, and how to maintain loving relationships without sacrificing the dignity that comes from speaking truth to power.

This is something that I struggle with a lot as a rabbi. Part of my duty and service to my community is to stand as a moral exemplar, and I see part of my moral example is as an ally against oppression both outside of my community and (especially) inside of it. But another part of standing as a moral exemplar is loving, in a powerful and practical way, all of the members in my community, even when they hold opinions that are contrary to my own beliefs. Certainly there are certain behaviors that are beyond the pale, but most of the time, it is my duty to engage with people whose views I find oppressive with both justice and love.

A few weeks ago, the RRC student community studied on the concept of tochecha, which means rebuke. As rabbis, we are taught that it is our duty to reprimand with love in order to bring people’s behavior back in line with the values that they espouse. I will repeat here the text that we studied in full.

From Mishneh Torah Hilchot De’ot 6:6 (translated by Eliyahu Touger off

When one person wrongs another, the latter should not remain silent and despise him as II Samuel 13:22 states concerning the wicked: “And Avshalom did not speak to Amnon neither good, nor bad for Avshalom hated Amnon.”

Rather, he is commanded to make the matter known and ask him: “Why did you do this to me?”, “Why did you wrong me regarding that matter?” as Leviticus 19:17 states: “You shall surely admonish your colleague.”

If, afterwards, [the person who committed the wrong] asks [his colleague] to forgive him, he must do so. A person should not be cruel when forgiving (as implied by Genesis 20:17): “And Abraham prayed to God…”

Some points, regarding the Jewish notion of tochecha. First of all, one is expected to rebuke one’s fellow. It is law, and the one who does not do it has committed an injustice.

However, the word “fellow” is really important here. In the proof text, from the horrific story of the rape of Tamar, it is not Tamar who is expected to rebuke, but rather her brother Avshalom, who is the social equal of Amnon. I would argue that this piece teaches us that true tochecha is only possible  between those in a relationship of mutual respect. While structural inequality may prove a real systemic barrier to the empathy necessary to allow for true education and rebuke, challenge and education that comes from a place of love and empathy has a much better chance of succeeding.

This means that it is up to us to create the spaces where rebuke is possible. To serve as allies, as much as possible, to those for whom, because of a variety of reasons, rebuke is difficult or dangerous. And to actively build spaces where people feel, as much as is possible, that they can engage in rebuke and that it will be met in a loving and gentle way.

Part of that is offering critique consistently, to stand up and speak out against oppression wherever we see it. But part of that is also making a space for people who are ignorant, or growing, or asking questions, or having difficulty seeing beyond their privilege to be held accountable in a gentle and loving way. The important phrase here is “being held accountable.” Holding people who are working on their privilege in love does not mean that we don’t rebuke them. Tradition teaches us that we have that duty. And certainly we don’t back down from rebuke. That is also our duty. The challenge is creating a space for people to work out why their behavior was oppressive and feel like they can still be contributing members (Jay Smooth has one potential really excellent guide to this).

Certainly this isn’t work for every activist to do. But as clergy, it’s the work that I’ve chosen to take on, and a very particular way of doing it. And I find it helpful to know that other people are thinking about and creating guides to build communities that are both loving and accountable to each other.


February 10, 2014

God in the Details: Parshat Tetzaveh

Filed under: D'var Torah — marleyweiner @ 12:06 pm

This week’s portion is one of the, let’s say, challenging ones. One of the ones that B’nei Mitzvah students hope that they don’t get. It describes, in minute detail, the vestments of the Priests, and all of the sacrifices needed to install them in their new office. As Jews, people of the Book, we are always looking for ways to make the text relevant to our own lives, to mine it for themes. So what do we do with a text like this? How do we take a text, that seems like it’s chock full of irrelevant and extraneous detail, and read lessons out of it?

The fact is, our lives are full of the equivalent of descriptions of sacral vestments. The majority of our lives focus more on the mundane details, the routines, than the life-changing moments. In between Sinai and the River Jordan, the people have forty years of sacrificing, embroidering the Tent of Meeting, and complaining about the food. In between the birth of our children, our weddings, the beginning of college, and other life defining moments, we get up, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, talk to our partners if we have partners, play with our kids if we have kids, watch TV, go to bed.

And yet, those mundane details are what make our lives. A tunic is just a tunic, until it is the tunic that Aaron will wear on his first day as High Priest. A dress is just a dress, until you put it on and get your hair done and your nails and go to prom, or your wedding. And just as descriptions of ancient clothing are mundane until they are the Word of God, so are the details of our lives mundane until we realize how they are the foundation of our most important moments.


As an example, I turn to a film that I went to see over Christmas with my parents, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. In it, Walter is a man with a life that seems dull and humdrum to him. He has an office job at LIFE magazine, is close with his family, and doesn’t have much success with dating. Through the film, he goes on ever more wild and magnificent adventures to all parts of the globe in search of a photographer who as taken the ultimate photograph for the cover of the last print issue of the magazine. But at the end, when the photograph is discovered, it is a simple black-and-white shot of Walter himself, staring with rapt attention at a sheet of photo proofs. Through his attention to detail, the small things, Walter is able to bring a world of beauty and amazement to the American public.

Many of us are like Walter; we only realize the importance of the little details after the moments have long passed. In the moment, we go through life on autopilot, longing for an adventure. So how do we shift our thinking? How do we realize, in the moment, the importance of those details?

My answer comes in a story from my childhood. From the time I was an infant until the end of High School, my family spent two weeks most summers at Long Beach Island in New Jersey. We stayed in the north part of the island, up by the lighthouse, where nothing much happens. And yet some of the fondest memories of my childhood, catching sand crabs, getting sick in a fishing boat, walking down the beach for miles, took place at that beach.

And it wasn’t because I saw those moments as more profound than they were. It was because in that moment, I was happy, and I took the time to say, in my own eight year old way, I am happy right now. Living in the moment, wringing every scrap of joy out of it, left me with good memories even today.

God could have told Moses that he was to build a tabernacle and fine outfits for the priests and left it at that. Similarly, we can gloss over the details in our lives, living on autopilot. But God takes the time to set the stage, to describe, in loving detail, exactly how splendid the Temple and the clothing of the Priests will be. And so should we take the time to revel in the details, to drink them in, and to find meaning in their small pleasures that can add up to a life of joy.

The challenge that I want to extend to you today is to take the time to notice, and to appreciate. To take the time to notice the potential for joy, divinity, learning, growing, in even the most mundane of moments. There is the potential for preciousness in all things, when we take the time to notice them, whether standing on top of Mount Sinai, or in embroidering the decorations for a tunic.

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