You Shall Pursue

March 20, 2014

Sermon: Celebrating the Joy in Ritual Obligation

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 9:33 am

This week in class, I am reading the Mishneh, which is a collection of Jewish laws and stories, about looking for leavened bread on Passover. These rules are endless in their specificity, down to what time of day you have to look. I don’t know about any of you, but I have tried to follow these exacting rules while cleaning for Passover in the past, and they are exhausting.

And this is true of much of Jewish law. The rabbis care deeply about minute details, and try a thousand different cases in order to figure out the exact parameters of each individual law. For many Jews, this attention to minutiae and detail is a hurdle to be overcome in participating in Judaism. I have heard so many times, from the mouths of friends and family, “It’s too much! It’s needlessly complicated!” And sometimes I agree with them! But what strikes me when reading these laws is how living in this system is, in its way, profoundly spiritual.

We have just finished with one of our most raucous holidays, Purim. And Passover is one of our more rigidly structured holidays. And moving into this period has me thinking about ritual and spirituality, and how to find meaning in a religion of rules.

We in America tend to think of spirituality as intensely inward focused. We consider how any given ritual makes us feel, and how it transforms our inner landscape. But for our ancestors, spirituality was about conforming to God’s law.

This wasn’t always easy for them. Obligation didn’t always lead to profound spiritual insights, as is evidenced by this quote from the Jerusalem Talmud, “Rabbi Chiya said: All the days of my life, I never had kavana, which means spirituality as we think of it, a deep emotional connection to the prayers. He continues: One time I tried to have kavana and focus my attention and ended up wondering about who would meet the king first: a Persian leader or the exilarch. Shmuel said: I count birds. Rabbi Buni the son of Chiya said: I count people. Rabbi Matnayah said: I am grateful to my head that it knows when I get to “modim” that it bows on its own.” Even the greatest of our rabbis got bored in synagogue. I think this lets all of us off the hook a little bit if our mind should wander from time to time!

But these rabbis still went three times a day and prayed, even if they were bored or frustrated. And similarly, the fact that connecting to ritual can sometimes be a challenge doesn’t mean that we should abandon these hard practices at first opportunity. Our rabbis teach us that Torah is not just about studying the book; ideally, it should lead to the practices of lovingkindness, caring, and connection that make for a holy society.

To take the example of Passover, since we are coming into that season in a little less than a month, the holiday, with a seder full of long winding digressions in Hebrew and Aramaic and severely proscribed food rules, seems like a strange ritual to the non-Jews in my life, especially when they have to listen to me complain about the taste of matzah for a week straight!

But Passover has provided me with endless growing and learning opportunities. Giving up bread on Passover was one of the first acts of piety I took on independently from my parents. In college, the LGBT feminist seders at Columbia Hillel introduced me to new ways of reading our texts that gave voice to those who traditionally had none. And hosting my own seders in my own apartment helped me create joyful Jewish practice, and bond with chosen family of close friends. This practice, which I must do every year because I am commanded, has expanded my life more than I ever could have thought possible.

While we may or may not get a warm fuzzy feeling practicing kashrut or coming to shul on the Sabbath or cleaning our house top to bottom on Passover, there is a method to the madness. In Reconstructionist Judaism, we say that the past has “a vote but not a veto.” This means that we do not believe that halakhah, or Jewish religious law, as handed down by Orthodox rabbis is binding without question. Rather, it means that these traditions are profoundly important for our sense of community, our sense of history, and our sense of self. While certainly there are some Jewish laws that we must reject because they are sexist, or unethical, or prevent us from participating in the world, we should see the Jewish law as an opportunity, rather than a painful burden.

Because at their best, when done with the proper intention, these practices help us to get outside our own heads and needs, to remind us that we are beholden to our tradition, our communities (whether they are Jewish communities or not), and to God. That it is our job to put things other than our own personal satisfaction at times, in order to build the sorts of communities of which we would like to be a member.

In Hebrew, the term Mitzraim means “the narrow place.” And so in the spirit of getting out of the “narrow place,” I encourage you all to seek out some way to use the rituals of Passover to break you out of your routine. Maybe you will have a chametz hunt, and search for leavened bread all over the house with your children. Maybe you will bring some new personal stories to your seder, to inject it with some new questions, because the seder is a time when we are commanded to ask questions. Maybe you will use the memory of our plight in Egypt to donate to those in our communities who are less fortunate. Whatever you do, do it because you are commanded, and do it regardless of how it makes you feel. If you try something and you don’t feel particularly moved, commit to trying it again next year. Our rabbis teach us that it is the system, and being willing to live within the system, that brings the transformation.

Many Jews think that God brought the Jews out of Israel so that they could be free. This is not actually the case. Rather, Moses tells Pharaoh that the Jews must go out from Egypt so that they can worship God. The people move from service to a tyrant to service to an ethical and loving ruler. And as we come into this season of testing, of waiting for that inevitable Exodus, I would like to encourage you all to think about how and why you take on obligation, and how it might set you free.

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March 16, 2014

Sermon: Jews, Crimea, and the Importance of Diaspora

Filed under: D'var Torah, Jewish Communitty — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 9:22 am

A few years ago, when I was living in Israel, I had the privilege of visiting Cairo with a group of friends during the Passover break (and yes, the irony is not lost on me). As part of our vacation, we went to the Etz Hayim synagogue in Cairo. The synagogue is beautifully maintained by a Muslim historical preservation group.

And while it was a joy to see a piece of Jewish history, I couldn’t help but mourn that there were no Jews left to pray in this synagogue, no children left to celebrate becoming B’nei Mitzvah, no couples to celebrate weddings. Most Egyptian Jews have immigrated to Israel, and built a life for themselves there, but there is a real loss of a community that has existed continuously for thousands of years.

And speaking of loss, in recent weeks, Ukraine has been in turmoil, and Russia has sent troops into the Crimean peninsula. One of my professors just came from a mission in the area, and she spoke movingly about the fear and confusion in the Jewish community during this time. People are scared, and confused. And on Wednesday, an envoy from the Ukranian Jewish community was refused a meeting with the Israeli government. And I worry, yet again, about what this means for the Jews.

According to current population estimates, there are about 70,000 Jews living in Ukraine, and about 17,000 of them live in Crimea. Before World War II, the Crimea was an area of remarkable autonomy for the Jews. There was agriculture, and yiddishkeit, and a thriving community supported by American philanthropy and a nascent Zionist can-do attitude.

But the War and Stalinism decimated that vibrant Jewish community, and now the Jews living there are mostly old, and there is only one synagogue.

The strength of the Jewish people has long been its interconnectedness. From the time of the earliest Diasporas, in Alexandria and Babylonia, there has been a tremendous amount of communication and movement between Jewish communities all over the world.

In the time of the Gaonim, the great early Medieval Rabbinic decisors in the 5th to 11th centuries, Jewish communities from Spain and Europe and even the Land of Israel wrote to the great academies in Persia, and so developed prayer books and practical marriage laws and many aspects of Judaism that we take for granted today. And as Babylonia shrunk in importance, the community in Spain grew in scholarship to take its place. And so to Eastern Europe, and so to America.

At the height of the Soviet Union’s persecution of the Jews, the American and Israeli Jewish communities worked together to protest and provide safe-haven for their Soviet brothers and sisters. In the 1960s and 1970s, Israel staged missions to bring the persecuted Jews of Ethiopia, Yemen, and Morocco to the land. We are unique among the nations in that our commitment to protecting our own is backed up by explicit national policy.

So then, why not just send planes into the Crimea, airlift out the 17,000 Jews living there, and bring them back to Israel? Besides the fact that Israeli governmental policy has moved away from such dramatic missions, I don’t think aliyah is always the answer.

In my opinion, we are a people that is strongest when we have a healthy relationship between diaspora, and Israel. We are a people that has grown into its own scattered among the nations, carving out a place of more or less autonomy, and more or less acceptance, always surviving, and sometimes thriving. We have always been, in the words of Mordecai Kaplan, a people of two civilizations, the Jewish civilization and the civilization in which we find ourselves, and in that hybrid comes our strength.

Author and co-developer of Birthright Israel Gidi Grinstein speaks of the Jews as a people of “flexigidity.” Our customs, our language, our Torah, has remained remarkably consistent over time, which contributes to our sense of continuity. But we are also a people remarkably good at drawing from the cultures around us, at creating fluid hybrid cultures that serve our contemporary moment. Without both of these aspects, without the ability to maintain our unique pocket cultures, we lose access to the brilliant variety of experience that makes our people so vibrant and so durable.

I think of American Jewish culture. Our opportunities to grow in creative writing, literature, theater, and music. Our brilliant thinkers and writers who are able to flourish and publish in a culture with separation of church and state. The way that klezmer and African and European music blended together to create the blues. The fact that someone like Michelle Bachman will use a word like “chutzpah,” even if she can’t pronounce it. America has been good to the Jews, and good for the Jews. And so was Egypt. And so was Spain. And so was Babylonia. And so was Prague.

And this is why it is our duty to use our voices and our influence to protect Jews in other lands of the Diaspora, and not just in Israel. This is why it is so important to keep writing, and speaking to Congress members, and sending money for rabbinic missions all over the Jewish world. Because our survival and existence depends on a multitude of experiences. It is how we have become who we are today.

Next year, I will be studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. And along with me, there will be several students from the Abraham Geiger Kolleg Institute of Potsdam in Germany. Yes, I will get to study with German rabbinical students. If that is not an example of a Jewish community resurfacing from the ashes, I don’t know what is. And I am sure that our shared studies will leave us all the richer. We as a community can come out from the ashes, if we support each other and help each other to grow. And we, as a community, will all be the richer for it.

D’var Torah: Parshat Tsav

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 9:11 am

Starting my freshman year of college, I wanted to learn to lay tefillin. It seemed like an important next step in my journey toward becoming a more religious Jew. I looked for someone to teach me, but couldn’t find the right teacher, until last year, my first year of rabbinical school. One of my professors brought me a learner’s set of tefillin, and taught me the intricate process of wrapping it down my left arm, and around my hand in the shape of a shin, and the proper blessings and kavanot, or ritual intentions. I was thrilled, and nervous. And then the tefillin were on for the first time, and I realized that I was the only person in my secular Jewish family who had wrapped tefillin in decades, who even knew how to wrap tefillin, and I sobbed like a baby.

This week’s portion, tzav, begins the long process of installing Aaron and his sons as priests. They are washed, and anointed, and dressed in special clothes. They perform sacrifices, and are purified. And Moses tells them that this is the beginning of an ordination that will take seven days.

This portion emphasizes the importance of rituals in marking life changes. Before this ritual begins, Aaron is Moses’ brother, a leader among the people. At the end of the ritual, he will be unique among the people, the first High Priest, responsible for mediating between the people and God. The stakes are high; the consequence of failure is death and God’s withdraw from the people. And so God creates for him a ritual, one that will both render him ritually pure but also, I would argue, to transform him into the role that he has been chosen to inhabit. God understands the mental weight of what he has given to Aaron, and he gives him an opportunity to experience a change into a priest.

I often like to joke that coming of age rituals are all about surviving inflicted trauma. Whether the trauma is being sent into the desert to have a vision quest, or standing on a bima in front of all of our friends and relatives to lead a service in a foreign language, these occasions are usually accompanied by feelings of excitement and dread (I, for example, seriously considered running away from home the week before my Bat Mitzvah, and see how well that turned out). But the moments they mark are even more auspicious. Changing over from a child to a teenager and eventually an adult, becoming an independent moral actor, this is a scary thing. And the public and emotionally invested nature of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah really emphasizes the nature of the change. It is a big deal. And I can remember every detail of that outfit.

There are many such examples in our society of these sorts of rituals. Rituals designed to mark time, to mark status changes, to move us from one part of our lives to another. In the words of the great anthropologist Marcel Mauss, in his book A General Theory of Magic, “Ritual acts… are essentially thought to be able to produce more than a contract: rites are eminently effective, they are creative, they do things.”

And often those rituals, those changes in our status, are accompanied by a change in appearance. Whether it is the first time in a tallit, a first business suit at a first interview, or our first pair of reading glasses, clothes have weight.

But so often there are little moments, like the first interview, like the transition into middle and old age, that are tremendously weighty, but that we don’t necessarily mark with ritual. But the beauty of Judaism is that anything can be recognized with a blessing, with a ritual, with an opportunity to reach out and connect. And as rabbis, it is part of our job to create these rituals. My classmates and I have written rituals for moving into a first apartment, for leaving a long-time family home, for entering menopause and for surviving trauma. As a people, it is our privilege that we have the opportunity to live our every minute recognized, celebrated, and commemorated.

But this is not just our job. Moses, brilliant prophet though he was, was not a member of the Temple cult when he ordained his brother. He was a lay person who helped move Aaron from being a leader of Israel to being a High Priest, he arranged the ceremony that would help ease that transition.

And each of us, though not rabbis, have the ability to mark the moments of our lives and make them sacred. Whether that is a weekly Shabbat dinner, or the gift of a mezuzah to children going off to college, or saying the traveler’s prayer before going on vacation, there are a thousand little things that we can do to mark the momentous moments of our lives. Because doing so changes these moments from momentous to holy, in the service of God.

March 12, 2014

Dear B’nei Mitzvah

Filed under: Uncategorized — marleyweiner @ 1:30 pm

When I first started this work, I was tremendously excited to work with people of all ages, except one. The thought of working with young teens, children between the age of 11 and 14, filled me with a sort of all-encompassing dread. And so, of course, I have spent a lot of my career so far hanging out with 7th and 8th graders. And, after two years of teaching Hebrew High School and interacting with this age group, I’m starting to realize that they are, far and away, my favorites.

Let me explain with a story. There was a particular young man (whose name will go unmentioned) who was a particularly difficult kid last year. He liked to talk, and specifically to try to take the class off on irrelevant tangents. He tried my patience. But underneath all of the frustration, he was fundamentally a good kid, just one who was going through that stage that teenagers go through. This year, I went back to visit that group of students, and he and I got to talking, specifically about his behavior the year before. I remarked, laughing, that I’d told him to be quiet so many times that last year. And he laughed back, and said “Yeah, I probably deserved it.” It was beautiful, this moment of growth, of clarity, of teshuvah, such that we could connect as two human beings rather than as teacher and student. Suddenly, I had the good person standing before me that I had seen all along.

And that is what I love about this age. Teenagers, both for good and for incredibly frustrating, are growing at the speed of light. They have so many feelings, that it kind of overwhelms them (and those who know them) all at once. Within each individual kid, there are moments of profound wisdom, worldliness, and naiveté. Dealing with teenagers is like dealing with the human condition condensed into its purest form.

I have the privilege to hang out with a lot of B’nei Mitzvah students this year, and to talk Torah with them. And their insights never cease to amaze me. They ask questions I’d never think to ask, offer interpretations that I’d never considered. They move quickly between child and adult selves, and I want to tell them that this time is so important for their growth into a moral actor, into the kind of good human being that I know they have the potential to become. So we talk about Jewish values, and I try to get them to think, and ask questions, and develop some comfort in their own intellectual instincts. And they keep teaching me about humility, and relationship building.

March 9, 2014

D’var Torah: Sacrifices of the Heart

Filed under: D'var Torah — marleyweiner @ 11:04 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Paula Deen. After her offensive comments last year, she is back in the news. And I am remembering all of the flurry around those comments. So often, when someone in the public eye says something offensive, they deflect by saying that they weren’t intending to be cruel. It seems almost impossible that people can be wrong gracefully in public, and this leads to lots of hurt feelings, and very little change in behavior.

This week’s portion offers an antidote to the way that Amercians talk about being wrong in public. It talks about the offerings of animals and grain and oil that the Isralites brought to the Temple for a variety of situations, to give thanks and to atone. I want to focus on the sin offering. As God lays out the various aspects of the sin offering, we learn that we must bring a sin for individual sins, for communal sins, for sins that we commit knowingly, and for sins that we commit unknowingly. ALL of these are sins. All damage the integrity of the community, and a ritual must be performed to set the community right.

God understands, and seeks to teach the people, that it doesn’t matter the intention behind the statement sometimes. What matters is that someone has been hurt. Whether this sin is intentional or not, the Israelite must bring his or her sacrifice, and whether or not we intend to hurt, we must seek to address our wrongdoing.

How many of us have been in a position where we discovered that we had offended, or hurt, and were required to make it right in public? Whether having to apologize to a group of friends for an insensitive comment, or at work for an error in our duties, it can be hard to admit that you have done something, whether knowingly or unknowingly, that has hurt someone else.

On Yom Kippur we all confess our sins together, but in Leviticus, there is a different model. The sinner must come to the Tabernacle and bring a sacrifice. The Israelites know what it means when someone arrives before the Tent of Meeting with a particular offering. It is a way for the sinner to publicly show that they have incurred guilt, and that they are making right. It may have been painful for the person bringing the offering to recognize that the community would know about their transgression, but they are required to do it to keep the community intact.

Last year, a close friend of mine went through a very challenging time. They were hurting, and in pain, and often angry, and so often spending time with them was an experience in going through the emotional ringer. And I was busy with my own life, so I was not nearly as supportive as I could have been. It came time for Rosh Hashanah, and I knew that I needed to apologize for not being a better friend. But it was so hard. What if they didn’t forgive me? What if they lorded my bad behavior over me in the future? Saying that I was wrong was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, but it was necessary for keeping our relationship alive.

Sometimes we must sacrifice our pride on the altar of loving relationships. To be willing to atone, out loud, for our wrongdoing. According to the Malbim, a nineteenth century Russian Rabbi, the most important thing that a leader can do is to be scrupulous about bringing sacrifice for sins, because he can serve as an example to others. And so can each of us serve as a leader, by being willing to stand up and admit our wrongdoing. Our relationships will be that much stronger, and the people around us will hopefully, be willing to sacrifice their pride as well and admit to their own wrongdoings.

But there is another side to this story. It is not only important to atone, there must also be acceptance of the atonement of others. And how do we make this possible?

We learn that as well from the portion. “The priest shall make expiation on his behalf for the error that he committed unwittingly, and he shall be forgiven.” When someone comes before us in genuine repentance, it is a moment in which we are like a priest, with the power to grant pardon or to withhold it. Just as we come before our fellow with remorse and openness to change, so too must we greet the sacrifice of the apology with an acknowledgment that it is a sacrifice, that the person is giving something of his or her self to stand before us.

Repentance is inherently a challenge. In the Bible, we gave of our material wealth to make up for our sins, and today, we must give of our hearts. But just as Leviticus serves as a blueprint for a functional Israelite society that was able to maintain holiness, so too should we see sacrifice as an integral part of building a stronger and holier community today.

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