You Shall Pursue

January 4, 2014

D’var Torah: Parshat Bo

Filed under: D'var Torah, Patrilineal Descent — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 12:42 pm

My family is very particular about food. On Thanksgiving, my aunt always brings sweet potatoes, and I always bring pie. On Rosh Hashanah, I make my grandmother’s Jewish apple cake. Dinners with my aunt always involve her brisket, made the same way every time. And on Hanukkah and Passover, my mother makes matzah ball soup with chewwy matzah balls, big pieces of chicken and vegetables, and parsley, not dill. And I’m sure some of you are imagining my mother’s chicken soup and protesting in your heads that the soup should be made with clear broth, or with dill, or with big pillowy matzah balls. But matzah ball soup that is different from my mother’s, or brisket that is different from my aunt’s, or any pumpkin pie that I did not make from the recipe in the Silver Palatte cookbook just feels wrong to me, somehow. Every family has their rituals; a particular way of doing things that, if they were to try something different, the holiday or the time of year would just feel wrong.

And this portion, Parshat Bo, is about that very same issue of ritual. This portion is the first time that the Israelites are given a law to follow. A ritual of sacrifice and strange food, of family togetherness and telling of the story. Everything must be prepared just so; the same type of meat, cooked and eaten the same way.

But why are the Israelites commanded to do it? It is a ritual commemorating gratitude to God. God protected us from judgment and pain, and led us out of Egypt, and in exchange we ritualize and memorialize that protection every year throughout the generations.

How do we demonstrate gratitude? It is not enough, sometimes, to say thank you. Sometimes, the only way to properly express the depth of one’s obligation is through our actions, our rituals, our social habits. A gift does not feel like a proper gift unless it is given wrapped in pretty paper. A holiday does not feel like a holiday without that one particular recipe.

I was an anthropology major in college, and a theorist named Marcel Mauss teaches that gift giving, and the obligation that it brings, is what binds a society together. That when we are given a gift, we feel the need to give in return, and that endless cycle of giving and receiving is what helps to foster strong relationships. And these gifts to not only need to be the gift of a new sweater or an iPad. We are obligated in moments of vulnerability, of love, of compassion. When a parent died, and our friends organized food throughout the Shiva. Or when we were sick in the hospital, and our friends came to visit us every day with silly jokes and flowers. Or even when we were having a hard time, and some person took a moment to listen, to share the burden of our grief and anxiety. Those moments of genuine human connection and love are the gifts we give to one another, which keep our society moving.

So, I ask again, how do we express our gratitude? The first step is realizing that we are truly, deeply blessed. Cultivating thanks for our gifts of strength, and talent, and knowledge, and good health when it exists, and loving family when it exists. And the next step is to make use of those gifts. To show through our actions how much we love our community. To use our talents for making the world a better place. And to use our relationship with God, our Jewish community, our ancient teachings, to make the world a better place.

This is what the Israelites are commanded to do. They are given this ritual, in order to express their thanks for their salvation. The ritual of Passover is our gift to God in exchange for protection, love, and relationship. But it is not only one generation that gives God the gift of the Passover sacrifice. It is every generation thereafter. The most important part of the ritual is that it serves as a teachable moment for the children, and the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren, to come into relationship with God and all that God has done for the Jewish people.

And, like the gifts we give to the people around us, our gifts to God also help us to construct societies and relationships. Our gifts to God come in our celebration of Shabbat, in the Passover seder, in the kindling of the Hanukkah candles, in fasting at Yom Kippur. Every penny we give in tzedakah, every line we study of Torah, every mitzvah that we perform, is a gift to God in exchange for the blessing and the gift of life. And as we give those gifts, we give to one another. We form bonds with our families, and our friends, and our broader community, and the world, that make our human society a better place to live.

And so my wish for all of us this Shabbat is for gifts. The gift of seeing the blessings that are in our lives. The gift of feeling profound gratitude. And the gift of using all that we have been given to continue to give back in return.

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December 4, 2013

Sermon Slam

Filed under: D'var Torah, Jewish Communitty, Patrilineal Descent — Tags: — marleyweiner @ 1:01 pm

I recently delivered a sermon about Hanukkah for Sermon Slam Philadelphia, an event like a poetry reading or a storytelling contest, but for sermons and other religious works. You can find a podcast of the event here. There were a lot of amazing, creative, and diverse works shared at this event, so please check it out. So many thanks to you guys for letting me share my preaching! And here’s the text of the sermon:

I’d like to start with a Hanukkah story, and one that you have probably never heard. In the days of Jason the High Priest, the days just before Antiochus the tyrant’s merciless attack on Judaism, several Jewish men were sent as representatives of Judea to the Herculean games at Tyre. They were sent with a hefty sum of money to fund sacrifices at the games, sacrifices to the god Hercules.

Imagine being those men. The honor and the privilege of representing Judea to the rest of the Greek world! The thrill of traveling to a new place, seeing the empire, and coming home as heroes, as champions. And yet, they have money in their pockets to sacrifice to Hercules. And so what do they do? What can they do? They can participate in foreign games, but they cannot bring themselves to worship foreign gods. The money never goes to sacrifices. Instead, it goes into the Greek war chest, to fund several new battleships.

I feel very close to the Jewish athletes from this story. Because I know what it means to feel the seductive pull of a broader culture. Those men most certainly spoke Greek, were gymnasia educated, and likely studied Plato and Aristotle. My native language is English, I was educated at Barnard, a secular college, where I majored in anthropology. I watch American TV, I listen to American music. My life, all of our lives, are deeply, strongly, American.

And that pull goes deeper for me than for many, especially future clergy. In this time of year, the time of light in the dark months, is hard for me. Because on Christmas, I’m going to be sitting in a church pew with my Presbyterian grandparents. I’m from an interfaith family, an overlooked but not uncommon occurrence among a new generation of American Jewish leaders.

The Maccabees did not like Jews like me. Their books rail against the Hellenization of their fellow Jews, calling them “evil” and “lawless” and claiming that they “abandoned the holy covenant.” Let alone marrying out.

The war of the Maccabees is not only a war against religious oppression. It is also a culture war, a strong statement against the forces of Hellenization. The Maccabees not only want to remain a free people, they also want to remain a people apart.

Given that, what does it mean to celebrate Hanukkah? How do I keep celebrating a holiday that commemorates a group that would have gladly driven my parents and me out on a rail?

For the answer, I wish to turn to this week’s Torah portion, to a man with many brothers, Joseph. Joseph who lives most of his life in Egypt. Joseph who takes on high positions of political power in court. Joseph who marries and Egyptian woman and has sons by her. And Joseph who, when the time comes, saves his brothers and welcomes them into his home with open arms.

Joseph is a master of “both/ and” thinking. He is a high ranking Egyptian official AND anxious to receive his father’s blessing. He is married to an Egyptian woman AND an interpreter of God’s visions. He straddles both worlds, and through the stretch and the straddling, he manages to save both the Egyptian people and his own family.

And so it is for me. I make one grandmother’s Christmas cookies and the other’s Jewish apple cake. I read Talmud, and then talk to my grandmother about how well I’m doing at my student “church.” I discuss atheism with my Jewish father, and kabbalah with my agnostic mother, and Aramaic with my atheist housemate who once wanted to be a priest. I study the historical context of the Lord’s Prayer, marvel at its similarity to the kaddish, and I can reel it off from memory because I learned it at a church Bible camp with my best friend when I was ten years old. And I am not alone. My Judaism filters down through both sides of my family, and all of my community, both Jewish and not, and it is the stronger for that.

What does this mean for us, we who come together to celebrate the great miracle that happened there? What is the miracle? I would argue that Hanukkah, is not yet another case of “they tried to kill us, we survived let’s eat” (although latkes are delicious). Rather, it is a powerfully complicated story about lines in the sand, and how those lines shift and move as the landscape also shifts, and how we ride that wave to lives rededicated to Judaism.

How do we know when to adapt, and when to stand firm? When can we act as the Jewish athletes, and go forth to the games, and when must we act as the Maccabees, and keep our Temple pure? Both are legitimate Jewish reactions to the same set of circumstances.

As actors in the broader world, we face these challenges every day.

Can we live out the Jewish value of Shabbat, in a world that favors being plugged in 24/7?

Can we live out the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger, when our society remains jingoistic and committed to deporting undocumented teenagers?

Can we live out the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, in one of the few nations in the developed world that still executes prisoners, and bombs clinics in the name of saving babies?

Can we live out the Jewish value of communal responsibility, when so often our lives drag us away from one another, and make it so very difficult to commit to building a supportive and vibrant Jewish community?

And when should broader human values intercede; the value to protect the poor of all religions, the value to promote peace between all people, the value of honoring family and friends and loved ones, no matter what their religious background?

We must remember that we have tremendous power; the power to include and the power to exclude, the power to celebrate diversity and ecumenicalism and the power to celebrate our unique heritage. We are blessed, and cursed, to live in a world where the choice of where to draw our lines is truly our own. And while our lines in the sand may not be in the same place as the Maccabees, or the Jewish athletes, may we all have the power to stand firm in our convictions, knowing that we do so under the authority and blessing of God.

November 12, 2013

Rabbis, no Borders

This past weekend I was at a Rabbis Without Borders retreat. This organization is designed to bring rabbinical students from many different denominations together to discuss the issues currently facing the American rabbinate, and to brainstorm creative solutions, with people that we would not ordinarily have a chance to work with. My cohort included everyone from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a left-wing Modern Orthodox yeshiva in New York. The work was tremendously hard, but also tremendously exciting and freeing.

I came into the conversation feeling a bit defensive, because of my patrilineal status. I was worried that I was going to have to spend the weekend defending myself and my decision to not do mikveh. But. I was so very pleasantly surprised. My cohort went beyond tolerating me in their midst. They welcomed me. They empathized with me. And they saw me as a future colleague and ally towards building a vibrant Jewish community.

The Jewish community of the future needs many voices. And certainly I am not going to agree with all of those voices. Most of those voices will spend lots of time disagreeing with each other. But underneath each of those official positions there are individual human beings with a variety of experiences, and potentially an openness to seeing beyond official positions to the essential humanity of every person. The ability to see down to the humanity of many different types of people is a talent that goes beyond denominational lines. And this weekend, I was in a room full of people who possess that gift and are willing to use it in service of their rabbinate. Knowing that I will have allies outside of my denomination is a really powerful gift.

I think that is really the power of a program like Rabbis Without Borders; it forces the participants to see each other not as “Orthodox” or “Reform” or “Reconstructionist,” but rather as whole people who are really committed to serving the Jewish community. And while we were having the conversation within the context of revitalizing Jewish communal life and empowering our communities to control their own destiny, the program went so far beyond that frame. I have always been interested and invested in building relationships, ownership, and leadership in my future communities. But being able to strategize with people whose communities will need radically different things in the future was, and is, tremendously powerful.

More than anything else, I know that I am not doing this work of building the Jewish community alone. My partners, my allies, radiate out from my movement and throughout the community. There are now eighteen other future colleagues, from all over the Jewish world, that I can rely on in building the sort of Jewish future that I want to see. There is room for all of us, and all of our visions. And I am that much more excited about the future of Judaism because of it.

February 20, 2013

The Queerness of Patrilineal Judaism

So I had an idea for an educational program about the varied ways that Jews from interfaith families don’t fit the normative narrative of what is Jewish, and may not want to. I think there is a real lack of conversation about how to confront the reality that there is a whole generation of Jews who were raised in interfaith families, and are now coming into their own Jewish identity, and have a real lack of institutional and communal support around forming that identity. Here are my thoughts (which will have to be WAY fleshed out):

  • Rabbinic Judaism has certain beings/people that fall between different categories. Sometimes they are one thing, sometimes they are another, sometimes both, and sometimes neither. I have most commonly seen this sort of multiplicity used to talk about categories that would now be called intersex/ genderqueer people.
  • As a child from an interfaith family, I am both Jew and not-Jew, and different groups read me in different ways at different times.
  • Different children from interfaith families have different reactions to their multiple heritages, from wanting to be read only as Jewish all the time, to wanting to be read as only not-Jewish all the time, and everything in between.
  • Any way that a child of an interfaith family wants to be read is valid. No, really. They are all valid. What they do with that identity in the broader Jewish world that may disagree with them is what gets complicated…
  • Zelig Krymko, one of the Limmud participants who I had a chance to reconnect with this weekend, pointed out that in an interdenominational world, we live on a spectrum that is horizontal, not vertical and we play on these axes, jumping between them, and often ending up at very similar places for very different reasons, or in very different places for similar reasons. How do we embrace and play on that spectrum when not all parts of it recognize our Judaism?
  • How can we use rabbinic Judaism’s comfort with “queer” categories (meaning categories that encompass and shift between different identity markers in different situations) to create a Judaism that is more comfortable with people who are not interested in strict dichotomies of identity formation?

Jewish friends from interfaith families, what am I missing? What do you wish the broader Jewish world knew about your Jewish identity?

November 14, 2012

Thoughts on Patrilineal Descent: On Outing Myself to my Students

Filed under: Jewish Communitty, Patrilineal Descent, Rabbinical School — marleyweiner @ 3:54 am

My high schoolers know that my mom isn’t Jewish (Or at least, some of them do. I’ve been dropping it into the conversation as it’s relevant). My 4th graders do not know. So, of course, it’s my 4th graders who are interested in talking about intermarriage and patrilineal descent (The big question: can someone with only one Jewish grandparent go to Hebrew School?).

I have my own answers to their questions, which are complicated by the fact that I teach at a Conservative synagogue which has a policy in place that patrilineal Jewish students have to undergo a conversion ceremony to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I’ve invited the Education Director and the rabbi to teach about their policies in what, I am sure, will be the kindest and gentlest way possible. I hope my students get something out of it, and feel affirmed by their synagogue at the end of the talk. But I’m still trying to situate myself within this conversation. How can I affirm the policies of my place of work, and affirm the Jewish identities of any students I may have who are patrilineal Jews, while still remaining true to my own beliefs about my Jewish identity?

The funny thing is that I took this job in part because our Education Director is so brilliant about interfaith and other issues of intersectionality. She knows about my heritage, and has been nothing but supportive of my working with these students. But it is still massively challenging to figure how how to work within a situation where my Jewish choices go against organizational culture. I’m kind of at a loss.

… Does anyone have any thoughts?

August 21, 2012

Thoughts on Patrilineal Descent: All My People in the House!

Filed under: Jewish Communitty, Patrilineal Descent, Rabbinical School — marleyweiner @ 7:54 pm

So, I sort of disappeared for the last month… oops. But! It was for a very good reason! I now have a place to live, and a car, and a bed to sleep in, and jobs! That took a lot of time and effort, and now I’m ready to start putting time and effort into writing again.

I’m renting a house by school with three other women; two of them are fellow rabbinical students and the third is a good friend from High School. All of us have Jewish and non-Jewish ancestry, and the three future rabbis are all straight up patrilineal Jews. And we are not alone at RRC. There are several others in our incoming class alone. This is really really really cool.

I spent some very formative years in terms of Judaism at a school that was hostile to my desire to embrace my halakhic ambiguity. I cannot tell you the number of former professors, rabbinic mentors, etc. who have offered to set up a beit din for my conversion, which I know comes from a place of love, but it bothers me that I would need outside affirmation and confirmation of something that I know to be already true and fundamental to me as a person.That leaves deep marks, psychically. On the one had, it strengthened my desire to be a role model for other Jews from interfaith backgrounds, to show them that they can have a home and even a leadership position in the Jewish community. On the other hand, it left me a bit defensive. Being in a learning environment where a significant chunk of my peers is dealing with some of the same challenges as me is hugely freeing.

That is not to say that we are all on the same page in regards to our patrilineal Judaism and what to do about it. Some of us are thinking about mikveh, others are not, and I am adamantly against it. But we are already starting to have the conversations amongst ourselves. How we relate to our halakhic status. How our mothers’ cultures influenced our Jewish journeys. How we all feel about Christmas (and whether or not to have a tree in our house this year). It is nice to talk to other future Jewish leaders, people who have strong ties to Judaism and have thought very deeply about these issues, and who really get it.

More importantly, I no longer feel the need to be a “model Jewish leader from an interfaith home.” There are so many of us within the student body grappling with these issues, either for themselves or for their children. Instead of needing to speak for all Jews from interfaith backgrounds everywhere, my voice can be just one of many opinions (and I will admit pretty freely that I am not a centrist when it comes to this question).

The broader Jewish community needs what is going on at RRC, and not just along axes of interfaith. When there are few or no Jews from interfaith families, or Jews of color, or QUILTBAG Jews, or Jews from poor or working class backgrounds in communal leadership positions, those who do have those experiences become tokenized, and their opinions and feelings must stand for the feelings of ALL Jews coming from that position. However, it is incredibly difficult to both speak freely and stand as THE representative from one group to the broader community. It is only by opening ourselves up as a community to diversity rather than tokenization that we will really begin to see these traditionally marginalized groups as consisting of people who relate to Judaism in a variety of complex and often conflicting ways.

June 29, 2012

Jewwwww(ish)?

Filed under: Patrilineal Descent, Spirituality — marleyweiner @ 4:00 am

I absolutely love this article from the Jewish Week. We are living in the age of the righteous gentile. This is a good thing. Now let me explain what I mean by that…

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June 6, 2012

Thoughts On Patrilineal Descent: How to be a Rabbi When Your Mother Isn’t Jewish

I’m facing this very interesting situation upon graduation(Who’s a planner? I’m a planner!). Once I have my smicha, I’m going to be a rabbi that about half of the American Jewish community doesn’t consider Jewish. Certainly I’m not the first person in this situation, but it is going to be an interesting dilemma some day.

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May 4, 2012

Thoughts on Patrilineal Descent: Jewish, but not Jewish Enough

Filed under: Patrilineal Descent — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 7:28 pm

So there was an article in the Huffington Post recently, written by a young Orthodox woman named Rivka Cohen. Her mother converted to Judaism through a Conservative beit din, and her Modern Orthodox community at school now insists on treating her like a Shabbas goy. This article encapsulates perfectly the problems that the contemporary Jewish community faces when dealing with intermarriage, and the miles it has left to go.

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January 1, 2012

Thoughts on Patrilineal Descent: Children of Intermarriage

Filed under: Patrilineal Descent — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 3:02 am

This post is adapted from an older post on the Jewish Outreach Institute blog

In this article in the Daily Kos, author Sara Davies describes in poignant detail the challenge of being caught between often contradictory views that the Jewish community has of children of intermarriage. On the one hand, many Jews rejected her and her family as “not Jewish enough” and “unwelcome.” On the other hand, as a result of her Jewish heritage, there were many in the community who claimed that she was already Jewish but did not provide her with a mechanism, such as conversion, that would allow her to become unambiguously Jewish.

The challenge of growing up with two parents of different religious backgrounds stems from the complexity of managing an often intricate network of family loyalties and ethnic pride. As a child of intermarried parents myself, I often walk the delicate line between honoring both sides of my heritage (see my post last year on attending church on Christmas) and feeling a tremendous affinity for Judaism, while at the same time fending off questions from numerous segments of the Jewish community as to why I don’t plan to convert.

While this article explores the challenges and pain that often come from having a complicated Jewish identity, I would like to assert that children of interfaith families have a tremendous gift to offer the Jewish community. Because we have a multiplicity of identities to choose from, we are in a unique position to question and think critically about what it means for us to be Jews, thus forcing Jewish institutions to think seriously about the question of “why be Jewish?” and to create new and innovative answers to that question.

The challenge is that the Jewish community can only benefit from the gifts that children of intermarriage have to offer if they are willing to reach out and invite them in. As our Jewish community diversifies, we have much to learn, and we should consider the needs of all who wish to join us.

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