You Shall Pursue

April 7, 2014

Maybe this is what it Feels Like to be a Rabbi

Filed under: Jewish Communitty, Rabbinical School — Tags: — marleyweiner @ 9:42 pm

I had a remarkably good weekend at work. Some highlights:

  • Chatting about the current and recent past goings on at my alma matter with a Hebrew School teacher who is a current student there while observing a pretty intense game of Gaga.
  • Two words: Chocolate. Seder.
  • Playing Mishneh Impossible with the Hebrew High Schoolers and helping them frantically research answers to questions about Passover laws, customs, and rituals for fabulous prizes.
  • A handshake from an elderly dementia patient I have been visiting when I do my pastoral visits. Usually, he is completely non-responsive and today, we connected a little bit.
  • Watching two truly awesome young ladies that I have had the privilege of working with on their Haftorah speeches become Bat Mitzvah.
  • Hiding briefly under the table with a group of three year old girls at the dinner after family Shabbat. As they said “You can come to our party; it’s just for GIRLS.” Indeed tiny ladies, indeed.
  • Encouraging the father of one of our members to come to my adult Torah study class the next weekend that he is in town. He seemed really enthusiastic!

For the first time since I arrived at my student pulpit, I have felt a part of every aspect of this community. I recognize faces, I know stories, and I feel comfortable going up to every person, introducing myself, or asking them about things I know from the last time we spoke. It feels easy and natural, like I belong here. I know that this job is not all fun and games and beautiful moments of swelling joy and pride in my community. But when that joy and pride is there, it is the best job in the world.

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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.

March 12, 2013

Reasons that I Love my Rabbinical School, Part Eleventymillion

Filed under: Rabbinical School — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 5:35 pm

RRA Resolution on Gender Identity

“Whereas, there will soon be openly transgender and gender nonconforming rabbis who are members of the RRA;

“Whereas, there is a long and painful history of employment discrimination in the United States against transgender and gender nonconforming individuals;

“And whereas, the RRA believes in the right to equal employment opportunities for all of its members;

“Therefore be it resolved that the RRA directs its executive director and board to move forward, in cooperation with the RRC and all relevant associated entities, in educating RRA members about issues of gender identity, to urge the Reconstructionist movement to similarly educate its constituency and to adopt policies that will do all that is possible to provide full employment opportunities for transgender and gender nonconforming rabbis, and to explore how the Reconstructionist movement can best influence the wider Jewish and non-Jewish world to welcoming and inclusive of all people, regardless of gender identity.”

 

See this kids? This is what commitment to ongoing change to support your constituency looks like.

March 4, 2013

Lipstick and Pearls and Tefillin, How to Navigate Frumness and Femme

Filed under: Choosing Life, Rabbinical School — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 12:41 pm

Recently, I read this article written by a future Orthodox rabbi struggling with messages about her gender presentation within her religious community. I find these sorts of articles talking about the ambivalence that is so often paired with religion frustrating on a number of levels. These sorts of conversations offend me as a feminist, because I believe in every person’s fundamental right to live in their bodies without shame. But I also struggle with articles like these as a liberal Jew, because in certain ways we are not doing much better for our Jewish leadership.

The issue is one of degree rather than of kind. While I have classmates who wear miniskirts, I struggle strongly with a feeling that certain clothes (that I used to wear to work in my office job, mind you) are “not appropriate” for my clergy work, not because they are revealing, but because they are feminine. I tend to cultivate a certain degree of severity in my professional appearance these days, because I have absorbed the message that rabbis should not exude any hint of sex appeal, especially the female ones. An important part of this is that I mostly supporting myself through teaching, and I feel doubly pressured to dress frumpy in front of my students and their parents. While my choice of professional clothing was never anything but scrupulously modest, it was often selected expressly to show pride in my body and my femininity. My favorite business casual clothes are a-line or poofy dresses and pencil skirts. I feel drab in slacks. And I never wear red lipstick to teach (although I wear it to go out or just to show up for hanging out with my friends).

On the other hand, sometimes I feel as though I intentionally need to be drab. We rabbinical students are encouraged to live up to a high level of professionalism in our relationships with our students, co-workers, and congregants. This includes a clause that encourages us to avoid “even the appearance of impropriety.” And in our society, what bears more of the “appearance of impropriety” than a woman who is attractively and femininely dressed? You need only listen to victim-blaming comments about the length of this or that girl’s skirt to know that American society still buys into the idea of women, especially attractively dressed women, as public property, who dress to advertise availability rather than to make themselves happy. And I know that the Jewish community is none so enlightened that it is entirely free of broader American prejudices.

And now the question for my fellow femme classmates who do feel comfortable wearing more explicitly femme clothes at work: how do you rock that shit with pride and confidence? I have a red dress that I’d like to break out sometime in the near future.

February 17, 2013

Having it all, Doing it all

Filed under: Choosing Life, Rabbinical School — marleyweiner @ 6:29 am

The challenge of being in an environment that I truly love is I want to FIX everything. If I am indifferent or dispassionate, I am able to let the system alone and take it for what it is. This is not true of the things I am passionate about. I want everyone to love everything that I love as much as I love it. I love it, so if you don’t love it, there must be something I can do to make you see how great it is! (I never said my logic was SOUND, people) Since everything is flawed, there is always something that could change, that could make the system work better. And my greatest love is Judaism, and so my greatest frustrations lie in the flaws of the Jewish community.

I think part of the reason that I’ve gone a bit off the deep end in terms of wanting to take on everything so far this year is this feeling that if I know everything, I will be able to bring the best of everything to the table at all times, and that will mean that everything will be flawless and I will be able to create meaningful Jewish experiences that speak to everyone that I come in contact with. If I don’t know that it exists, how will I be able to incorporate it into my future rabbinate? And when it comes to learning, there is such a large gap between what most Jews know and the corpus of things to learn. And the things to learn are all fascinating! The more I learn, the more I realize what I don’t know, and the more desperately I try to cram new knowledge and new experience into my head.

And here’s where I have to acknowledge that life may be beating me up through the very systems that I am trying to reform. I can bring the best lesson plans in the world, but if I have a student who is having a terrible day, they may just not learn. I may prepare an amazing service, only to have nobody show up on account of impending bad weather. There is no such thing as doing the job so well that it works perfectly all the time.

But I need to balance that with the knowledge that there ARE so many barriers standing in the way of Jewish community and identity building for so many Jews. It’s a question of soft power; how do we provide the tools that people need to find Judaism and giving them ownership of that process without feeling responsible for every step of the way? I’m really not sure how to answer that question, and I have a feeling that I’m going to spend a LOT of time over the next five years figuring it out.

February 7, 2013

D’var Torah: Parshat Beshalach

Filed under: D'var Torah, Rabbinical School — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 8:25 pm

I delivered a version of this D’var Torah at Minyan Tikvah’s Shabbaton on January 25. I’ve been super busy, so I’m only finding time to post it now!

Today I want to talk to you about weird food. In this week’s parsha, the Children of Israel complain to Moses that they miss the flesh pots of Egypt and accuse him of bringing them to starve in the wilderness. God hears this, and tells Moses that he will rain down bread from heaven in order to test the Israelites. And then, the next day, something falls from the sky. It is white, flaky, like frost, sweet as cake, and has magical properties. The people, understandably confused, ask “Man hu?” “What is it?” and in this question, manna is named.

God lays out very specific rules for the manna. The people are to gather one omer per day, they are to eat every last bit during that day, and they are not to try to gather on the Sabbath. The Children of Israel, being the Children of Israel, go against every last one of these rules. And yet, the manna resists their attempts to mismanage it. When they gather more or less than an omer, “those who gathered a lot had no excess, and those who gathered a little bit had no lack.” When they try to hoard the food, it sprouts maggots and stinks so that even the strongest-stomached among them could not eat it. When they attempt to go out and gather on the seventh day, there is no manna to be found. And interestingly, though God says that he is sending the manna as a test, he does not punish the children of Israel for their behavior. So why, then, does God send manna?

This is a people who have been slaves for 400 years. They are not used to living on their own, managing their own lives, worshipping their own God. And God seems to know this. Rather than punishing the Children of Israel for disobeying, he creates a food that will force them to respect it, so that they can learn, slowly over time, what it means to follow God’s commandments. Before the people ever get to Mount Sinai to receive God’s full set of commandments, they have been practicing at the covenental relationship with the manna. God does not set the people up to fail. Rather, God gives them training wheels until they are ready to steer all by themselves.

For those you who don’t know me, I am in my first year of rabbinical school. And it is hard. Mostly because I wish I knew everything right now, and I feel woefully unprepared for this massive undertaking I seem to have gotten myself into. And how many of us have ever felt like that? Like we were playacting at our jobs, at our lives, at being a grownup? That at some point they are all going to realize that we don’t know what they think we know? It’s called “impostor syndrome” and it is real and it is scary.

But if the manna teaches us anything, it is that we are supposed to go by baby steps. God did not ask the people to join in covenant right away, and we should not expect ourselves to be perfectly pulled together at all times. There is room in the relationship between God and the Children of Israel for screwing up, and there is room for all of us to screw up. God will keep sending manna, and we will grow into the roles that we have chosen for ourselves, and we will flourish.

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 9, 2013

Reconstructionism Part 3: Two Civilizations

Filed under: Choosing Life, Rabbinical School, Spirituality — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 1:30 pm

I am writing this to you on a computer, in English, wearing blue jeans, in the city of Philadelphia in the country of the United States. What does that have to do with Judaism? According to Kaplan, quite a lot.

While Kaplan wrote extensively on the “Jewish civilization,” he did not see Judaism as a bounded, separate entity from the rest of the world. Quite the opposite, in fact. He recognized that Judaism is affected by the broader civilizations in which the Jews live. From Aristotle’s influence on Maimonides to Polish music’s influence on klezmer, Judaism has always borrowed from the surrounding culture and made elements its own. And he hoped that a thriving, healthy American society would, in turn, help Judaism to thrive. In particular, he was excited about how democratic ideals could help make Judaism more participatory and open to its laity.

When Kaplan put forth his idea of “Judaism as a Civilization,” he was advocating that Judaism should be respected and celebrated in a way that was uncommon for religious and ethnic minorities in his day. The prevailing paradigm for Americanization in the earliest years of the 20th century was an assimilation into WASP culture, which was identified as American and pushed onto minorities as a condition for social acceptance. So when Kaplan calls Judaism a civilization, he is not just advocating that Jews take Jewish ritual, religion, and culture seriously. He is also advocating that ALL Americans take the Jewish project seriously, rather than an identity that Jews must shed outside of the synagogue to become “real Americans.”

Things have changed, to say the least. Multiculturalism is still a challenge in America (see: FOX New’s “War on Christmas” stories every December, current anti-Islam hysteria) but, in general, we accept that Americans can proudly celebrate and embrace a variety of identities and still be wholly American. It is very rare that we are asked to justify how we can consider ourselves both loyal Americans and Jews. And in many cases, this leads to Jewish people identifying much stronger with the American Civilization than the Jewish one.

The question is where that leaves us as a community. Predictions of doom and gloom aside, from where I stand Jews are still innovating, passionate, and fighting to keep their civilization vibrant. I am really not interested in talking about whether or not Judaism is going to survive the next generation, or the next dozen. What I am interested in discussing is how Jews who are invested in the Jewish civilization can make that passion, investment, and innovation clear to Jews who may be rejecting a sixty-year old version of Judaism, when there are pockets that addressed their concerns decades ago (see: Jews who are angry at “Judaism” for rejecting interfaith families when I am in rabbinical school).

Part of this is adapting to modern American tools of information dissemination. Part of the reason I am writing this blog is so that there is another young, liberal, religious voice out there talking about social justice, God, and what it really means to become part of the clergy (I’ll talk about this more later). Part of this is fighting against a very real and painful tendency for the most Jewishly invested members of our community to ghettoize. Since coming to rabbinical school, I spend the vast majority of my time around other rabbinical students, and other religious Jews. But I also dance, and keep in touch with my friends from high school, and go to church with my grandmother on Christmas, and in small ways I try to stay open and enthusiastic about my work and my Judaism while firmly embracing the parts of myself that are in love with broader American society.

And last, and perhaps most counterintuitively, I think that we as a community need to become more comfortable about the fact that ALL Jews live in multiple worlds, and dip back and forth between them at different times throughout their lives. The more we can acknowledge the challenges of balancing between two worlds, both our own and those faced by the people we are trying to serve, the easier it will be to convince people that the values, education, and rituals in the Jewish civilization are worth clinging to.

January 7, 2013

Reconstructionism Part 2: All About God

Filed under: Rabbinical School, Spirituality — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 8:40 pm

There are many who accuse Mordechai Kaplan of atheism. This could not be further from the truth. Kaplan believed deeply in a Divine Power; it’s just that what he believed the Divine Power IS is radically different from what many other monotheists have to say about God. His vision of God, which he referred to as “the power that makes for salvation,” is one in which God is inextricably tied to the natural world, and does not operate on a transcendent level beyond the reality that we as human beings can see, and touch, and feel.  As a result of this, Kaplan’s theology (often referred to as”process theology”) and worship focuses more on the processes that make holiness evident in the world, rather than God as a being.

Kaplan gives the example of רופה חולים (healing the sick). Needless to say, when we pray for God to heal the sick, the patient does not always get better. Kaplan turns this prayer on its head; instead of praying for some mystical intervention, when we pray for healing, we are giving thanks for medical improvements that allow us to greatly extend our quality and length of life. We are giving thanks for dedicated doctors and nurses that work tirelessly to treat their patients. And we are giving thanks for communities to support us when we and our loved ones are ill. Recovery is not always possible, but reaching out to tap into the healing parts of the universe is. As Kaplan put it “The prayer form celebrates the reverent acknowledgment of those values and qualities which through human effort unite to satisfy the needs of man.” Kaplan’s God is a God of miracles, in that the natural world is a miracle; no more and no less.

I am a huge fan of process theology. As a Reconstructionist, I’m not terribly interested in a God who is a grumpy old bearded man in the sky who is watching for me to screw up so that he can pounce and SMITE. There is little that appeals to me in the idea that God is a bigger, more powerful version of human. And yet, I am also not terribly interested God as Prime Mover, a force that sets the universe in motion and then steps away without any ability to react to or care about the process that it has begun. The God that I yearn for is a God that is involved, immanent, and present with me in an intimate but ultimately totally non-human way. How does that work exactly?

While Kaplan used the phrase “power that makes for salvation,” I have for years been calling God “the Soul of the Universe,” or in Hebrew “רוח העולם” (Ruach Haolam).  Incidentally, this is a common epithet for God in Reconstructionist liturgy that I didn’t discover until years after I started using the term. In Hebrew, the word רוח (ruach), or soul, carries a slightly different meaning than the English soul. Ruach is the animating force, the breath, the indicator that a person is living. In Genesis, it is a ruach that God sends out over the waters in order to begin the process of creation. It is the force behind the first words. When I call God the Soul of the Universe, I am saying that God animates all that is living, that God is in every blade of grass causing it to grow, and in every spinning galaxy.

I also find the language of Soul helpful because it addresses the question of why the universe is ultimately imperfect and broken. There is no human being created into a perfect body. We have poor vision, high blood pressure, chronic pain. And yet, who would not describe the human body as a marvel of God’s work? And the soul, the triumphs of body and spirit, are not lessened by the fact that we are, each of us, born in an imperfect body that has so much potential to break. So too is it with all of creation. At its core, I believe that our universe is imperfectly created, and that God is a marvelous thing for providing for so much good in that imperfect system.

This view of God allows me to take a fairly relaxed attitude toward the Divine. I am a strong believer in finding the Divine through science (see my post about God and Quantum Physics or this video with the brilliant words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson). I am also a firm believer in religious pluralism. If God is not a being with one agenda true across the eternity of time and space, but is rather as fluid and changing as creation itself, then certainly different people can come to God in different times and different ways. If that is through Christianity, or biology, or chanting, it is really all good. It is about opening oneself to the miracle that we all exist, and allowing ourselves to be swept away.

December 2, 2012

On Jewish Learning

Filed under: D'var Torah, Rabbinical School, Spirituality — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 2:57 am

Mishnah is fun you guys. So is Bible. So is reading Kaplan and analyzing it for meaning. Before I started school, I was petrified that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the work, and while it is indeed kicking my ass, I’m pleased to realize that I actually do find most of my classes fun.

Our texts are so much more complicated, and human, than so many are willing to allow for. There is this idea that divine texts have to be perfect and sterile, in a way, but that’s now how it works. Our texts like to contradict each other, and double back on themselves, and yell at each other. Some things that I have learned this year:

  • There’s two versions of the Ten Plagues, each one espousing a radically different theology
  • Similarly, the two kingdoms (Israel and Judea) had radically different relationships between ruling power and God. In large part, the Israelite theology is the one that survived. The covenant theology with Moses is only one half of the picture.
  • The rabbis like to tell each other (in a coded, respectful way) that they are being stupid. The phrase “If so, then there is no end to the matter” has become a running joke in my hevrtua, because it basically means “stop being a punctilious asshole.”
  • Moses is REALLY grumpy. Like, he complains to God ALL THE TIME. And then God yells at him to shut up and do the staff thing, already.

What would it mean if religious people everywhere were able to open up to this ambiguity and embrace our texts in their portrayals of human begins with flaws grappling with God? I think it would leave us with a lot more room for forgiveness of one another’s flaws, to truly see each other as created in the Divine Image (the God of the Bible pulls some petty shit, y’all). As I said before to one of my classmates, “I prefer Moses grumpy.” If Moses is human and struggles with his path, certainly I should be permitted to struggle with mine, as should we all.

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