You Shall Pursue

October 5, 2012

An Open Letter to the Yom Kippur Jew

Filed under: Jewish Communitty, Spirituality — marleyweiner @ 3:42 pm

Earlier this week, some of my classmates and I were talking about Jews who only go to synagogue on Yom Kippur. And what came up for us was the disconnect between how we experience Judaism, which is a very joyful, celebratory religion, and how some people that we know seem to see it as a religion of obligation. And so I wanted to tell Jewish people who do see Judaism that way a little bit more about what I see, during Yom Kippur and the rest of the year.

Every week, I get a chance to pause. I take Friday and Saturday as priority time to see family and friends, to eat good food, to read, to take walks, to dance, to enjoy myself. I use services as an opportunity to reflect back on the week that has passed, and offer up my feelings, thoughts, and fears to God. I understand that, if your model of Shabbat observance is a long list of can’ts, that is not going to be appealing. I think of the day as food for my soul. Anything that is not soul nourishing, whether that is vacuuming or homework or checking email, I give myself permission to not do it, to save it for the rest of the week. And carving out that time to not worry about anything is tremendously valuable to my self-care and stress levels.

And then there are the unambiguously joyous holidays. Simchat Torah, where you go to the synagogue and dance with the Torah until you are exhausted. At Columbia, we would dance and sing until we were sweaty and exhausted, high on Torah and the joy of celebrating as a community (and Manischevitz). Then we would walk to the library plaza clutching our Torah scrolls, and sing our final blessings before turning in for the night.

Or Purim, a delightfully backwards holiday that I don’t think is celebrated nearly enough by adult Jews. It is Halloween, Mardi Gras, a Masquerade Ball, a drag show, and deep theology all rolled into one. If you want to see truly joyful, raucous Judaism, you should go to an Israeli club somewhere during Purim.

Or Passover, which for me, means arguments, delicious food, and the Prince of Egypt. A few years ago at the family seder, I threw out the recitation of the Exodus story all together in favor of a series of discussion questions about the troubling parts of the story. The family loved it. Last year, the seder that I hosted included Lemony Snickett, an original reading from one of our guests about the beauty of parent-child relationships, and extensive discussions of queer and feminist theory. Seders are supposed to be fun, and it pains me deeply that the most commonly used seder is the one from Maxwell House, which is unengaging to say the least.

The thing about living within Judaism as a system, rather than just synagogue on Yom Kippur, a little bit of Hanukkah, and a seder that is as short as possible, is that it covers a remarkably full arc of human emotions and needs. One does not need to be a Torah scholar to appreciate the beauty of stars shining through the roof of a sukkah, or the glow of the Shabbat candles. And, if you incorporate Jewish practice into your life in ways that fit with your life and personal theology, religion and ritual can become sources of comfort rather than tedious obligation. You are looking for it, otherwise you wouldn’t show up to synagogue on Yom Kippur at all.

Yom Kippur is a holiday of penitence, sure. It is an opportunity to sincerely promise to come closer to my better nature in the year ahead. But I genuinely dedicate the time doing just that, which, oddly, frees me from guilt. God and I are old friends, we talk every week, and God is used to hearing what is up with me. Instead of spending the time worrying about how to be a better Jew, I come to shul on Yom Kippur aware that it is one day to celebrate my Judaism in one particular mode, rather than the only day that must sustain me throughout the year. This is how it should be. A religion built on guilt cannot sustain through an individual life, and certainly not through generations.

September 14, 2012

Jewish Community: Specialists, or Generalists?

Filed under: Jewish Communitty, Spirituality — marleyweiner @ 2:10 am

This is the second time I am responding to something that PunkTorah has written, but this man speaks truth. While hopefully we as a Jewish community are more attached to our communal institutions than to Chipotle, I think this post makes an important point about how we as a society have shifted around religion, and how we might be able to draw people back into engagement with the Jewish community.

Fifty years ago, the synagogue and the JCC was the be-all end all of Jewish social engagement. Because of discrimination and the nature of social organization, Jews needed to socialize with other Jews, which made affiliation more or less the default.

However, things have changed. The current generation is one of niche specialists. We look for the organizations that are meeting our needs in the most immediate and effective way, and then flock to those organizations. We use social media to create the sort of programming and events that are meaningful and engaging to us. And we are cheerfully vocal when an institution or event does not meet our expectations. The only way to cater to that level of expertise is to specialize.

However, we are also a generation that believes in lateral engagement and active participation. Once we find something that appeals to whatever need we are trying to fill, we will actively add our input, give of our time, and help to steer the conversation in new and exciting ways.

This does not mean that I am advocating for different organizations to create “programming silos” so that a person has to reach from one unconnected Jewish organization to another to get their various needs filled. If anything, serving today’s specialist culture demands even more communication. Rather than a centralized institution that is one thing to all people, I envision different smaller organizations with different mission statements, leadership, etc. coordinating and cooperating to make sure that awareness of different programming is shared. One institution focuses on adult learning, another on meaningful prayer experience, another on Jewish arts, another on Social Justice, and yet another on childhood education. Each organization would necessarily be smaller, more streamlined, and have the ability to operate independently to serve its one or two mission goals.

The best Jewish example that I can think of this is Hadar. Hadar has two branches, the minyan and the yeshiva. While the population and leadership overlaps quite a bit between the two groups, they are independent of one another in a lot of ways. The yeshiva focuses on excellent Learning opportunities for young adults, and also provides an “open yeshiva” for people of all ages that is VERY well attended. While they offer davening during study hours, their primary function is not as a provider of services. The minyan, in contrast, offers traditional egalitarian services for anyone who wishes to attend, primarily people in their 20s and 30s. They offer some limited Shabbat lectures after services by community leadership, but they do not offer a religious school or other extraneous services. In order to serve these two needs, services and Jewish Learning, Hadar has two branches that take a laser-like focus on each part, and both the minyan and the yeshiva are well attended.

In recent weeks, I’ve been reading a lot of Kaplan. He advocated for geographically run and funded Jewish communities that would allow community members access to any of the local organizations. I don’t think that this is practical for any number of reasons. Competition is almost always too deeply entrenched in our communities, and people’s increased mobility means that they are far less likely to buy into any one community for forty or fifty years. However, communication (if not co-funding) across different Jewish organizations has the possibility to make sure that people are being directed to the communal services that they need most. The trick is training our Jewish professionals to understand that someone who you refer out will remember your kindness and helpfulness, and they may come back when their needs match your mission more closely, or refer friends and loved ones to your organization.

September 10, 2012

Glorified and Sanctified

Filed under: Choosing Life, Spirituality — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 12:04 am

My aunt died on Thursday. She had been sick for a long time, with various illnesses, and her passing was, if not a relief, than at least something expected. As the religious Jew in the family, I decided to take on the obligation of the shloshim, the thirty days of saying kaddish, which is the Jewish prayer of mourning.

The thing about kaddish is that it makes no mention of death, in fact, it is structured to celebrate life and the God that breathes life into all of us. The title of this post is a rough English translation of the first two words of the prayer. It praises God, lists God’s worthy attributes, and prays for peace. Kaddish is supposed to be said in a minyan, a public gathering of ten or more Jews, which gives mourners the opportunity to make a public declaration of their grief, even as they recite words of praise.

My aunt’s life is certainly something to be celebrated, even in this time of mourning. She went quietly in her sleep, and while she died young, there was a lot that was good about her final five or so years. Her only son is married to a wonderful woman, and she got to see and spend time with her granddaughter. All of these are blessings. She was a witty, sarcastic woman who loved her family and built a good life for herself, also blessings. She will be missed terribly.

On Friday, saying kaddish for the first time at my home synagogue, I discovered that it was also the yartzeit of a dear friend of my mother’s who passed away when I couldn’t have been more than five years old. It has been twenty years, but I still remember her, and her parents were there to hear their daughter’s name read. After services, I went up to them to ask after their son-in-law (who taught one of my confirmation academy classes) and their grandkids (who are about my age). And they told me that it was still hard, which makes sense. Twenty years later, I think that it is a tremendous blessing that they could have a venue to greet someone else who remembered their daughter and share, for a minute, their love and their loss.

Judaism is a religion of memory. We come together every year to remember those whom we, of course, can never forget. To declare publicly to our communities that we have loved and lost important people, and to praise God on their behalf. Aunt Pam, you will be missed, and you will be remembered.

September 6, 2012

Shabbat in the Wilderness

Filed under: Rabbinical School, Spirituality — marleyweiner @ 1:19 am

Orientation this year kicked off with a two day retreat at Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist Movement’s overnight camp in the Poconos. It felt like MUCH longer. I came in not yet having met all of my future classmates, now I feel like I am at the beginning of a bunch of beautiful new friendships.

We started the event with team-building exercises, which are silly and fun and forced us to talk to each other. I may or may not be shamlessly stealing most of them for use with my future students and programs.

I have had, let’s say, an interesting relationship with Jewish community since I became a part of it. On the one hand, coming from a family that is secular Jews on one side and non-Jews on the other, I crave groups of like-minded co-religionists (super Reform terms FTW!). On the other hand, I tend to get picky and critical about the Jewish community in its execution, especially for young Jews in their 20s and 30s and the emphasis on low-barrier programming that will lead to intra-religious marriages. It has been challenging for me to find a Jewish community that will engage my mind and encourage the sort of religious practice that I am looking for that is simultaneously nurturing to my fragile, not always cohesive sense of self-identification. I have found bits and pieces of that at KZ, as well as at Columbia Hillel, but it’s never been a perfect fit.

Davening Kabbalat Shabbat at Camp JRF was a profound moment of homecoming for me. Many of my fellow future rabbis have similar uneasy relationships with Jewish community, the rabbinate, and finding their authentic sense of Jewish self. Ironically, it is in our non-normative status that I think so many of our strengths lie. And there is something profoundly burden-lifting about being able to talk about simultaneous fierce love and deep critique of Judaism and have my classmates get more or less where I am coming from. At this retreat, we spent a lot of time processing; talking about our relationships to ritual, community, Shabbat, and any number of other things, and it is a breath of fresh air to be with other people who are so thoughtful and enthusiastic about their evolving Jewish practice.

I also did yoga and went on a silent nature walk which one of my classmates created as the result of doing similar nature walks as a child at a Quaker summer camp. I love the blending of different faith traditions to create a more robust, grounded, and spiritual Judaism. Part of this next year is going to be self-care; making sure that I remain grounded, peaceful, and secure in my faith while everything changes around me. This is a year of new beginnings: I started classes again as a grad student today, I’m in the classroom teaching for the first time in years. It’s tremendously exciting, and kicking the year off with a moment of spiritual wholeness will, I hope, make all the difference.

August 29, 2012

God in the Dance

Filed under: Choosing Life, Spirituality — marleyweiner @ 4:53 am

One of the things I am most excited about moving to Philadelphia is the great swing and blues dancing community here. I have been a dancer since I was three years old, mostly ballet, modern, and jazz. I first discovered swing dancing in college, and then blues dancing in 2011. That discovery has changed my life and given me a hobby that is very odd for a typical rabbinical student.

Here’s the thing about blues. It is an extremely sensual dance, performed in close embrace (think tango). Here is a video:

See? This is what I do with my free time. Not necessarily the style that you might pick out for a rabbi, and yet I can’t think of any other type of dance that feels as naturally spiritual as this.

There’s a tremendous amount of power in dance, something that I think Judaism as a whole neglects. A study that I learned of recently showed that the brains of dancers are like the brains of religious people, bigger and more capable in the areas that indicate spirituality and connection. While I get a tremendous amount out of other ritual, I find that dance is an especially important part of my spiritual practice.

Dancing in general, and especially with a partner, leads to these fabulous moments where it is just you (and your partner if you have one) and the music. Everything else falls away and you are left with a tremendous focus on the minutiae of your body and the music. You learn the feelings of small muscles in your legs, arms, core. You close your eyes and focus on your partner until you can feel each small articulation in their back. And then you start to play. Building from these small delicate articulations, you move bigger and smaller, up and down, creating a moment of perfect artistry that is just for you and the person (or people) that you are dancing with. The most beautiful thing about social dance is that it is ineffable; you will never dance the same series of steps twice.

As goes dance, so goes God. Each Amidah has its template of prayers to move through, but the prayer is never entirely the same. Each High Holiday season, each Passover, each moment of quiet personal contemplation requires a stilling down to breath, and a moment of dialogue and searching between you and your Partner, the Divine. We as Jews speak of God as lover, parent, king. But I also like to think of God as dance partner, someone with whom I do not hit every step perfectly, someone with whom I always need to be focused and on my toes. But if I am listening, than the dance will guide me to a moment of perfect bliss.

June 29, 2012


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…


June 20, 2012

God in the Details: In Which I Encounter Quantum Physics

Filed under: Choosing Life, Spirituality — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 2:57 am

Two weeks ago, the incomparable Mr. M and I went to a lecture/ theatrical presentation about the development of quantum physics. As a humanities nerd, the idea of quantum physics (namely, that at the subatomic level, things exist as both particles and waves, and that everything at the subatomic level basically exists on a spectrum of probability rather than having definite, permanent qualities) hurts my brain. But while I do not understand the math involved, the general principle that, at the micro-micro-cosmic level, the universe is waaaaay weirder than anyone could have imagined is endlessly appealing to me.


May 25, 2012

Morality and the Talmud

I spend a lot of time in the feminist blogosphere, and many mainstream feminist blogs are run by atheists, or at least by people who reject the value of organized religion. This means reading a lot of posts like this one from Pandagon, which are often challenging to read, usually because atheists who reject all religion out of hand get my hackles up. However, I do think that this post raises a valid and interesting point. Namely, what is the relationship between textual interpretation and the moral claims of a broader society?

There is no denying that Judaism has long been in the habit of offering multiple, sometimes contradictory, interpretations of the Law (see: Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai). There is also no denying that our tradition contains many examples of halakhic interpretation and re-interpretation to fit a particular sage’s view of morality (see: Maimonides’ views on abortion or post-Expulsion responsa in North Africa). My question is, how does that fit in with the idea of text as moral authority? How can an ever-changing text be considered a moral authority?

I think the problem is that our society sees immutability and authoritativeness as one and the same. We like to ignore the fact that we interpret and re-interpret all major texts to suit the morals of the day. Look, for example, at the Constitution. It has 27 Amendments. In the first version, most black people were 3/5 of a person and women couldn’t vote, and now neither of those things are true. But there exist in America “strict constructionists” who claim that their interpretation of the Constitution is not only right, it is not an interpretation at all. You see the same thing with Orthodox Judaism, which claims that it is “Torah true” (oh, except the Torah says nothing about patrilineal descent or sheitels. oops!).

On the other hand, I don’t think it necessarily follows that one can say that everything is an interpretation, and therefore there is no authority the text. I think the Torah presents us with the lump sum of human behavior in all its richness, and asks us to pick the way that is life-affirming, or the way that is life-destroying, and the attendant consequences. The interpretation comes in as each generation decides how best to affirm life and relationship with God (for the sake of this argument, I am counting atheism in its current form as a form of engagement with the Divine). Part of that may be adherence to ritual, or a commitment to social justice, or to asceticism, or neo-Platonism, all of which have emerged as part of the Jewish view of “life affirming” at one point or another.

For me, Judaism at its deepest core is that commitment to feeling deeply, living right up at the edge where everything is real, often heartbreaking, and always complicated. It is, I think, why the Jewish culture is so committed both to scholarship and to social justice. Our theology does not rest on the World to Come, so we make our time in the World that Is. Perhaps that is the moral authority, that we are tasked with engaging with the world of the here and now, and within it, staking our claim on morality and goodness.

May 24, 2012

Works, Faith, and Why I Don’t Eat Shrimp Any More

Filed under: Spirituality — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 2:48 am

Last weekend, I was at a party, talking to a Catholic guy. My future vocation came up in the conversation, and he was fascinated, as non-Jews often are. He had LOTS of questions for me. One of which was the difference why Jews placed so much of an emphasis on laws while Christianity focuses more on “faith.” I take questions like these VERY seriously, because usually, answering them will lead me to discover more about the reasons why I am practicing Judaism in the way that I have chosen to practice (also, because I will talk about Judaism ALL DAY if given the option).


May 2, 2012

Gather the Broken

Filed under: Spirituality — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 3:20 am

Gather the Broken

A lovely blog for each day of counting the Omer. By Amichai Lau Lavie, of StorahTelling fame.

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