You Shall Pursue

January 24, 2014

In Honor of Martin Luther King Day

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 10:51 am

This week, we read the Ten Commandments. These laws are seen as the bedrock of our civilization. But how many of us actually consider their meaning, and how they might impact our everyday behavior?

Today, I want to focus on the sixth commandment, “thou shalt not kill.” At at first glance, it seems pretty obvious how to avoid breaking this one; just don’t murder anyone.

But the rabbis have a very broad interpretation of what it means “to kill.”

They are not only concerned with preserving life, but with preserving life with dignity. In their moral worldview, slander is equivalent to murder. A person with a ruined reputation will face such challenges that for some, life will no longer be worth living, a fact that we see all too often with young people tormented and bullied by their peers.

The rabbis take this concern about reputation and apply it to their maintenance of the poor as well, giving them an opportunity to live with their pride in tact. It is considered a sin to force the poor to beg in public. The great Jewish thinker Maimonides taught that the highest level of charity was to give a poor person a job so that he could support himself rather than asking for support. And traditional community funds designed to provide for dowries and for extra food on holidays meant that the poor could lead lives with some measure of joy and dignity.

The rabbis understand that preserving life is one of the most important things that we can do, but they also understood that preserving life is not only a matter of maintaining physical existence. It is about giving people the tools that they need to build productive, happy lives in which they can feel respected and accomplished.

On Monday, we celebrate the life and work of an American hero who understood all too well that life alone was not enough, and that life without dignity is no life at all. Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was a man who believed not only in equality, not only ending segregation, but in advocating for an American in which all citizens were free to lead lives of dignity and opportunity. In his “I have a Dream Speech” from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (and how many of us forget that this was a march for economic opportunity as well as to end the scourge of segregation), he said:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

King keenly understood, as did our rabbis, the true broadness of the statement “thou shalt not kill.” To him, as to our rabbis, it meant “thou shalt not deprive someone of the opportunity for a life well lived.” He understood that, when hope is gone, when the feeling that life is worth living is gone, is when people are transformed in their own minds and the minds of those around them from the authors of their own destiny to merely existing day to day. And merely existing day to day is not living.

And so King worked tirelessly all his life, against a great tide of opposition, through struggles and jailing and eventual assassination, but always with dignity, to hold the American people to the commandment “thou shalt not kill.”

How do we help to move our community towards a culture of life? How do we live up to the teachings of our forefathers, and of Dr. King?

The best way to keep from killing is to affirm the sanctity of life of every human being, and to reach out with profound empathy towards those who are struggling. In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, King references the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who teaches that the highest form or relationship is “I-Thou,” in which we see one another as full human beings with hopes and joys and, most of all, the desire for a good and comfortable life. If we can look at each human being, and see a person who is struggling toward fulfillment, we will not take actions, either consciously or unconsciously, to cut off their sense of dignity and self respect.

This starts small at home, with friends and family and showing utter respect and caring. Seeking to fulfill the needs of those who love us, to help our children and spouses and siblings and friends grow into the best people they can be by listening to and supporting their dreams, goals, and authentic personalities.

And it broadens, and deepens. In the same way we have empathy to our loved ones, we can have empathy in the broader community, and it can change lives. This past summer, when there was rioting in Egypt, I made it a point to ask every person I saw listening to the news from Egypt what they thought. Usually, I was talking to an Egyptian shopkeeper. I heard stories of families torn apart by tragedy, fervent condemnation of bloodshed, and a desire for peace in their homeland. By keeping my mind open, I was able to learn about the conflict from people who were experiencing it firsthand. And from a small dose of empathy like that, great things can come.

People’s circumstances may be wildly different from our own. We may not always fully understand what it might be like to be in those circumstances. But we can struggle mightily to get there. Reaching out to other people and keeping their dignity utmost in their minds will build a world in which we are all kinder, and more equitable to those around us, because it will allow us to see their true concerns.

And, little by little, by keeping in mind that it is a matter of life and death, and of our most fundamental commandments, we will come to build a world that truly embraces life.

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January 9, 2014

Gratitude

Filed under: Choosing Life, Spirituality — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 11:56 pm

Today I am grateful for my broken places. I am grateful for the reminder that I am not perfect, that perfection is an illusion, and that it is the height of arrogance to pretend that I am anything even approaching perfect. I am grateful for the opportunity to fortify myself in the cracked places, to get stronger, to grow better, and to continue on more humbly that before. I am grateful for the supportive loved ones who hold me in my broken times, and for the people who treat me with compassion even as I am disappointing them. I am grateful for the reminder that I need to treat others with compassion even as they are disappointing me. I am grateful for the opportunity to remember that we are all of us broken, and that it is my duty and privilege to hold all of the people of the world with compassion and love when they are hurting and scared and unsure. Because I have been so blessed to come through the fire, again and again, each time a little stronger, and a little more whole, than the time before.

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.

December 10, 2013

Joseph’s Homecoming

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 2:29 pm

This D’var Torah was delivered at my student pulpit last Saturday, December 7

When Joseph reunited with his brothers, he wept so loudly that you could hear it in pharaoh’s palace.

The last time Joseph saw his brothers, he was a slightly bratty seventeen year old boy, spouting off about dreams. Now, he is second only to pharaoh in the hierarchy of Egypt. Decades and countries have divided this family. The brothers have endured their own grief, built their own families, and, through pain and trial, grown into a mighty and prosperous family. And Joseph spent the time building a life for himself; a successful career, a beautiful wife, two sons. An idyllic existence.

And yet. When Joseph discovers his second chance, he runs to take it. When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, it is as if no time has passed at all.

For most of us, our relationships don’t suffer from such abrupt severances. We see our relatives, we watch them grow, we grow with them, and it is easy to take them for granted. And then one day we realize that everything has changed. We may realize that our child has grown up and moved away, while we still see them as the five year old asleep in our laps. We may suddenly look at our parents and realize that they have grown old and sick, and that suddenly we need to parent them a little bit, or a lot. We may look at nieces, nephews, cousins, and find that suddenly they are sprouting up like weeds, becoming sullen teenagers while we still picture them as infants.

The comfort of seeing people every day often severs us from them, and leaves us unable to truly see them.

Reading the story of Joseph and his family makes me think about my relationship with my sister. We are very different people; I’m an academic, she’s an artist. I tend to be very measured and methodical in my decisions, she’s outspoken and goes by her gut. She is, in a lot of ways, braver than I am, but her willingness to always say exactly what she thinks has a tendency to get her in trouble. And for years, we fought like cats and dogs, the way that very different sisters do. I found her immature and rash, and I worried about her; she thought I was self-righteous and hypocritical.

And now, seven and a half years after moving out of the house, I find her suddenly a grown up. All of those differences, tempered by maturity, have her growing into the type of person I am glad to count among my family; sure in her goals and beliefs, moving forward with a vision of who she wants to be and how she wants to be in the world. I trust that she is going to be okay.

We are finally able to talk as equals, to see each other as human beings.

And so it is with Joseph and his brothers.

What is amazing about Joseph in this situation is that he could have chosen to focus on the past behavior of his brothers, but he did not. Certainly, he had reason enough to distrust them, to throw them out of his palace. But that is not what happened. Instead, he was able to focus on the present reunion, and welcome them with open arms.

But, neither did he reveal himself to his brothers automatically. He needed to see, after that long absence, whether or not he could trust them. And so he devised tests, seeing whether they would be willing to put the wellbeing of their family, of their father, and of their younger brother, over their own self-interests. Judah, in his monologue to the disguised Joseph about the state of his family, shows remarkable maturity and grace; the beloved younger son who was killed, the other beloved younger son whose loss would kill their father, he understands and accepts it all. The moment that Judah passes Joseph’s tests, and not before, is the moment that Joseph reveals himself, and he cries so loudly from the relief of homecoming that they can hear him all the way to pharaoh’s palace.

How many of us yearn for that relief of homecoming?

How many of us continue in roles with our loved ones that don’t quite fit us, because we are terrified of changing the dynamic for ill, and so we suffer on for years under the belief that we cannot be our true selves? How many of us continue to be “the failure” or “the successful one” or “the peacemaker” while resenting that role all the time?

And conversely, how many of us refuse to see the beautiful or not so beautiful changes in our loved ones, because nostalgia or pain or anger or fear makes us resistant to a change in the relationship? How many of us continue to see a particular sibling as “the immature one” or a particular parent as “the perfect one” even as they reveal their growth and maturity, or their many flaws?

In Jewish theology there is a concept of “the world to come,” Olam HaBa. Most people translate it as heaven. One of my professors, Rabbi Ira Stone, translates Olam HaBa as the ability to look towards the future, to look outside ourselves, and grow and change as circumstances demand.

In order to reach Olam HaBa, we cannot linger in the past, holding on to old hurts and resentments. Nor can we remain focused on the present, thinking only of what will serve us best in this moment. Rather, we must see what those around us need and strive to meet those needs. It is only by acting in the world that we are truly able to move forward. It is only by really seeing each other, and helping each other, that we are able to reach a place of serenity and joy, of paradise.

As we move forward into this week, let us each take a moment to open our eyes and really see each other. Our true flaws, our true strengths, our true needs. We are beautiful in our ability to change, and when we allow each other to do so, we can finally find the strength, and the healing, that comes through homecoming.

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.

November 10, 2013

Why I am Still a Patrilineal Jew

Filed under: Uncategorized — marleyweiner @ 1:26 pm

So I have been doing some reading in the past few days. I read these few articles, and I feel the need to speak.

I have been asked hundreds of times by dozens of people why I haven’t done mikveh yet. In fact, my parents asked me last night why I haven’t done it, and if I am afraid that my current halakhic status is going to hurt my career. And there are many reasons why, as of right now (although that could change) that I won’t do mikveh. Not least is a case of intractable stubbornness. But for me, the most important thing is my fellow Jews. I want to serve people who are like me. And I think the best way to do that is as a Jew with a questionable status.

I talk about my status a lot in my rabbinate. And some of that means talking about the times that I have been excluded or shut out. I try to explain to my students and other Jews that I serve what it means practically to walk through life as a patrilineal Jew. I agree with the authors of the above articles that it is very important for patrilineal Jews to understand what different movements have to say about their status, and what that will mean for them as they navigate the Jewish landscape. Because everyone has the right to a fully informed decision

But I also tell them about the sense of solidarity and pride I feel with the Jewish people, and how wonderful it has been learning more about my faith, and how my (Presbyterian) grandparents and my non-Jewish mother have been such an important part of that journey. About how my life has been indelibly shaped by both halves of my family. And about how they should feel nothing but pride in coming from their origins. There is nothing shameful or less than about who they are because of where they come from. That the path is hard, and that there are many ways of walking it (including Beit Din!) but that they should make that choice out of the courage of their convictions, and not because of outside pressure.

The Jewish community is in a period of rapid change, and change is scary. And I am not sure what we will look like in twenty years. But I do know that there will be more and more Jews from interfaith families, many more patrilineal Jews, serving as rabbis, and synagogue presidents, and Jewish educators. I am doing my utmost to approach the future with a sense of possibility, firm in my convictions. And if that means that I ruffle some feathers, I am at peace with that, because I am advocating for my vision of a Jewish future. And that Jewish future has a place at the table for me, and for others like me.

November 5, 2013

You Guys! I Did a Wedding You Guys!

A few weeks ago, I had the delight and privilege of performing my first wedding. Yay weddings! My dear friends H and K, who I have known for quite some time, called me last December with the announcement that they were engaged to be married and the request for me to do the wedding. It was a no brainer! I love these kids and was so amazingly blessed to help them level up to this new phase in their relationship.

The couple is both Conservative leaning and fiercely feminist, so it was important for them to have an egalitarian wedding that was founded in Jewish Law. As such, we worked together to create a ceremony based on the Brit Ahuvim, or Lovers’ Covenant, laid out in Rachel Adler’s book Engendering Judaism (learn more here!). The idea of this ceremony is to move the foundation of the wedding from traditional Jewish purchase law (how the traditional wedding works) to a wedding based on contract law. In other words, my friends bound themselves in a partnership to create a new life and family together. We spent nearly a year working out all of the details, and in the end it came off with lots of spirit, participation of family and friends, and love.

Doing weddings for friends is lovely, and stressful, and really exciting! From the beginning, I knew exactly what I wanted to say about both of my friends, and about their relationship. I was able to work in references to their favorite nerdy things  (in a moment of beautiful serendipity, I added a reference to xckd to my opening remarks, which perfectly matched the groom and groomsmen’s ties). I was able to craft something that felt like my two wonderful friends, and also like me, and it was a beautiful fit for all of us. Of course, with friends there is the added pressure to make sure that everything is good, because otherwise you have to see them socially, and well.

This weekend really reminded me of what a privilege it is to train for this line of work. I have the opportunity to be with people in their most emotional moments, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, and I get to shepherd them through that. And that is a true blessing.

And now, a picture of me looking all rabbinic and such:

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October 27, 2013

Parshat Chayyei Sarah: Love in all its Forms

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 5:54 pm

I delivered this D’var Torah at my student pulpit on October 26

This week has been all about weddings. Last Sunday, I was privileged to officiate at a wedding between two of my close friends. The day after, I learned that Governor Christie has no plans to appeal the New Jersey court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in this state. And this week we read Chayyei Sarah, a Torah portion that contains a funeral and two weddings. And I am struck, this week, by the restorative power of love and family and the beauty of binding together in covenant with the one that you love. And of what a blessing it is to be able to honor those commitments.

After last week’s parsha, Isaac is not doing so well. He has just been nearly sacrificed by his father. And the strain on their relationship shows; the text never describes another relationship between the man and his son.

And yet Abraham still cares about his son, and his welfare, so he sends his right hand man to find perhaps the feistiest woman in Torah, his niece Rebecca, to be his son’s wife. And the text tells us that, upon meeting her, “Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”

Isaac is able to move on from the trauma of the last chapter, and begin a new family with this woman by his side.

Which brings me to New Jersey’s recent acceptance of same-sex marriage. While our rabbis may not have recognized same-sex couples, they do recognize the fundamental power in having a life partner. In tractate kiddushin in the Talmud, the rabbis explain that a requirement for good parenting is to find one’s son a proper spouse. Students are not able to study the mysteries of Kabbalah unless they are married. In general, our tradition teaches that access to love and partnership are one of the most fundamental human needs, the grounding through which the rest of life comes. And while certainly not all of us seek to find love and connection through romantic partnerships, it is a cruelty to deprive people who want that connection from the ability to honor and celebrate their love.

In our story, Abraham is adamant that not any woman will do for his son; she must be of his kin. And the servant seeks her out not by beauty or status, but by her kindness towards a stranger. And it is because of her good heart and good sense that she is able to serve as the mother of the family dynasty; correctly predicting which of Isaac’s children is the fit inheritor.

This text teaches us that when two people of “like kind,” find each other, that is a blessing. When two people of similar morals and values come together to find each other, it is a rare and beautiful miracle. As such, I am thrilled by this decision to allow recognition of more kinds of supportive partnerships.

And when I was watching the videos of the recent weddings on the steps of the Paramount Theater in New Jersey, and as I watched the faces of my dear friends on Sunday, I was struck by the utter joy on those faces. Not just of the faces of the marrying couples, but also of the watching witnesses, of friends and family, of everyone who is able to participate at weddings. As Jews, we know that it is our duty to turn out in style to celebrate weddings, to send couples into the world with communal support. And having just been part of creating a ceremony that helped two people that I love to bind to one another, I realize what a blessing it is for an entire community to participate in the celebration of a marriage. When we do not celebrate, when we allow fear and bigotry to get in the way of joy, it is not just the couple that suffers, it is the entire community.

As such, there is more work to be done. I am thrilled by recent rabbinic and local government support for gay marriage in my home state, but Pennsylvania may still be years away from overturning its same-sex marriage ban. And it is certainly not the only state in which same-sex partnerships are second-class partnerships.

As a concerned citizen who loves many people in same-sex partnerships, including many of my professors and class-mates, and the president of my school, it pains me deeply that people I care about are told that their love and commitment is less-than. I owe it to them, as we all owe it to the people we are about, to fight for recognition of loving bonds, however they may look. No person should have to fight for the right for their friends and loved ones to dance at their wedding.

The story of Isaac and Rebecca is a story of love and life after loss. May all of us be blessed to find such support in our lives to help us through the hard times and challenges. And may all of us be blessed to help to support and celebrate the brides and grooms in our lives, whomever they may love.

October 8, 2013

D’var Torah: Parshat Noach

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 10:02 pm

Delivered at my student pulpit on Saturday, October 5

I have always felt a bit sorry for Noah. He is a good man, a righteous man, but a man like any other. He has worked hard all his life, raised up his children, and now he is in the twilight years, the years when most people sit back, relax, and enjoy a contented old age with a loving spouse and adorable grandchildren.

And then God comes to him and the experience changes everything. God gives Noah the challenge of a lifetime; he must save humanity. How does an old man respond to such a burden? This particular old man builds a raft, fills it with animals and children and in-laws, and sets out to honor God’s commands and save a remnant of humanity.

The God of the Bible favors those whom God loves by pulling them out of the usual path of their lives and plunking them down into extraordinary circumstances. From Noah, tasked with repopulating the Earth; to Abraham, who is commanded to leave his ancestral homeland for places unknown, cast out one son (Ishmael) and sacrifice the other (Isaac); to Moses, commanded to lead an extremely stubborn people through the desert for forty years, relationship, or covenant, with our God often reads more like an extreme test of faith than like a reward.

Why does God in the Bible show love by placing what appear to be impossible expectations on human beings? Perhaps it is to show all of us that a truly blessed life is difficult and meaningful rather than easily pleasurable. All of us experience our lives as a series of obligations that we must fulfill. The challenge is whether we view these obligations as a challenge to be overcome so that we can kick back and relax, or as an opportunity to better our own lives and the lives of those whom we love.

I’m sure that everyone in this room well understands what it means to be burdened. In our work lives, in our family lives, there is never enough time or energy, and the demands on us are unending.

I am reminded of the movie Date Night, in which Tina Fey portrays a harried and sleep-deprived working mother. In one scene, her children, whom she clearly loves deeply, burst into her room at six on a weekend, depriving her of her one day to sleep in. “Oh” she mumbles as she gets up to play with them, “You have so many NEEDS.” I don’t think I have ever heard caring for children as succinctly described as in that one sentence.

And yet, how many of us would abandon those burdens? How many would abandon our obligations to spouses, parents, children, dear friends? It is these very demands on our time and our energy (and often those whom we love demand much) that make our lives worth living.

We are all indebted to one another, and it is through filling those debts that we build a life of meaning, purpose, and joy.

One of my many rabbis, Rabbi Ira Stone, writes in his book A Responsible Life:

 Love, once evoked, creates in us the desire to care- and this desire cannot in good conscience be abandoned. The feeling of love thus becomes transformed into a responsibility, a command to which we must respond… This love which we have for another has singled us out; we are aware that no one else can stand in for us, no one else can take responsibility off of us… Revelation is the acknowledgment of this election.

When Noah responded to God call’s, the weight of humanity’s future rested on his shoulders. What could he do but take on that burden?

Of course, for most of us, our decisions to honor our obligations, or not, are not quite so weighty. But as many of us know who have seen the all consuming joy of a child when we take them on a vacation or even take them on a surprise outing, honoring our burdens with joy and love can deeply effect the world.

This love that we feel for others is not some vague, happy, hippy feel-good-ness. It comes out of an urgent need to DO something, to heed the call and do what we must to make things better for those who need us right now.

And so I ask, what are we doing to live up to our obligations? How are we living out our covenants with the people around us? How are we making their lives better? And are we attending to these tasks with a sense of joyless duty, or a sense of true pleasure?

God gives us covenant so that we may be connected, happy, and at peace. May we, like Noah, know the gratitude and sense of divine awe that comes of a Divine contract fulfilled, with God and with those whom we love.

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