You Shall Pursue

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.

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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 16, 2013

Reconstructionism Part 5: Chosenness

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 2:30 pm

Initially, I planned to write a post detailing the various ways that I disagree with classical Reconstructionist thought. However, I realized that many of my critiques had homes in other posts, but that there was one main area which did not properly lump with other ideas; that of “chosenness”. Simply put, classical Reconstructionist thought rejects the idea of “chosenness,” while I embrace it, but in a modified format.

Classical Reconstructionist thinkers did not believe that the Jews are the Chosen People, and as a result of this ideological shift, they excised all of the “chosenness” language out of the siddur. For example, in the Aleinu, instead of saying that God has “made us different from all the nations of the earth, and situated us in quite a different spot, and made our daily lot another kind from theirs, and given us a destiny uncommon in this world,” the Reconstructionist siddur says that God has “given us teachings of truth and planted life within us.” Similarly, anyone visiting a Reconstructionist shul will find that the language of the blessings over the Torah and the Kiddush are different as well, to reflect similar concerns. This, combined with an emphasis on egalitarianism that injects female Biblical figures back into the text, is the most immediately visible result of Kaplan’s theological and philosophical project. He saw the concept of “chosenness” as irredeemable and supported excising it from Jewish self-identity.

Many Reconstructionist thinkers advocate for doing away with “chosenness” in worry that it leads to chauvinism and self-centeredness among Jews, and contributes to outsiders’ perceptions of Jews as an insular, self-aggrandizing people. I have heard this critique leveled by Jews as well as non-Jews who interact regularly with the Jewish community, and I think that, at times, it is accurate. I recently wrote about the near-famous tendency for Jewish communal institutions to throw up ridiculous barriers to a true welcome. And part of this may well be fueled by the idea that we are “chosen,” and therefore somehow better.

But I do wonder whether Jewish insularity comes not from our rhetoric of Chosenness but rather from our unique history of 2000 years of existence as a religious minority. In a world where we can freely jump between many Civilizations without fear of recrimination, I wonder if this particular coping mechanism has come to its natural end. That, of course, does not mean that we don’t need to work hard to dismantle it as a community, but I wonder if we can hold onto the idea that the Jews are “Chosen” while divesting the term of the pernicious idea that this means that the Jews are somehow inherently better.

I feel chosen to this Jewish path.  While it was always up to me what to DO with my Judaism, it was never a question whether or not Judaism would speak to my soul. And I don’t think that Judaism is unique in having a remarkably strong pull; I think of my friends who are devout Christians and I am sure that they are just as much chosen to their paths as I am to mine. But I think there is a tremendous value in acknowledging that as a people, a community, a faith, there is something unique and precious about Judaism. When I speak of being one of the Chosen People, it is with a profound sense of gratitude, that this path exists for me to walk down. When I say that I am one of the Chosen People, I mean that I am one of the people whom God has chosen for Judaism, no more and no less.

The value I see in the rhetoric of “chosenness” is one of group solidarity. If we are chosen to become part of the Jewish community, either through birth or through conversion, then we owe it to ourselves to figure out what that means, and how we as people want to interact with the complicated brilliant legacy of Judaism. In a world of individualism, sometimes at the cost of genuine human connections, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for us to demand connection and support of one another. And I see the  rhetoric of Chosen People as one potential way that we can build those connections and that sense of communal obligation.

January 9, 2013

Building Community

Filed under: Jewish Communitty — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 4:27 am

Every so often, the Jewish community will post an article like this, which sets my blood boiling all over again. Basically, the article discusses the miles that the Jewish community has to go in creating warm and inviting atmospheres that encourage people to want to come back. This is true. My old job used to run “community scans” in which we’d evaluate how welcoming and informative the community was to people who were interested in joining, or learning more about programming. The results were often quite bleak, with synagogues not returning calls, or websites with out of date information. We as a community need to do better.

Religion is about relationship building. We as Jews are a kehilaha community. The main reason that so many people join religious institutions is so that they have a group to celebrate and mourn with, a steady hand and a sense or ritualistic normalcy to help get them through the storms of life. If Jewish institutions are unable to provide that, why on earth do we expect people to invest in them?

When people walk through our doors, we should take a genuine interest in their lives, why they have come, and what they are looking for. Whether they come for one program and never again, or end up on our board, they should know how deeply we as a community care about serving them. The trick is, first we must actually care. Instead of focusing primarily on increasing membership, we should be looking to build authentic connections. We do this the same way we build connections with our friends. We return their calls. We ask after their family. We help celebrate their milestones. We introduce them to other people that we think they’d like. In this way, little by little, we can build an authentic Jewish community.

December 20, 2012

Thoughts About Terrible Things

Filed under: Choosing Life — Tags: , , , , , — marleyweiner @ 4:31 am

So, this thing happened. And people died. Babies died. And I simultaneously want to talk about it, and I don’t really have the words.

Evil is real. People choose to do awful things to one another, to hurt each other, to kill each other. There are many reasons that we can talk about why that is, the culture of violence, entitlement, and domination that we live in. The insane level gun access in this country. But no matter where we point the blame, the fact is that evil is as much a part of human life as good is. We have violent, nasty evil impulses, and sometimes people choose to act on those evil impulses and bring horror into the world.

What can we do about this as religious people? Our job is twofold. First of all, we must stand as prophets against this madness. We must say: this is enough. We cannot stand by while our neighbors are literally bleeding. We must write, speak, call, until the world begins to heal.

Second, we must stand as a force for love in our community. I have my kids to watch out for; I have to keep them feeling safe and loved and supported even while we talk about this terrible thing that happened. I have friends, family, classmates, and we all need to lean on each other and love each other. We are  community, and the only way to stand against the evil in this world is by sharing our love for one another, over and over again until people truly feel loved and brave and whole. This is what God is for, to look evil in the face and say, there is a force greater than you, that will heal the destruction that you have wrought, that will fight tooth and nail to keep it from ever happening again.

Here is an organization that you can check out to learn more about fighting gun violence in Philadelphia.

As of today, there is legislation being proposed in the Senate for an assault rifle ban. You can contact your Senator here.

Blessings of love, peace, and healing for the families whose children were murdered. May you find support and love in this horribly dark time.

June 6, 2012

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

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

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May 30, 2012

Shavuot

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 10:38 pm

I went out to Fort Tryon for Shavuot this year. For those of you not in the know, Shavuot started out as a holiday celebrating the end of the harvest in ancient Israel, and was an opportunity for all sorts of ritual sacrifices. Today (since there’s no longer a Temple to sacrifice things in), the holiday marks the giving of the Torah at Sinai. It is celebrated by eating dairy foods and staying up all night studying Torah. Fort Tryon is full of cool cats in their 2os and 30s who learn like nobody’s business, and are almost always frummer than me (I was the only girl there in pants). I got the marvelous opportunity to do Judaism with good friends from college, and just generally to delve back into the sort of learning that I haven’t gotten to experience in far too long.

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May 25, 2012

New Music Video: The Revelation Will Not Be Televised

Filed under: Choosing Life — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 2:07 am

This is one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite Jew bands, Stereo Sinai. And Miriam (the female vocalist) was recently featured in the Jewish Week’s 36 under 36. Go you guys!

May 14, 2012

Failures of Justice: Incarcerated Youth

Filed under: Social Justice — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 2:08 am

So this article from the Village Voice made my skin crawl (warning for extremely graphic images of open wounds).

Basically, the article discusses the endemic and growing problem of violence in the juvenile wards at Rikers Island. Gangs of teenagers engage in multi-person fights, often with weapons, in order to establish a system of control of privileges such as phone access, food, and control of the television. Let me repeat that; CHILDREN are cutting each other up for access to the TV. And it appears, based on the Voice report, that prison employees are systematically downplaying the prevalence that these fights have in the juvenile population. In some cases, it appears that guards may have been encouraging these fights or using them as a means of population control.

Western culture often sees men with criminal records as less than human. These young men are seen as “getting what is coming to them,” as brutality, injury, and even rape are seen as natural consequences of breaking the law in the United States. But here’s the thing. These inmates are children. While they are serving out their sentence, the government has a responsibility to them (as it supposedly does to all prisoners) to protect bodily integrity and keep them from harm.

I am especially troubled by the overwhelming prevalence of young men of color in these pictures. Since New York City’s stop and frisk laws overwhelmingly target people of color, and, in fact, stops and frisks more young black and Latino men and teenagers than there are black and Latino young men in New York, this points to a disturbing trend wherein these young men are disproportionately arrested, and then brutalized within the penal system.

I am a religious Jew, and my sense of faith leaves me especially sickened by these images. The rabbis taught that one must be exceptionally careful when handing down capital cases, to the point that Eliezer ben Azariah said that a court which put a person to death once every 70 years was exceptionally bloodthirsty. While we are not killing these boys outright, we are sending them into custody where they are brutalized, attacked, and deprived of opportunities to make a better life for themselves upon release. We are using the prison system to destroy the lives of minors, and as a feeling person, I don’t know what the words are to express my sorrow. My heart goes out to them and to their families.

May 4, 2012

Thoughts on Patrilineal Descent: Jewish, but not Jewish Enough

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

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

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