You Shall Pursue

January 4, 2014

D’var Torah: Parshat Bo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

March 31, 2013

Out of Egypt

Filed under: Choosing Life, Jewish Communitty — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 12:48 pm

In our culture there are two quite distinct ways of defining oneself as a Jew. One way is primarily ethnic and secular and arises from the experience of being “other,” of not being Christian in Christian America… But the second sense of Jewishness arises from an attachment to Jewish religious traditions, including lighting the Sabbath candles, celebrating the Passover seder, and singing Hebrew songs.

The Educating Synagogue, Joseph Reimer

The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. A mixed multitude went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.

Exodus 12:37-38

This year was my first year hosting my family’s Passover seder (after many years of leading the seder at my parents house). Because my family is what it is, this year there were more non-Jews than Jews around the table. My mother, my cousin’s wife (who is the daughter of a pastor), my Presbyterian grandparents, my Wiccan roommate, my sister’s Presbyterian boyfriend, and my atheist former-Christian friend all joined the Jews  in making the journey out of Egypt. And today, I am going over to my grandmother’s house with my Jewish dad and sister to help her celebrate the resurrection of Christ with ham and lox and bagels. Welcome to my family!

In large part, I owe my faith to my grandparents. They are the only religious people in my family, they introduced me to scripture and houses of worship at a young age, and they have supported my journey into faith. Granted, my faith is not their faith, but we are family, and I recognize that part of family is things turning out well, but not exactly how you planned.

Intermarriage has been in the news a lot this year (and every year; it’s a contentious issue) but what the naysayers seem to miss is that the ship has already sailed. My family is what Jewish families look like. And it’s not just a matter of praying that somehow the children of these families make it through with a Bar/ Bat Mitzvah and maybe some Jewish summer camp. It’s about the multiplicity of our lives now. We have non-Jewish friends. We have non-Jewish family. And if we reach out to them and make them a part of our celebrations, we are that much stronger as Jews for having to explain our faith and our customs to those whom we love.

The trick is making sure that we, as people, know enough and have enough passion to be able to explain competently. It is not enough in this world to say that Judaism is doing what your parents and grandparents did, without meaning, without understanding, because what if your grandparents did exactly none of it? No, we must actively embrace Judaism, and build memories for ourselves and our children, and seek out the beauty of our tradition, because there is no easy path any more. We must find the path ourselves.

My cousins have a two year old daughter, who is just getting old enough to start to understand things a little bit. This year, I handed her the egg on the seder plate and she tried to crack it on the table. She laughed at the singing. She and her mom hid the afikomen, and then opened the door for Elijah. I think she had fun, although it’s hard to tell sometimes with two-year-olds. She’s the next generation in our complicated family, and I wish nothing for her but love and an understanding of the stories of all of her people.

March 7, 2013

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Filed under: Choosing Life, Spirituality — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 7:10 pm

The beauty and fragility of family narrated by a brilliant kid. I see great things in store for him…

February 20, 2013

The Queerness of Patrilineal Judaism

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

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

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

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.

June 6, 2012

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

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

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May 4, 2012

Thoughts on Patrilineal Descent: Jewish, but not Jewish Enough

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

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

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