You Shall Pursue

March 20, 2014

Sermon: Celebrating the Joy in Ritual Obligation

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 9:33 am

This week in class, I am reading the Mishneh, which is a collection of Jewish laws and stories, about looking for leavened bread on Passover. These rules are endless in their specificity, down to what time of day you have to look. I don’t know about any of you, but I have tried to follow these exacting rules while cleaning for Passover in the past, and they are exhausting.

And this is true of much of Jewish law. The rabbis care deeply about minute details, and try a thousand different cases in order to figure out the exact parameters of each individual law. For many Jews, this attention to minutiae and detail is a hurdle to be overcome in participating in Judaism. I have heard so many times, from the mouths of friends and family, “It’s too much! It’s needlessly complicated!” And sometimes I agree with them! But what strikes me when reading these laws is how living in this system is, in its way, profoundly spiritual.

We have just finished with one of our most raucous holidays, Purim. And Passover is one of our more rigidly structured holidays. And moving into this period has me thinking about ritual and spirituality, and how to find meaning in a religion of rules.

We in America tend to think of spirituality as intensely inward focused. We consider how any given ritual makes us feel, and how it transforms our inner landscape. But for our ancestors, spirituality was about conforming to God’s law.

This wasn’t always easy for them. Obligation didn’t always lead to profound spiritual insights, as is evidenced by this quote from the Jerusalem Talmud, “Rabbi Chiya said: All the days of my life, I never had kavana, which means spirituality as we think of it, a deep emotional connection to the prayers. He continues: One time I tried to have kavana and focus my attention and ended up wondering about who would meet the king first: a Persian leader or the exilarch. Shmuel said: I count birds. Rabbi Buni the son of Chiya said: I count people. Rabbi Matnayah said: I am grateful to my head that it knows when I get to “modim” that it bows on its own.” Even the greatest of our rabbis got bored in synagogue. I think this lets all of us off the hook a little bit if our mind should wander from time to time!

But these rabbis still went three times a day and prayed, even if they were bored or frustrated. And similarly, the fact that connecting to ritual can sometimes be a challenge doesn’t mean that we should abandon these hard practices at first opportunity. Our rabbis teach us that Torah is not just about studying the book; ideally, it should lead to the practices of lovingkindness, caring, and connection that make for a holy society.

To take the example of Passover, since we are coming into that season in a little less than a month, the holiday, with a seder full of long winding digressions in Hebrew and Aramaic and severely proscribed food rules, seems like a strange ritual to the non-Jews in my life, especially when they have to listen to me complain about the taste of matzah for a week straight!

But Passover has provided me with endless growing and learning opportunities. Giving up bread on Passover was one of the first acts of piety I took on independently from my parents. In college, the LGBT feminist seders at Columbia Hillel introduced me to new ways of reading our texts that gave voice to those who traditionally had none. And hosting my own seders in my own apartment helped me create joyful Jewish practice, and bond with chosen family of close friends. This practice, which I must do every year because I am commanded, has expanded my life more than I ever could have thought possible.

While we may or may not get a warm fuzzy feeling practicing kashrut or coming to shul on the Sabbath or cleaning our house top to bottom on Passover, there is a method to the madness. In Reconstructionist Judaism, we say that the past has “a vote but not a veto.” This means that we do not believe that halakhah, or Jewish religious law, as handed down by Orthodox rabbis is binding without question. Rather, it means that these traditions are profoundly important for our sense of community, our sense of history, and our sense of self. While certainly there are some Jewish laws that we must reject because they are sexist, or unethical, or prevent us from participating in the world, we should see the Jewish law as an opportunity, rather than a painful burden.

Because at their best, when done with the proper intention, these practices help us to get outside our own heads and needs, to remind us that we are beholden to our tradition, our communities (whether they are Jewish communities or not), and to God. That it is our job to put things other than our own personal satisfaction at times, in order to build the sorts of communities of which we would like to be a member.

In Hebrew, the term Mitzraim means “the narrow place.” And so in the spirit of getting out of the “narrow place,” I encourage you all to seek out some way to use the rituals of Passover to break you out of your routine. Maybe you will have a chametz hunt, and search for leavened bread all over the house with your children. Maybe you will bring some new personal stories to your seder, to inject it with some new questions, because the seder is a time when we are commanded to ask questions. Maybe you will use the memory of our plight in Egypt to donate to those in our communities who are less fortunate. Whatever you do, do it because you are commanded, and do it regardless of how it makes you feel. If you try something and you don’t feel particularly moved, commit to trying it again next year. Our rabbis teach us that it is the system, and being willing to live within the system, that brings the transformation.

Many Jews think that God brought the Jews out of Israel so that they could be free. This is not actually the case. Rather, Moses tells Pharaoh that the Jews must go out from Egypt so that they can worship God. The people move from service to a tyrant to service to an ethical and loving ruler. And as we come into this season of testing, of waiting for that inevitable Exodus, I would like to encourage you all to think about how and why you take on obligation, and how it might set you free.

April 5, 2013

Lipstick and Pearls and Tefillin, Part 2

Filed under: Spirituality — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 12:30 pm

Issues of gender and dress, especially around ritual garments, have been coming up a lot for me lately. The first time I wrapped tefilin, I felt like I was in “Orthodox man drag” (I’m recovering from this gut reaction, but slowly). I still don’t like wearing kippot because I feel like it’s a very masculine garment that doesn’t jibe with my gender presentation. I’d rather wrap my hair to cover it during prayer, but that carries a whole other set of assumptions about my level of religiosity (and relationship status). Yesterday, I wore a headscarf to shul, and I felt like I was in “Orthodox woman drag.” And I’m also trying to decide whether or not to start wearing tzitzit.

tefillin are the wrappy arm things

tefillin are the wrappy arm things

tzitzit_women

tzitzit

I wonder what it means that so many ritual garments are coded “male” in my mind, and about the huge internal barrier that makes me feel conflicted about taking on certain rituals, especially wrapping tefilin. Breaking gender boundaries, even if they are internal, is a challenging thing. Especially when you are so closely aligned with a more traditional gender presentation in other ways.

And also part of it is about my hesitancy around looking “Orthodox” or “religious.” Clothing is a powerful marker of group identification, and  I’m still struggling to figure out where I sit between my secular/Reform roots, and the more religious life that I feel myself drawn towards.

Long story short, I never thought so many of my internal struggles around my Jewish identity and practice would come out in my clothing choices!

March 8, 2013

Today in Jewish Education and Other Awesome Things

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 9:28 am

The Book of Leviticus is now an iphone game! For those of you who have never read this book, it is one of the hardest books of the Torah to access on a surface level, because of the lack of narrative. And yet, this woman has created an innovative and creative way to get people engaging with the text through technology. I may be using this later in my TaNaKh class with my teenagers.

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?

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

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).

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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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January 1, 2012

Thoughts on Patrilineal Descent: Children of Intermarriage

Filed under: Patrilineal Descent — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 3:02 am

This post is adapted from an older post on the Jewish Outreach Institute blog

In this article in the Daily Kos, author Sara Davies describes in poignant detail the challenge of being caught between often contradictory views that the Jewish community has of children of intermarriage. On the one hand, many Jews rejected her and her family as “not Jewish enough” and “unwelcome.” On the other hand, as a result of her Jewish heritage, there were many in the community who claimed that she was already Jewish but did not provide her with a mechanism, such as conversion, that would allow her to become unambiguously Jewish.

The challenge of growing up with two parents of different religious backgrounds stems from the complexity of managing an often intricate network of family loyalties and ethnic pride. As a child of intermarried parents myself, I often walk the delicate line between honoring both sides of my heritage (see my post last year on attending church on Christmas) and feeling a tremendous affinity for Judaism, while at the same time fending off questions from numerous segments of the Jewish community as to why I don’t plan to convert.

While this article explores the challenges and pain that often come from having a complicated Jewish identity, I would like to assert that children of interfaith families have a tremendous gift to offer the Jewish community. Because we have a multiplicity of identities to choose from, we are in a unique position to question and think critically about what it means for us to be Jews, thus forcing Jewish institutions to think seriously about the question of “why be Jewish?” and to create new and innovative answers to that question.

The challenge is that the Jewish community can only benefit from the gifts that children of intermarriage have to offer if they are willing to reach out and invite them in. As our Jewish community diversifies, we have much to learn, and we should consider the needs of all who wish to join us.

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