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.

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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.

January 9, 2013

Reconstructionism Part 3: Two Civilizations

Filed under: Choosing Life, Rabbinical School, Spirituality — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 1:30 pm

I am writing this to you on a computer, in English, wearing blue jeans, in the city of Philadelphia in the country of the United States. What does that have to do with Judaism? According to Kaplan, quite a lot.

While Kaplan wrote extensively on the “Jewish civilization,” he did not see Judaism as a bounded, separate entity from the rest of the world. Quite the opposite, in fact. He recognized that Judaism is affected by the broader civilizations in which the Jews live. From Aristotle’s influence on Maimonides to Polish music’s influence on klezmer, Judaism has always borrowed from the surrounding culture and made elements its own. And he hoped that a thriving, healthy American society would, in turn, help Judaism to thrive. In particular, he was excited about how democratic ideals could help make Judaism more participatory and open to its laity.

When Kaplan put forth his idea of “Judaism as a Civilization,” he was advocating that Judaism should be respected and celebrated in a way that was uncommon for religious and ethnic minorities in his day. The prevailing paradigm for Americanization in the earliest years of the 20th century was an assimilation into WASP culture, which was identified as American and pushed onto minorities as a condition for social acceptance. So when Kaplan calls Judaism a civilization, he is not just advocating that Jews take Jewish ritual, religion, and culture seriously. He is also advocating that ALL Americans take the Jewish project seriously, rather than an identity that Jews must shed outside of the synagogue to become “real Americans.”

Things have changed, to say the least. Multiculturalism is still a challenge in America (see: FOX New’s “War on Christmas” stories every December, current anti-Islam hysteria) but, in general, we accept that Americans can proudly celebrate and embrace a variety of identities and still be wholly American. It is very rare that we are asked to justify how we can consider ourselves both loyal Americans and Jews. And in many cases, this leads to Jewish people identifying much stronger with the American Civilization than the Jewish one.

The question is where that leaves us as a community. Predictions of doom and gloom aside, from where I stand Jews are still innovating, passionate, and fighting to keep their civilization vibrant. I am really not interested in talking about whether or not Judaism is going to survive the next generation, or the next dozen. What I am interested in discussing is how Jews who are invested in the Jewish civilization can make that passion, investment, and innovation clear to Jews who may be rejecting a sixty-year old version of Judaism, when there are pockets that addressed their concerns decades ago (see: Jews who are angry at “Judaism” for rejecting interfaith families when I am in rabbinical school).

Part of this is adapting to modern American tools of information dissemination. Part of the reason I am writing this blog is so that there is another young, liberal, religious voice out there talking about social justice, God, and what it really means to become part of the clergy (I’ll talk about this more later). Part of this is fighting against a very real and painful tendency for the most Jewishly invested members of our community to ghettoize. Since coming to rabbinical school, I spend the vast majority of my time around other rabbinical students, and other religious Jews. But I also dance, and keep in touch with my friends from high school, and go to church with my grandmother on Christmas, and in small ways I try to stay open and enthusiastic about my work and my Judaism while firmly embracing the parts of myself that are in love with broader American society.

And last, and perhaps most counterintuitively, I think that we as a community need to become more comfortable about the fact that ALL Jews live in multiple worlds, and dip back and forth between them at different times throughout their lives. The more we can acknowledge the challenges of balancing between two worlds, both our own and those faced by the people we are trying to serve, the easier it will be to convince people that the values, education, and rituals in the Jewish civilization are worth clinging to.

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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April 19, 2012

This American Life: The Ten Commandments

Filed under: Spirituality — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 1:34 am

This American Life: The Ten Commandments

The story on Commandment 4 is amazing. Seriously, listen to it.

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.

December 24, 2011

Thoughts on Patrilineal Descent: December Dilemma

Filed under: Patrilineal Descent — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 3:04 am

This post was adapted from an older post in the Jewish Outreach Institute blog.

During the December months, many interfaith families discover that they must devise creative solutions of how to meaningfully honor Christmas and Hanukkah at the same time. As this New York Times article shows, many Jewish families make out-of-the-box decisions in order to create family traditions that resonate with them. While these decisions may seem unorthodox to some, it is important to remember that one way of being a “Jewish family” does not work for everyone. The complicated decisions that families make about incorporating many different traditions into one cohesive whole do not necessarily lessen their commitment to Judaism.

Although Hayley Krischer is a Jew, married to a Jew, and raising two Jewish children, Kirsher’s ex-husband and the father of her son is not Jewish.

Although she is raising both of her children as Jews, she understands how much her son values his father’s traditions. Because of her love for her son, she makes the decision to include the Christmas holiday as part of her family’s tradition. But Hayley Krischer is still raising two Jewish children. Her son is Jewish even though he loves Christmas.

Articles like this one resonate with me at this time of year. I am a Jewish professional, and a practicing Reform Jew. And yet, I will be spending the evening of December 24 in a Presbyterian church in suburban Pennsylvania. My mother is not Jewish, and her parents are deeply religious Christians. There is nothing more important to them than having their children, in-laws, and grandchildren gathered around them on Christmas Eve. And so every year, my father, my sister, and I join the rest of the family for Christmas Eve dinner, presents, carols, and yes, church.

Many people would consider attending church with family to be a far greater capitulation than putting up a Christmas tree. However, to me, attending church is a symbol of how much I love and respect my grandparents, even though we are of different faiths. My grandparents have been incredibly supportive of my religious choices, and so I respect their desire to have the whole family together. Just as Hayley Krischer’s Jewish husband endures some discomfort to make his stepson happy, I endure some discomfort about being in a church to make my grandparents happy on Christmas.

Families like Hayley Krischer’s and mine are not unusual, and are rapidly becoming the norm. We are Jews who love people who are not Jewish, and we live our lives in constant negotiation between honoring our own faith and the traditions of people whom we love. These negotiations do not compromise our commitment to Judaism. We still seek a place in the Jewish community, and there is room in Judaism’s Big Tent for all of us.

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