You Shall Pursue

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.

September 13, 2013

Excruciating Vulnerability (Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2103/ 5774)

I delivered this sermon on Rosh Hashanah at my congregational internship. It is based on this post. The full text of “the Seam of Skin and Scales” is here and you can find Benee Brown’s TED Talk here.

Shanah Tovah and a gut yontif  to all of you! I want to thank you for welcoming me to your community this year and for giving me a chance to learn with all of you. Let me start this morning with a story.

There was a rabbi named Abaye, and one day as he was walking through the fields of Persia, he came upon an unmarried man and woman walking along together. And Rabbi Abaye, who was concerned for their reputations, decided to follow along behind them to make sure that nothing improper happened.

He followed them. For NINE MILES.

The couple came to a fork in the road, said their goodbyes, and walked off, the man along his path, the woman along hers. Abaye was confused; why on earth didn’t he have to intervene? Surely any red blooded man in that situation would have tried to make a pass at that woman! And then he realized; it is not ANY man, it is him, he is the one who would have tried to take advantage of the situation, and of that woman.

This discovery led to a minor mental breakdown. He curled up in the doorframe of a nearby house and began to weep, when suddenly, one of his elders happened along. And the elder passed on some sage advice. “The greatest men of every generation,” he said “have the greatest evil inclinations.”

Imagine this, a rabbi and a pillar of the community publicly crying and confessing his sins, and being forgiven, not because his sin was not so bad, but because sinning is a part of life.

Contrast that with how we talk about sin in modern America, where you are either sinful or righteous, with no in-between.

It is an understatement to say the least, that this causes problems.

How many of us know the terror of saying something foolish, doing something that will elicit scorn, or showing even a moment of weakness? We believe that because we are fallible that we have failed. We are terrified of the thought that we might not be perfect, as anything less would make us unlovable and worthless. But there is not a single person on earth who is free from insecurities, flaws, and faults; who has not, from time to time, failed to live up to his or her best self.

I watched an online lecture recently by researcher/ storyteller Benee Brown in which she speaks movingly of what she calls “excruciating vulnerability.” In the course of her research on love and belonging, she discovers that in order to feel worthy of love and belonging, a person needs to exhibit the courage to show their imperfect selves and the compassion to love their authentic selves and the authentic selves of others.

What does this have to do with Rosh Hashanah? This is our time for excruciating vulnerability Judaism gives us a week and a half every year where we are commanded to let the mask slip. We have the opportunity to show the courage and compassion that might be lacking the other 355 days a year. The yearly process of the High Holy Days marks the pinnacle in an endless process of recognizing and reaffirming that life has scarred us in a million big and small ways, and that these scars lead us to live fearful sometimes, to be less loving, to not live fully up to our ideals.

So this morning I want to ask you two difficult quesitons:

How vulnerable are we willing to be to show our authentic selves?

How willing are we to admit our imperfections to others and especially to ourselves in order to lead fuller and healthier lives?

The six months leading up to my acceptance into rabbinical school were not easy for me. During a particularly difficult work situation, I broke down crying in my parents’ car on the way home from the train station, briefly considered quitting my job and moving home, then found myself a therapist instead. I was plagued with anxiety that I was failing at everything. And since starting school, I have not learned to “be healthy,” per se. Rather, I have learned that it is okay, normal, and natural to be flawed, and that I can still be loved and accepted as I am. And, ironically, letting go of my need to be perfect and digging down into my flaws and letting them show has helped me grow more as a human being than I ever thought possible.

Giving up and letting go can ONLY be transformative if it is not a private conversation between us and God. We are expected to back up our private shame with public action, and apologize to those whom we have wronged. But how many of us take the time to dig into excruciating vulnerability, and begin to repair the breaches with those whom we love? How many of us go the friends whose pain we have ignored, or the family with whom we have low level grudges that have lasted for years, or the neighbors who we have never bothered to get to know?

And our teshuva needs to go deeper even than that.

In the Torah, the Day of Atonement is not only for the sins of Jew against Jew, it is for the resident aliens as well.

What if teshuva meant not only showing vulnerability to those whom we love, but to open our interactions with acquaintances and even strangers to vulnerability as well? How much good we could do in the world, if only we could open ourselves to the possibility that we might be wrong?

Whenever I hear people speak of the “undeserving poor,” the people who need to work harder and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, I hear people who are terrified of admitting that they did not earn what they have entirely by hard work, but by luck and connections as well. Whenever I hear people defend bigoted statements by saying that they are not racist or sexist or homophobic, I hear their terror at admitting that they still have growing to do as a human being.

In a country where Congress passed 22 bills between January and August, a record low, where people shoot schools, bomb marathons, and kill teenagers for the crime of walking back from the convenience store, the need to be right triumphs over the need to do right, and the consequences are disastrous for those we need to care for most.

This is why personal confrontation and confession is so important. We stand before those whom we have wronged, and tell them that we are flawed and broken. And that mutual act of recognition, of two people looking back at one another and confessing their brokenness builds a stronger bond, a bond built on honesty.

And so, we start today. God is sharpening God’s quill, taking the scrolls down from off the shelf, and considering whether we will live or die.

And I exhort you all to live. Do not hold back for fear that your repentance will be unsuccessful, because the only way to have even hope of success is through that blinding fear and doubt.

Yes, choose life, that you may live. And choose love, that you may be loved. And choose the pain cracking open that shell because, in the words of Leonard Cohen, that’s how the light gets in.

I would like to leave you with an excerpt from a poem called “the Seam of Skin and Scales” from activist and clergywoman Elena Rose. In her poetic vision, it is the monsters, the flawed ones, who inherit the earth.

It is time to look the monstrous in the eye. It is time.

It is time to say that we are beautiful in our fierceness, and that we are our own. We are not the rejected of what we can never be. We are what we were meant to be. We are not pieces of wholes thrown together incorrectly. We are not mistakes.

We are not inferior knockoffs of someone else. If our monstrousness is frightening, then it is time we bare our teeth and draw that fear close to us and stop being so afraid of our fearsomeness that we fear everyone and everything else right back.

May we all live to see the day that we are free to accept our true selves, skin and scales and all.

Shanah Tovah.


April 18, 2013

I was in Israel Last Week

And I was at the Kotel (the Western Wall of where the Second Temple used to be). And I wanted to share a brief reflection from that particular day.

I am pressed up against the warm stone, forehead to block, taking it in. The sounds of Hebrew fill my ears. On my right is a modestly dressed woman, most likely Orthodox. She is praying in French and Hebrew, and she is crying. I have a feeling that I am the only person in this entire plaza of people who can hear her, and I cannot understand what she is saying, except that she is earnest and scared and heartbroken. In my left ear is the sound of daily prayer as sung by a hazzan, a man. If I felt comfortable to sing, my voice could rival his in volume, although not necessarily quite in talent; he is good. I am silent.

My connection to God is through my voice. Back home, I enjoy few things more than leading kiddush at Shabbat meals, or leading a congregation in a spirited Kabbalat Shabbat. Five minutes ago, before pushing through the crowds of women caressing and whispering their joys and sorrows to this wall, I chanted to myself the Psalm of the Day. I was probably the only person in the entire plaza who heard my song. I was afraid that if I were to sing loud enough for the men to hear me the way that I can hear the hazzan, that I would attract looks, attention, trouble. I am silent.

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



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.

March 4, 2013

Lipstick and Pearls and Tefillin, How to Navigate Frumness and Femme

Filed under: Choosing Life, Rabbinical School — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 12:41 pm

Recently, I read this article written by a future Orthodox rabbi struggling with messages about her gender presentation within her religious community. I find these sorts of articles talking about the ambivalence that is so often paired with religion frustrating on a number of levels. These sorts of conversations offend me as a feminist, because I believe in every person’s fundamental right to live in their bodies without shame. But I also struggle with articles like these as a liberal Jew, because in certain ways we are not doing much better for our Jewish leadership.

The issue is one of degree rather than of kind. While I have classmates who wear miniskirts, I struggle strongly with a feeling that certain clothes (that I used to wear to work in my office job, mind you) are “not appropriate” for my clergy work, not because they are revealing, but because they are feminine. I tend to cultivate a certain degree of severity in my professional appearance these days, because I have absorbed the message that rabbis should not exude any hint of sex appeal, especially the female ones. An important part of this is that I mostly supporting myself through teaching, and I feel doubly pressured to dress frumpy in front of my students and their parents. While my choice of professional clothing was never anything but scrupulously modest, it was often selected expressly to show pride in my body and my femininity. My favorite business casual clothes are a-line or poofy dresses and pencil skirts. I feel drab in slacks. And I never wear red lipstick to teach (although I wear it to go out or just to show up for hanging out with my friends).

On the other hand, sometimes I feel as though I intentionally need to be drab. We rabbinical students are encouraged to live up to a high level of professionalism in our relationships with our students, co-workers, and congregants. This includes a clause that encourages us to avoid “even the appearance of impropriety.” And in our society, what bears more of the “appearance of impropriety” than a woman who is attractively and femininely dressed? You need only listen to victim-blaming comments about the length of this or that girl’s skirt to know that American society still buys into the idea of women, especially attractively dressed women, as public property, who dress to advertise availability rather than to make themselves happy. And I know that the Jewish community is none so enlightened that it is entirely free of broader American prejudices.

And now the question for my fellow femme classmates who do feel comfortable wearing more explicitly femme clothes at work: how do you rock that shit with pride and confidence? I have a red dress that I’d like to break out sometime in the near future.

February 28, 2013

Social Justice, Ezekiel, and the Ugliness of Privilege

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 5:59 pm

My academic life recently seems to revolve around Ezekiel of dry bones, chariots, and bizarre behavior fame. He is a fascinating character, full of despair and often rank misogyny. As I read his book, I am struck by the parallels between his behavior and much of the behavior in the modern political scene. Ezekiel paints a stark picture of a ruling elite raging at the loss of his power and privelige. It is a world shift that his psyche is unable to handle, and he descends into bizarre behavior. We see something similar from conservatives today.

A quick summary for those of you who do not know the story. Ezekiel is born to a prominent Judaean priestly family shortly before the first exile. As an adult, he is exiled to Babylon with much of the other Judaean ruling elite. His book is full of vivid visions and bizarre role-plays, which he uses to exemplify the wretchedness of Judaea in exile. Then, in Chapter 16 of the book of Ezekiel, he gives a full account of why Israel is being punished in this way, describing his nation as a foundling that God married and raised to wealth and privilege. But Israel is ungrateful and “plays the harlot” with other nations, here a metaphor for Israel’s desperate attempts to form alliances with stronger neighboring powers. Because of this behavior, God turns against Israel and perpetrates a brutal gang rape against her, enlisting all of her former “lovers,” or all of her neighboring nations.

Through Ezekiel’s position as prophet to the nations, he is, in a way, able to “have it all,” casting himself both in the role of helpless, victimized Israelite and a vengeful God. In his violent depiction of Israel as gang rape victim, he is able to use the gender binary to re-establish a norm in a world that has been, for him, turned completely upside-down. Misogyny and violence act as a balm to soothe the wounds that he feels in being so utterly betrayed by God. To my mind, this is a text about confronting abuse at the hands of a being upon which one is simultaneously utterly dependent, and which is ultimately unable to protect. Ultimately, lack of omnipotence is less scary than utterly disturbing tendencies towards vengeance.

There is a sweet seductiveness in playacting at victim, in that when one operates from relative privilege, one is more likely to be taken seriously, and thus have one’s feelings respected and protected. Conversely, when those in marginalized classes (people of color, women, poor people) are victimized, their pain is often seen as somehow their fault.

I would like to draw a direct parallel between recent attacks on reproductive rights and the slow liberalization of American society. For the first time, we are entering a world in which white upper-middle class men simply do not have enough of a voting bloc to dictate the direction that our society moves. And since women and people of color tend to vote more liberal, this produces a world in which white men are, indeed, losing power. This is scary to those invested in maintaining the power dynamic of the past (as any loss of power is), but they are not victims. They are simply beginning the long slow treck toward being one voice among many rather than the ultimate voice of power. This is read as victimhood, and conservative pundits, much like Ezekiel, lash out at the pain of their loss of power through fantasies of brutal masculine domination. Their fantasy is both sadistic and masochistic; they are both victim and perpetrator, and thus they give themselves permission to live out the pleasure of every locus of pain without regard to the real life consequences of their playacting on other human bodies and souls.

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?

February 8, 2013

The Bible is a Real, True Myth

Filed under: Spirituality — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 8:27 pm

Whenever I try to explain to people the difference between Truth and Fact when it comes to Bible, I will send them here. In my world, Abraham and Moses and Hagar and Miriam are as real to me as my family, even though I recognize that they never truly existed. Their stories and personalities speak to me, and they teach me how to live my life. The multiplicity of those stories, and how they were interpreted by my predecessors in every age, teach me more about the history of my people and how I came to be here than any volume of history ever could. Because we love our ancestors, with a fierce and abiding love, and it is love that gives a window and an insight into the soul.

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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