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.

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.

Blowin’ in the Wind

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 9:41 am

Happy Passover everyone!

March 28, 2013

I Wrote a Passover Guest Post!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 10:52 am

It’s about Tarantino, Exodus, and how we can move from a place of vengeance to a place of justice. You can read it here.

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