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.

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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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March 12, 2013

Reasons that I Love my Rabbinical School, Part Eleventymillion

Filed under: Rabbinical School — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 5:35 pm

RRA Resolution on Gender Identity

“Whereas, there will soon be openly transgender and gender nonconforming rabbis who are members of the RRA;

“Whereas, there is a long and painful history of employment discrimination in the United States against transgender and gender nonconforming individuals;

“And whereas, the RRA believes in the right to equal employment opportunities for all of its members;

“Therefore be it resolved that the RRA directs its executive director and board to move forward, in cooperation with the RRC and all relevant associated entities, in educating RRA members about issues of gender identity, to urge the Reconstructionist movement to similarly educate its constituency and to adopt policies that will do all that is possible to provide full employment opportunities for transgender and gender nonconforming rabbis, and to explore how the Reconstructionist movement can best influence the wider Jewish and non-Jewish world to welcoming and inclusive of all people, regardless of gender identity.”

 

See this kids? This is what commitment to ongoing change to support your constituency looks like.

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.

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.

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