You Shall Pursue

September 16, 2013

Ki Karov Elecha (Because it is Close to You: Yom Kippur D’var Torah 2013/ 5774)

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 7:02 pm

This summer, I worked at a Jewish sleep away camp in New Hampshire teaching Jewish rituals and values. And one week, I was teaching my twelve and thirteen-year-olds about, the stories that Jews tell about the Bible. As the opener to that lesson, I asked my campers how many of them found something from the Bible confusing. And, without fail, every hand in every bunk went up and the questions started pouring in. How could God allow Abraham to nearly sacrifice his son? Did the Exodus from Egypt really happen? How do we know that any of this is real, anyway?

I empathize with my campers, as I’m sure we all do. The Torah is confusing! There are stories that seem to contradict each other, and stories that simply seem to defy sense. The work is just so magical, and mystical, and tangled up, that it seems impossible to untangle at times.

So then how can Deuteronomy claim “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

How could the dense and confounding instruction of Torah be as close as our hearts and our mouths?

In this passage, the first sentence is often translated as “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you.” The word that we translate as “baffling,” “niflait,” comes from the Hebrew word “feleh,” which means a “wonder” or a “miracle.”

This is a word that you have all heard before, although you may not remember where. In the Shirat HaYam, the song in which the Israelites celebrate their redemption from Egypt, the song from which we get our prayer Mi Chamocha, the Israelites exclaim that God is “norah tehilot, oseh feleh,” or “awesome in splendor, doing wonders.”

So, the redemption from Egypt is a “wonder.” The splitting of the Sea is a “wonder.” The Torah is not. What on earth could THIS mean?

When God claims that the Torah is not a “wonder,” God does not mean that the text is not wondrous and holy. Rather, God means to contrast “wondrous” with “close.” Rather than being a miracle like the splitting of the Sea that only God could do, the Torah is close by to our hearts. It is a text meant to reflect the stuff of our everyday life, and inject a little bit of Divinity into our mundane existence.

One of the things that I love about the Torah is how profoundly human it is. It is a record very real, very flawed people trying mightily, and sometimes failing, to build an authentic relationship with God. Whether it is Isaac misinterpreting the moral characters of his sons, or the Children of Israel rebelling in the desert, our ancestors often struggle deeply to find their way. They show fear and pain and doubt.

And yet they continue with the struggle. They continue to reach out towards God, hoping to find a peace and security in the land and relationship that God promises to them as a birthright.

One of the key beliefs of the Reconstructionist movement, which is the movement through which I will be ordained, is that our way of life, Judaism, is an “evolving religious civilization.” This means that, for a Reconstructionist Jew, Judaism is holy precisely because it is constructed by human beings, and because it changes over time. When we examine our writings in their historical context, they spring to life and become so much more than the words on the page.

And as they fill with life, they become more fully our own. I love our sacred texts precisely because they serve as a multifaceted and changing record of where Judaism has come from; a record of my ancestors’ grappling with the Divine.

The poems and songs and legal arguments and petty family squabbles of the Torah are so powerful precisely because they are so contradictory. When I think of Torah in all of its magnificent complexity, I think of my own psyche, and the psyches of those whom I know and love.

I cannot count the number of times that I have found myself holding holding two contradictory reactions at one time, and needing a complicated response to complicated feelings. For example, I don’t always have an easy relationship with God. In trying moments, like the after effects of Sandy Hook, I mostly want to scream and swear at the heavens, to ask, “What on Earth is wrong with You, that You would let this happen?” In those moments I find solace in the Bible. Not because it suggests that there is a reason for everything, but because it shows our forefathers and foremothers swearing and screaming just as loudly as I want to, and then continuing on in relationship with God.

And if I can need the Bible to help soothe my religious and ethical crises, think of how many opinions and stories are necessary to sustain the faith of the Jewish people!

THIS is what the Torah gives us; the perfect mirror and summation of the human drama reflected back at us through the lens of the divine. From the questioning bordering on cynicism of Ecclesiastes (where we get the phrase “there is nothing new under the sun”) to the erotic joy of the Song of Songs, there is a piece of every human emotion and experience for us to find in its letters.

This is why we read the Torah over and over again every year. To paraphrase Rabbi Barbara Penzner, “by studying Torah, as well as practicing Jewish rituals and acquiring Jewish religious objects, we can find an opening into a practice that will lead to our own unique Jewish experience.” As we read the stories of our ancestors and feel their religious and ethical concerns, we are bolstered in our own struggles with faith, to take the journey forward.

This is especially important on this day, the day of Yom Kippur. On this day, we are required to come before God and to confess our sins. And that is very very hard. But when we arrive, we are not alone.

As we read earlier in Nitzavim, the contract to follow the path of Torah and the path of Judaism is not just with us. It is “both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”

When we doubt in our ability to follow this path, we can turn to Aaron, stone-faced and silent after a tragic accident during preparations for Yom Kippur claimed the lives of two of his sons. Or we can turn to the rabbis of the Talmud, haggling over what exactly the Torah meant to “afflict oneself” during this holiday. We can turn to David in his many lament psalms, reaching out to God and begging for the overthrow of his enemies. Or we can turn to the haunting and deeply familiar strains of Kol Nidre.

Each of these Jews had a very different answer of what to do when God called them to make an accounting of their sins. And yet each of them serves as an ancient model of how we can respond to that same call.

In this time of year, a time when we often feel alone with our sins, let us remember that we are not alone. We are standing with millions of supporters, whose voices have been left behind to help us continue along the path of the Jewish people. May we rely on them, and may we grow in strength from their example.

And may we remember that the help and strength that we need is not too wondrous, but rather very close to us, in our hearts and in our mouths, that we may do it.

Shabbat Shalom, and G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May you be sealed for blessing this year, and every year.

Amen.

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January 21, 2013

Reconstructionism Part 7: You Might be a Reconstructionist if…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 2:20 pm

I know a lot of “closet Reconstructionist Jews.” People who publicly identify as Conservative, or Reform, or non-denominational, or post-denominational, and yet their world outlook is more similar to Reconstructionism than to the movement that they are living their lives in. Heck, when I was at JTS for college, I was VERY invested in the Reform movement, but my friends used to tease me that I was the Reconstructionist of the group. And now here I am.

Kaplan wouldn’t have had a problem with this; he wasn’t actually a Reconstructionist either (exaggerated for impact). He spent the majority of his professional life at JTS, his first synagogue was Orthodox, and while RRC opened during his lifetime, he was never on its faculty (athough he did lecture there on and off). Kaplan saw Reconstructionism as a Jewish philosophy that could be applied to the other movements of his day, so that there could be “Reconstructionist Conservative Jews” or “Reconstructionist Reform Jews” or “Reconstructionist Orthodox Jews.” His vision worked out in some ways, and not in others.

While Reconstructionism now has its own seminary, its own affiliation network for synagogues, its own publications, and many of the trappings of a movement, there is still an acceptance within the movement of diversity of identification. I came into my rabbinical school interview as a “post-denominationalist,” which I still am in a lot of ways. The admissions board let me in, and what’s more important, they were comfortable with my liturgical, practical, and political disagreements with the movement and treated my desire to stay a little bit outside the boundaries with nothing but respect.

In other words, if you think this whole “Reconstructionism” thing sounds interesting, there’s no reason that you can’t identify as a little bit Reconstructionist! You might be a Reconstructionist if:

  • You believe that Judaism has been changing ever since people started calling themselves Jews. You think that this is a good thing.
  • You want to talk about how Judaism is problematic, but you don’t want to abandon Judaism all together.
  • You believe in a God who acts through the natural world, and probably doesn’t cause supernatural miracles.
  • You care about Jewish law, but aren’t necessarily interested in having every aspect of your life dictated by halakhah.
  • You are invested both in your Jewish community and in being an informed and participatory American.
  • You are comfortable with liturgical changes, especially liturgical changes that mess around with God and chosen-ness language.
  • You care about social justice. A lot.
  • You enjoy thinking things through (and often in endless discussion loops that drive your friends and loved ones crazy).
  • You want to be in a Jewish community where the laity is expected to fuel major aspects of the decision making.

This list is not comprehensive, and you do not need to identify with every aspect in order to call yourself Reconstructionist. However, it is my personal summation of the major characteristics that give Reconstructionsim its special flavor.

For more information on Reconstructionism, the movement offers an online course that is designed to teach about the history and thought of the movement. And feel free to ask questions!

January 20, 2013

Reconstructionism Part 6: Reconstructing in the 21st Century

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — marleyweiner @ 2:23 pm

The whole point of being a Reconstructionist is that I am committed to continually re-inventing (or reconstructing) what it means to be Jewish. I think that, due to its commitment to embracing an evolving Jewish culture, Reconstructionism is uniquely poised to fill a growing niche in the Jewish community; that of young, diverse, thoughtful Jews who are looking for a Judaism that blends tradition with a commitment to creativity and an investment in the broader American project. While my last five posts were pretty heavily theory focused, in this post I’d like to take a look at the concrete actions that the Reconstructionist movement is undertaking and should continue to undertake to move us into the twenty-first century.

A hugely important part of Reconstructionism today is the creation of new rituals. Our lives today are markedly different than they were half a century ago, and we as Jews need to evolve new rituals and liturgy to acknowledge many of the diverse new experiences that a Jew may undergo during his or her lifetime. The Ritualwell website run by the Reconstructionist movement is a compendium of texts and scripts for undertaking new rituals, such as gender transition or gaining citizenship, as well as new takes on old rituals, such as marriage rituals for same-sex couples or prayers for adopted children. These rituals can serve as a tool for any Jewish person to mark the changes of their lives in creative, Jewish, and life-affirming ways (and you don’t need a rabbi to perform most of them!).

Another is evaluating how Reconstructionism can enter Jewish conversation in a louder and more public way. Reconstructionism has been a small movement for a long time. I think that this is due, in large part, for the tendency for Reconstructionist thinking to be subtle, complicated, and time consuming (and sometimes obtuse). We are not a movement that can me summed up in a few sentences (heck, I don’t believe I’ve done a thorough job of summing us up in six blog posts!) and that can be difficult when trying to explain the movement to people unfamiliar with Reconstructionism. The question I get asked most often is “Are you closer to Reform or Conservative?” which is not a question that has an easy answer, given our complicated relationship with Jewish Law combined with EXTREMELY liberal politics.

As a member of the Reconstructionist movement, I want to see us out there in the blogosphere, writing, advocating, and generally making our voices heard. I want Ritualwell to become as much a go-to resource as chabad.org for liberal Jews looking for resources and information. I want the movement to have funny t-shirts based on the sayings of prominent Reconstructionist thinkers. I want us to have a youtube video that goes viral. Part of that is creating the resources, and part of that is just continually disseminating those resources in our communities. While traditionally we have sacrificed accessibility for subtlety of thought, I think that it is time for us to try both tactics, which is why I include short links as well as longer, more in-depth posts on this blog. I want to make sure that we have introductory resources that are easy to digest, so that people can dip their toes in before jumping into the deep end.

And last, Reconstructionism must continue to be on the vanguard of social justice commitments in Jewish spaces and in the wider world. The Jewish community is ever more racially diverse, and we as Reconstructionists must lead the fight against racism in the Jewish community. After all, if history teaches us anything, it teaches that white and Ashkenazi has never been the only way to do Judaism. We must continue to fight for gay and lesbian rights, not only to marry, but also against discrimination in schools and in the work force. We must begin to build safe and welcoming communities for trans* and genderqueer Jews, ensuring that they have a safe space to be supported ritually and socially, while fighting against the staggering discrimination against this group in broader American society. And we must honor the oldest charge of the Torah, and fight hard for the poor, the powerless, and the stranger in our camps, from immigrant justice to the rights of domestic laborers to welfare reform that actually helps those on welfare to access the services they need.

As a religious person, it saddens me to no end how many progressive voices call out religious people as turning their backs on the disenfranchised. As liberal religious people, it is important for us to do our work not only as part of religious coalitions (and interfaith work is hugely important) but also within secular networks with similar goals. Our presence as religious people with a progressive agenda allied with secular activists has the potential to provide a different, and more palatable vision of what it means to be religious to those who share our goals.

We as a movement have so many good things to say. The more that we are able to raise our voices in unexpected places, the more we will be able to share our message.

January 16, 2013

Reconstructionism Part 5: Chosenness

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 2:30 pm

Initially, I planned to write a post detailing the various ways that I disagree with classical Reconstructionist thought. However, I realized that many of my critiques had homes in other posts, but that there was one main area which did not properly lump with other ideas; that of “chosenness”. Simply put, classical Reconstructionist thought rejects the idea of “chosenness,” while I embrace it, but in a modified format.

Classical Reconstructionist thinkers did not believe that the Jews are the Chosen People, and as a result of this ideological shift, they excised all of the “chosenness” language out of the siddur. For example, in the Aleinu, instead of saying that God has “made us different from all the nations of the earth, and situated us in quite a different spot, and made our daily lot another kind from theirs, and given us a destiny uncommon in this world,” the Reconstructionist siddur says that God has “given us teachings of truth and planted life within us.” Similarly, anyone visiting a Reconstructionist shul will find that the language of the blessings over the Torah and the Kiddush are different as well, to reflect similar concerns. This, combined with an emphasis on egalitarianism that injects female Biblical figures back into the text, is the most immediately visible result of Kaplan’s theological and philosophical project. He saw the concept of “chosenness” as irredeemable and supported excising it from Jewish self-identity.

Many Reconstructionist thinkers advocate for doing away with “chosenness” in worry that it leads to chauvinism and self-centeredness among Jews, and contributes to outsiders’ perceptions of Jews as an insular, self-aggrandizing people. I have heard this critique leveled by Jews as well as non-Jews who interact regularly with the Jewish community, and I think that, at times, it is accurate. I recently wrote about the near-famous tendency for Jewish communal institutions to throw up ridiculous barriers to a true welcome. And part of this may well be fueled by the idea that we are “chosen,” and therefore somehow better.

But I do wonder whether Jewish insularity comes not from our rhetoric of Chosenness but rather from our unique history of 2000 years of existence as a religious minority. In a world where we can freely jump between many Civilizations without fear of recrimination, I wonder if this particular coping mechanism has come to its natural end. That, of course, does not mean that we don’t need to work hard to dismantle it as a community, but I wonder if we can hold onto the idea that the Jews are “Chosen” while divesting the term of the pernicious idea that this means that the Jews are somehow inherently better.

I feel chosen to this Jewish path.  While it was always up to me what to DO with my Judaism, it was never a question whether or not Judaism would speak to my soul. And I don’t think that Judaism is unique in having a remarkably strong pull; I think of my friends who are devout Christians and I am sure that they are just as much chosen to their paths as I am to mine. But I think there is a tremendous value in acknowledging that as a people, a community, a faith, there is something unique and precious about Judaism. When I speak of being one of the Chosen People, it is with a profound sense of gratitude, that this path exists for me to walk down. When I say that I am one of the Chosen People, I mean that I am one of the people whom God has chosen for Judaism, no more and no less.

The value I see in the rhetoric of “chosenness” is one of group solidarity. If we are chosen to become part of the Jewish community, either through birth or through conversion, then we owe it to ourselves to figure out what that means, and how we as people want to interact with the complicated brilliant legacy of Judaism. In a world of individualism, sometimes at the cost of genuine human connections, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for us to demand connection and support of one another. And I see the  rhetoric of Chosen People as one potential way that we can build those connections and that sense of communal obligation.

January 14, 2013

Reconstructionism Part 4: Activism and Halakhah, How do we Make Jewish Law Work for Us?

Reconstructionism is in a bit of a strange place when it comes to halakhah (traditional Jewish law). When speaking about Jewish law, Mordechai Kaplan said that halakhah must have “a vote, not a veto.” But what on earth does THAT mean? Some Reconstructionist Jews would classify Reconstructionsim as a “post-halakhic” movement; one that cares about Jewish law but does not consider it binding. From a feminist perspective, many Reconstructionist leaders and thinkers have HUGE problems with halakhah, especially given the misogyny that governs standards of women’s behavior in the Oral Law. Still others feel that halakhah must be one of several religious and secular moral authorities employed when making a decision about communal practice. And still others (such as myself) are interested in having a conversation about how we can, as liberal Jews, use halakhah to our advantage.

One of the reasons for the debate about the place of halakhah in Reconstructionist Judaism is that, much as Reconstructionism cares about Jewish text and history, this is a movement that derives much of its identity from its social justice commitments. The second class of RRC rabbis was co-ed. We were the first rabbinical school to admit openly gay/lesbian students. The movement has accepted and welcomed interfaith families for decades. And we spend  a LOT of time and energy training clergy around issues of sexual violence, racism, trans* and genderqueer identities, and how to support and nurture people who may face discrimination from the Jewish community. Many Reconstructionist leaders have found from personal experience that traditional methods of halakhic interpretation shut out people who wish to find a place in Judaism. So how do we bring these two impulses to work together, the impulse for social justice and the impulse towards living in the bounds of Jewish Law?

Because my classmates are amazing, I want to link to this piece by Leiah Moser which encapsulates a lot of where I feel that our movement should be moving in regard to Jewish Law. I care about living my life in relationship with text; it is so important to Jewish history, culture, and identity. But our texts are changing and evolving, they always have been. If you read even a few pages of Mishnah or Talmud, you find contradictory opinions published all over the place. And the best part is that THEY DON’T TRY TO SOLVE THEM. Seriously. In the old days, the solution was often to plunk contradictory opinions down on the same page. Of course, there is legal interpretation, and the way that the law played out in the real world, but the real world application did not invalidate the fact that Judaism has a history of treasuring and preserving wildly differing opinions.

In addition, there are very old examples of rabbinic legal workarounds for religious issues that the rabbis found troubling. For example, the death penalty. The Bible is full of instances in which a criminal must be put to death (murder, certain instances of rape, persistent disobedience to parents) but the authors of later legal works write legal workarounds so as effect the practical abolition of the death penalty. The authors of the Mishnah and the Talmud were tremendous innovators. And I think that we, as liberal Jews, can follow in the footsteps of our rabbinic ancestors and reclaim Jewish law for ourselves.

I think that we as thoughtful, liberal Jews have the right and the responsibility to engage with halakhah in order to serve our ethical and moral obligations. Much of the reason that I was drawn to Reconstructionist Judaism is that it seems interested and willing to engage in issues of Jewish Law and text from a civilizational standpoint. These texts make us who we are; how can we make that work for us?

And there is much innovation around this area. Ideas such as eco-kashrut, that takes Jewish ideas about ethical and conscious eating and applies them to current questions about sustainability and the responsibility we have to both food workers and meat animals, Or groups like American Jewish World Service, which publishes curricula teaching the Jewish sources on world hunger, poverty, and other social justice topics. The more that we can thoughtfully raise up the work that is already being done in these areas, the more we can begin to reclaim Jewish Text and Jewish law as a powerful force for social good.

So many Jews feel a powerful connection to Judaism through their social justice commitments, and often they feel that they are secular Jews because that is the primary source through which they show their Jewish identity. However, their commitment to improving the world, to making sure that people can lead lives of dignity without want or fear is such a primal Jewish value. If we can show them that they are walking in the footsteps of the rabbis in terms of their social justice concerns, and if we can live up to the shining, justice-inspired parts of our own legacy, Judaism will be the richer for it.

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.

January 7, 2013

Reconstructionism Part 2: All About God

Filed under: Rabbinical School, Spirituality — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 8:40 pm

There are many who accuse Mordechai Kaplan of atheism. This could not be further from the truth. Kaplan believed deeply in a Divine Power; it’s just that what he believed the Divine Power IS is radically different from what many other monotheists have to say about God. His vision of God, which he referred to as “the power that makes for salvation,” is one in which God is inextricably tied to the natural world, and does not operate on a transcendent level beyond the reality that we as human beings can see, and touch, and feel.  As a result of this, Kaplan’s theology (often referred to as”process theology”) and worship focuses more on the processes that make holiness evident in the world, rather than God as a being.

Kaplan gives the example of רופה חולים (healing the sick). Needless to say, when we pray for God to heal the sick, the patient does not always get better. Kaplan turns this prayer on its head; instead of praying for some mystical intervention, when we pray for healing, we are giving thanks for medical improvements that allow us to greatly extend our quality and length of life. We are giving thanks for dedicated doctors and nurses that work tirelessly to treat their patients. And we are giving thanks for communities to support us when we and our loved ones are ill. Recovery is not always possible, but reaching out to tap into the healing parts of the universe is. As Kaplan put it “The prayer form celebrates the reverent acknowledgment of those values and qualities which through human effort unite to satisfy the needs of man.” Kaplan’s God is a God of miracles, in that the natural world is a miracle; no more and no less.

I am a huge fan of process theology. As a Reconstructionist, I’m not terribly interested in a God who is a grumpy old bearded man in the sky who is watching for me to screw up so that he can pounce and SMITE. There is little that appeals to me in the idea that God is a bigger, more powerful version of human. And yet, I am also not terribly interested God as Prime Mover, a force that sets the universe in motion and then steps away without any ability to react to or care about the process that it has begun. The God that I yearn for is a God that is involved, immanent, and present with me in an intimate but ultimately totally non-human way. How does that work exactly?

While Kaplan used the phrase “power that makes for salvation,” I have for years been calling God “the Soul of the Universe,” or in Hebrew “רוח העולם” (Ruach Haolam).  Incidentally, this is a common epithet for God in Reconstructionist liturgy that I didn’t discover until years after I started using the term. In Hebrew, the word רוח (ruach), or soul, carries a slightly different meaning than the English soul. Ruach is the animating force, the breath, the indicator that a person is living. In Genesis, it is a ruach that God sends out over the waters in order to begin the process of creation. It is the force behind the first words. When I call God the Soul of the Universe, I am saying that God animates all that is living, that God is in every blade of grass causing it to grow, and in every spinning galaxy.

I also find the language of Soul helpful because it addresses the question of why the universe is ultimately imperfect and broken. There is no human being created into a perfect body. We have poor vision, high blood pressure, chronic pain. And yet, who would not describe the human body as a marvel of God’s work? And the soul, the triumphs of body and spirit, are not lessened by the fact that we are, each of us, born in an imperfect body that has so much potential to break. So too is it with all of creation. At its core, I believe that our universe is imperfectly created, and that God is a marvelous thing for providing for so much good in that imperfect system.

This view of God allows me to take a fairly relaxed attitude toward the Divine. I am a strong believer in finding the Divine through science (see my post about God and Quantum Physics or this video with the brilliant words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson). I am also a firm believer in religious pluralism. If God is not a being with one agenda true across the eternity of time and space, but is rather as fluid and changing as creation itself, then certainly different people can come to God in different times and different ways. If that is through Christianity, or biology, or chanting, it is really all good. It is about opening oneself to the miracle that we all exist, and allowing ourselves to be swept away.

December 21, 2012

Reconstructionism Part 1: What is Reconstructionist Judaism Anyway?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — marleyweiner @ 1:30 pm

I have been at rabbinical school for almost a semester. And as part of summing up my immersion into the world of Reconstructionism, I decided to explain in layman’s terms just what it means to be a Reconstructionist Jew. Reconstructionism is one of the younger, smaller movements of Judaism (and the question of whether or not it is a movement at all is actually surprisingly complicated) and I get a lot of questions asking exactly what Reconstructionism is. I figured it would be helpful to create a blog series so that I can point interested people to a neat little summary of the theology, history, and how it relates to my own thinking.

Reconstructionism is based on the philosophy and writing of Mordecai Kaplan, a teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary who hoped to create a radical new way of thinking about what it meant to be Jewish. He was the first to propose the idea of Judaism as a civilization, meaning that Jewish art, Klezmer, Jewish food, Yiddish theater, Zionism, the Arbeiter Ring, Ladino, etc. were all expressions of Judaism just as important and valid as the Talmud and the mitzvot. His belief was that Judaism could only be taken as a whole, and that one could not separate out the religious parts or the cultural parts and say “this, and this alone, is Judaism.” Rather, he proposed that Jews shared common languages, history, literature, religion, and culture throughout history, and that the Jewish people would need to engage in a multiplicity of Jewish expressions in order to make sure that the civilization stayed vibrant. Out of this grows current ideas of Jewish nationality and peoplehood.

Kaplan also believed as strongly in America as he did in Judaism. He expected Jews to participate as much in the broader American society and civilization as in the Jewish one, and hoped that the best values of each civilization would influence the other.

Some misconceptions that I hope to address in this series:

  • Reconstructionism is not “in between Conservative and Reform”
  • Reconstructionists are not all atheists (although some of us are!)
  • Reconstructionists are not all crunchy granola hippies (although many of us are!)

This will be a series in six parts. You can click here for links to the other parts as they become available:

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