You Shall Pursue

January 24, 2014

In Honor of Martin Luther King Day

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 10:51 am

This week, we read the Ten Commandments. These laws are seen as the bedrock of our civilization. But how many of us actually consider their meaning, and how they might impact our everyday behavior?

Today, I want to focus on the sixth commandment, “thou shalt not kill.” At at first glance, it seems pretty obvious how to avoid breaking this one; just don’t murder anyone.

But the rabbis have a very broad interpretation of what it means “to kill.”

They are not only concerned with preserving life, but with preserving life with dignity. In their moral worldview, slander is equivalent to murder. A person with a ruined reputation will face such challenges that for some, life will no longer be worth living, a fact that we see all too often with young people tormented and bullied by their peers.

The rabbis take this concern about reputation and apply it to their maintenance of the poor as well, giving them an opportunity to live with their pride in tact. It is considered a sin to force the poor to beg in public. The great Jewish thinker Maimonides taught that the highest level of charity was to give a poor person a job so that he could support himself rather than asking for support. And traditional community funds designed to provide for dowries and for extra food on holidays meant that the poor could lead lives with some measure of joy and dignity.

The rabbis understand that preserving life is one of the most important things that we can do, but they also understood that preserving life is not only a matter of maintaining physical existence. It is about giving people the tools that they need to build productive, happy lives in which they can feel respected and accomplished.

On Monday, we celebrate the life and work of an American hero who understood all too well that life alone was not enough, and that life without dignity is no life at all. Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was a man who believed not only in equality, not only ending segregation, but in advocating for an American in which all citizens were free to lead lives of dignity and opportunity. In his “I have a Dream Speech” from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (and how many of us forget that this was a march for economic opportunity as well as to end the scourge of segregation), he said:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

King keenly understood, as did our rabbis, the true broadness of the statement “thou shalt not kill.” To him, as to our rabbis, it meant “thou shalt not deprive someone of the opportunity for a life well lived.” He understood that, when hope is gone, when the feeling that life is worth living is gone, is when people are transformed in their own minds and the minds of those around them from the authors of their own destiny to merely existing day to day. And merely existing day to day is not living.

And so King worked tirelessly all his life, against a great tide of opposition, through struggles and jailing and eventual assassination, but always with dignity, to hold the American people to the commandment “thou shalt not kill.”

How do we help to move our community towards a culture of life? How do we live up to the teachings of our forefathers, and of Dr. King?

The best way to keep from killing is to affirm the sanctity of life of every human being, and to reach out with profound empathy towards those who are struggling. In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, King references the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who teaches that the highest form or relationship is “I-Thou,” in which we see one another as full human beings with hopes and joys and, most of all, the desire for a good and comfortable life. If we can look at each human being, and see a person who is struggling toward fulfillment, we will not take actions, either consciously or unconsciously, to cut off their sense of dignity and self respect.

This starts small at home, with friends and family and showing utter respect and caring. Seeking to fulfill the needs of those who love us, to help our children and spouses and siblings and friends grow into the best people they can be by listening to and supporting their dreams, goals, and authentic personalities.

And it broadens, and deepens. In the same way we have empathy to our loved ones, we can have empathy in the broader community, and it can change lives. This past summer, when there was rioting in Egypt, I made it a point to ask every person I saw listening to the news from Egypt what they thought. Usually, I was talking to an Egyptian shopkeeper. I heard stories of families torn apart by tragedy, fervent condemnation of bloodshed, and a desire for peace in their homeland. By keeping my mind open, I was able to learn about the conflict from people who were experiencing it firsthand. And from a small dose of empathy like that, great things can come.

People’s circumstances may be wildly different from our own. We may not always fully understand what it might be like to be in those circumstances. But we can struggle mightily to get there. Reaching out to other people and keeping their dignity utmost in their minds will build a world in which we are all kinder, and more equitable to those around us, because it will allow us to see their true concerns.

And, little by little, by keeping in mind that it is a matter of life and death, and of our most fundamental commandments, we will come to build a world that truly embraces life.

March 26, 2013

In Honor of the Supreme Court Deciding on Proposition 8

Filed under: Social Justice — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 3:50 pm

I think this article sums up my feelings on the subject beautifully.

Because we live in a country where it is still legal to fire someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in 34 states. That is more than half.

Because we live in a country where 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, many of whom are forced out of their homes when their parents discover their sexual orientation.

Because we live in a country where rhetoric around public assistance still focuses on marriage as the be all end all to help people, especially women with children, escape poverty (and that rhetoric is unhelpful at best, and actively pernicious at worst).

Because we live in a country where the rich give about half as much of their income to charity as the poor do.

It is beyond important that anyone who chooses should be able to make a family, whether that is through marriage or through other means. And everyone, especially those who build non-normative lives and families, deserve respect, dignity, and justice.

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.

March 5, 2013

Income Inequality in America

Filed under: Social Justice — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 12:02 pm

This is a really good graphical representation of some really horrifying shit.

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.

January 18, 2013

Well, this seems a bit outrageous

Filed under: Jewish Communitty, Social Justice — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 6:09 pm

Well, this seems a bit outrageous

Seeds of Peace is not a terrorist organization. Jews of color are real Jews. And shame on anyone who behaves otherwise.

A Tool for Teaching Big Scary Concepts to Kids

Filed under: Social Justice — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 5:57 am

There is this nifty new tool called the Up-Goer 5, that forces a person to write using only the 1000 most common words in the English Language. A favorite feminist blogger of mine, Ozy Frantz, has used this to write easy-to-understand definitions of some complicated social justice topics. I may use this as a classroom tool to help my kids process some of the topics (like mitzvot, prophecy, and God) that we’ve been working on this year. I may also, when I’m done with my series on Reconstructionism, use the tool to define difficult theological and religious ideas.

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.

December 20, 2012

Thoughts About Terrible Things

Filed under: Choosing Life — Tags: , , , , , — marleyweiner @ 4:31 am

So, this thing happened. And people died. Babies died. And I simultaneously want to talk about it, and I don’t really have the words.

Evil is real. People choose to do awful things to one another, to hurt each other, to kill each other. There are many reasons that we can talk about why that is, the culture of violence, entitlement, and domination that we live in. The insane level gun access in this country. But no matter where we point the blame, the fact is that evil is as much a part of human life as good is. We have violent, nasty evil impulses, and sometimes people choose to act on those evil impulses and bring horror into the world.

What can we do about this as religious people? Our job is twofold. First of all, we must stand as prophets against this madness. We must say: this is enough. We cannot stand by while our neighbors are literally bleeding. We must write, speak, call, until the world begins to heal.

Second, we must stand as a force for love in our community. I have my kids to watch out for; I have to keep them feeling safe and loved and supported even while we talk about this terrible thing that happened. I have friends, family, classmates, and we all need to lean on each other and love each other. We are  community, and the only way to stand against the evil in this world is by sharing our love for one another, over and over again until people truly feel loved and brave and whole. This is what God is for, to look evil in the face and say, there is a force greater than you, that will heal the destruction that you have wrought, that will fight tooth and nail to keep it from ever happening again.

Here is an organization that you can check out to learn more about fighting gun violence in Philadelphia.

As of today, there is legislation being proposed in the Senate for an assault rifle ban. You can contact your Senator here.

Blessings of love, peace, and healing for the families whose children were murdered. May you find support and love in this horribly dark time.

June 20, 2012

Homeless Queer Youth

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 3:05 am

Homeless Queer Youth

This article is old, but the problem of homeless youth in New York is not new, and is only getting worse. There are far fewer shelter beds than people who need them, which leads to children sleeping on the streets. While I’m afraid that I didn’t post this in a time sensitive fashion, it is still vitally important that we as a community see the faces and hear the stories of this country’s most vulnerable citizens.

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