You Shall Pursue

October 27, 2013

Parshat Chayyei Sarah: Love in all its Forms

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 5:54 pm

I delivered this D’var Torah at my student pulpit on October 26

This week has been all about weddings. Last Sunday, I was privileged to officiate at a wedding between two of my close friends. The day after, I learned that Governor Christie has no plans to appeal the New Jersey court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in this state. And this week we read Chayyei Sarah, a Torah portion that contains a funeral and two weddings. And I am struck, this week, by the restorative power of love and family and the beauty of binding together in covenant with the one that you love. And of what a blessing it is to be able to honor those commitments.

After last week’s parsha, Isaac is not doing so well. He has just been nearly sacrificed by his father. And the strain on their relationship shows; the text never describes another relationship between the man and his son.

And yet Abraham still cares about his son, and his welfare, so he sends his right hand man to find perhaps the feistiest woman in Torah, his niece Rebecca, to be his son’s wife. And the text tells us that, upon meeting her, “Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”

Isaac is able to move on from the trauma of the last chapter, and begin a new family with this woman by his side.

Which brings me to New Jersey’s recent acceptance of same-sex marriage. While our rabbis may not have recognized same-sex couples, they do recognize the fundamental power in having a life partner. In tractate kiddushin in the Talmud, the rabbis explain that a requirement for good parenting is to find one’s son a proper spouse. Students are not able to study the mysteries of Kabbalah unless they are married. In general, our tradition teaches that access to love and partnership are one of the most fundamental human needs, the grounding through which the rest of life comes. And while certainly not all of us seek to find love and connection through romantic partnerships, it is a cruelty to deprive people who want that connection from the ability to honor and celebrate their love.

In our story, Abraham is adamant that not any woman will do for his son; she must be of his kin. And the servant seeks her out not by beauty or status, but by her kindness towards a stranger. And it is because of her good heart and good sense that she is able to serve as the mother of the family dynasty; correctly predicting which of Isaac’s children is the fit inheritor.

This text teaches us that when two people of “like kind,” find each other, that is a blessing. When two people of similar morals and values come together to find each other, it is a rare and beautiful miracle. As such, I am thrilled by this decision to allow recognition of more kinds of supportive partnerships.

And when I was watching the videos of the recent weddings on the steps of the Paramount Theater in New Jersey, and as I watched the faces of my dear friends on Sunday, I was struck by the utter joy on those faces. Not just of the faces of the marrying couples, but also of the watching witnesses, of friends and family, of everyone who is able to participate at weddings. As Jews, we know that it is our duty to turn out in style to celebrate weddings, to send couples into the world with communal support. And having just been part of creating a ceremony that helped two people that I love to bind to one another, I realize what a blessing it is for an entire community to participate in the celebration of a marriage. When we do not celebrate, when we allow fear and bigotry to get in the way of joy, it is not just the couple that suffers, it is the entire community.

As such, there is more work to be done. I am thrilled by recent rabbinic and local government support for gay marriage in my home state, but Pennsylvania may still be years away from overturning its same-sex marriage ban. And it is certainly not the only state in which same-sex partnerships are second-class partnerships.

As a concerned citizen who loves many people in same-sex partnerships, including many of my professors and class-mates, and the president of my school, it pains me deeply that people I care about are told that their love and commitment is less-than. I owe it to them, as we all owe it to the people we are about, to fight for recognition of loving bonds, however they may look. No person should have to fight for the right for their friends and loved ones to dance at their wedding.

The story of Isaac and Rebecca is a story of love and life after loss. May all of us be blessed to find such support in our lives to help us through the hard times and challenges. And may all of us be blessed to help to support and celebrate the brides and grooms in our lives, whomever they may love.

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 15, 2013

Doer of Good and Creator of Evil

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — marleyweiner @ 11:24 pm

For the second time since I have started rabbinical school, the news is buzzing with some horrifying evil. Last time I found myself scared and sad. This time, I’m feeling pissed.

How dare the evil people of this world keep blowing away innocents? How dare they? I was speaking to a good friend today, and she is a runner, and now she is freaking out at the idea of doing this thing that she loves, because someone had to go and blow it up. And several months ago, I had to go through aching sadness every time I looked at my pupils because someone decided it would be a good idea to go and murder some kids. 

We were given this incredible capacity, as social animals. We are bonded to each other, we seek each other out for comfort and love. And we have great capacity for love. This beautiful piece by s.e. smith shows the power of our capacity for love and supporting one another in times of crisis. And that is a truly miraculous thing.

But our power to love each other gives us also the power to wound tremendously, the power to produce twisted, stunted, evil people who think that it is acceptable to hurt other people to deal with their own darkness, their own anger, their own vicious sick brokenness. I don’t claim to know what would drive someone to cause this sort of destruction. But this is a real a piece of the human condition as our capacity for love. And that is fucking enraging.

Why, oh Creator of the Universe, did you create us so imperfect? What was your plan, in making us so ready and willing to hurt each other?

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 7, 2013

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Filed under: Choosing Life, Spirituality — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 7:10 pm

The beauty and fragility of family narrated by a brilliant kid. I see great things in store for him…

March 4, 2013

Amanda Palmer’s TED talk

Filed under: Choosing Life — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 7:36 pm

The Jewish community has a lot to learn from Amanda Palmer.

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.

May 23, 2012

Wholeness, Perfection, and American Consumption

Filed under: Choosing Life — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 3:47 am

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, during this time, plagued with anxiety that I was failing at everything: my job, my dating life, my quest toward rabbinical school, everything. And in the past year, 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, even broken and damaged.


This Wall is Mine Too

This Wall is Mine Too

I have lots of other ideas percolating that I will get around to sharing, I promise. In the meantime, this is an important story about the dangers of state control of religion, and of religious hegemony. The kotel is a holy site for ALL Jews, not just the ones with regressive ideas about women’s ability to control their religious expression. And it is deeply troubling to me that this particular interpretation has consistent police backing.

Blog at