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Reinventing Rituals: June, A Month of Pride and Same-Sex Marriages



This post originally appeared on Pursue. It is the second in a series on reinventing Jewish rituals (which I will be writing for Pursue). To read the first post on memorials/yartzeits, click here.

June is full of irony: not only is June Pride month, but it is also the unofficial start to wedding season. So many are still fighting for equal marriage. As I write this, lawmakers in Albany are struggling to garner enough votes to make same-sex marriage legal in New York state (see resources to get involved at the end of this post).

As someone who works at the world’s largest LGBTQ synagogue, CBST (Congregation Beit Simchat Torah) I see firsthand how the denial of civil rights affects our families. I also get to see what an amazing tribute it is to the Jewish tradition to have so many people who are deeply rooted in religion, spirituality, and tradition create a community unique to them. Instead of allowing themselves to be turned off by communities who are still figuring out their “stance” on homosexuality, they have a home where their whole identity is able to come together and thrive with others who accept them for who they are and don’t focus on how they do not fit with the “heteronormative” family.

Within Judaism, what does it mean to have a same-sex marriage? What are some of the opportunities for reinventing this ritual? Rabbis debate this topic just as many states debate same-sex marriage bills across the country.

Much of the contemporary Jewish conversation on same-sex marriage draws on pieces of Torah and explains how to reinterpret them in an inclusive way for our same-sex couples, namely, the “be fruitful and multiply” directive. Rabbi Arthur Waskow asks, “Can we not interpret this as ‘to be fruitful and expansive emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually rather than biologically?’ Furthermore, same-sex couples may not have the biological ability to reproduce but with modern technology this no longer means they do not have the ability to create a family.

As Jewish movements struggle with the issue of same-sex marriage in their own communities, countless conversations occur amongst rabbis as to what clergy groups’ official position on same-sex marriage should be. The Reform movement in 2000 voted to adopt a resolution stating “the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”

What do “appropriate” Jewish rituals look like? The basic Jewish marriage consists of the following (in a nutshell):

Marriage Contract (Ketubah)
Canopy (Chupah)
Exchanging Rings
Seven blessings (Sheva Brakhot)
Breaking the glass

While Rabbis change their stances according to their various interpretations of Torah it is important to make sure LGBTQ Jews have a place they can turn for rituals in their lives, including marriage. If you have a litany of weddings to attend this summer, you’ll realize pretty quickly that every wedding is different and dependent on the couple’s custom, so there is a lot of room for interpreting these different components and imbuing them with meaning based on the couple’s values.

Because the traditional Jewish wedding choreography is gender specific, a re-imagining of the different components of the marriage ceremony is necessary. This can be done by same-sex and heterosexual couples, all in the name of promoting marriage equality.

Listed below are some variations of the basic rituals and traditions to get an idea of how you can change your own ritual to be LGBTQ inclusive. Hopefully you’ll see some of these at weddings this summer season!

(From Central Conference of American Rabbis Working Group on Same-Gender Officiation)

Circling:
One person circles the other 3x, then they switch, and they take hands and circle together for a total of 7x.

Kiddush:
Couple holds the cup together.

Rings:
Exchanged and prayers recited, with language such as… “by this ring are you consecrated unto me before God and these witnesses in the spirit of our people,” or “this is my beloved and my friend.”

Breaking the glass:
Broken together, or two glasses broken.

To recognize the continued struggle for equality:
Because so many gays and lesbians sadly still know the oppression and pain of hiding, because so many gays and lesbians still lack equality of civil rights in our world, we break a glass/glasses on this day of celebration to remind us that even in this hour of great joy, our world is still incomplete and in need of healing. May the time be soon, speedily and in our day, when all who are in hiding shall be free and all who are in exile shall come home.

May the shattering of these glasses by _________ and ___________ remind them and us to work towards this time of wholeness, this tikkun, for ourselves and our world. Amen.

How will you be re-imaging the Jewish wedding this summer?

Take action today towards equal marriage rights in New York:
Join friendfactor
Call your senator!
Video: CBST Rabbi Kleinbaum in active protest with Hasidic Rabbi in Albany

Resources:
List of LGBTQ friendly synagogues- Keshet
Resources for Torah related learning- Jewish Mosaic
Kulanu: All of Us A Program and Resource Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Inclusion by the URJ Press

See you in July! Tacklingtorah will be taking the week after Pride off to re-coup abroad!

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Reinventing Rituals: Memorializing our Soldiers and Loved Ones


When we think about rituals, we often think about traditions that have been handed down over generations. However, this isn’t entirely true. All rituals were at some point brand-new and have caught on because they have brought meaning into the lives of those looking for a concrete way to mark the passage of time or an event in their lives.

There are common rituals in Judaism that we observe at lifecycle moments such as a bris (welcoming a male baby into the Jewish covenant), bar mitzvah (entering Jewish adulthood), wedding, and death. And then there are ceremonies that have developed over time. Many liberal movements began to incorporate similar ceremonies for women such as a brit bat (Hebrew naming ceremony) or a bat mitzvah. More recently, we’ve begun to see ceremonies which mark different challenges in our lives such as healing services or prayers for a new home.

As our religion evolves with our society we can question where there are moments in our lives that we can turn to ritual to find comfort in an occasion where we mourn or celebrate. Was there ever a moment in your life that you wished you knew what to do to either reflect or pray for what was happening? Those are times when a ritual may have been helpful. Rituals can act as something tangible to hold onto, like ritual objects, or serve as a way to come together around communal prayer in order to bring peace and significance to a certain moment.

As part of a new series on the Pursue blog, I will be examining the reinvention of rituals in our lives. How do we as young Jews either embrace traditions and/or start our own? Whether buying a new car, shifting into a new job, hearing of a natural disaster or experiencing a miscarriage, there are moments in our lives where we may not know where to turn and how to pray. For these times we can create meaningful rituals for ourselves which incorporate our own practices of Judaism with the reinvention of rituals.

Ritual #1: In honor of Memorial Day let’s examine how we honor and memorialize those we have lost in our lives, both the known members of our own communities and the unknown members of our global community. Judaism has several rituals when it comes to honoring the dead. We may choose to name a new child after those we have lost, or purchase a book plate, plaque, or seat in a synagogue we belong to. Those are all tangible items through which we can show our appreciation and memory for the lost individual in our lives. For an ongoing ritual, many people observe a Yartzeit or annual anniversary of the death by lighting a memorial candle and saying Kaddish in synagogue to show that we continue to be in mourning regardless of how much time has passed since our loss.

Memorial Day is often regarded as the start of summer rather than a meaningful national holiday. On a day where we rejoice in the extra day off from school or work and bask in the outdoors and at barbecues, how do we reflect on all of those who gave their lives for our country? How do we “memorialize” them? Both personally and communally we have losses in our lives that are greater than we realize and greater than the rituals we currently maintain for them.

I often find the easiest way to reinvent a ritual is to break it down first in order to discover what it is I’m marking. This way the ritual I create can be most meaningful to me for the particular occasion I’m observing. On a personal level, this July I will lead the graveside service for my uncle’s unveiling (one year Yartzeit) and will have to discover what it is that is meaningful to say for my particular family. On a communal level, this week I will reflect on the lives lost by American soldiers engaged in wars overseas and what I pray for their future.

Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives in Brooklyn led a workshop for CBST’s (Congregation Beit Simchat Torah) Transforming Beitecha Conference last month in which we discussed developing Jewish rituals. She taught the group a good technique to use to determine if rituals still apply to the needs of today’s Jews. You can use a formula to ask questions of what the ritual is about and then determine who it is for and who is being left out. This way when you look to re-invent a ritual you will have a clearer understanding of the initial goals.

Let’s break down Yartzeit and its meaning in our lives (you can do this for yourself with whatever ritual you want to break down):

Case #1
Yartzeit is defined as: annual memorial for loss of a loved one
Who: the mourner observes a day of memory for the deceased
What: a symbolic candle is lit
Where: at home or in synagogue Kaddish is recited three times
When: on the Hebrew date of death annually
Why: to remember a loved one
How: alone or communally candle is lit and prayers are said

Then take a moment to decide what your personal goal in observing a ritual may be, since this may decide how you observe the ritual. When I observe Yartzeits in my life I like to spend the day remembering what that person brought into my life and the positive memories that I still have of them. I also like to have tangible objects like pictures or clothing that remind me of them close by so I can find comfort in their continued presence in my life.

Does Memorial Day have a Jewish connection in your life? Why do we celebrate Memorial Day? What are rituals we can create to better understand our link as Jews and as Americans to this historic day of honor and memory?

This Memorial Day I invite you as American Jews to think about how those within your own community have honored our country. Maybe your father, grandfather, great-grandfather served in either World War II, Vietnam, or the Korean War. Maybe you know someone who is serving now, a friend or peer. What does this connection to people who fight for America mean to you? Whether they are close to you or not, whether you believe in our current wars or not, what does it mean to have people give their lives for your safety? And how do you show your appreciation and honor those who put their lives at risk by protecting and acting for a more just world? This year I will reach out to my peers who I know have served and express my gratitude as I continue to pray for peace. For me, ritual is finding meaning in and expressing my gratitude for the things I have and the people in my life. Other goals may be to read about or share stories with those who have fought as American soldiers or to attend an event that honors the men and women who fight today.

What actions will you take? And how will you remember those whom you personally have lost and whom our country has lost this year?

You can find this series on "Reinventing Rituals" cross-posted at Pursue:
http://www.pursueaction.org/rituals-renewed-memorializing/

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The Modern Haggadah Part 2: New Voices and the Reactionary

This year I tried something new at my family’s Seder. We used a new Haggadah! After researching various Haggadot, I picked: The Wandering is Over Haggadah: Including Women’s Voices, created by www.Jewishboston.com, and the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, MA. These two organizations represent my liberal Jewish values, and the voices of various Jews, including Jewish women. I thought talking about women’s rights’ as part of our annual reflection on liberation would be a good first choice for my family due to the many strong women and emphasis on education our family has.

While I did not expect it to be a smooth transition, I was shocked by the backlash I received. The argument against a newly introduced Haggadah was that I had re-written Jewish history, and that Judaism is about tradition, the story of the past, and not the current political struggles we face. It caused me to question how we successfully enact change. If things are to remain stagnant in our history and we are simply to retell the past what purpose does that serve? What are we learning, discussing, and how are we using our history to create change? I recognize that change is slow, but to me learning about our Jewish past ensures that we as Jews have empathy for others current need for liberation.

One of the most common phrases repeated in torah is “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We learn as Jews not to oppress the stranger. That phrase from the Torah is Jewish tradition, and a value that we are told to pass on, it is a piece of our history. Do we recognize the strangers in our current society? Are we able to understand their need for liberation and how we as Jews can ensure that they are not oppressed since we faced a similar fate in Egypt?

I learned that storytelling is only a powerful tool if we are highlighting all our voices. This new Haggadah never once changed the rituals, and history of the story that my family was used to, instead it added the narrative of women in both biblical times and liberation that is more recent. Aren’t the stories of the women who were present also needed to get the full picture of our Jewish history? Just because past Haggadot may have been written in a different time, where men dictated the story, does not mean we still live in that world today. As we make ripples towards change, we need to make sure our goals for equity are synonymous with our actions.

We have the ability to highlight voices that were a part of the Passover story such as Shifra, Puah, and Miriam who saved Jewish babies from being killed in the Nile. Their actions helped lead the Jews towards liberation! I refuse to stand by hearing the history of my ancestors and learn nothing from it except a heart-warming story of our freedom. The story in the Haggadah teaches me to fight for others’ liberation and justice. It teaches me to discuss reforming policies in our country and to help the stranger around the world. I struggle with how to create change with the reactionary’s aversion to new ideas.

If you did one thing this year at your Seder, I hope it was prompting discussion on current needs for liberation. Change happens slowly but when we tell our story of liberation we do so to challenge ourselves and others, to remember our own liberation, and why it is important to feel as if we were personally slaves in Egypt. By remembering our enslavement, we “recall” what history has taught us, and what it feels like to be the other. When we tell the story of liberation, we strengthen our need to not stand idly by in others’ struggles towards freedom.

Further reading:
Nytimes article: Put yourself in the story of Passover
Nytimes article: An Oyster on the Seder plate
JWA: Jewish Women's voices in the seder

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The Modern Haggadah: re-telling the Passover story


By: Elyssa Cohen, Tacklingtorah and originally posted at Pursue: Action for a just world. (I'm starting to write with Pursue, so be sure to share and comment on my posts!)

This year, how do we incorporate current abuses of civilian rights with our Jewish ancestors’ fight for freedom?

With Passover quickly approaching it’s a good time to stop and reflect on the power of storytelling. Our stories have the ability to create change. What is the story that your family tells on Passover? Has the same Haggadah been used annually since you were in utero?

Now’s the time to change! Many Jewish organizations are taking time to consider re-telling the story of Passover as a social change agent for current struggles of freedom. Evaluating the story of Passover gives us the opportunity to reflect, and share a story of an oppressed people in the vein of both remembering and not allowing history to repeat itself. What is the narrative of those who are currently oppressed?

Who has the ability to share their story, and who’s listening?

As young Jews acting for social change are we at liberty to speak of a narrative that may not be our own?

Isn’t Passover the best opportunity we have to share with a large number of people the causes we care about? I hope this year you are able to step up and create awareness within your family about those who are fighting for their freedom today. Create your own modern Haggadah, and tell the new story of freedom. We know that personal stories have the ability to garner a certain amount of empathy for people to connect with strangers, but I don’t anticipate everyone going out and writing their own Haggadah about Libyan families. The good news is you don’t have to write your own Haggadah from scratch, but you can make it personal to account for the social justice work that you do! Choose this year to talk about the fight within the LGBT community for marriage rights and transgender equality, healthcare equality, civil rights in Egypt, Libya, freedom from world hunger, the Japanese struggle as they repair from natural disaster devastation, to name a few.

While the original freedom story remains stagnant, our world around us changes and we as the next generation of Jewish leaders have to bring those around us towards liberation.

The new way to celebrate Passover is by creating your own Haggadot, so go ahead get rid of the Maxwell house Passover Haggadahs and treat yourself to freedom for the future!

It’s a Do-It-Yourself narrative this year. Over the next week, Pursue will share reflections on current issues of liberation, and ideas for additions to your Passover seder.

In the meantime, here are some resources for your own modern Haggadot. I challenge you to inspire your family with new traditions:

Compiling your own meaningful texts

Incorporating multi-media into your Seder

The Wandering is Over Haggadah, from ‘Jewish Boston’

Elyssa Cohen has been involved in social justice work since high school, when she founded a chapter of the ADL’s education program “A World Of Difference” at her public school. Elyssa has always valued a strong sense of community, and has been involved in a variety of different organizations whose mission reflects this goal. Elyssa was a Jewish Organizing Initiative fellow in Boston and worked as the Community Organizer of Keshet, an organization working for the full inclusion of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender individuals within the Jewish Community. Elyssa is happy to have moved back to NY and to have joined the staff at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in the West Village. Elyssa is in the constant pursuit of justice! Check out more of Elyssa’s Jewish social justice writing at www.tacklingtorah.blogspot.com.

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