Rabbi raised in S.F. offers a prescription for spirituality

Prayer is fine. Torah study is fine. But to really pack the pews at his Seattle synagogue, Rabbi Daniel Weiner straps on his guitar and leads the shul band in a raucous, twice-monthly Rock Shabbat.

He knows injecting a little MTV-style pizzazz into Jewish worship may seem a bow to pop culture, admitting, “You need to find attractive modes to connect people to transcendent values.”

The intersection of faith, culture and society fascinates Weiner. So much so, he wrote a book about it, “Good God: Faith for the Rest of Us.” It’s part autobiography, part diatribe and part prescription for anyone seeking an outlet for spiritual impulses.

 

Rabbi Daniel Weiner photo/cathleen maclearie

Excoriating religious fundamentalists on one hand and “wacky militant atheists” on the other, he urges the majority in the middle to seek a home for their spiritual longings.

 

For Jews, that usually means their friendly neighborhood synagogue.

Said Weiner, “People are searching in all the wrong places rather than giving another look to faith traditions that they perhaps rejected when they were 13 years old. It’s arrested spiritual development. Much of what they rejected would really serve their purposes.”

Though he also knocks ersatz New Age spirituality (including Madonna-style Kabbalah-lite), Weiner reserves special ire for Christian fundamentalism, which he feels uses its sizeable political power to chip away at pluralism and tolerance.

But he holds the powerful ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel in equally low regard.

“It’s just as pernicious in its own way as Christian fundamentalism in this country,” he said. “This is a concern as old as Scripture. That’s what the Prophets were prophesying against: the co-opting of spiritual authority for temporal power.”

Growing up in a tolerant San Francisco perhaps influenced his pluralistic views. Weiner is the son of Rabbi Martin Weiner, the longtime senior rabbi, now retired, of Congregation Sherith Israel.

Though he followed in his father’s professional footsteps, Weiner admits he was a bit of a rebellious teen, chafing at the notion of being the “rabbi’s son.”

“It was my hangup,” he said. “But I loved growing up in San Francisco. There was a wonderful model for progressive Jewish experience — in terms of social justice issues, spiritual creativity, my experiences at Camp Swig. I was of that last generation when the city was still on the cusp of becoming the behemoth it is now. It still possessed some of that smaller community feel.”

Weiner graduated from UCLA in 1986 with a degree in communications and then pursued the rabbinate. In 2001 he became senior rabbi at Temple De Hirsch Sinai, a 1,400-family Reform synagogue in Seattle.

Weiner said with only 20 percent of Seattle’s 40,000 Jews affiliating, the Pacific Northwest is a challenging place to “ply the shul trade.” But, he added, “It’s the ‘New York, New York’ of religion. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

For him, “making it” often comes on the bimah at those Rock Shabbats, a blend of communal worship and personal spiritual devotion. Not to mention some killer licks.

“These days my most impactful spiritual experiences are when I lead a Rock Shabbat service,” Weiner noted. “When I’m playing the Sh’ma with this group of people, when I’m hitting the groove, that for me is the ultimate moment of transcendence.”

And for Jewish spiritual seekers who don’t play a Fender Stratocaster, Weiner sums up the advice he gives in his book.

“No one is asking you to become ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and start eating cholent tomorrow,” he said. “Make a little effort to step in a few synagogues, to connect to a Jewish class, see a Jewish lecture. It’s all out there, in front of you already. You just need to be a bit more open to it.”

“Good God: Faith for the Rest of Us” by Daniel Weiner ($24, Classic Day Publishing, 156 pages)

 

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.