LGBT Rabbinic Reflections

LGBTQ+ Rabbinic Groundbreaker Rabbi Eric Weiss: ‘The Great Deficit of Breaking Any Ceiling Is That You Have to Be Careful of the Shards’

This Pride Month, the Central Conference of American Rabbis is lifting up an important community within the Reform rabbinate: the groundbreaking LGTBQ+ rabbis who were amongst the first rabbis to express themselves openly, who paved the way—and often fought for—LGBTQ+ acceptance and inclusion in the Reform rabbinate and in the Jewish community.

Generations of LGBTQ+ Jews have lived closeted lives because of outright discrimination and more subtle forms of bias and rejection that have dominated much of Jewish history, including the history of our Reform Movement and the CCAR itself. We are committed to continuing to learn how to rectify the erasures of the past and to embrace all of our colleagues.

While the Reform Movement has advocated for LGBTQ+ inclusion for decades, for many queer rabbis, the personal experience of navigating sexuality in rabbinical school, or being the first out rabbi at a synagogue, in an organization, or even in their city or community, was a fraught, sometimes painful experience, often marked with judgment, shame, or even overt discrimination. 

We share these moments of truth, and we also share important moments of joy and hard-won milestones. We honor the experiences of queer Reform rabbis, their meaningful contributions, and above all else, we thank them for showing up as their authentic selves and bringing diversity and wholeness to the rabbinate and to their communities.

“Neitzei hasadeh—Let us go forth and let our message ring out, that God loves us all, that we love us all, and that love conquers all.” [Based on Song of Songs 7:12]

I was first admitted to rabbinical school, through the Hebrew Union College Los Angeles campus under the deanship of Rabbi Lenny Thal, in 1979, after my graduation from the University of California at Santa Cruz. I declined my admission, requested a deferment for a year, was granted the deferment to 1980, and subsequently declined the deferment. It wasn’t time.

In 1979, I came out as a gay man and moved to San Francisco, where I spent five formative years. During this time, I worked in law firms, attended Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, taught religious school with my sister at Congregation Sherith Israel, and relished the gay life of San Francisco. The era between the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969 and the first reported cases of AIDS in the United States in 1981 was extraordinarily celebratory for gay men. We broke down paradigms and rebuilt them into new communal structures and relational interactions. It was a glorious era. In a heterocentric world, this period is frequently cast as one of sexualized abandon, with life and death consequences. Such homophobic and transphobic tropes have served to diminish sexual identity, gender identity, and otherwise maintain a level of heterocentric hegemony that has denied to this day a medical cure for AIDS.   

With the onset of the AIDS pandemic, I became among the first gay and lesbian hospice volunteers, first with the Coming Home Hospice and then with the Shanti Project, to serve primarily gay men dying of AIDS. These deeply spiritual experiences not only resurrected my interest in reapplying to rabbinical school but also stimulated my curiosity to learn more about spiritual care as a Jewish theological practice. In 1982, I re-applied to rabbinical school, through the Los Angeles campus, under the deanship of Rabbi Lee Bycel, and was accepted, this time as an openly gay student. I began rabbinical school in the fall of 1983.     

There were many points of great support along the way. In Jerusalem, when I wrote an essay that was gay-themed, I received it back with the same grammatical corrections as any other essay I wrote. I met gay Israelis, and, in what seemed an unofficial student mark of Jerusalem life, I had an Israeli boyfriend.

In 1984, upon my arrival to the Los Angeles campus, I had the great luck of landing into a class filled with love, kindness, and great humor. There, Rabbi Stanley Chyet, z”l, sought me out and in a private meeting assured me that my ordination would never be threatened. In 1986, in a private meeting on the Los Angeles campus, then-CCAR President Rabbi Jack Stern, z”l, made clear that the CCAR would welcome me as an openly gay member. My Los Angeles peers elected me to represent the student-body in rabbinical school admission interviews. I still remember an orientation evening with Rabbi Lee Bycel, the L.A. Dean, who said, “Never forget your peers, you will need each other over the years.” For me, his wisdom was prescient. I believe our collegiality is our individual health. Nobody knows what it is to be a rabbi but another rabbi. In 1987, on the New York campus of HUC-JIR, my peers elected me student body president. In the day-in and day-out life of HUC-JIR, it was my peers who gave me an abiding comfort and satisfaction in the midst of the challenges that we all face as we are formed into a rabbinic identity.  

But, there were terrible moments of crassness. A Talmud professor in Los Angeles spoke of a gay man sitting on a fire hydrant, and the sexualization that image invokes as a metaphor to explain the legal principle, shev v’al ta’aseh. Conversations, casual or formal, about officiation at “gay weddings” were filled with spineless and p’shat reflections from rabbi-professors such as “I am glad I have never been asked so that I haven’t ever had to say no.” Discussions of the efficacy of LGBTQI+ synagogues (the entirety of these letters did not exist then) were held as if the most important theological point was that “those people” only want the freedom to kiss one another with “Shabbat Shalom” at the end of a service. The most painful parts of this prejudice still are the extraordinary use of professors’ God-given minds to skew theology into pure prejudice. This cloak of prejudice derails, even to this day, rabbinic careers and causes great economic, social, and personal harm. That this remains without t’shuvah is one of the real stains on HUC-JIR. There were many nights, as I fell asleep, that I was grateful for the enduring power of my Gay-Jewish identity—an identity that was strengthened during my prior years in San Francisco—so that the bruises of prejudice never went deeper than my skin.  

San Francisco became a throughline in the years following my ordination. I spent the entirety of my formal rabbinate in San Francisco. Some might look from the outside and say “how lucky,” but in truth, I didn’t have a choice. I had one solid job offer when I was ordained in 1989, at the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco. I got that job offer because I had gone through the Los Angeles-based School of Education. I then sought further training in clinical pastoral education and spiritual direction—a continuation of the spiritual path that began in those early years of the AIDS pandemic, but also an opening to new job possibilities to continue to be a rabbi. In many of these places I remained the first of something. In many places, I yearned to follow someone else. The great deficit of breaking any ceiling is that you have to be careful of the shards. 

I was able to serve as the CEO of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center where I helped build the Jewish healing movement. From my own self-reflective practice of Jewish spiritual care, I have had the chance to contribute to a vocabulary of Jewish spirituality and care, develop programs of Jewish spiritual support, and help to define the spiritual narrative in illness, dying, and grief. I have been able to help create spiritual frames for the experience of mental illness, communal spiritual supports, and the ways a spiritual narrative supports Jewish adult identity development in bikur cholim.  

I have had the rabbinate I wanted. I entered HUC-JIR with the desire to go into “pastoral care.” The language of Jewish healing did not then exist. I have also had a rabbinate that never formally attached to the Reform Movement. While I sat on the CCAR board, was asked to write two books from the CCAR Press, and have been honored to work with CCAR leadership, my rabbinate was never supported by the Reform Movement. Today, too many of us can say the same. Our devoted rabbinic contributions to the Movement we love is actually from the outside. And, like many, I would never be the rabbi I am without my husband or without colleagues.   

History, I learned from my HUC-JIR professors, is not neutral. What happened happened from different perspectives, and no history is ever fully true until all perspectives are known. This is why we learn that history is never about the past. All history is an evolving story of love, pain, disappointment, jealousy, relief, celebration, triumph. This is why history is also human intrigue. This is why our own Torah narrative is so abiding to our common identity. This is why, after the destruction of our Temple in Jerusalem, our rabbinic mind formed a Jewish life that would be contemporary to every time. We all know that the realization of one’s own b’tzelem Elohim happens over time. And so then does any history. As soon as I realized that I was gay, in 1979, I “came out.” I was admitted to HUC-JIR as an openly gay student in 1983. I was ordained in 1989. So many of us LGBTQI+ folks end up caught in the heterocentric notions of “coming out.” And yet, we all know the countless ways in which revealing oneself are marked in the range of time. We who fully understand marking time and space, need to shed these heterocentric frames of “coming out” and rather develop our own markings of LGBTQI+ milestones. This is the ultimate theological task. Our b’tzelem Elohim is a diversity which is a testament to God’s unfathomable creativity. We have always existed in the rabbinic mind. Ours is to frame the covenantal relationship to ourselves and the Transcendent as a matter of Judaism’s continual canon for a vital Jewish life.   

Rabbi Eric Weiss was ordained in 1989 at the New York Campus of HUC-JIR. He is formally trained in Jewish education, clinical chaplaincy, and spiritual direction. He is a co-founder of Grief and Growing: A Healing Weekend of Individuals and Families in Mourning and of Kol Haneshama: Jewish End of Life/Hospice Volunteer Training Program. He is the editor of Mishkan R’fuah: Where Healing Resides and Mishkan Aveilut: Where Grief Resides, published by the CCAR Press. He is a founding co-president of the GLRN: Gay and Lesbian Rabbinic Network, now the QESHET listserve. He is executive director emeritus of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, where he served for 26 years. He served on the board of the CCAR and is a past president of the Northern California Board of Rabbis. Currently, he currently serves as a CCAR/HUC-JIR Mentor, and he is the Interim Co-executive director of Shalom Bayit, the Jewish community’s central voice for domestic violence in the Bay Area. He resides with his husband of 31 years, Dan, in Palm Springs, California.

Books Death Healing

Where Grief Resides: New Arenas of Expression

When our Temple stood in Jerusalem and was destroyed, the community entered a period of collective grief. In response, the Rabbis began to create a Judaism that would be viable to any contemporary time. The curiosity and imagination of the collective Rabbinic mind took a leap of faith: to contain the caution and fear brought forth at the destruction of the Temple by forming a transportable Jewish life that could live beyond the venue of Jerusalem and move with the people, no matter where they lived. Out of the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis strived to scaffold a Judaism that through its text study, holiday observance, historical perspective, and guidance for living would create templates for daily life: how to eat, how to conduct business, how to build community, how to teach, how to treat others, how to die, how to mourn, how to stand in Awe.

Out of this context, the Rabbinic imagination crafted a spiritual stance that encompasses the human experience of grief. They declared all mourners be greeted: HaMakom y’nachem etchem b’toch sh’ar aveilei Tzion virushalayim, “May the God who comforted the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem comfort you now in your grief.” With this, the Rabbis encapsulated the core paradox of grief: grief is a universal human experience, and each of us experiences it unto ourselves. The Rabbinic mind teaches us that for each person, our own grief is as cataclysmic as the destruction of the Temple. Every person’s individual loss is linked by the historic arc to the communal loss of our Temple.

This declarative link of historic fact to the inevitable human experience we all come to know binds our communal experience to every individual soul. Its resonance of the inner life with the outer historic experience is a generational vibration across the millennia that catapults us into a future that will forever be linked one generation to the next across time and space. It takes imagination, leaps of faith, curiosity, and the containment of caution to move through one’s own grief. Mourning may lead to new ways of seeing, acting, choosing, living. Grief may affirm our faith, it may alter it, it may destroy it, it may leave it untouched. Grief rarely ends a conversation. Rather, grief affirms the thrill and the disappointment of relationship. Death may take a body, but it cannot take a relationship; fraught or healed, relationships often continue after death. We may see our dead, if only in our peripheral vision; we may hear them, if only in memory; we may smell their scent, recall their touch.

Since the destruction of the Temple, our tradition has met each moment by threading our history into the present so that we can wrap ourselves in a fabric that warms the soul. All theology strives to frame our human experience into ritual, prayer, and spiritual reflection. We will never tire of this poetry because it is the endless form with which we express our deepest yearnings. Spiritual reflection—in prayer or ritual—is the form that allows us to link our history to our personal story. This glimpse into moments of life that yearn to be significant, comforting, of solace and succor, follow a path toward wholeness. From the secular to the religious, our natural spiritual hunger seeks nourishment. It is a desire that rises with a demanding vulnerability from the throes of grief and looks all around—inside, outside, and above, for anchor, for firm footing, for the horizon.

[The] collection, Mishkan Aveilut: Where Grief Resides, is an effort to provide the spiritual sustenance we all crave in the midst of one of life’s greatest vulnerabilities. Whether grief comes because a loved one died or one is relieved they have left this earth, we are filled with a loss that demands attention. At any moment along the spiritual journey we can be filled with either surety or doubt. We may struggle with language, metaphor, and theology, or we may find them satisfying. Our hope is that the moment you enter into prayerful engagement here, the experience will bequeath you, across the millennia, your place within our people’s unbreakable relationship to God, Torah, and Israel. Vulnerability in any endeavor brings the soul’s yearnings into new arenas of expression. We hope that this healing book will help weave our human capacity for curiosity into our capacity for spiritual life.

Rabbi Eric Weiss is the CEO/President of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, and is the and the editor of both Mishkan R’fuah: Where Healing Resides  and Mishkan Aveilut: Where Grief Resides.