Categories
LGBT News Social Justice

The Supreme Court Today Accepted the CCAR’s Position: Title VII Bans LGBTQ Workplace Discrimination

Just less than a year ago, the CCAR joined with other faith groups in submitting an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court in the case of Bostock v. Clayton County.  At the time, I shared a message about what that brief said.

Today, the Court decided the case.  By a 6-3 vote, it held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bans workplace discrimination against LGBTQ individuals.  People who assume that the Court always votes on strict ideological lines will probably be surprised by this outcome and by the fact that Justice Neil Gorsuch, regarded by many as a safe conservative, authored the majority opinion.

One reason we keep producing amicus briefs is that neither this nor any other court can be so easily catalogued.  While judges have ideological tendencies, most of them do attempt to apply the law.  This decision used some very traditional legal reasoning to determine that the Civil Rights Act means what it says: treating a man differently from a woman, or vice versa, violates the law.  If a woman who is attracted to man cannot be fired for that reason, neither can a man who is attracted to men.  End of story.

Our brief dealt with whether there might be occasions where someone might not have to obey this law for religious reasons.  We said any such occasions were few and far between, and certainly didn’t come up here. The Court agreed with our second point.  If and when that question is legitimately presented in the future, we will again be prepared to share our views.

In the meantime, our most basic position was affirmed: federal law protects LGBTQ individuals from discrimination.  For today, that is reason enough to rejoice. 

Categories
Books gender equality LGBT Social Justice

On the Shoulders of Revolutionaries: Queering Jewish Texts and Reform Ritual

As a child, I could see myself becoming a rabbi. And now, as a queer rabbinic student, I can envision myself echoing the call of women rabbis who demanded to see themselves in tradition.

Queer readings of Jewish texts are liberating – they explode traditional categories of classification and rigid ways of thinking.  Rather than pushing readers toward clear cut understandings of biblical figures, aggadic material, and Jewish law, queer analyses of texts open up and shed light on multiple truths and ways of being in relationship to Jewish ritual and values. I believe that one feature of any sacred text is its ability to capture and say something about the human condition. Understanding a text through a queer lens has the power to not only locate universal human truths, but also to amplify these sacred elements, allowing us to see themes and characters as constantly changing. In opening texts to new meanings, we as people then have the permission and power to understand ourselves as constantly changing, traversing borders, and breaking down barriers. Queer theory also pushes us to challenge the binary nature of labels like, “sacred and profane,” acknowledging that the line between such categories is constantly shifting and permeable. When the boundary between sacred and profane is understood in this way, the brokenness and injustices of our world can become sites of sacred work, partnership, and healing.

While there are many scholars, clergy people, and Jewish organizations engaged in the project of queering Jewish space and text, I would argue that the power and full force of this work has not yet been incorporated into many Reform congregations. How would a “queering” of Jewish space look in mainstream Reform Judaism? Perhaps it would challenge our, often, hierarchical leadership structures, open up the possibility for new rituals in our congregational life, or push us to embrace and name every aspect of the human experience, like anxiety, joy, anger, and frustration in our worship. What would it mean for our congregations if gender was experienced not as a set of defined behaviors, but a fluid and ever changing category? Would there still be a brotherhood poker night? Or a sisterhood fashion show? When we free ourselves and our children from expectations of behavior based on constructed categories like gender, we open ourselves up to new understandings of proximity, social change, and justice – we understand that boundaries and borders set between people only grow wider and stronger when we refuse to cross them.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of celebrating the release of The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate at HUC-JIR in New York City. As part of this celebration, Rabbi David Adelson, Dean of the New York campus, moderated a panel discussion between three women whose rabbinates represent the influence of women on the American Jewish landscape. Addressing the packed chapel, Rabbis Sally J. Priesand, Rebecca Einstein Schorr, and Leah Berkowitz spoke about their experiences confronting and breaking open barriers as female clergy members. The powerful testimony of each rabbi made clear both the tremendous strides the reform movement has taken toward gender equality since Sally Priesand’s ordination in 1972, and the groundbreaking work female rabbis continue to do in teaching us new ways of being in the world.

As a female, third-year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR, I am a direct beneficiary of this work. Listening to these women share pieces of their respective rabbinic journeys, I could not help but feel tremendous gratitude for my ability to walk along their well-trodden paths. Growing up, watching Rabbi Leah Cohen, the rabbi of my home congregation, in action every Shabbat, it was never hard for me to imagine myself on the bimah or to see myself entering the rabbinate. When I applied to HUC-JIR, I didn’t see my application as an act of daring or courage, but rather the fulfillment of my childhood dream. But there is more to this story. Women rabbis have not just opened the door for young girls to see themselves in positions of Jewish leadership; they have also fundamentally infused the role and identity of the rabbi with endless possibility. As a child, I could see myself becoming a rabbi. And now, as a queer rabbinic student, I can envision myself echoing the call of women rabbis who demanded to see themselves in tradition. In creating and opening up new models of religious leadership, women rabbis have sewn the seeds for other forms of non-traditional engagement with Jewish texts and ritual, the harvest of which is in full-bloom.

Like Moses, Miriam, Jacob, the levitical priest, Judah the Prince, and countless other figures and innovators of our tradition – we have the power to cross boundaries, re-imagine ourselves, and to demand relevance and blessing from our tradition – to queer notions of identity and meaning in this world.

Hilly Haber is a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in NYC. Originally from New York, Hilly has a Masters of Theological Study from Harvard Divinity School and has worked in temples from Boston to Boulder.  Hilly is a rabbinic intern at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

 

 

 

 

Categories
LGBT

LGBT Pride Month: Hungry for Justice

It was quite a scene on the fourth day of Pesach in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rabbis from around the state (including several CCAR colleagues) had gathered in the State Legislative Building for a press conference denouncing H.B. 2 and calling upon the Legislature to repeal it. Following the press conference, we reassembled in the chapel for what we all assume was the first kriat hallel to be proclaimed in that space. Six rabbis each introduced a psalm with a reflection and then led an overflowing chapel in song and prayer.

I had the privilege of framing the service, and shared these words:

One of the things that makes the recitation of the Hallel come alive for me is the frequent and easy alternating between person. Like the psalms as a whole, there’s no pinning Hallel down as about either the individual or the collective. One moment we’re singing out as Israel, or even more expansively as “all who revere the Eternal One;” the next, we’re lamenting on our own, bringing forth our private pain. Psalm by psalm, and even verse by verse, the shift occurs.

What I learn from that shift is this: it’s for each of us to locate our own story within the larger story of a People, and all people. Standing on the Bicentennial Mall yesterday afternoon in that fusion coalition of black, brown and white, straight and queer, diverse in gender identity and expression, in means, in political views, I felt keenly who I was (a privileged, white, cisgender male, a Jew, a rabbi) and also with whom I stood. Standing here now, I feel my place no less keenly. Praying the Hallel today I am a small but not insignificant part of my people, of God’s people gone forth from Egypt, crossing the Jordan, marching to the Promised Land.

But I am also present with my own personal story of liberation. And my story is bound up with my son’s story. H.B. 2 seeks to use him as a wedge in a cynical political ploy for votes and power. In doing so, it makes him, and all transgender people in North Carolina, less safe. And while I’d be here with my colleagues today standing against H.B. 2 were I still the father of three daughters, as I pray this Hallel I will give thanks for the personal redemption that’s come to my family since my son learned more fully who he is, and began teaching the rest of us.

Pride Month is about celebrating newly-won rights and standing up where those rights are under attack. As a Reform Rabbi in North Carolina, and the father of a transgender son, I enter this month determined, and hungry for justice.

Rabbi Larry Bach serves Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina.

Categories
LGBT Social Justice

LGBT Pride Month: In The Wilderness We All Count

My high school years were spent in the desert of Southern California, but to me it felt more like a wilderness, vast and empty. During the summer it was so quiet that many shops and restaurants would close from Memorial Day until Labor Day.

But my mother had a different view. She knew that each person counts, especially in a wilderness, and so she would “collect strays,” people who didn’t quite fit in, who felt like they didn’t count.

Among the “strays” was Don. Don was tall, good looking and really funny. And he was a a 30 something gay man struggling against the challenges of not having family support, His joy and humor made an impression on me, a 14 year old kid, still in the closet.

My mom regularly brought in people who were on the outside; people whose family or community didn’t or wouldn’t support them. As a high school student in the 1970’s I saw how difficult life was for, people like Don, like me The discrimination of lesbians and gays, deprived them of even the most basic rights. So many battles for things we take for granted today, were yet to be fought. To be openly gay or lesbian came with so many risks, personally and professionally, against which there were no legal protections. To be accepted for who you were, to be in a safe place was a treasured gift. For Don and the others my mother welcomed at her work and into our lives, our home was an oasis. By modeling inclusion and hospitality, especially for these young men, I learned a lesson in acceptance and the value of each individual person.

Many decades have passed I am now at the opposite end of the continent, I live in Maine. Maine too is a wilderness for many people, after all it is a state reputedly with more moose than people. Here in this beautiful, sparsely populated place there are those who know the value of every person, every marriage, and every community. And they are willing to stand up and fight for the rights of others.

The best example of this valuing was demonstrated in the work done in 2011-12 to bring marriage equality to Maine. The marriage equality campaign understood the best way to educate our neighbors on the value of equality was to treat everyone as if they mattered. This meant walking door to door and meeting face to face. The goal was to meet and to educate, to share and to listen. The message of the campaign was about the value of marriage and marriage equality. Every marriage should count; every family be valued.

Today in Maine the conversation has shifted to ensuring the rights of transgender people. However, the message is the same, we all count, we all deserve to be safe in our communities, our state, and our country. There have been successes and yet there is much work to do.

Nearly every year, the LGBT pride month coincides with the reading of the Book of Numbers/B’midbar. The Book begins not only with the Israelites wandering in the wilderness traveling toward the Promised Land but also with a census of those on the trip. The dual titling of this book of the Torah teaches us an important lesson: In the Wilderness/B’midbar — Everyone Counts. Each one of us matters as we make our way to our common future. In fact that is is the only way we can reach the “promised land”. We are still wandering, though we are closer, and by joining in with your voice, you can help take us a step closer. Until every person matters we will always be wandering in a wilderness.


Rabbi Darah R. Lerner serves Congregation Beth El in Bangor, Maine

Categories
Death Healing Israel

Letter from Jerusalem: Love must win 

Thursday, July 30 was planned as a day of celebration of tolerance and acceptance, a day to embrace difference, a day to lift up diversity and cooperation in Israel’s capital as the municipality hosted Jerusalem’s gay pride parade. I arrived in Jerusalem and was delighted to see rainbow flags lining some of the main streets. Near the American Embassy a huge banner declared, in English letters, “LOVE WINS!” The message was repeated in languages from the region and from across the world.

When evening fell and the heat of the day dissipated, we learned of the twin acts of terror that crushed the hopes with which the day began. Eighteen month old Ali Dawabsheh was burned to death in his Duma home by ultra religious Jewish terrorists. One hour away, Shira Banki, walking with friends and classmates in Jerusalem’s gay pride parade, was stabbed by a man who had been released weeks earlier after serving ten years in prison for a similar attack on the 2005 Jerusalem parade. Shira died three days later. Ali’s father, Sa’ad died ten days later. Ali’s mother and 4 year old brother are being treated for major burns, and five other marchers are recovering from stab wounds.

The handwritten sign on the Banki’s door announced shiva from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. On Thursday, August 6th, we were the first to enter the shiva house. At first, we did not realize that we had been welcomed by Mika, Shira’s mother, because she seemed so young herself. “We are private people,” she said. “We asked that there be no press at the funeral, and none at the shiva, and they have been very respectful.” We leaned in to hear her as others joined us in the garden, a gracious outdoor space shared by the residents of the apartment building. “We recently celebrated our son’s Bar Mitzvah here. As we sat here, we realized it is a lovely space for a wedding. Perhaps, one day, Shira’s wedding. Here we are, with guests and tables filled with food, but this is not a wedding…”

We came with a gift, a book of 1720 signatures and notes of condolence from across the world, collected by the Israel Religious Action Center. Anat Hoffman, the Center’s director, had written Shira’s name on a stone that Shira’s mom held in her hand as she spoke. “The shiva is allowing me an additional week of not comprehending what has happened. Shira is the eldest of our four children. Our house is always open, always filled with our children and their friends. We raised our children to be open, to find their own voice, to walk their own path.”

We sat with Mika, we, four women who have also raised children, three of us now grandmothers. We came as representatives of thousands of others like ourselves who are stunned by the violence that, in one day, shattered the life of many families.

I have visited many shiva houses In the last fifty plus years. I have sat with many who have lost beloveds, both those who have suffered a sudden loss, and those who have sat for days and months at the bedsides of dear ones and watched helplessly as their lives slipped away.

As we sat in the Banki’s garden, we felt Shira’s absence and her presence. The photos of Shira introduced us to a smiling, engaged young woman, who would have celebrated her sixteenth birthday in three months.

This will be the third Shabbat since these twin attacks. When Shabbat ends, Jews across the world will welcome the month of Elul. Our tradition teaches the power of this last month of the year in which we prepare for Rosh HaShanah. Aleph, Lamed, Vav, Lamed, the four letters of the Hebrew name of the month, echo the words of the Song of Solomon, the Song of Songs: Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li: I am My Beloved and my Beloved is mine.

How can we love in the shadow of hate? Each new year we are challenged to Choose Life. Our tradition invites us to acknowledge our own fears of death when we sit with the bereaved. This is how we choose life.

Our Judaism urges us, even in the presence of senseless hatred, to affirm love. Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li.We inscribe these words of love on wedding rings and sing them as we celebrate love and commitment. These words direct this month of reviewing our days, reconsidering our choices, reaffirming our commitments.

We choose life when we weave these words into the oft-quoted words attributed to the ancient sage, Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

When love wins, we see that If I am not for myself, I cannot be present for another. When love wins, we understand that when we are only for ourselves, we cannot see even the beloved who is before me. When love wins, we grasp that the time is now. Now is the time to choose life, and love.

Our humanity is absolutely bound up with the humanity of others. There is no room for hate in our fragile, interdependent world. We can transform fear of the other into curiosity, and build respect in the place of ignorance.  There is only one people, one fate, one earth, one destiny. The perpetuation of a fiction of essential otherness is a recipe for annhilation.

Just as Eve and Adam left Eden, we took our leave of the Banki family in their garden. When shiva ended, they, too, left their garden. We must honor the memory of Shira Banki and the memories of Ali and Sa’ad Dawabsheh by choosing life, and love. Love must win.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is scholar in residence at Washington Hebrew Congregation. She is also the editor of The Open Door, the CCAR Haggadah (2002).

This blog was originally posted in Washington Jewish Week.

Categories
News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Love Wins: A Celebration of Gay Marriage

Long ago, our ancestors sang a song of celebration. God assembled the entire Israelite people to provide water for them all. The Israelites in return sang this song to God: “Spring up, O Well – sing to it – the well which chieftains dug, which nobles of the people started…”

This song celebrated the Israelites past, present, and future. They sang of those who dug the well: the pioneers who spent years building it and allowing for this moment to arrive. They also sang about water, the substance that allows for wholeness and life.

With last Friday’s Supreme Court ruling, we also sing a song of celebration. We celebrate LOVE; we celebrate that Love Wins. We celebrate that everyone in our country, whether you are gay, or straight, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender; whether you live in the Great State of New York or the Great State of Mississippi are free and able to marry the person who you love. Love Wins.

Our ancestors’ song was a long time coming. The previous song was sung 40 years earlier when the Israelites safely crossed the Sea of Reeds. In the meantime, there were 40 years of hardship, struggle, infighting, loss of hope, and being stuck in the wilderness with no clear path ahead.

For much more than 40 years, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans individuals have struggled. For decades, those who have a gay son or a lesbian sister or a friend or family member that identifies as LGBT, have struggled. This has been a long, difficult journey! Gay men and lesbians have fought homophobia for generations. We have been fired from our jobs solely because we were out; we have been bullied because of who we are; we have been punished by our state and federal government enduring constitutional amendments and the Defense of Marriage Act. We have been scared to hold hands in public afraid that horrific words would be sent our way or bottles would be hurled towards us, or worse.

As a gay man, I questioned my identity for years and hid quietly in the shadows of the closet, afraid to leave those suffocating walls because I was scared to be me – to be out – to be proud.

Luckily, I was able to come out and to meet the love of my life, Brian. But, when it came time to get married in 2008, New York State did not recognize same-sex marriage. We had a beautiful Jewish Wedding Ceremony, but our rights were not recognized by anyone, except us.

Two years ago, the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down and the US government was required to honor marriages in whatever state gay marriage was legal. Brian and I finally were married legally, with Caleb, our son, serving as our best man.

Our ancestors faced a very long journey, circling back and forth in the wilderness, looking for a path to the Promised Land. Forty years, occurred between that first song of celebration and the second song for the very source of being: for water and for LOVE.

Our society has faced a long painful journey of homophobia and discrimination. But, we have finally touched the Promised Land. Today, gay men in Georgia and Lesbian Couples in Utah can legally get married. Today, gay parents adopting in Ohio can have both of their names added to their son’s birth certificate. Today, Jim Obergefell, can be listed as husband on the death certificate of his long time spouse John Arthur.

There is a long way to go before we truly become a utopia. Even in our celebration, even in our laughter and happiness, there is sadness, there are tears. We are in mourning for the nine innocent people, including four pastors, who were laid to rest, solely because of their skin color, solely because they were black.

rabbi_gordon_pictures_websiteAs Jews, we know that the journey to the Promised Land is a long one and that the only way for us to get there is by working together to end all discrimination and to fight hatred with Love. As Jews, our voice must be heard; we must not remain silent. We will stand together against hate, we will stand together against violence, we will stand together for justice, and truth, and kindness, and equality. We have tasted the Promised Land and we remember the long, arduous journey. And so, we reach out our hands and hold on firm, and continue step by step, journeying forward, to the Promised Land we know can exist for us all.

Rabbi Andy Gordon serves on the clergy team of Temple Sinai of Roslyn

Categories
Social Justice

Consultation on Conscience: Justice In Two Places

Justice work can happen in the halls of Congress and it can happen on the streets.  This past Tuesday we did justice work in both places.

We had been in Washington D.C. participating in the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience; Tuesday was our lobby day. As we were hearing from prominent Senators and Representatives at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, two blocks away at the Supreme Court, our Justices were hearing arguments on Marriage Equality, perhaps the most important civil rights case of this generation. Rabbi Denise Eger, a leading advocate for Marriage Equality and President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Rabbi Lucy Dinner were speaking at a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court and we wanted to go hear them.  Although we missed their speeches, we might not have heard them anyway over the cacophony of competing rallies from both the Marriage Equality advocates and those who oppose equal rights for all (and whose signs and banners were particularly hateful).

As we walked away from the center of the rally and were surveying the scene we noticed a small group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews standing on a prominent corner, protesting Marriage Equality, waving signs just as hateful as those of the dozens of Christian Fundamentalists.  We wanted to make sure that those who gathered to support Marriage Equality knew that Reform religious Jews also supported Marriage Equality.  So what did we do?  We formed a spontaneous counter protest.  It began with four of us, positioned strategically by the Ultra-Orthodox demonstration, singing loudly and cheerfully, ‘Hinei Mah Tov  u’ma’naim shevet achim gam yachad—how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together.’  As we sang, more of our colleagues IMG_0833and other Jews too joined our group, proud to see their brothers and sisters in faith raising the call for justice and for love. They thanked us for our support. Many others, Jews and non-Jews, saw religious Jewish allies raising our voices in support of Marriage Equality.  All we did was sing prayers of peace, brotherhood and sisterhood, showing all those around (and those watching on TV) that we were people of faith, Jews, Reform Jews lifting up the commandment from this week’s Torah portion, ‘V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha—Love your neighbor as yourself.’

We didn’t plan this counter protest.  But we were compelled to respond by demonstrating the powerful truth of our tradition. We knew we couldn’t stand idly by while a group of intolerant, hateful Jews tried to coopt out faith and our tradition.  All it took were the familiar melodies of Hinei Mah Tov and Oseh Shalom to lift the spirit and the soul, to draw in other Jews, and those who aren’t Jewish and show how a heritage rooted in love and acceptance could overcome hate and intolerance.

Eventually we returned to the Senate Building; we met with our elected officials and lobbied on issues important to us as Reform Jews.  However our true prayer and passion on Tuesday was firmly rooted in street justice through our steps and our songs.

———

Rabbis Mona Alfi (Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento, CA), Charles Briskin (Temple Beth El in San Pedro, CA)and Joel Thal Simonds (University Synagogue in Los Angeles, CA) wrote this piece together. They are members of Reform CA and representatives of the CCAR on the Joint Commission on Social Action.

Categories
omer Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice

We All Count: Counting the Days toward Equality

This blog is the fourth in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the period of the Omer to the issue of race and class structural inequality.  Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center. 

As we count the Omer this year in anticipation of receiving Torah, I am also counting the days in anticipation of a Supreme Court hearing on Marriage Equality to take place on April 28, 2015 and then sometime in June when the Supreme Court will likely rule on whether or not there is a right to marry in many of the states that have objected such as Alabama, Michigan, Tennessee and others.  As a long time Marriage Equality advocate I remember the happy summer of love in 2008 in California when I officiated at over 60 Jewish weddings between June 16, 2008 including the first legal wedding between plaintiffs in our California case, Robin Tyler and Diane Olsen.   But on November 4, 2008 it was over as a majority of Californians had gone to the polls to elect Barack Obama on the one hand but pass the notorious Proposition 8 which took away the equal right to marry from Californians.  As I stood on a stage in Hollywood that night at an election rally bubbling from Obama’s big California win, I had to comfort a community that had been sucker punched by an unholy alliance between the Catholic Bishops and Mormon Bishops in Utah and California.  More than 40 million dollars had been spent to demonize LGBTQ people and their families once again. It was the most expensive proposition race ever.

The next days and weeks were spent at rallies and protest marches.  I worked vigorously both in front and behind the scenes.  On the night after the election during a big rally in the city where I serve as rabbi, we began passing buckets to raise money to take this back to the courts. My congregation turned out in droves as did many in the Reform Jewish community who were stunned by the results.  I climbed on to the back of a truck that led the protesters through West Hollywood and back down Sunset Blvd. as my fellow activists and I took turns at the bullhorn.

The next night of protests one of the gay community leaders suggested a march on the Mormon Temple the next day.  I knew this would be bad from the start. As she led the marchers the next day down Santa Monica Blvd from West Hollywood to Los Angeles’ Mormon Temple you could feel the tension in the crowd and in the LAPD.  Traffic was completely snarled during rush hour-never a good thing in Los Angeles and those caught in the standstill were angry that they couldn’t get where they were going. That’s when scuffles began between drivers who got out of their cars and protesters.  More than one bloody fight took place. As the marchers turned toward the Mormon temple, my good friend and interfaith partner, Rev. Neil Thomas and I ended up guarding the Mormon Stake behind their Temple. The protesters were beginning to rush the doors.  It was Rev. Thomas and I that stood between the protesters and the Mormons. Luckily the protestors listened to us, kept to the sidewalk, remained calm and kept moving.

There are so many more stories to tell of that time.  But now this many years later I give thanks that marriage equality is legal in more than 33 states.  And so I am counting down the days-not only to receiving Torah at Sinai once again but toward Tuesday, April 28 when the case for marriage equality heads back to the Supreme Court.  Hopefully, it will be a positive resolution nationwide where marriage equality will be the law of the land everywhere.

The work of justice will not be done though. As long as you can still be fired for being married to someone of the same gender, as long as there are no protections in housing or education for LGBTQ individuals the work of equality and justice is not done.  And so I will still be counting in anticipation of that day and counting on all of you to help make that a reality.

———

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is project of the Reform Movement’s social justice initiatives: the CCAR’s Committee on Peace, Justice and Civil Liberties, the Religious Action Center, and Just Congregations.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami and the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Categories
Israel News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Israel and LGBT Rights: A Work in Progress

Over the last number of years, Israel’s extraordinarily progressive positions on gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people has almost made up for the occupation of the West Bank.  I know that sounds ridiculous and, of course, it is.  But the reason I station them side by side is that as a progressive Zionist I have been embarrassed by the growing settlements in the West Bank.  And as a progressive Zionist I have enjoyed overwhelming pride from Israel’s remarkably forward support of gays and lesbians.  The GLBT community is safe and thriving in the heart of the Middle East—Israel—while every surrounding country is hostile and dangerous for our community.

By way of full disclosure, I’m a lesbian rabbi.

So when Education Minister Shai Piron, the number two in Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, spoke recently against the legitimacy of gay and lesbian couples, my heart went out to Israeli gays and lesbians, especially to the youth.  And I would have been embarrassed, except for that I’m buoyed by the rigorous debate in Israel that followed.

Piron’s remarks were, “I think it’s a Jewish State’s right, maybe even its duty, to say to same-sex couples who decide to live their lives together: this is not a family.”

Once I learned that he had offered an apology, I sought to write a piece on the power of remorse and t’shuvah (repentance).  Unfortunately, if you look at Piron’s apology, he does not in any way retract his remarks.  On the contrary, he makes the point that, “it’s not up to me to decide what a family is and what it is not.”  In other  words, he admits that if it were up to him, families like mine would not be considered a family.  All he is conceding is that he doesn’t have the ability or right to make that decision for us.

This should come as no big shock considering that, according to “The Times of Israel,” Piron, an Orthodox Rabbi who was the head of a religious-Zionist yeshiva, said before he joined Yesh Atid that “homosexuality could be fixed.”  Piron and Lapid later stated, when Piron entered public service, that Piron had, “changed his views.”

So then what do we make of the fact that openly gay TV host Asi Azzar expressed support  for Piron despite his comments because his actions in the Knesset, according to Azzar, have been helpful to the gay community?

This reminds me a bit of how we feminists looked the other way at Bill Clinton’s sexual harassment of women because he took such pro-female positions when it came to the law and his bully pulpit.

Piron is not where he should be on the issue of gays and lesbians.  We err if we make allowances for his homophobia just because he is less hostile than other Orthodox Rabbis.  And we make a mistake when we forgive someone simply because they are not as homophobic as they once were.  As an American resident it is not my place to call for the resignation of an MK.  But I think that it is imperative to keep criticism of his position highlighted so as not to make room for a homophobic point of view just because we are grateful for the dialogue.  And if I lived in Israel, I would be protesting his leadership as Education Minister as much as I would protest West Bank settlements.  They are bad for Israel and bad for the Jews.

My parents are Sabras who met while serving in Tzahal and moved to the US in the late 1950’s.  When they became American citizens they had to swear that they were not homosexuals.  We have come a long way in the United States and any gay activist knows that individuals often come along slowly on this issue, while others awaken suddenly.

Okay Shai Piron, kudos to you for not being as anti-gay as you used to be.  And thank you for wishing that you hadn’t hurt people’s feelings.  And I am glad that you sometimes vote correctly on LGBT rights.  But you are not where you should be.  You are a work in progress.  If you can find access to a fast-forward button that gives you the wisdom and courage to be diametrically opposed to the position of most Orthodox leaders, I will be very proud of you.

 Rabbi Karen Bender is one of the contributors to the wide-ranging anthology “The Sacred Encounter”. Her chapter, “How to Respond to Bible-Thumping Homophobia, Or: Judaism as Evolutionary If Not Revolutionary” deals with important and controversial issues of homosexuality in the bible.

SECover

Categories
Ethics News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Marriage Equality: The Long Parade of Our History

Last night, I went to see a high school production of The Laramie Project—the play that portrays the people of Laramie, Wyoming in the wake of the murder of Matthew Shephard, a gay college student.  A class of high school juniors and seniors at an exclusive, private school here in Chicago put on the production.  I went to support one of our synagogue’s high school students who played a few roles in the play. Fighting tears through much of the second act, I was heartened by the portrayal of brave priest who organized vigils and preached compassion and healing.

I find myself increasingly using every opportunity I have to carefully teach Biblical texts that have been used to perpetuate a close-mindedness that has too often led to violence and oppression of the spirit.  Midrashim (ancient and modern) abound illustrating creative and compassionate ways to interpret our Torah, while giving kavod to the text.   Owing much to brilliant colleagues and other thinkers including Judith Plaskow, Rachel Adler and her son Rabbi Amitai Adler—to name a very few—I have found new ways to understand ancient texts, adding new blessings and rituals to fit current situations.

I love bringing these values home to my two sons Eli (6) and Ben (4).  In the fall, I took Eli and Ben to Springfield, Illinois for a rally and lobby day on Marriage Equality.  My sons already had experience with the Pride Parade literally strolling aside Temple Sholom’s float.  I thought this would be another fun, memorable, and meaningful experience—especially when we found out that my parents would meet us there.  The only problem… I didn’t read the weather report.  In Springfield, we stood outside in a downpour, barely shielded by the boys’ kid-size umbrellas.  Finally, we found some space underneath an overhang near the steps of the capitol building.  By this point, our oldest son was crying—loudly—“I want to go home!”  I bent down so that we could make eye-contact.  I said, “Look around.  Many of the people who are here did not have such an easy time growing up, falling in love and marrying the person whom they love.  When they see you, they have hope that the future might be different for your generation.”  Eli, who is an old soul, met my eyes and said, “I know, mommy.  I know.  But this is NOT FUN!”

So, the day was memorable and meaningful, but as Eli said, not fun.  Yet, it made an impact.  The next day, Eli shared his experience with classmates during circle time at Chicago Jewish Day School.  Ben, along with his friend who has two daddies, has become known in his Gan Shalom classroom as an “expert” on Marriage Equality.  When we heard the news that Marriage Equality passed the House in Illinois, we sat in the boys’ bedroom making celebratory phone calls to my parents and my grandmother.  It felt like we all could share some small part in this collective victory.  After the phone calls, when my husband arrived home, we all sang the Shehechiyanu thanking God for bringing us to this sacred time.

Toward the end of the Laramie Project, a character shares how moved he was during the first Homecoming Parade following Matthew Shephard’s attack.  He said:

As the parade came down the street … the number of people walking

for Matthew Shepard had grown 5 times. There were at least 500 people

marching for Matthew. 500 people. Can you imagine? The tag at the end

was larger than the entire parade. And people kept joining in.

I feel like I am joining in this long parade of our history—following those who have attempted to bring more compassion into this world.  For this, I am grateful.

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.