You ever had one of those “What’s wrong with this picture?” experiences? I had one when I travelled for two weeks with the Kol Ami high school kids who spent this summer in Israel. They were there with about 100 other kids from Reform Synagogues around the country.
While there, I noticed a very lovely and healthy phenomenon. There was a group of gay and lesbian students hanging out together, kids and who had apparently come out. They were known and recognized by the broader community as LGBTQ kids. And the general environment seemed to be a very comfortable, normal situation for everybody. I was very proud to see that.
But in other ways what I observed fell short of where we need to be. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it. “What was wrong with this picture?” But with time it became clear that while the LGBTQ kids seemed comfortable and at ease and accepted, as NFTY would want for them; the “falling short” part was that this acceptance seemed to come silently, mostly unspoken. In particular, through all of the Shabbat services, with over 100 high school students present, something was missing.
Nothing o ensive was implied.
Nothing negative was being said.
Nothing homophobic inferred.
Then I realized what was wrong with that picture . . . nothing was being said!
In all the prayers, songs, Torah Readings, meditations, responsive readings . . . the LGBTQ community was invisible. The way women used to be; the way people with disabilities used to be; the way non-Jews used to be.
That’s when I was hit with déjà vu, all over again. A few years ago there was a sermon that casually mentioned how thankful we are to those many of you who are non-Jewish family members here at Kol Ami, and how very grateful we are to you for playing such a significant and supportive role in the Jewish lives of your children and your families
What surprised the heck out of me was the number of people who later said, “No one has ever come out and thanked us like that.” “It’s always kind of quiet and unspoken that we are even here.” “ We sometimes feel invisible.” “We’re so happy our presence was positively and publically acknowledged.”
We were stunned. There we’d be, sitting at our meetings of the board or the sta or the clergy or the school committee, patting ourselves on the back at how accepting we are of families with non- Jewish family members.
But apparently we weren’t doing a very good job of saying it out loud, saying it clearly enough or often enough, or directly to the people who need to hear it the most.
Well, apparently there are other members of our community with whom we have been too silent. I was taught this lesson before. But I guess I need to learn it again. I apologize. Al chet she-chatati.
It was back in the early ‘90s, at my old Synagogue. We were sitting at some sta meeting, and discussing a very similar situation. It was a large congregation, located in mid-town Manhattan. 1400 members. And we rabbis and cantors realized that none of us had ever been asked to do a same sex marriage ceremony. Statistically, with 1400 families, we should have had our fair share of LGBTQ members.
We knew – among ourselves – that we were perfectly happy and ready to perform same sex weddings. We had discussed it with the Board of Trustees. And the Board of Trustees made it very clear to us that same sex weddings would be welcome.
Weren’t we terrific?
But no one ever came and asked.
So I called my friend, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the Senior Rabbi at
Beit Simchat Torah in the West Village, the largest LGBTQ synagogue in the world. I gave her the background and asked her why she thought we had never been asked to perform same sex weddings.
And being a Rabbi she responded to my question with a few questions.
“Have you ever written about it in a synagogue bulletin article?”
“Have you ever talked about it in a sermon?”
“Have you formed any gay lesbian groups at the synagogue?”
My answer to each question was, “ Well . . .umm. . . no.”
“Well”, she said, “that’s at least part of the answer to your question. How would anybody know that they can approach you unless you regularly and clearly make it known that you can be approached?” This was 20 years ago.
I hope we’ve made progress since those days. Times have changed for the better. And I know that Mo, Shira and I are very happy to o ciate at the weddings of any of our congregants, or friends or family members who are LGBTQ.
We’re even willing to do your wedding if you’re straight!
But, do you all know that? Have we made it clear to everyone?
Have we spoken about it, or written about it frequently enough to make it clear and common knowledge throughout the Kol Ami community?
Have we fulfilled our responsibility in letting all of you know that years ago, our Board of Trustees, with no hesitation, made it clear that same sex marriages are most welcome.
If you grew up here at Kol Ami – and you are now of marrying age – have you always known that your own rabbis and cantor would be honored and happily o ciate at your wedding? . . . regardless of the gender of your betrothed?
I’m not sure that everyone knows that. And that’s wrong. Al chet she-chatanu.
We need to more fully understand what it’s like to grow up LGBTQ here. What it’s like to be a gay adult at Kol Ami. Single or married. Are we sending clear messages? Are we sending any messages? It has to be better understood. And we’ve begun to do that.
I called a member of the congregation, a young man who grew up here, and I asked him some of these very questions.
Matt and I shared a meal. His thoughts were mostly positive about his experiences growing up here. But I don’t think we can be satisfied with “mostly positive” when we are dealing with a matter as sacred and important as a person feeling fully accepted and understood and celebrated for being who they are.
I asked Matt, “What do you need from the synagogue? What do you need to hear from us? From Judaism?”
His answers were so beautiful, so from the heart and helpful, that I later asked him to write down his thoughts for so they could be shared with you. He wrote:
“As a gay twenty-something, I want to be told that I am fully and uncomplicatedly Jewish — that my sexuality is celebrated and not merely tolerated within my religious community.
Moreover, I want to be told that organized religion has a productive, safe and guiding place in my life. I want to be told that the vitriol pouring from Jewish and Christian fundamentalists doesn’t force me to live a secular life”.
So Matt, here are some modest, first responses to your thoughts. Hopefully this will speak to others as well.
First, Matt you don’t need to “seek to live a secular life”. The Jewish people o er a full and meaningful religious and spiritual home for you. Maybe not yet perfect, but we’re getting there.
Let me start by making clear what We Are NOT:
We are not crazed fundamentalists. We are not people who pull single, obscure verses out of Biblical text, and out of context, to blow them up into these massive, crazy, angry, political movements, “in God’s name”. That’s not us.
I can understand why you are confused from all of that – as you say – “vitriol pouring from Jewish and Christian fundamentalists”. You listen to the news, and hear the way that public discourse so often seems to be dominated by
extremist religious ideas, all mixed in with extremist political ideology, on the right and on the left.
That’s not us. That’s not Judaism as I understand it, and try to live it. That’s not Kol Ami. Certainly that’s not at all who we are in the Reform Movement. Actually Matt, that’s not who you find with the vast majority of North American Jewry.
Who else are we not?
We are not simple-minded literalists, who believe we have to choose between the well documented, proven, accepted science of evolution, on one hand, OR the Creation Story in Genesis on the other.
I’m sorry, but that’s just silly.
I’m working with an 8th grader now on his upcoming bar mitzvah speech. He studies cosmology. He loves the science. Yet, he is perfectly capable of simultaneously understanding that along with the reality of the science, he can also grasp and appreciate the powerful, spiritual poetry of Genesis. The poetry that teaches us so much about our moral and ethical relationship to this creation and to one another.
He’s an 8th grader. He figured it out.
We are not among the people who struggle with the silly, fundamentalist concept that Adam and Eve played fetch with the
dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden, 5773 years ago. Listen . . . we get that the Flintstones is fiction.
Who else are we not? We are not people who have pulled from the Bible, some modern, rigid and narrow notion that there is one model of family, ordained and commanded by God, and that any variation from that one singular model is to be deemed un-Godly, and even unconstitutional. That’s certainly not us.
Look, there are 613 commandments in the Torah. And yes – one
of them does say. “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a women, it is
abhorrent.” That is one of the 613, but so are these;
Eating lobster or shrimp is an abomination
Don’t make a sculpture or drawing of any person or any living thing.
Don’t consult ghosts
Don’t work on the Sabbath,
Don’t shave your beards.
Don’t crossbreed cattle.
Don’t wear clothing made of both linen and wool.
A menstruating women is unclean.
You can sell your daughter into slavery.
You can’t touch the skin of a dead pig.
So I’m sorry to say, if any of you have ever -played football
-created a sculpture of a human being -shaken the hand of a menstruating woman -worked on a Saturday
-used a Ouija Board
-Had a shrimp cocktail
-wore any piece of clothing made of linen and wool together -taken God’s name in vain
-or shaved your beard
…then you have broken an ancient biblical law on par with homosexuality.
If I were to ask all those of us who have done any of the above in recent months, to stand up and leave now, I’m pretty sure this place would be empty.
But we are not ancient Israelites. We are not a people who simply take our beautiful ancient biblical text and live every word of it literally, without interpretation, without nuance, without compassion, without room for evolution or the new understanding that comes with the centuries, with the millennia.
We are modern Jews, not ancient Israelites.
This magnificent Book is our foundation. It is our sacred core. Yet over the past 2-3 thousand years Torah’s wisdom, and our wisdom, have evolved together. And together, that is Judaism.
And over these centuries, and with this wisdom, and with this compassion, we have learned that there are some laws in the Torah that stand on higher moral ground, and are more sacred, and feel more eternally true, than others.
And this, Matt, brings us to who we ARE: We are a people who believe that:
We are all created in God’s image.
That you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.
That you must not oppress the stranger.
You must not go about slandering one another.
You shall not hate your brother or sister in your heart.
You must not stand idly when your neighbor’s blood is being shed.
We are a people who knows that it is not good that a person should be alone
And we glory in the first of all of the commandments, “Be fruitful and multiply.”
Yes, there’s that “be fruitful and multiply”. We Jews are big on that. And how blessed we are, and how fortunate it is that we live in a world where there are so many ways to fulfill that commandment:
We all know wonderful families of all types and sizes, with loving partners who have created beautiful family.
And how amazing it is that our children are growing up where it’s perfectly natural that in the midst of their families, neighbors and best friends,
In Siddur Sha’ar Zahav (pg. 29), a prayerbook from a west coast congregation, (Congregation Sha’ar Zahav) they have a prayer:
“Blessing for Creating Family: Nuclear? Perhaps. You, God, were alone when You began. And what were Abraham, Sarah and Hagar doing? Jacob and all four of his wives: Namoi, Ruth and Boaz? David and his many wives? Solomon and his hundreds? Just as they all created families in their many di erent ways, God, so too do we open our hearts and lives to Your very first commandment – be fruitful and multiply. And we do it in our many di erent ways, according to our tradition.”
Matthew, some more on who we ARE:
Rabbi Larry Ho man very accurately describes our Siddur, our prayer book, as “the diary of the Jewish People”, the place where we write of our experiences, our dreams, fears, hopes and of course prayers.
Even the most traditional among us would concur that while The Torah and the rest of the Bible claim Divine authorship; the siddur, the prayerbook, is written by people.
It’s ours. We add to it. We change things. We take things out.
In the Middle Ages, when real kings and queens ruled the world, we wrote prayers that saw God as the King of all earthly Kings, and the Queen of all earthly Queens. It was the way we experienced the world.
We wrote poetry that reflected the world we lived in from 15th century Spain.
We sing L’cha Dodi every Shabbat, words that come from the mystics of T’sfat, Israel, from the 16th Century.
Our experiences as Americans are expressed in prayers for our nation, our soldiers, for democracy and for freedom and patriotism.
When big important things happen in our collective Jewish life, we have to write about it in our Siddur. It would be unnatural not to: there are Moms and Moms who have fruitfully multiplied; and Dads and Dads who have fruitfully multiplied;
and Dads who have multiplied;
and Moms who have been fruitful;
andsometimes….true… thereareMomsandDads who have fruitfully created family.
When the state of Israel was founded? Dear Diary, the most amazing thing happened to our people! We celebrate in our siddur. We have our prayer for Israel.
In the wake of the Holocaust how could we not have that pain and horror reflected in our people’s book?
We removed the daily prayer: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, who has not made me a women.” Didn’t work for us anymore. So, in our diary, finally after thousands of years, we remember not only the great men Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but also the great women, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah and Rachel.
So Matt, our hearts and intentions are totally there for you in a rming that you are “fully and uncomplicatedly Jewish”.
But we haven’t said it out loud enough, yet. And we haven’t yet written it in our Siddur; that sacred book we read out loud all year long.
And that silence must hurt:
Imagine how painful it would be to be a soldier, or t the proud family of a soldier, and never see a prayer for our defenders.
Imagine being an Israeli, sitting in our congregation, and nowhere seeing or hearing a prayer for the Jewish state. How alienating it would feel to be a parent of a new baby and not have that joyous moment celebrated before your community.
How devastating to lose a loved one, and not hear their names spoken out loud; or for us to have no moment of memorializing at all? To have no Kaddish to say?
To sit and be invisible, unmentioned, ignored. That’s wrong.
An piece from the University of Texas in Austin said:
“Most commonly, LGBTQs grow up in an environment that covertly, and sometimes overtly, makes them feel that they are bad people, second- class citizens, abnormal, or morally wrong. Whatever the message, these individuals can be so vulnerable while questioning their identities and often do so in isolation.”
We can’t be a part of that. As Rabbi Shira often teaches, synagogue should be a place where each of us is valued, appreciated, celebrated . . . never, ever isolated.
It’s time to let our prayers – as we celebrate anniversaries; as we celebrate new parents; as we bless our newborn children; as we welcome the bar mitzvah into the community; it’s certainly time now to joyfully bless our lesbian, gay, bi, transgender and questioning Jews.
The Reform Movement has been working in this direction since at least 1989, when Rabbi Alexander Schindler, of blessed memory, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, gave a first and very powerful call for the recognition and loving inclusion of gays and lesbians into the Reform movement. His beautiful and stirring address began the process of transforming our movement. We have made incredible strides forward since that time.
Today, in all levels of leadership in our movement and in our synagogues, gays and lesbians are part of the sacred fabric of who we are. Throughout the United States there are many LGBTQ Rabbis’s, Cantor’s, Synagogue President’s, committee chairs, people filling roles in every aspect of Jewish life.
There is a lot left to do. Let’s work together.
Now there is one thing we can do today to significantly move the work forward. It’s time to add to our sacred diary: A new prayer. A new entry. Let’s read it together. Please take the green half sheet in hand……
In All The Ways We Love
(Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Straight)
May the One who blessed those who came before us, Naomi and Ruth, Isaac and Rebecca, Jonathan and David, bless us in all the ways we love. May our journeys together be meaningful and our relationships grow and deepen. May we support each other and share our times of di culty as well as our celebrations and joys. May we know what a gift our relationships are to this sacred community. And may we always see the Divine spark implanted in each of us at the time of Creation as a sacred validation of whom we love. May our bonds and passions be a true blessing in our lives and pleasing in God’s eyes. And let us say, Amen.
Adapted from Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, Conregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco, CA. (p. 32)