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Even If We Are Not Alike

This is our second week into the final soliloquy of Moses at the end of the 40-year journey through the Wilderness. The Book of Deuteronomy features a recapitulation, and in some cases, a reinterpretation of the events leading up to this moment, as the Children of Israel stand at the Jordan, preparing to cross into the Promised Land.

Within this week’s parashah is an admonition that we are compelled to look at with complete honesty:

And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Eternal, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Eternal your God that I enjoin upon you. (Deuteronomy 4.1-2)

As we study the development of Jewish belief and practice since this text was written over 2-1/2 millennia ago, we certainly see that the commandment not to add or take away has been taken with a grain of salt by every generation. Many Orthodox Jews see this process as an interpretative one, with each generation deepening its understanding of the original intent of the text, and honoring that intent while responding to the ever-changing world around us all. On a certain level, Reform Jews respond much in the same way, but also forthrightly stating our desire to embrace the “spirit of the law,” even if at times we cannot, or will not, embrace the “letter of the law,” whether it be on practical or ideological grounds.

 

Yesterday (Thursday) the Gay Pride Parade took place in Jerusalem. The sign in rainbow colors was the official sign of the Israel Reform Movement. It bears one of the most fundamental precepts of the Torah: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19.18). We read it on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

A cantor friend of mine posted a photo on his Facebook page of the black and white sign that he saw at the parade. The block print is the verse above from Leviticus. The written addition in Hebrew script across it that someone thought to insert into this precept reads: “even if he is not.” The entire statement in a workable translation is: Love your neighbor—even if he or she is not exactly like you. It is an eloquent expression of the need to “add” to the text from the perspective of our own time and understanding.

 

It has taken us a long time as a society to evolve to a better understanding and embrace of LGBTQ life. The transformation of the Reform Movement in this regard really only began in the 1980’s. That’s just shy of 40 years ago. 40 years is the amount of time that Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert. Now in our text, they stand at the Jordan River, preparing to cross over into the Promised Land. While this Pride Parade took place in Jerusalem yesterday, it is safe to say that the LGBTQ community has not yet fully arrived in the Promised Land. But the fact that almost 25,000 people marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem yesterday represents a giant step in that direction.

In the Footsteps of Heroic Women

Last week we began our reading of the Book of Exodus, and the beginning of our enslavement in Egypt. Moses is undoubtedly the most preeminent figure in the story as it unfolds, and indeed, henceforth through to the end of the Torah. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the most heroic figures of last week’s portion are women: Yocheved, the mother of Moses; Miriam, Moses’ sister; and the two midwives, Shifra and Puah. The cruel and despotic Pharaoh orders all Hebrew baby boys to be thrown into the Nile to drown, lest someday they rise up in combat against him. Shifra and Puah carry out their own personal resistance to this brutality by deliberately saving the Hebrew baby boys. When Yocheved gives birth to a baby boy, she hides him for a short while, but then takes desperate measures to save him. She places him in a wicker basket, wraps him in swaddling cloth, and enlists her daughter Miriam to follow him and watch over him as he floats down the river. He is found by the daughter of Pharaoh who pulls him out of the Nile and adopts him. Miriam volunteers to “find” her a wet nurse, and “finds” Yocheved, making it possible for Moses to live with his own family for a time. And thus in addition to the four women I have mentioned, we must mention the daughter of Pharaoh, known in the Midrashic tradition as “Bityah.” While she knew the baby was a Hebrew, she participated in saving him, and went on to raise him as her own beloved son.

The salvation of the Children of Israel begins with women – women who are not afraid to stand up to the power and brutality of Pharaoh.
This past Saturday was a remarkable day indeed. On the very Shabbat when we were reading the stories of Yocheved, Miriam, Shifra, Puah, and Bityah, a great “Women’s March” took place all over our country, and all over the world – millions of women, and men as well, marching shoulder to shoulder – to rise up against the intimidation and wrong-headed policies of the newly-installed Trump presidency.

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Women’s March in Washington D.C. 2017. Courtesy Wikimedia

(There were even 30 people marching in Antarctica!) A group of us left together from Union Temple after services and took the subway to East 14th Street in Manhattan, where we met up with several hundred Jews from the Downtown Kehilah, a consortium of liberal congregations in Lower Manhattan. We marched together up 2nd Avenue to 42nd Street, where we joined some 400,000 of our fellow New Yorkers in an unbelievable throng that stretched all across 42nd Street and then up 5th Avenue to Trump Tower. While we may have lost an election, we have not lost our values. The message was clear: we intend to uphold our values and our rights, and fight tooth and nail against those who would seek to undermine them.

Lest we forget, the day after the march, Sunday, January 22, was the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States. The decision put an end to underground networks and back-alley butchers, unwanted pregnancies, and risks to the physical and/or mental well-being of women and girls all over our country. Decisions over women’s reproductive lives were no longer the domain of elected officials, but rather the domain of women themselves – in consultation with their doctors and medical professionals, and, when appropriate, with their families and members of clergy. But the government is once again taking aim at the gamut of women’s health issues, particularly when it comes to reproductive choice. And while now the federal government is key, the state houses are critical as well, regarding the statutes in the health codes and criminal codes of individual states.

Here’s one way we New Yorkers can stand up to this now more imminent threat to women’s rights and integrity. As I have announced previously, on Monday, January 30, I am going to be in Albany at a Day of Action coordinated by Family Planning Advocates (FPA) in cooperation with Planned Parenthood of New York. I am a member of FPA’s Concerned Clergy for Choice. There is still a small window of opportunity for you to attend this important day of education and lobbying the members of the Assembly and State Senate. The information follows. I hope you will decide to attend, as we walk in the footsteps of the heroines of our people.

Jerusalem Pride

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Giant poster of Shira Banki, z”l, at the very spot where she was murdered last year. The quote is from Spinoza: “It is better to teach good than to condemn evil.” A mini shrine of flowers and yahrzeit candles

In our Torah portion for this week, Bylam, a popular magic man known throughout the Ancient Near East, was summoned by the Moabite King Balak to throw a curse upon the Israelites, who were camped on the Steppes of Moab. Though the Israelites meant him no harm and were just passing through on their way to Eretz Yisrael, Balak feared them and wanted them gone. Bylam ascends to the heights of Moab with Balak, and casts his gaze upon the Children of Israel. But when he opens his mouth to curse them, out comes a blessing instead: Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael – How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.

With great pride indeed, earlier today Steve and I marched in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem. Though some 10,000 marchers were expected, twice the number of last year’s parade, the number of marchers actually numbered in the tens of thousands. Security was extremely tight, of course, particularly in light of the tragic and brutal murder at last year’s parade of 16-year-old Shira Banki, z”l. This year Shira’s parents came to the parade to honor the memory of their beautiful daughter, and to express solidarity with the LGBTQ community, and with all those who participated in the parade this year. One of the photos I have provided is of a huge poster at the very spot where Shira was killed last year, Washington Street and Keren Hayesod. The quote next to Shira’s picture is from Spinoza: “It is better to teach goodness than condemn evil.”

Marchers carry a Pride flag as we make our way into the center of town.

Marchers carry a Pride flag as we make our way into the center of town.

Last week Steve and I joined several of our colleagues from Hartman for a day of education to familiarize ourselves a bit better with the services provided for the LGBTQ community in Jerusalem. Everyone knows that Tel Aviv is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. Not so in Jerusalem. Because of the heavy religious presence here, not only in the Jewish community, but in all religious communities, the LGBTQ community has a much harder time of it regarding freedom of movement and expression, obtaining benefits and medical care, and the like, than the community in Tel Aviv. In fact at today’s parade, though some Members of Knesset were there, Isaac (Bougie) Herzog and Rachel Azaria among them, Mayor Nir Barkat was not, in order not to inflame the Orthodox community, as he explained it. While in a number of ways Mayor Barkat has been good for this city, I believe that this was a bad call. In an effort not to irritate a community that will never really be satisfied, he snubbed tens of thousands of the citizens of his city, and further rubbed salt into already festering wounds.

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Rabbinic, Cantorial, and Education students in the Year-In-Israel program of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

One of the places we visited last Monday was the main center of LGBTQ activism in Jerusalem, “Habayit Hapatuach,” “Open House for Pride and Tolerance.” Open House was the principal organizer of today’s event, but many other organizations cosponsored, the Reform Movement and the Israel Religious Action Center among them. Open House provides psychological support, education, free medical care, HIV/AIDS counseling and testing, and numerous other services. Particularly noteworthy is its outreach to LGBTQ youth in the Orthodox and Palestinian communities – young people who are particularly at risk, as we can imagine.

Open House is not a well-known entity. Nevertheless it is very much a locus of reality in the day-to-day life of Jerusalem, and LGBTQ life in particular. We are grateful to the Hartman Institute for arranging our visit there last week.

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The shirt was compliments of the Reform Movement. The purple wristband was a security clearance at the entrance to the park where the marchers assembled. Needless to say, security was extremely tight.

Unfortunately there are people in this world; in Jerusalem, in the United States, in Arab countries, virtually everywhere, who look upon the LGBTQ community and see it as a threat; a scourge that must be wiped off the earth; people whom God has cursed. But if they were to really look closely, and speak with people, and get to know this community, up close and personal, as it is said, they would see that in fact it is a community that God has blessed.

As Jews one of the first and most important precepts of our Torah is Genesis 2.27-28: And God created the man in God’s image; male and female God created them. And God blessed them. When Bylam looked down upon the Children of Israel, camped there upon the Steppes of Moab, he saw and understood that these were children of the Living God, and that he could not curse those whom God had blessed. We open every single one of our morning services with this phrase, to remind us to bless other people, and not curse them. “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”

 

On The Attack in Orlando

President Obama Speaking about the Tragic Shooting in Orlando FL

President Obama Speaking about the Tragic Shooting in Orlando FL

There are no words to sufficiently express the depth of our shock and sadness at the horrifying massacre in Orlando, FL, early Sunday morning. This was a hate crime of unimaginable magnitude, deliberately perpetrated upon the LGBT community, resulting in the senseless death and serious injury of over 100 innocent young men and women. The Pulse night club was built as a safe place for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, and straight people as well, particularly young people, to gather together for music and dancing, relaxing and socializing, in an atmosphere of celebration. There was no judgment at Pulse, only acceptance and friendship, openness and celebration of life. We extend our embrace of sympathy and support to the LGBT community, in Orlando, and around our country and our world

This is a complicated case. It will take a long time to sort out the involvements and activities of the seriously disturbed individual who perpetrated this crime. There is, however, some indication of “lone wolf” sympathies with ISIS and Islamic extremism. On this count, as American Jews we must extend the hand of peace and solidarity to our fellow Americans who are Muslim, as they struggle against the stereotypes about all Muslims and mainstream Islamic faith that would prejudice our society against them.

My heart sank as I listened to President Obama’s statement to the nation, realizing that since he first took office, this is the 16th time he has had to deliver such a statement to the American people. And yet, the NRA continues to hold the entire nation hostage, as significant gun legislation in the halls of Congress cannot find the light of day. It absolutely defies reason as to how it is possible for any of us as Americans to be able to walk into a gun shop and purchase assault weapons and ammunition that are designed to kill as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. This is an ongoing fight for us as Americans and we cannot afford to relent.

Terrorism is exactly what it says it is – the intent to terrorize – people, communities and nations. Its purpose is to get into our heads and make us afraid. Obviously, it could have been any of our kids in that club, or that school, or that movie theater. It could have been any of us in that house of worship, or community center. It’s true – our sense of vulnerability in the randomness of these acts is chilling. But we simply can’t shut ourselves up in our homes and delude ourselves into thinking that we are impervious. We have to be able to live our lives, and go about our business within our communities and within our world. And most critical, we have to continue to embrace and promote the values of democracy, humanitarianism and peace.

We pray that those who have been wounded will be restored to health and strength, and that the memories of those who have been murdered will be for a blessing. May God comfort their families and friends, especially now, in the hour of their grief.

Proclaim Liberty . . . That Means North Carolina too!

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Paul J Everett.

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Paul J Everett.

“Proclaim liberty throughout the land; to all the inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25.10) So states our Torah portion this week, Behar. We know this verse as Jews. For us as Americans, though, this verse is seared into our minds, as it is carved into the Liberty Bell, which we can view in its glass encasement in Philadelphia. In the Torah, the verse occurs within the context of the Jubilee year, in which slaves are freed and lands revert back to their original owners. In America, the meaning is much broader: freedom from religious tyranny, freedom from externally imposed taxation, freedom of intellectual inquiry and development. The Declaration of Independence spoke of all human beings as being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”

While this aspiration, born of the Enlightenment, was revolutionary in history, it would seem that all the logical extensions of the principle were not “self-evident.” At the time this verse from Leviticus was carved into the Liberty Bell, slavery still existed in America. Women’s rights were barely recognized and sorely limited. Various religious groups still suffered discrimination and exclusion at the hands of the majority populations of the localities in which they lived. LGBTQ rights? Forget it.

In the long history of humanity, we recognize that our country is still relatively young, and is still experiencing growing pains, frustrating as they are. We have had to evolve in our understanding and recognition of concepts and human realities that never had been recognized before. The argument over the rights of the transgender community is the latest, but certainly not the last frontier of the ongoing struggle to fully realize the aspiration of the liberty that is expressed on the Liberty Bell. At the moment, the spotlight is on the outrageous and unacceptable attempts of the State Legislature to discriminate against transgender individuals. The law that this body passed puts into place a statewide policy that bans individuals from using public bathrooms that do not correspond to their biological sex – the sex they were born with. It also prevents cities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances that protect LGBTQ people, and in this case, particularly “T.” NC Governor McCrory has vowed to uphold this law. This is a heinous act on the part of the NC state house, and must be fought by freedom-loving people all over the country. Similar laws are being crafted in other states as well. There was even one introduced into the Assembly of our very own state of New York, but was defeated. Thankfully our own Governor Cuomo signed a non-discrimination bill into law. But we note with sadness the recent attack upon a transgender individual right in our own backyard of Park Slope. So we have a lot of work to do.

While our Founding Fathers considered “unalienable rights” to be “self-evident,” it is clear that the fine points of what is included in these rights is anything but self-evident. Those of us who are concerned with the fullest realization of this aspiration, however, continue to the struggle with what it must mean for all of us. I am proud of our Reform Movement for its discussion and passage of the Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People at the Biennial Convention in Atlanta this past November.

Perhaps the most salient verse for us that is contained within our Torah is back at the beginning of the Book of Genesis, with the creation of human beings B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. “And God created the human in God’s image; male and female, God created them; and God blessed them.” (Genesis 1.27-28) Ultimately this is the source of our “unalienable rights,” and we are all obligated to respect and promote them.

A Blessing Today

On the morning of June 26, 2015 outside the Supreme Court, the crowd reacts to the Court's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Photo: Ted Eytan Flickr CC

On the morning of June 26, 2015 outside the Supreme Court, the crowd reacts to the Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Photo: Ted Eytan Flickr CC

Balak, King of Moab, feared the Children of Israel, and sent word to Bylam in Pethor:

Come put a curse on this people for me. . . perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. for I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed. (Numbers 22.6)

So begins our sidra this week.

June 28, 1969 – Stonewall. Before that, gay bars were raided by the police regularly all over this country. Gay men and lesbians lived their lives behind closet doors. Many were rejected by their own parents, siblings, and extended families. Rejected by their religious communities. Rejected by their friends. Refused employment. Refused legal protections of civil rights that other Americans took for granted. Deprived of the personal fulfillment that all of us who live in this great land of freedom and democracy supposedly have the right to pursue. Unseen as individual human beings created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Our country cast a curse upon them – begrudged them their very right to live in this great country; indeed, in this world. But that night, at a gay bar in Greenwich Village, men who had been repeatedly harassed by the police and scorned by society, had finally had enough. That night, they stood up and fought back. And the Gay Liberation Movement was born.

June 26, 2015 – The Supreme Court of the United States handed down the decision legalizing same sex marriage in this country. Every state in the Union must grant same sex couples full rights of solemnization and recognition of their marriages and uphold all the legal entitlements that marriage brings with it.

I wonder if any of the brave men in that bar that night, exactly 46 years ago, ever could have imagined that a day would come when the Supreme Court of the United States would affirm the right of all people, regardless of sexual preference, to marry the person they loved, and to experience the fullness of family life.

And Bylam opened his mouth and said: “How can I damn whom God has not damned, how doom when the Eternal has not doomed? . . How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 23.8, 24.5)

We dare not delude ourselves into believing that all ignorance and prejudice will immediately cease, and the LGBTQ community no longer has any challenges before it. There is blindness and arrogance all through our nation. But now, at least, there is legal protection against such blindness and arrogance. The better angels, if you will, have spoken. A very significant battle has been won. And in this, we are fully entitled to rejoice. We rejoice, and give thanks and blessing.

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם שהחינו וקימנו והיגיענו לזמן הזה
Blessed are You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has given us life, and sustained us, and brought us together to see this day.