Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation


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 Particularly Tough Weekend

And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God, and to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul. . . . (Deuteronomy 10.12-13, from this week’s Torah portion.)

Shira Banki

Shira Banki

The news coming out of Israel has been particularly tough over this weekend. It seemed to ignite the moment we stepped onto the plane to leave late Thursday afternoon. I won’t be egomaniacal enough to suggest that one precipitated the other. Nevertheless, I wish I could have been there to participate in the LGBTQ Pride Parade on Thursday in Jerusalem (taking place as we drove to the airport), and then in the massive memorial gathering on Saturday evening in Zion Square – a gathering joined by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who has had to evolve and do a great deal of soul searching during the first year of his presidency.

As you know, in the midst of the Pride Parade last Thursday, a lunatic stabbed six people marching in the parade, including 16-year-old Shira Banki, who now has died from her wounds, and her parents have donated her organs. But in fact, we do a disservice to Israeli society as a whole, and to people of good will everywhere, by dismissing this individual as merely a lunatic. In fact he is a particular kind of lunatic – formed and shaped by the ideology of the extremist Haredi community out of which he has emerged. He previously served a ten-year prison sentence for virtually the identical crime at a prior Gay Pride Parade. The fact that he was allowed to get anywhere near this parade on Thursday was a failure of the police. The fact that he is driven to commit murder in the name of extremist ideology is a failure of the Israeli government, and society as a whole.

Similarly, ideological lunacy of a slightly different permutation is what drove the perpetrators of the hellacious attack upon a Palestinian family in Duma Village near Nablus on the West Bank. An 18-month-old baby, Ali Saad Dawabsheh, was burned to death, and his parents and 4-year-old brother were also badly burned, when extremist settlers set fire to the family home. Several hundred members of Tag Meir, an Israeli grass-roots anti-racism group, went to the Dawabsheh home on Saturday night to express their sympathy and solidarity with the family, and their revulsion at this cruel act.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner issued the following statement on behalf of the Israel Army:

“This attack against civilians is nothing short of a barbaric act of terrorism. A comprehensive investigation is under way in order to find the terrorists and bring them to justice. . . The [Israeli army] strongly condemns this deplorable attack and has heightened its efforts in the field to locate those responsible.”

We in the United States have our own history to contend with as we remember the sinister and murderous activities of the Ku Klux Klan. They burned crosses on people’s lawns, they firebombed homes, churches and synagogues, they shot people as they walked in the street, and they lynched people – mostly black men – and strung them up on the nearest tree. The Ku Klux Klan did not represent all Americans, nor did it represent the American dream. It was a perversion and brutalization of both, and we are grateful it has all but fallen away into oblivion. But the primary reason it fell into oblivion is that Americans had finally had enough. They demonstrated, protested, and petitioned the courts until the laws of this land were changed.

Now Israel must stand up as well. Israelis must stand up for justice and righteousness; for human reason and the rule of law; for humility and human compassion. Tag Mechir and Lehava are renegade extremist terrorist groups. They are outlaws and racists. They are vandals, arsonists, and murderers. They cannot be allowed to persist in their nefarious activities. It is time for Israelis to stand up and put a stop to this. And it is time for us to stand up as well. While the prospect may seem overwhelming, here is one small thing we can all do immediately. Write a letter and send a contribution to IRAC – the Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. They have been fighting against these groups for some time. Now they will redouble their efforts, and increase the pressure on the government and the courts to crack down on these groups once and for all. And, if you wish, sign the letter of condolence that IRAC will take when they pay a shiva call this week to the Banki family.

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.