Posts Tagged 'GLBT'

In or Out: Reflections on Tzitzit and Pride

At the end of Shelach, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the commandment of putting tzitzit (fringes) on four-cornered garments. There we read:

Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God. ( Numbers 15: 38-41 )

When looking at the fringes we remember all the commandments and refrain from following the temptations of the heart. Clearly tzitzit  are meant to be a remind us to choose aspired over desired actions. It is clear that wearing tzitzit is not just for the purpose of inspiring us to keep commandments, but it also keep us connected to our identity as people redeemed by God from Egypt. Even if today we see the Kippah as the iconic Jewish designation, from our parsha and the Torah in general it seems more accurate to claim that wearing tzitzit is the authentic expression of Jewish identity.

In reading an article by Rabbi Dr. Marc D. Angel on the topic of the diversity of Jewish customs I learned that there are different opinions as to the custom to how to practise this commandment. Are we supposed to wear one’s tzitzit in or out? The Shulhan Arukh (O.H. 8:11)  ruled that the mitzvah of the Tallit Katan entails wearing the tzitzit “on one’s clothes” so that one will always see them and remember God’s commandments. On this the Mishnah Berurah comments on this passage:

Those men who place their tzitzit within their pants, not only are they hiding their eyes from what is written [in the Torah], “and you shall see them and remember etc.,” but moreover they are disgracing [mevazin] a commandment of God; in the future they will have to stand in judgment for this. (Mishnah Berurah 26)

It seems pretty clear from both the Sephardic and Ashkanazic authorities that we aught to wear our tzitzit on the outside.

Rabbi Haim David Halevy, late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, indicated that although the Shulhan Arukh called for wearing the tzitzit so that they can be seen, the Ari haKadosh held otherwise, teaching that according to the kabbala, tzitzit must not be worn outside one’s pants. Virtually all Sephardic posekim have followed the opinion of the Ari, not that of the Shulhan Arukh. Rabbi Halevy notes:

In truth, we have never seen even one of the Sephardic hakhamim and rabbis who has removed the tzitzit outside the pants; certainly they took into consideration the opinion of the kabbalists, and the ruling of the Hida whose rulings we have accepted.(Asei Lekha Rav, Tel Aviv, 5738, vol. 2, Orah Hayyim, no. 20)

From this it seems that it is a normative  Sephardic practice to wear the tzitzit of the Tallit Katan inside one’s garments based on a kabalistic notion. But it seems that there were also Ashkenzim who also thought you should wear the tzitzit inside one’s garments. The Mahari Bruna (15th century German Rabbinic Authority) wrote that it is considered haughtiness to wear the tzitzit exposed (siman 96). In the end it seem that the reasons for tucking or not tucking are valid both for Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

I have been thinking about this question of Tzitzit this week not just because of our Parsha, but also because June is LGBT Pride Month. This month we commemorate 50 years since the Stonewall riots, which occurred at the end of June 1969. As a result, many pride events are held during this month to recognize the impact LGBT people have had in the world. It also deserves note the central role Jews have played in the advancement of LGBT rights, equality, and celebration.

Pride Shabbat

In this context it is too easy to see tzitzit as a totem driving people away from their desires or simply to see it as a question of “keeping it in your pants”. Both readings would miss how wearing tzitzit is fundamentally an expression of gratitude for our liberation from slavery. As a person with many privileges it is hard for me to connect with our ancestors’ experience of  being constrained or limited in Egypt.  Seeing what we have achieved and still have yet to achieve in the last 50 years to ensure that our society is affirming of LGBT identities and the LGBT experience, I can better relate to the need to continuing to work for liberation. In or out, gay or straight, Trans, or Cisgendertzitzit is an expression of identity which we should wear with pride.  We take a moment  on Pride Shabbat when we read Parshat Shelach to celebrate our modern heros who gliitter-bombed the world, liberated all of us from slavery, and taught us to never back down or hide an inner truth.  Shabbat Shalom

Generous Orthodoxy: Revisiting Welcoming LGBT on Yom Kippur

As an Orthodox Jewish in preparation for Yom Kippur I pause to take stock of who I am individually and who we are collectively. Am I doing everything I should be doing to make this world a better place? A couple of years ago I was is in a similarly reflective mode when I got to thinking about our tradition of reading a list of sexual prohibitions  in the Yom Kippur afternoon service (Leviticus 18:1 – 30). Why would we read the primary religious source used to substantiate homophobia on our most holy day of the year? While I still do not have an answer to this question, I feel that silence on this issue is its own sin. At that time I wrote a letter to my children if they are gay with 8 promises. What has happened since that time?

While there have been some efforts to be more welcoming to LGBT members of our Jewish community, advancement is really slow going at best. While it is clear that we still have a lot of work to do towards making it safe to be an LGBT member of our community, this year I got to thinking beyond just our community. There have been horrible set-backs in society at large. Bigotry, hate, and even violence toward LGBT people world-wide is a real problem. I would be fool hearty to think that this passage in Leviticus is the cause to this hatred and bigotry. People tend to fear what they do not understand. Nonetheless as an Orthodox Jew I feel that I have a responsibility to relieve this suffering and not to contribute toward it. We are the People of the Book, we have to take responsibility for how we share that story. The day of Yom Kippur itself atones for our sins between us and God. We still need to do the work of healing the wounds of sins between us and other people.

I was thinking about this recently I was listening to Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell. In this podcast Gladwell shared the powerful story of Chester Wenger, a 98-year-old Mennonite minister who chose to confront his own church over a question of deepest principle. As pastor in one of the most traditional of religious communities he made the hard choice to officiate at the marriage ceremony of his gay son. Gladwell argues that this is a case of what theologian Hans Frei called Generous Orthodoxy. This paradox of Generous Orthodoxy seems resonant with my ideals of Open Orthodoxy. Wenger offers us a master class in the art of deeply respectful, openhearted, and religiously important dissent.

I will be thinking about this idea of Generous Orthodoxy this Yom Kippur when saying the Unetanneh Tokef prayer. There we say:

Teshuva– Repentance,

Tefilah – Prayer,

and Tzedaka– Charity

will annul the severe decree.

How will we confront our own day of Judgement before God? We will strive to do Teshuva.  It is clear that we all have work to do to make sure we are the best people we can be. On Yom Kippur we will do plenty of Tefilah. There is much to be said for recognizing that we do not have all of the answers. We come together to seek out support from each other and Beyond to make meaning in our lives. And we will give Tzedaka– charity. Wait- I will not being carrying my wallet. Will any of us give charity on the day of Yom Kippur? Might I suggest that on the day of Yom Kippur the charity we are being asked to give is not monetary. Maybe we are being asked to be generous in our orthodoxy itself. So yes I will read the passage from Leviticus, but I will also stand in judgement saying the Unetanneh Tokef. Saying these works I will try to be offer up my wholehearted understanding of orthodoxy. If I need to risk my own sense of self to ensure that everyone feel safe and welcome so be it. Maybe if I could just be a little bit more like Chester Wenger my severe decree against me will be annulled.

Also see:

Coming Home for Passover: LGBTQ Voices at the Seder

Charles Dickens was right, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. ” For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people, today’s legal and legislative landscape is a season of light and a season of darkness. While we celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision guaranteeing same-sex couples the fundamental right to marry, we are seeing disgraceful efforts in more than three dozen states to enact laws, often under the guise of religion, suppressing people’s human rights. As a religious person, I take offence at these efforts that veil their homophobia, hatred, and bigotry behind faith claims. I believe that all people, without exception, are created in the image of God, are due basic rights and deserve a baseline of respect.

The Seder table

Szyk Haggadah, Lodz, 1936

The effects of LGBTQ discrimination are proven, and staggering. LGBTQ youth too often face family rejection, leading to homelessness, high levels of self-harm, and even suicide. LGBTQ people are often shunned by their communities of faith, or cast aside and made to feel ashamed about who they are and who they love. In many states, the impact of bad laws and ugly rhetoric is not abstract for LGBTQ people and their families. We must recognize the physical risk young LGBTQ members in our midst face when they are not afforded space in our community. I believe that while we need to think globally, we need to act locally. So, as an Orthodox Jew I think about how we might counter these efforts by rethinking how we discuss LGBTQ issues at our upcoming Passover Seder.

I am reminded of the story Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal told to explain the title of his moving book, Eim Habanim Semeichah. It was Passover in 1942 and the Nazis rounded up all the women age 16 and older in Slovakia. One man attempted to save his daughters by smuggling them over the border. But before they reached safety, the father and his daughters were captured and transported to a prison in a nearby village. But the brave actions of Rabbi Shmuel David Unger, who endangered his own life in a daring mission to rescue the captives, reunited the daughters with their mother, the husband with his wife and transformed the deep sorrow of Passover to joy.   Rabbi Teichtal writes:

He who did not witness this  reunion – the mother reunited with her daughters after such a dreadful captivity, the tears of the mother when she saw that her daughters had returned to their borders (Jeremiah 31:16), the joy of the joyous mother of children (Psalms 113:9)– has never witnessed true feelings of joy. This is what I know about this incident which transpired in our days.(Eim Habanim Semeichah–  A Joyous Mother of Children Translated by Moshe Lichtman, 58)

As Rabbi Teichtal teaches us, the ultimate joy is in welcoming our children as they come home.  That is as a lesson we must exemplify this passover. Welcoming our LGBTQ children, brothers, sisters, parents, and friends to our Seder, and back into our community cannot wait. For our communities to experience the joy and fulfillment of this prophetic vision, we must ensure that we are there, with open arms to welcome all of our children home.

I was thrilled to see a recent article reporting a more inclusive stance being taken by some Orthodox organizations toward LGBTQ members of our community. I am also pleased to see the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s release of the new guide, “Coming Home to Judaism and to Self,” which supports LGBTQ people and communities of faith seeking to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment. The guide highlights the advances of the Jewish community in embracing LGBTQ people, and the challenges that we as a community still face.

In every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as slaves who have been liberated from slavery. In this generation, especially in the Orthodox community, we must find a way to include the hidden and marginalized voices at our Seder tables. By opening our homes and our tables to LGBTQ stories, we allow ourselves to come home and to experience liberation. Only in these moments will we experience true feelings of joy.  

Hag Kasher V’Sameah

-reposted from Huffington Post

SCOTUS: Same Sex Marriage

Today is a monumental day in American history. The Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. The way I see it religious people have a choice to make. Will we complain about this decision regarding who can get married or enjoin the public in a conversation about the meaning of commitment. There is no doubt in my mind that things will get nasty. I am worried that people acting in the name of their faith will not model respect. Three years ago I wrote:

As religious people, we should welcome this “challenge” of same-sex marriage as an opportunity to define marital commitment in the 21st century. Getting lost in the form of a wedding completely misses the conversation about the content of a marriage. Who better to guide the conversation about commitment?  It is laughable to outsource the definition of a marriage to the state. We clearly do not want to leave this conversation of commitment in the hands of politicians. We want to be the ones crafting the conversation on what makes a life-long commitment work. And in the end we have to realize that we cannot just preach respect, we need to model it.  ( read rest of that post)

I for one am happy about the decision.  What will be the next chapter? How will we in the religious community be part of the conversation, will we shirk away, or worse will we act out? Here is our moment to model showing respect. Today our Supreme Court has helped take us one step closer to making a more perfect union by making it illegal for states to ban same sex unions. Do we want to be part of this conversation?

– See source post Modeling Respect

On Middot: The Measure of Inclusion

In Aharei Mot- Kedoshim, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the transgression of falsifying Middot– weights in the market place. There we read:

You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in measures of length, weight, or volume. Just balances, just weights, a just efah, and a just hin, shall you have: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And you shall observe all My statutes, and all Mine ordinances, and do them: I am the Lord. ( Leviticus 19: 35-37)

Dishonesty in business is not just immoral, according to the Sifra  it constitutes a chillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name. After all, “Deceitful scales are an abomination of the Lord” (Proverbs 11:1). In fact, any deception or dishonest business practice is “an abomination unto the Lord, your God” (Deuteronomy 25:16). We are mandated to avoid any kind of dishonesty and certainly financial dishonesty.

I bring this up in light of our persistent choice to exclude gay members from our community because we claim that Aharei Mot- Kedoshim, our  Torah portion, calls sex between two men an “abomination” (Leviticus 18:22) . It is shocking because we are happy to turn a blind eye to the abominable  business practices of  people in our community. Rabbi Levi said, ” The punishment for false measures is more rigorous than that for forbidden relatives” (Baba Bathra 88b). In light of this our exclusion of Lesbian Gay and Bisexual members of our community just seems cruel and not nice. We should be as careful about our Middot (measurements in business) as our Middot (ethics in life).

 

-See other essays on GLBT Inclusion:

 

 

Wait for Me Until I Welcome: Further Reflections from an Orthodox Rabbi to his Gay Children

As a religious person I am moved by a sense of divine purpose. While we as Jews do not use the word “calling”, I do feel that I work in the service of realizing God’s will on earth. As a Rabbi and Jewish communal servant I have a sense of what it means to sacrifice happiness for a cause. How many nights do I spend away from my own children working to enrich the lives of other people’s children? Avraham is a model of someone who lived with divine purpose. Even if God directed Avraham, as a father it is hard for me to imagine that Avraham kicked Yishmael out and almost sacrificed Yitzhak. Did he not love his sons? If he did, why didn’t Avraham protest on behalf of his sons as he did for the people of Sodom (Genesis 18:23- 33)? In that case, God actually listens to Avraham and engages him in debate. Or even better, why didn’t Avraham just politely “take leave” of God for the sake of his sons?  At the beginning of the Torah portion, three strangers approach Avraham in the desert.  Commenting on this, the Midrash says that “he turned to God and said, ‘with purity of heart, Master of the world, let the Shekhinah (the divine presence) wait for me until I welcome these guests.’”(Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 18:2).

What was Avraham thinking when he drove his son Yishmael away and made him wander in the desert? What was Avraham thinking when he brought Yitzhak up to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him? In the case of Sodom, God is willing to engage in debate. In the case of the strangers, God understands that Avraham’s turning away is not disrespectful, but it is in service of another value. Is anything so sacred that we would be unable to welcome those who feel marginalized, are in danger, and need our help? What if they are our own children?

Since the publication of Promises for My Gay Children, Pastor John Pavlovitz and I have carved out some time to Skype. We have only begun to talk, learn, and reflect together, but we have much to share regarding how we decided to come out in support of people who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or  Transgender (LGBT). We realized that despite our differences of our faith, religion, and culture, we both share some fundamental things. The most obvious one is that we both have a profound love of our children as well as a deep love of all of God’s children. For both of us it is our faith itself that has lead us to where we are. We were also both moved to speak about the staggering statistics. Here are a few:

  • A LGBT youth is more than twice as likely to be homeless ( National Coalition for the Homeless)
  • Family rejection of gay and transgender youth often leads to attempted suicide. According to a 2009 study, gay youth who reported higher levels of family rejection in adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their gay peers who did not experience family rejection. They were also 5.9 times as likely to have experienced depression, 3.4 times as likely to have used illicit drugs, and 3.4 times as likely to have had unprotected sex. ( Center for American Progress)
  • A Columbia University study showed that roughly 20% of LGBT teens have attempted suicide, compared to 4% of straight teenagers. That is five times more likely.

Rejecting who our children are is tantamount to asking them to sacrifice themselves on the alter of our expectations. With these stark numbers, we cannot be silent. Shetikah KeHodaah Damia – Silence is Acquiescence ( Ketubot 14b).  We need to argue and debate as if our children’s lives depended on it.  Not being intentional and explicit about our unconditional love might drive them out of our lives.

In Vayera, this week’s Torah portion, we read all of these stories of Avraham’s trying to manifest his divine purpose on earth. We should humbly choose which narratives of Avraham to tell in order to ensure that our children are not made to feel like strangers. In the Midrash, Rabbi Aha depicts a speculative dialogue between Avraham and God at the binding of Yitzhak. There we read:

When I [God] commanded you [Avraham], ‘Take now your son,’ [to sacrifice him] (Genesis 22:2), I will not alter that which has gone out of my lips. Did I tell you, ‘Slaughter him?’ No! But, ‘take him up’ (Genesis 22:2). You have taken him up. Now take him down.  (Genesis Rabbah 56:8)

If we think our tradition demands we risk our children’s lives by not accepting them, like Avraham maybe we are misreading our tradition. God does not need our defense and God will most certainly be there when we get back. All of our children are angels who are just waiting to be welcomed into the tent.

Promises for My Gay Children: Reflections of an Orthodox Rabbi for Yom Kippur

As I prepare for Yom Kippur, I have been giving some thought to all of my and our collective sins. To paraphrase the Al Het Prayer, I have been thinking about both the sins which I have committed intentionally or unintentionally. What have been my sins of commission and my sins of omission? What have I done inadvertently by not doing anything at all? How will I be judged for my actions?

I was thinking about this yesterday when I read a profound blog post by John Pavlovitz, a pastor of North Wake House Church in North Carolina. In his piece entitled If I Have Gay Children: Four Promises From A Christian Pastor/Parent he boldly came out as a person of faith in support of his and other peoples’ children who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning.

Reading this, I got to thinking ahead to the Torah portion we traditionally read in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. This portion is comprised of a list of sexual prohibitions (Leviticus 18:1 – 30). Why would we read the primary religious source used to substantiate homophobia on our most holy day of the year? While I might not have an answer to this question, I do feel that silence on this issue is its own sin.

As a human being, I feel a need to speak out on this because there are those for whom it is not just their comfort or happiness that are at risk, but their very health, safety, and actual lives. As a Jew, I cannot stomach senseless hatred toward people because of who they are. An integral part of our Jewish identity comes from our experience as victims of the world’s hatred. We cannot stand idly by as other people suffer from bigotry. As a Rabbi, I feel a need to speak out for justice.

I feel a visceral need to speak out on this issue, not despite my being an Orthodox Jew, but because of that fact. As it says in the Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in the Orthodox Community, which I feel honored to have signed, “Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.”

To this end, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, I wanted to make my own promises to my children. Amen to Pastor Pavlovitz (1-4 paraphrased from his blog):

1) If I have gay children, you’ll all know it.
My children won’t be our family’s best kept secret. If my children come out, we’ll be out as a family.

2) If I have gay children, I’ll pray for them.
I won’t pray for them to be made “normal”. I’ve lived long enough to know that if my children are gay, that is their normal. I will pray for them just as I pray for all of my children.

3) If I have gay children, I’ll love them.
I don’t mean some token, distant, tolerant love that stays at a safe arm’s length. It will be an extravagant, open-hearted, unapologetic, lavish, embarrassing-them-in-the-school cafeteria, kind of love.

4) If I have gay children, most likely; I have gay children.
If my kids are going to be gay, well they pretty much already are. They are today, simply a younger version of who they will be; and today they’re pretty darn great.

5) If I have gay children, I expect them to participate in community.
Not only are my children a critical part of my family, but they need to know that they are a critical part of the larger Jewish family. We are a kehilah kedosha– sacred community. Bigotry and hatred pose a much bigger risk to this sanctity than the issues that one might profess regarding my children’s orientation. I promise to fight with anyone who would want to limit their involvement in school, camp, synagogue, etc.

6) If I have gay children, I will learn Torah with them.
Learning Torah is a central Jewish practice. Engaging Torah writ large is the life blood of our people. I believe in the Torah. My commitment to my children is to have them join the conversation of our people and to have their voices heard. I promise to learn with my children– not just the nice parts, but also the Torah portion we read traditionally in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. I expect to listen and promise to have their interpretation heard. And when my time comes, I look forward to giving God some feedback. They should have the confidence that I will be waiting there for them when they meet the Judge on high. My commitment to my children is unwavering and eternal.

7) If I have gay children, I will celebrate their partnership.
My wife is my ezer k’negdi– she is my helpmate. She pushes me to make sure I am my best self. The key to sustained happiness and a life of meaning is finding a partner with whom to share your life. Having a healthy partnership is not just the key to surviving in the world; it is the key to thriving. This partnership is the bedrock for a bayit ne’eman b’yisrael, a faithful home in Israel, which is the basic building block for Jewish society. I hope that we were good role models for partnership and my children should expect that we do not just tolerate their life partner, but that we find ways to celebrate that partnership.

8) If I have gay children, I will celebrate their family.
Our children are the greatest joy in my life. While my children might not have children in a “traditional” manner, it does not mean that they should not feel the obligation of Pru uRevu– to procreate and raise another generation of proud Jews. I promise to be a great Zayde to link the next generation back to our past. While my gay children will have taught me about liberation, perhaps being older I have what to share with their children about exodus from Egypt. It is my job to hide the Afikoman; I expect their children to read the four questions. I promise that they will never question their connection to Jewish history and their role in our lustrous future.

There is no doubt that some of you may be offended by what I have said here. But as Pastor Pavlovitz wrote, “This isn’t about you. This is a whole lot bigger than you.” It is about my children and the parent I aspire to be. On these issues I could not stay silent. That is how I hope to be judged on Yom Kippur.

-Reposted from the Canteen

 

In Your Face Empathy

In BeShalach, last week’s Torah portion, we learned of the splitting of the sea. There we read, “And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and God caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” (Exodus 14: 21) At the start of Yitro, this week’s Torah portion we learn that Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law comes to meet Moses and the Israelites. There we read, ” Now Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel His people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” ( Exodus 18:1) Why did Yitro come? He heard of the great miracles of the Exodus, especially the splitting of the sea. But, how did he hear? When discussing the miracle of the splitting of the sea, the Sages rationalized that this exception to the rule of science, must have happened every where on the world if it happened at all. Rashi (on Exodus 14:21) brings down the idea  (from the Mehilta and Shemot Rabba 21:6) that “all the waters of the world also split at that time” .

So the water in Yitro’s cup divided, but why did he run to get Zipporah and the grand kids in the car to see Moses?  The miracle of the splitting of the sea was not just that the Isrealites escaped their slave masters, but that it created a narrative with which everyone could relate. The story was not in a far off sea, but right there on our table. All too often we are not sympathetic to a cause until we connect with it on a person level. It is easy to turn a blind eye to someone who is suffering, until you look that person in the eyes.  In my mind this points a deep lesson in the power on empathy.

I was thinking about this lesson  when I saw a recently posted TED talk. In this video photographer iO Tillett Wright pushes us to see past the having check boxes like “female,” “male,” “gay” or straight”. She is the creator of Self Evident Truths—an ongoing project to document the wide variety of experiences in LGBTQ America. So far, she has photographed about 2,000 people for the project. Her goal: 10,000 portraits and a nationwide rethinking of discriminatory laws. Please watch:

In the words of Jewish Philosopher  Emmanuel Levinas, “the Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me . . . the face presents itself, and demands justice. (Totality and Infinity 207, 294) In the spirit of Yitro, it is hard looking at the pictures of iO Tillett Wright and not heeding  the call and working for equality and justice for all people regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. When we see the humanity in another person, we cannot help but have empathy for that person. We feel that we are connected. And as Yitro teaches us, that is just what family does. Regardless if it is for a celebration or morning, we show up.

Modeling Respect

The Shulchan Aruch (493:1) reports on the practice of not getting married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer, because during this time the students of Rabbi Akiva perished. Their deaths came to an end (or at least a break) on Lag B’Omer. Why did the students of Rabbi Akiva die? And why would we mourn their death by refraining from getting married?

We can start to answer these questions by looking at the Gemara in Yevamot. There  we learn:

Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir,  Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot”.  (Yevamot 62b)

Rabbi Akiba’s students died because they did not treat each other with respect. It would be surprising to learn that one student of this great tanna of the middle of the 2nd century did not learn such a basic lesson. What is the additional significance of it being 24,000?

Despite his humble beginnings as a shepherd Rabbi Akiba became a tremendous scholar. And while he had a tremendous effect on Jewish life, he was not without flaws. We learn in the Gemara that during the 24 years in which he accumulated these 24,000 students he did not see his wife once (Ketubot 62b-63a). Rabbi Akiva gave his wife credit for all of the Torah they learned in this time. So while he told his students explicitly that they were all indebted to his wife, living apart from his wife for all of those years Rabbi Akiva did not show his student the daily habits of respect. How were his students to learn how to treat each other with respect if Rabbi Akiba did not model this for them?

Today being Lag B’Omer , we should take a moment and reflect on how we should treat each other with respect and how we might teach this lesson to others. Lately there is a lot of conversation as to what is a legal marriage. Many hide their homophobia and bigotry behind their traditional hetero-normative assumptions of marriage of the religious establishment. While they have every right to marginalize people who do not live by their standards within the context of their religion, in a country that claims a division between church and state this should have no bearings on US law. It is for the very reason that marriage is a sacrament that the state should not get involved in  limiting these rights to heterosexual couples.

It is not despite the fact that I am an Orthodox Rabbi, but because of this fact that I think the government should allow same-sex marriage. How are we any different from the students of Rabbi Akiba? How can we in the religious establishment hope to teach people about respect when we do not model it ourselves. Looking no further than the  horrible divorce rate in this country it is clear that we do not model this respect  in hetero-normative marriage. And we surely do not model this by barring two consensual adults who love each other  from enjoying the civil rights of a heterosexual couple.

As religious people, we should welcome this “challenge” of same-sex marriage as an opportunity to define marital commitment in the 21st century. Getting lost in the form of a wedding completely misses the conversation about the content of a marriage. Who better to guide the conversation about commitment?  It is laughable to outsource the definition of a marriage to the state. We clearly do not want to leave this conversation of commitment in the hands of politicians. We want to be the ones crafting the conversation on what makes a life-long commitment work. And in the end we have to realize that we cannot just preach respect, we need to model it.  So now with Lag B’Omer behind us we can all get married.

Signs on the Wall: Lessons of an Inclusive Sukkah

We are in the middle of our celebration of Sukkot, the Holiday of Booths. You might notice a number of booths in your neighborhood. Here in the northern hemisphere it seems very counter intuitive. As everyone else is packing up their lawn chairs for the winter, the Jewish community has headed outdoors. Just at the end of a seemingly endless litany of reasons to miss work or school, the Jews will spend a week in booths.

So, what is a Sukkah? In short, a Sukkah is a booth, which symbolizes what the Israelite people lived in during their journeys in the desert after leaving Egypt. Legally it should have at the least three walls and roof made of unrefined natural material. While the roof needs to be dense enough so that it yields more shade than sun light, the custom is that it should be open enough so that you are able to see the stars.

So now you know what one is, but what is the meaning of a Sukkah? While it is open to the whole galaxy of ideas, it still gives a baseline of shelter to its inhabitants. While it has discrete walls that define it, they tend to be much more pores than the walls of our homes. During Sukkot we leave the safety and security of our homes to live as refuges who just escaped slavery in Egypt. We are challenged to reflect on our privileges and assumptions as free people. Do we make room for people to feel liberated in that Sukkah? Can we bring these lessons home with us to affect how we live the rest of the year?

Recently a colleague I used to work with at Hillel was in touch. She wanted to remind me of some work we did together on Sukkot on campus.  Amidst other Sukkah decorations we placed small posters with coming-out stories. We wanted to use the Sukkah as place for LGBT students on campus to find refuge.

I remember one student who came to me as the Orthodox Rabbi to share with me how inappropriate he found this expression. In his mind the Sukkah was a religious space and there was no space there for “alternative life styles”. While there are plenty of people who adopt the NIMBYworld view, this ” it is fine but not in my Sukkah” world view had a special flavor of religious arrogance mixed into it.

Like many other campuses during Chol HaMoed we had a Pizza in the Hut social. At this event there was hekshered and non-certified Kosher Pizza served. The plan was to have signs up indicating which was which. As the case would have it, when the aforementioned Orthodox student showed up there was not more kosher pizza and the signs had been removed. Mid- slice he was informed that he had been eating pizza which was not certified as Kosher. Being very distraught having broken Jewish Law he wanted to give me a piece of his mind.

I felt horrible that he ate non-Kosher pizza. But then I realize my opportunity to be the community Rabbi he needed and not just the Orthodox Rabbi he wanted. I got him together with one of the leaders of the LBGT Jewish group to have a common conversation about the value and importance of having signs that include everyone’s needs in the communal Sukkah. Being inclusive does not mean bowing to the “frummist common denominator”. It means enjoining everyone to share the challenges of making room for all the identities in common space. They could both realize the significance and mandate to make room for each other signs.

These booths might be more than just another wacky Jewish custom. We should all consider the Sukkah as a particular contribution to the universal effort to creating a community open to the diversity of the human experience (religion, sexuality, gender, race, culture, etc.). In making room for everyone’s identities this hut becomes a Sukkat Shalom– a booth of peace.

Chag Sameach– Have a Gay and Joyous Holiday


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