Posts Tagged 'LGBT'

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

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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

What About the T? – Ki Tzetzei and Transgender

It is great to see some more positive conversation regarding including LGBT members of our community. It is curious to me how the “T” sort of slips in there as if it were the same at the LGB, but at the same time ignored. Who we are attracted to is very different then how we want to present ourselves. Transgender people experience a mismatch between their gender identity or gender expression and their assigned sex. So, what about the T? How does our community deal with transgender members?

In Ki Tetzei, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the prohibition of transgender dressing. There we read:

A man’s attire shall not be on a woman, nor may a man wear a woman’s garment, because whoever does these is an abomination to God, your God. ( Deuteronomy 22:5)

Between the use of the word “abomination” and testing the limits of heteronormative lifestyle I understand why so many people for or against transgender people lump them all together. But still the Torah it seems like a different issue.

According to Rashi on the verse, cross-dressing can lead to promiscuous behavior. Wearing the clothes of a woman would enable a man to mingle inappropriately among women, and vice versa. Alternatively Maimonides argued that some of the ancient pagan rituals involved cross-dressing and that we must therefore distance ourselves from this type of behavior. ( Guide III :37). Beyond the presumptions of the person having lascivious or idolatrous motivations, I wanted to suggest another from the start of this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands, and you carry away captives, and you see among the captives a woman of goodly form, and you have a desire for her, and would take her as a wife; then you shall bring her home to your house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails.( Deuteronomy 21:10-12)

We see here that the practice would be to strip the captive women of the outward appearances of gender to determine his attraction to her. Is it possible that the prohibition for cross-dressing was limited to dealing with the military strategy?

Gender is such a fundamental aspect of what makes us who we are. In my experience of transgender members of our communities their motivation is neither lascivious, idolatrous, and certainly not a military strategu. Their need comes from a profound drive for self-expression. Given the profound amount of violence perpetrated against transgender people I think we need to reconsider how we talk about gender roles in our community and not just sexual orientation.  While we maintain our commitment to tzinuit, modesty, devotion to God, and of course maintaining the peace, how might we make more room for the “T”?

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

Time to End the Hate Song: Thoughts on the End of Passover and Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act

We find ourselves living at an interesting time on a couple of levels. Having just participated in two wonderful Seders with my family commemorating the Exodus from Egypt we are getting ready for the last days of Passover commemorating our salvation at the Red Sea. Having just been liberated from slavery, our ancestors found themselves witness to the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea. One can only imagine the elation. In response to this, Moses and Miriam led the Israelites in the two songs sung at the sea. This has become the gold standard of expressing gratitude and religious freedom.

On this the Talmud Sanhedrin says:

The Holy One, blessed be God, does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked.  For Rabbi Shmuel ben Nahman said in Rabbi Yonatan’s name: What is meant by, “And one approached not the other all night”? (Exodus 14:20)  In that hour [When the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea ] the ministering angels wished to utter the song of praise  before the Holy One, blessed be God, but God rebuked them, saying: My handiwork [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea; would you utter song before me! (Sanhedrin 39b)

The Egyptians slavers are finally getting their just due, yet God experienced no pleasure in the process.  Why was the angels’ song censored, while the Israelites songs were not? A song of salvation is great, but rejoicing in someone else’s suffering is just wrong. Someone who truly cares for God’s honor would not rejoice when the wickedness of man gave God no choice but to blot it out. In the imagination of the Talmud from a divine perspective true freedom is only realized in a reconciliation process. It seems in light of their recent salvation the Israelite song might be explainable if not excusable. But the Talmud seems to pointing out that singing at this moment might be inappropriate.

Is the experience of happiness inherently contextual and only understood relative to others? What about our nature is so prone to take joy in others suffering as compared to our own happiness? While the freedom of religious expression is laudable and surely deserves praise and even song, why must it be coupled with reveling in the suffering of others let alone causing suffering?

These questions come to mind when thinking about Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act which allows any individual or corporation to cite its religious beliefs as a defense when sued by a private party. In the guise of providing people the ability to express their religious freedom it seems to give legal protections to discriminate against LGBT people. It is clear we still have a lot of work to do regarding civil rights for everyone in the country, but the last thing we need is to roll our laws back to the 1960’s.  If you truly think people are acting against God, take comfort that God will deal with them. In the name of religion we should heed God’s call, enjoy our own salvation, and ensure that we do not cause any more tears. We are surely all God’s children. While they might be left with many questions after Passover, about this our children should have no doubts.

May we enjoy the time in our lives for joy– Moadim L’Simcha V’Shabbat Shalom

– Reposted from the Canteen

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.


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