Posts Tagged 'LGBT'

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.

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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.

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

 


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