Posts Tagged 'LGBT'



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

Thinking Out of Wyoming

How do we define space? Often is is easiest to go and pull out a map. Pictures just work in ways that words do not. See below at this map of the wonderful state of Wyoming.

But how might you define this space without a picture? Well, it is square landmass in the center of the United States of America. That is pretty accurate, but how would do you this for another state (and do not pick Colorado)? It is very hard to define these spaces with just words.

But, alas this is the project in Masai, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 2 ‘Command the children of Israel, and say unto them: When you come into the land of Canaan, this shall be the land that shall fall to you for an inheritance, even the land of Canaan according to the borders thereof. 3 Thus your south side shall be from the wilderness of Zin close by the side of Edom, and your south border shall begin at the end of the Salt Sea eastward; 4 and your border shall turn about southward of the ascent of Akrabbim, and pass along to Zin; and the goings out thereof shall be southward of Kadesh-barnea; and it shall go forth to Hazar-addar, and pass along to Azmon; 5 and the border shall turn about from Azmon unto the Brook of Egypt, and the goings out thereof shall be at the Sea. 6 And for the western border, you shall have the Great Sea for a border; this shall be your west border. 7 And this shall be your north border: from the Great Sea you shall mark out your line unto mount Hor; 8 from mount Hor you shall mark out a line unto the entrance to Hamath; and the goings out of the border shall be at Zedad; 9 and the border shall go forth to Ziphron, and the goings out thereof shall be at Hazar-enan; this shall be your north border. 10 And you shall mark out your line for the east border from Hazar-enan to Shepham; 11 and the border shall go down from Shepham to Riblah, on the east side of Ain; and the border shall go down, and shall strike upon the slope of the sea of Chinnereth eastward; 12 and the border shall go down to the Jordan, and the goings out thereof shall be at the Salt Sea; this shall be your land according to the borders thereof round about.’ (Numbers 34:1-12)

There are no straight lines. Without saying anything about the current geo-political issues in Israel, I can say that the Torah here is being simple without being simplistic. The biblical land of Israel is not Wyoming.This posses an interesting model as to how we define things that are complex which we might not have seen.

Recently, the great state of New York joined the elite club of states that lifted the ban on same sex marriage. Even if this is not sanctioned by Halacha, to me this represents a clear human rights victory. It saddens me to see religious groups either going on the attack or recusing themselves from the discussion. Same sex marriage is a great opportunity for the religious establishment to redefine the nature of marriage.

Why do they need to redefine marriage you ask? Well, simply put marriage is not working. If current trends continue 40% or possibly even 50% of marriages will end in divorce. That is a staggering rate. Instead of defining it by exluding people, we need to enjoin people into a conversation of joining together for a the creation of a household build on common values. The institution of marriage is far too complex to make believe that it can be mapped out as easily as the straight borders of Wyoming.  Traditional forms of religion can live in their self imposed exile or join in and offer their wisdom.

I am confident that as the LGBT community joins the rest of us in the institution of marriage they will teach a lot about the contours of creating successful life long relationships. Maybe they can give us clear picture of what a positive marriage should be about. If nothing else same sex marriage might help us move beyond the infantile belief that life long partnership is about just creating babies. For a long time I have found it interesting that there is no little conversation about endogomy ( in-marriage ) in the LGBT and Jewish communities. If same sex couples can tell us the importance of finding a life partners that share our social/cultural/religious commitments, we might be able to move on to defining the importance of endogomy for the rest of the Jewish people. You would think that the traditional elements of our community would want to support this. Can you picture that?

Hitting the Wall

Today is the 10th of Tevet. This commemorates the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia. On the  17th of Tammuz they breached the walls of the city. This cycle of terror culminated on the 9th of Av with the destruction of the First Temple and the conquest of the southern kingdom. In our liturgy, this fast day also commemorates other calamities that occurred throughout Jewish history around the 10th of Tevet.

In 1949, the Chief Rabbi of Israel declared that the day on which the first hurban (destruction) commenced should become a memorial day also for the last hurban. Two years later the rabbinate decided officially to turn the 10th of Tevet into a memorial day for Shoah (Holocaust)victims whose date of death is unknown.

Last night there was a rally in Brooklyn to remember all those whose names we might not even know who’s lives have been destroyed due to anti-LGBTQ violence.

We cannot just light a candle in their memory. It is not enough. In the name of Torah we need to speak out against violence. Today being a day to remember the nameless victims, more Rabbis need to sign their names to the Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community. And yet, that is still not enough.  We cannot stand idly by on the blood of our neighbors.  No one should be targeted or victimize because of who they are. Bullies still lurk at our gate. We need to do more. We need to stand up in the name of God to end this siege.

On this 10th of Tevet as we fast in memory of the people in Jerusalem who stood in fear behind that wall, I want to think about another stone wall. In 1969  there  were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations against a police raid on homosexuals at the Stonewall Inn. This is frequently cited as the first instance in American history when people in the LGBT community fought back against a government-sponsored system that persecuted sexual minorities. Historian Nicholas Edsall writes,

Stonewall has been compared to any number of acts of radical protest and defiance in American history from the Boston Tea Party on. But the best and certainly a more nearly contemporary analogy is with Rosa Parks‘ refusal to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1955, which sparked the modern civil rights movement. Within months after Stonewall radical gay liberation groups and newsletters sprang up in cities and on college campuses across America and then across all of northern Europe as well.1

On this 10th of Tevet I do not just think about shuttering in fear behind a wall. Today we need to think about what we can to do join together to stand up to oppression in front of that wall.  This is not just something to commemorate, we must also learn to celebrate; the Jewish community has a lot to learn from LGBT community.

Tzom Kal– Fighting oppression is hard, so I hope that fasting goes easily.


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