The sermon heard around the world

Several weeks ago a rabbinic student at the New York campus of HUC-JIR made historic change.  Read all about it here or below.

“For we are all one people created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God.”

by Jill on 5.6.2010 · 15 comments

in Feminism, GLBTQ, Gender, LGBT, Politics, Religion, Women We Love

This is a guest-post by Vivien Orbach-Smith. Vivien is an adjunct professor of journalism at NYU, and co-author of Soaring Underground: A Young Fugitive’s Life in Nazi Berlin. She is a contributor at Mothering21.com.

Molly Gabriella Kane is a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College, the flagship school of the Reform Jewish movement in New York City. Two weeks ago, standing before her peers, the HUC faculty, and a full congregation, she delivered her “senior sermon” – a rite of passage for every student embarking on the final year of studies before ordination (or, in Hebrew, smicha).

The only other time I saw Molly center-stage in a synagogue was at her Bat Mitzvah, wearing a summer dress and a winning smile. Now, 17 years later, watching her stride up to the bimah (pinstriped pantsuit, and that smile), I knew I was in for an emotional moment – but had no idea it would be a history-making one.

Molly was the last among a dozen students scheduled to give their sermons over the past several months. Her assigned date turned out to be fortuitous, because its accompanying Torah-reading was one that she was determined, as a gay woman, to tackle head-on. Among its verses are those routinely quoted as the Bible’s blistering condemnation of homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13).

Her oration was at once intensely personal, rooted in ancient tractates, and drawing on the history of Reform Judaism in America. (And, Molly being Molly, it was funny, too.) I was surprised to learn of this progressive movement’s fractured stance, over the years, regarding the ordination of openly gay clergy. Perhaps naively, I never imagined that the Reform/HUC establishment would’ve had issues with LGBT rabbis or cantors. And I honestly didn’t expect that Molly Kane’s speech, while candid and courageous, would be considered groundbreaking in the year 2010, in this particular milieu. But it was. Startlingly, applause erupted loudly at the end – led by a faculty member who was well aware that applauding in a Jewish sanctuary during a service is essentially a no-no.

You’ll know why the applause, and why the torrent of e-mails and phone calls that have followed, after reading the sermon. But to understand the history-making part, you need to know what happened immediately afterwards, when most of the congregants migrated to a different space inside HUC’s West Fourth Street headquarters, for an impassioned discussion. I had to rush to a meeting, but got a full report from Molly’s proud mother (and my friend), organizational-development consultant Pearl Lerner Kane.

First, a bit of backstory:

As Molly recalled in her speech, another senior sermon had famously challenged Leviticus – in 1985, delivered by a student named Margaret Holub – and became a catalyst for the formation of an Ad Hoc Committee on Homosexuality and the Rabbinate (under the auspices of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis). In 1990, after years of study, and acknowledging that “the acceptance of gay or lesbian rabbis [is] an intensely emotional and potentially divisive issue,” the committee released – and the movement adopted – its formal resolution. In part, it “recognized the equality of all Jews, regardless of their sexual orientation,” and that “all rabbis, regardless of sexual orientation, be accorded the opportunity to fulfill the sacred vocation that they have chosen.” But it also included this stinging indictment: “The majority of the committee affirms that heterosexuality is the only appropriate Jewish choice for fulfilling one’s covenantal obligations.” (Followed, for the record, by: “A minority of the committee dissents, affirming the equal possibility of covenantal fulfillment in homosexual and heterosexual relationships. The relationship, not the gender, should determine its Jewish value.”)

It’s safe to say that among the most influential voices heard by the committee was that of renowned theologian Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, one of a select group of scholars commissioned to submit papers to aid the core group in its deliberations. The collection of essays Rabbi Borowitz published in 1990 (Exploring Jewish Ethics: Papers on Covenant Responsibility), including one titled “On Homosexuality and the Rabbinate, A Covenantal Response,” left no doubt as to where he stood on the issue. Essentially, he wrote, the marital relationship is the one that most closely mirrors a Jew’s sacred, covenantal relationship with God, reinforcing “our special devotion to the heterosexual, that is, the procreative family.” And rabbis, he further stated, “ought, more than all other Jews, to be exemplars of living by the Covenant.”

Seated in the HUC chapel on the morning of April 22, 2010, as Molly Kane chronicled the arduous journey from “degradation to liberation,” was Rabbi Borowitz.

Afterwards, during the discussion program, the rabbi – a member of HUC’s faculty since 1962, and described on its web site “the much honored ‘dean’ of American Jewish philosophers” (http://huc.edu/faculty/ borowitz.shtml) – stood up and called Molly’s sermon “brilliant’ and “compelling,” and spoke frankly about his own ideological journey over the past two decades. And then, as Pearl Kane wrote in her professional blog, http://www.wepassthehat.com:

“Today Eugene Borowitz not only changed his mind with his words, he changed his deeds. For years, the rabbi would not sign the sacred papers of smicha or ordination to those who self-identified as homosexual. Today, with more than a hundred people as witness, he signed an 11-year-old document of a practicing rabbi in New York City. Today, this rabbi became officially recognized by a peer and a teacher – with his smicha papers signed in full.

“To say there was not a dry eye in the house would be an understatement… I bless my daughters’ courage, good humor and intellect. To Rabbi Borowitz, I say thank you and I look forward to seeing your signature on Molly’s smicha one year from now.”

Clearly the 85-year-old Borowitz had been standing at the gates of change for a very long time. But it took one young woman to steer him by the elbow, and walk him through.

It’s been a shot heard ’round (and beyond) the Reform-Jewish world. And what a heady moment for future Rabbi Molly. But Molly’s smart enough to know that not everybody out there is applauding; and that notwithstanding Rabbi Borowitz’s shiny-new seal of approval, or the many positive steps towards inclusion and equality taken by the Reform movement over the last 20 years, not all of its congregations are gung-ho about hiring an LGBT – or, in some instances, even a female – spiritual leader. (And, of course, we’re only talking about one branch of Judaism, here – the most liberal one, to boot. Clearly, Jews who hew to Orthodoxy – a literal embrace of the Torah’s teachings – must grapple with these issues on a whole different level.)

The road to social justice – we know it’s long and filled with minefields. But here was another step, another speech, another signature, in the right direction.

Molly G. Kane
HUC-JIR Senior Sermon
April 22, 2010
Parashat Achrei Mot/Kedoshim
HUC-JIR Senior Sermon
April 22, 2010
Parashat Achrei Mot/Kedoshim

V’et zachar lo tishkav mishkave isha to’avah hi.

“Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman;
it is an abhorrence.”

“This section of the Torah
stings more than any other,”
Elliot Dorf once wrote.
This text has certainly stung me.
When I was younger I wondered,
Is it either
be gay or be Jewish?
And sometimes I thought
I should just be gay quietly
in order to be the Jew I want to be.
But, I don’t want to be quiet.
And certainly for those of you who know
me well and maybe even those who don’t
I am not often quiet.
And certainly not this morning.

For so long, the voice of Leviticus took priority
over the human voices it silenced.
Back in the 11th century Ibn Ezra is clear
in his exegesis of the text. He writes,
“In my opinion, the meaning of this verse is quite
straight forward: a man is not to have sex with
another man….this is a deed that should be
punishable by death.”

And as recently as this past year a
commentator posted on chabad.org,

“Torah demands that man not lie with a man as he would a woman.
All the excuses, like some animals are gay,
gayness is normal, no one is getting hurt, are anti Jewish.
As Jews, we are not permitted gayness.
Look what happened to Sodom and Gemorrah.”

How does any society move from such degradation to liberation?
How do we get from here to there?

We move through five different stages:
fear, ambivalence, tolerance, acceptance, and then liberation.
The transition from one stage to another is not always clear.
The stages are fluid.
And as we grow, we set new goals and reach for new horizons.
by pushing ourselves to strive for a new future.
We begin first in the recent past.

Fear

The year is 1985.
The place: a small apartment
in New York City.
A group of Jews;
gays, lesbians, and allies
comes together for a Passover seder.
They take their glasses
fill them with wine,
spill out drop by drop
while shouting out one by one
the plagues of modern society:

Ignorance
Homophobia
Sodomy Laws
the death of Judy Garland
Stonewall
the animosity of the Women’s movement towards Lesbians
the assassination of Harvey Milk
AIDS
discrimination against gays in the workplace
Civil laws that forbid same-sex marriage

Just before Pesach that year, Margaret Holub
a student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion
stands in this sanctuary to deliver her senior sermon.

She calls on her community to invite and welcome
gays and lesbians into the college and the CCAR.
Her message is simple:
Homophobia is wrong.

Gay and lesbian Jews
should not have to hide.

She also responds to Leviticus.
She says as Reform Jews we are not ruled by traditional texts.
And we do not practice the sexual norms prescribed in the bible.

This text need not inform our thinking about homosexuality. r thinking about homosexuality.

Ambivalence

The year is 1993.
The place Washington, D.C.
President Clinton issues what we now call the
“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy.
The policy states,
“Sexual orientation will not be a bar to (military) service
unless manifested by homosexual conduct.
The military will discharge members
who engage in homosexual conduct,
which is defined as a homosexual act,
a statement that the member is homosexual or bisexual,
or a marriage or attempted marriage to someone of the same gender.”
Don’t ask don’t tell characterizes the 1990s.
This decade is tainted with signs of ambivalence.

The Boy Scouts of America forbids
avowed homosexuals to register as members or leaders.
You can be gay, just not in our troop.

In response, NFTY, our Reform Jewish youth
condemn the Boy Scouts and resolve
to divest from any relationship with them
The teens encourage all of their membership to do so as well.
NFTY takes a stand knowing that ambivalence should not be tolerated.

We are ambivalent, but the text is not.
We have allowed the text to
dictate which sexual behaviors are acceptable
and which are not.

In Rachel Adler’s words,
sexuality is a powerful force
and it has “immense capacities
to order or disorder the social world.”
This text about sexuality led to
the creation of sexual norms for Jews.
What is in. What is out.

However, when those clear boundaries blur,
when what was once regarded as taboo
becomes increasingly acceptable,
societies respond with ambivalence.

When society is ambivalent fear can still take overbivalent fear can still take over.
In 1996, President Clinton signs the Defense of Marriage Act.
It defines marriage as a legal union between heterosexuals.
It denies federal benefits to same-sex couples
should gay marriage ever become legal.

The passage of this law makes it impossible

for committed same-sex couples to receive

the over 1,000 benefits that married straight couples receive.

When we narrowly define marriage
as a union between a man and a woman

we delegitimize the relationships

of so many of our own neighbors, friends, and family.

Tolerance

The year is 2000.
The place is Greensboro, North Carolina.
Reform Jews take a stand on same-sex marriage.
The CCAR makes the following resolution:
“WE DO HEREBY RESOLVE,
that the relationship of a Jewish,
same gender couple is worthy of affirmation
through appropriate Jewish ritual, and
FURTHER RESOLVED,
that we recognize the diversity of opinions
within our ranks on this issue.
We support the decision of those
who choose to officiate at rituals for same-gender couples,
and we support the decision of those who do not.”

The resolution is groundbreaking.
It demonstrates that we are a movement
willing to support Rabbis
who bring same-sex couples
under the chuppah
and officiate at their marriages according to Jewish law.

The resolution further states
that Rabbis who refuse to
officiate at such ceremonies
are also supported.
We are tolerant,
yet we still allow others not to be.

Those who are not tolerant make excuses,
using the text to support their argument.

Reuven Kimelman a bible scholar from my alma mater
Brandeis University, wrote an article in 1994
arguing for a, “family centered Judaism.”
He claimed that the Torah and the family
are violated when religious and secular authorities
support same-sex marriage.

Similaraly, Baruch Levine seems to excuse the text,
by writing that the underlying concern of Leviticus 18 is
the continuity of the Israelite family.
The Jewish people must survive!
Just cause I’m gay does that mean
I don’t want to repopulate the Jewish people?
Absolutely not.
(Infact, I often joke I hope to have 12…one for each tribe!)
Many gay and lesbians want to get married.
Many wish to have children, just as straight people do.

Civil and religious laws
have not made it easy.
While the demography
of the gay and lesbian community
has changed, the law has not.

In America today, only 7 out of 50 states have legalized same-sex marriage,
and 2 of those 7 are imperiled by pending statewide referendums
that would restrict marriage to straight couples.
When the NY state legislature voted down
a bill to legalize same-sex marriage last year,
pollsters reported,
“that while support generally is building
for same-sex marriage,
especially as the electorate ages,
voters resist when they fear
the issue is being pushed too fast.”

Too fast? We seem to be on our way
as more and more states
put this issue on the ballot,
but then we stop short.

Both the passage of Proposition 8 in California
and the rejection vote in the NY State Senate
reflect a society wishing to step on the brakes.

And despite the strong reaction when these disappointments occur,
we assume it will pass the next time.
Have we become complacent?

Why is it that though 57% of people under the age of 40
are in support of marriage equality
we can’t pass this legislation?
Are we waiting for our generation to come of age
before insisting on equal rights for gays and lesbians?
We’re stalling for time.
I admit to falling victim to this mindset.
It will just take time, I tell myself.
We’ll get the rights, eventually.

But, then incidents of homophobia snap me out of my complacency.

Just last week workers at the GLBT Community Center
discovered a rainbow flag burned to black.
The police immediately labeled it a hate crime.

Last weekend, while riding the subway home
after, Shabbat services,
a young man sat down on his friend’s lap next to me
and defensively uttered,
“don’t worry we’re not
gay. I’m just drunk and I want to sit down.”

Even in this building,
we find ourselves teetering between tolerance and acceptance.
A student told me she feels as if there are 2 strikes against her.
One for being a woman, one for being gay.
It’s hard to put into words, according to another student,
there’s a sense that people see you as different.

How could that be possible within a movement dedicated
by word and deed to gay and lesbian rights?
It’s seems easy to be out and proud in our Reform movement.
Indeed, we have much to be proud of.
Out gays and lesbians are welcomed both here and in our congregations.
The college has established an Institute for Sexual Orientation.
Our president, our dean, and a handful of our teachers contributed to
the first ever Queer Torah commentary.

It is easy to feel comfortable with the way things arere.
It’s hard to get out of bed in the morning when you are comfortably
wrapped in blankets curled up in just the right spot.
But if we stay under the covers of comfort, how will we move
our lives and other people’s lives forward?
We are stuck between tolerance and acceptance.
Not realizing the next move lies with us.

Acceptance

The year is 2008.

The place is Hollywood.

Sean Penn wins the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Harvey Milk.

He receives a standing ovation.

In the movie, “Milk,”

the first openly gay man elected to public office

urges, “this isn’t about principles,
it’s about people’s lives.”

The distinction
between tolerance and acceptance
comes in how we relate to people.
Tolerance is behavior:
treating people equally whether or not one is comfortable with him or her.
Acceptance is a state of mind;
a conscious embrace of someone’s differences.

What better than a Jewish text to illustrate the difference between tolerance and
acceptance?

In Tractate Bava Matzia, we read the story of,
Rav Yochanon and Reish Lakish.
In the beginning of the tale, it seems the two men have a sexual encounter.
Rav Yochanon is naked swimming in the Jordan,
Reish Lakish jumps in behind him.
Rav Yochanon says,
“Your strength belongs to the Torah!”
Ashamed of their act,
Reish Lakish repents and Rav Yochanon offers up his sister for marriage. The two then
become study partners.
A much more acceptable relationship for the time.
Yet their relationship intensifies as they spend time studying torah together. One day their
passion for each other erupts
in the form of an argument over the purity of certain tools.
Their fight ends their relationship.
Reish Lakish dies from illness and Rav Yochanon dies from a broken heart.

It’s clear that this story is toleratedrated.
Afterall, it is included in our canon of sacred text,
but imagine if Rav Yochanon and Reish Lakish themselves
had been accepted.

Why don’t we hold up a text like this to guide us morally?
Why not consider Leviticus 19 before we look at 18 and 20?

Leviticus 19:18 instructs us to Love your neighbor as yourself.
A verse that teaches us that we all deserve to be accepted.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas describes chapter 18 and 20 of Leviticus
as “two massively carved pillars on either side of a shrine.”

The shrine is Leviticus 19,
which holds laws of righteousness and honest dealings.
When we read the text according to Douglas,
the sexual prohibitions are at the margins
and the ethics of acceptance are at the center.

Acceptance is a conscious, willfull embrace of the other
that leads to a more genuinely open and free society.

Dreaming of Liberation

The time: is now.
The place is here.
A fourth year rabbinical student stands on the bima.
The congregation is you.

I imagine a time in the future.
Where the floods of intolerance and homophobia have abated.
We are somewhere over the rainbow.

In a time where the laws of
our land reflect a just society.
A society that has put an end to
humiliation and unhappiness.
In this future there are no labels
like gay, straight, bisexual, queer.
You don’t have to “come out” to anyone.
Who you date, who you sleep with, and who you
want to marry doesn’t matter.
No one group is more normal than the next.

This reality need not have to be so far off.

After all what is normal anyways?
Typical, regular, ordinary…
Not one of us fits these adjectives.
We are all unique and our sexual identities exist across a spectrum.

The passage of laws should not be about making
gay people be like straight people.
Rather, it should be about accepting difference.
When the law understands people for who they are,
people can live as their fullest selves.

I imagine liberation as both achieving equal rights
and experiencing the freedom
to assert your own (personal) identity
in the larger society.
It is the sweetness of being able to live without restraint.

As we count the days toward Revelation,
on our march from slavery to freedom,
we look forward to receiving Torah once again.
It contains teachings of
acceptance, honesty, and compassion.
It is those teachings that should inform our thinking
on sexuality and marriage.

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
need to remain in their place.
Only to be used as reminders of where we have been
and how far we have come.
Their power should be reduced to a whisper,
muffled by the harmony of our voices.

I wish I could lead us in a song right now,
but I am waiting to finish rabbinical school
before I try cantorial.

The song would be a song of liberation or maybe something from a musical (we have
been talking about gay stuff all morning).
It would be meant to move you to action.
It would be not just for you, but for me too.

Because we all need to get out of our beds of complacency.
And walk bravely like Abraham from our place of comfort to new territory.
We can then scheme like Rebecca and Jacob and create a new destiny.
And then rejoice in our liberation equal and free,
For we are all one people created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

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About rabbisteinman

I am a rabbi living in North America. I was ordained from HUC-JIR. This is my blog.
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