Tag: Marriage Equality

For Many Jewish Youth, Gay Marriage is a New Normal

I woke early one morning in June to hear the decisions of the United States Supreme Court on a pair of cases about marriage equality. Joy mixed with disappointment. I celebrated the return of marriage equality to the State of California and the effective end of the ill-named Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) through the extension of benefits to gay and lesbian married couples. At the same time, the Supremes dodged an opportunity to make Marriage Equality the law of the land. Still, there is hope as advocates work within the states to move equality forward.

Some people expressed frustration at the slow pace of full equality. I am not one of those people. I see that great strides have been made and more will come.


  1. Because at its root, marriage equality is grows out of our Jewish value of B’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image), and the inalterable Jewish value that all of us – including gay men and lesbian women – are created in that image, thus deserving to be valued and inherently demanding equality. AND
  2. Because of young people like Dani and her friends who are increasingly becoming the dominant voice in our land. 

The Youth Shall See Visions

Dani is an 11-year-old young person from our Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) who recently spent a month at the URJ Camp Newman summer camp.

Dani inherently gets this rightness and justice of marriage equality. The challenges raised by opponents seem irrelevant to her. Homosexuality and the resulting call for marriage equality are a new normal for her and her friends.

Dani’s mother Debby explained it this way:

Dear Family & Friends, 

I wanted to share with you the story of how Dani and her friends celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision about Prop. 8.

One of the role-playing games that girls play these days is a variation on the time-honored game we used to call “House.” Modern girls now call the game “Family.” Everyone is assigned a role: one is the mother, one is the father, and the others are various sisters, brothers, and inevitably babies. Occasionally there is a dog or cat or horse involved. The girls have never hesitated to take on male roles, and they will spend hours playing the game (which usually involves a lot of scolding of the children and heavy sighing by the frazzled and overwhelmed mother). 

Dani was away for 4 weeks at her beloved URJ Camp Newman when the announcement that the Supreme Court dismissed the Prop 8 appeal reached Dani and her beloved cabinmates. They responded by deciding that they should all get married. So the ten girls, ages 10 to 12, formed five “married” couples for the rest of their time at camp (though there was flexibility in who was married to whom from day to day).

That they so readily and seamlessly (and joyfully) adapted the game of Family to include same-sex couples truly brought home for me how far we have come as a society in overcoming ignorance, intolerance, and fear when it comes to accepting, embracing, and role-playing different kinds of loving couples.

Dani and her cabinmates’ game does not mean that equality has been achieved yet, but how this one group of girls responded provides us a glimpse into how today’s children will act when they are tomorrow’s adults. 

Statistically, it is quite possible that one of those 10 girls may already know or later discover that she herself is a lesbian. Imagine her having this silly yet loving pre-teen memory to hold dear as she chooses how to make her own way into a world that may not always embrace her sexual orientation as warmly and naturally as her cabinmates did in the Summer of 2013.

To those of us who seek full equality for gay and lesbian individuals and couples, Dani’s game playing is so moving.

Two friends of Dani’s mom reacted even more passionately:

Said one,

I am fighting back tears as I type this. My heart is too full to say much, but please know I find this a beautiful sentiment to a subject that is so hard for a lot to stomach. The fight is constant and continues, of course, but knowing this is the future is very empowering.

Said the other,

I remember playing “house” (and yes, that’s definitely what we called it then) with the cute as a button little blonde across the street, and I ALWAYS had to be the boy. It never dawned on us that we could both be the girl and live happily ever after…

Debby allowed me to publish this story after she asked Dani what she thought about sharing this on your blog. Dani does not have a problem with it.

To quote Debby, 

I think the thing that feels so remarkable about Dani’s story and about the kids my daughter is friends with is that they do not view being gay as a big deal or particularly interesting or special – or negative. Obviously, there are still plenty of kids in the country who do NOT feel this way, but the momentum feels to me to be moving in the direction of: why should I care (or have any say in approving) who someone else loves?

Right, why should I care about or have any say in approving who one marries?! Relationships between two mature, consensual, supportive adults, who see in each other B’tzelem Elohim  deserve equality.

May that equality, blessed by our communities, soon become the law of our whole country.

Judaism Accepts Homosexuality and Marriage Equality

The Supreme Court soon will decide the fate of California’s Proposition 8 (which forbid Marriage Equality) and DOMA (which defined marriage as between a man and woman, and allowed states not to recognize the marriages performed in other states).

Soon, the Jewish web will return to discussions about what Judaism really says about homosexuality.

Orthodox and other literalists will try to argue that the Torah clearly forbids the homosexual act. In fact, Conservative Judaism’s legal bodies recently approved of gay marriage.

In fact, much has been written to declare that Judaism accepts homosexuality. 

In a recent article on ReformJudaism.org, Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser reminds us that

The only laws regarding same-sex intercourse in the Hebrew Bible are two verses in the book of Leviticus: “Do not lie down with a male, the lying down with a woman. It is an abhorrence” (Leviticus 18:22), and “A man who lies down with a male, the lying down with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrence. They shall be put to death, their bloodguilt upon them” (Leviticus 20:13).

The meaning of these laws is far from self-evident.

A careful look at these two verses, however, shows that this is not an open-and-shut case. To start with, both verses use rather tortured syntax to refer to the abhorrent act. “Lying down with a woman” seems to be a phrase that Leviticus is using to specify sexual intercourse, not simply lying down next to another guy. The text needs that explanation for a simple reason — there is no word in Biblical Hebrew that means homosexual. The idea can only be conveyed by comparing it to a man having sex with a woman.

So, how was sexuality between two men understood … understood in the time of the Hebrew Bible?

Throughout the Bible, sexuality between people of the same gender, especially between two men, is understood in one of two ways: 1) A form of violence and domination exerted by one man over another to humiliate him, and 2) A form of sexual excess that is so unbridled that it does not discriminate between male and female. Interestingly, these are both forms of sexuality that, even today, are not practiced primarily by people whom we would call “homosexual.” 

Modern examples of the first category are rapes committed in prisons, on battlefields, and by bullies in schools. Such crimes are committed by men who seem to be more interested in subjugating and humiliating their victims than in sexual gratification.

The second category is the indiscriminate sexuality we associate with modern orgies and a “swinging lifestyle.” The Greek Scriptures, known to Christians as the New Testament, seems particularly interested in this form of abhorrence and it vilifies it in several passages. See, especially, Romans 1:25-32, which refers specifically to men who allow their lust to become so unbridled that they “leave the natural use of women.”

Clearly, this is not a reference to men who have an inborn sexual attraction for other men – people we would describe as homosexuals.

Rabbi Goldwasser concludes:

But rabbinic tradition also contains passages that counter the condemnation of homosexuality. The Talmud states that it is forbidden to humiliate another person and that one may even violate a negative commandment (“Thou shalt not…”) in order to avoid humiliation (B. Berachot 19b). The Talmud also states that a person who is compelled to transgress a law by forces beyond his or her control has not truly sinned. 

In an age when science has given us the understanding that sexual orientations is not a choice — it is an aspect of our nature with which we are born — our thinking about Jewish law and homosexuality must change. We need to re-evaluate our understanding of Torah if it leads us to condemn people when they seek to fulfill — with love and compassion — the sexual desires God has given them. We must recognize that it is the height of humiliation to tell people that they are unworthy of love and intimacy because of the way that God has made them.

Other Wisdom on Marriage Equality from a Jewish and religious perspective:

I just signed onto a petition to the United States Senate, urging them to push forward the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act.  I have written before about the sanctity of unions between gay men and between lesbians.  It is about B’tzelem Elohim, that we were all created in the image of God.  

Petition to the Senate 

Push forward DOMA repeal! 

Dear Senator,  

As a supporter of the Human Rights Campaign, I am writing to urge you to push forward the Respect for Marriage Act (S.598), introduced by Sen. Feinstein. As you know, this bill would repeal the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, and provide equal federal marriage rights to legally committed same-sex couples. 

The Human Rights Campaign has been fighting to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act ever since it was enacted — from the delivery of over 340,000 petition signatures and letters to Congress in just the past two years to HRC President Joe Solmonese’s testimony at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in July.  

It’s time to advance the Respect for Marriage Act. With the Senate Judiciary Committee now moving this bill forward, I’m counting on you to demonstrate a commitment to the cause of equality by doing everything in your power to repeal DOMA.  

I and a majority of Americans support the repeal of this law, and I thank you for considering our position at this critical time for the issue of equality.

Perhaps you will consider signing onto the petition also.  Click here

A Time for Celebration: New Yorkers Gain Marriage Equality

In New York, they are celebrating.  For marriage equality have finally been extended in the great state of New York to all its citizens, heterosexual and homosexual.  We schepp nachas (share the joy) too, because a step forward in one state is a step forward for our country.

Here in California, we should be celebrating too. Not from a distance of 3000+ miles, but right here in our own backyards… and in the temples, and the churches, the mosques and the ashrams.  We should be celebrating the marriage of all created b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image), as they are able to sanctify their love in the holy (and secular) covenant of marriage.

Alas, we still await that moment in California.  It will come.  The polls and the demographics show that eventually marriage equality will be a given.

Until that time, we hope and pray. We sanctify in religious ceremonies the binding of two souls – two men, two women, a man and a woman – with holy words and holy rituals.

And we wait, until such ceremonies will be recognized by our state, and by our nation, as a marriage.

Ken yehi ratzon,  may it be God’s will.

Seeking Justice, Mercy and Humility: A Jewish Response to Marriage Equality

The prophet Micah (ch. 6) asks a question which many of us, in the quiet of our own thoughts, do (or should) ask ourselves: Man (or our society) has told you what is good, but (by contrast) what does God require of you? Micah, speaking as a mouthpiece of the Holy One, answers thus: Only to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

Whenever we approach a difficult situation or issue in our lives, our prophet urges us to consider: What does it mean to “do justice?” How can we “love mercy?” Where does “humility” come into play in our lives? This should be the central values discussion of our time.

Speaking Out on Jewish Values
However, as Rabbi David Saperstein, director of our Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington DC, has declare so eloquently, the Christian Right has successfully hijacked the values discussion (and the social policy decisions that result) by presenting a one-sided view of the significant social issues of our time.

Nothing has been more successful for the Christian Right than their demonization of the issue of gay marriage. Many states have passed ballot initiatives to ban gay marriage by large margins, truly energized by a voting bloc who supports keeping marriage as a purely heterosexual institution. Is this “doing justly?” We have heard loudly and clearly from the Christian right on this issue. Shouldn’t we hear also from our own Reform Jewish tradition about its perspective on this issue? So, what does Reform Judaism think about such things?

Jewish Views on Human Sexuality
In its far-reaching report on Human Sexuality, the Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR – Reform Rabbis organization) identified nine values as being significant to Jewish values on sexuality: B’tzelem Elohim (living in the image of God), Emet (truth), B’ri-ut (health), Mishpat (justice), Mishpacha (family), Tziniyut (modesty), Brit (covenantal relationship), Simcha (joy), Ahava (love) and Kedusha (holiness). In defining these values, the committee drew from traditional sources, evolving social norms and modern Jewish commentaries.

Central to the definition of kedusha (holiness) was the notion that In a Reform Jewish context, a relationship may attain a measure of kedusha when both partners voluntarily set themselves apart exclusively for each other, thereby finding unique emotional, sexual and spiritual intimacy. Ultimately, after reviewing Jewish sources and attitudes, the Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality was led to conclude that kiddusha (holiness) may be present in committed, same gender relationships between two Jews, and that these relationships can serve as the foundation of stable Jewish families, thus adding strength to the Jewish community.

Of course it makes sense that our Reform Jewish institutions would understand the evolving nature of human relations in this way. As Rabbi David Freelund (of my parents’ synagogue in Hyannis, MA) explained years ago in an article on the Reform Jewish perspective on marriage equality, “Reform Judaism has long been on the cutting edge of social issues and civil rights in America. Women’s rights, racial equality and religious freedom have long been dear to us.” Rabbi Freelund continued:

The Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism lobbies on Capitol Hill on issues of importance to the movement. One of the arenas in which social activism of Reform Judaism has been prominent is in the area of gay rights, the idea that sexual orientation should be of no consequence for choices in profession, religion, personal or family status. But why?

Current credible medical and psychological authorities or bodies do not agree that homosexuality is somehow “abnormal” behavior. In fact, our best medical and social scientists can tell us that there is a normal spectrum of human sexual behavior, including both hetero- and homosexuality. This spectrum has been with us throughout recorded history and always will be.

What about Biblical Texts that Seem to Call Homosexuality an Abomination?
Clearly, the thrust of our rabbinic tradition has been to read these texts as condemning all homosexuality. However, these texts, as read in recent scholarly works and rabbinic teshuvot (opinions), may be understood to be specifically condemning only adulterous homosexuality (married people having sexual relations outside of their marriages) or homosexual rape (the concern of the story of Lot and Sodom).

Understood in the light of these studies, the deeper lesson of Torah takes precedence. Judaism and Torah teach that we are all are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Being created in God’s image means that each person is valued, worthy, and sacred. Such love – between mature consenting individuals – is similarly holy. Gay or straight, bisexual or transgender – the people, their gender identities, and the ways they make love – are blessed. The Torah teaches that; our tradition affirms it. Those who read it any other way may be quoting the Bible as others have read it, but are misreading the Bible for their own outdated and non-moral perspectives and purposes.

Where Does the Reform Jewish Movement Stand?
In that light, Reform Judaism embraced full inclusion of gays and lesbians in our congregations in 1977. The CCAR even adopted a resolution that year calling for legislation decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults, and calling for an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians. The United States Supreme Court acted on this issue, casting aside any legislation restricting the bedroom behavior of consenting adults. The CCAR was well ahead of the curve.

In 1990, the CCAR endorsed a position urging that “all rabbis, regardless of sexual orientation, be accorded the opportunity to fulfill the sacred vocation that they have chosen.” The committee endorsed the view that “all Jews are religiously equal regardless of their sexual orientation.” The admissions policies of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion were changed to state that the “sexual orientation of an applicant [be considered] only within the context of a candidate’s overall suitability for the rabbinate,” and that all rabbinic graduates of the HUC-JIR would be admitted into the CCAR.

Our Reform Jewish institutions have embraced full equality and are committed to it. Our religious ideals will be challenged in the years to come. In 2000, the CCAR resolved that each of its members was free to act to his or her own conscience in performing same-sex weddings, and that liturgy and rituals should be developed to make these ceremonies meaningful and immersed in the holiness marriage. This and much more has been done.

Reform Judaism stands today in support of [the many different kinds of families] in our congregations, and in support of spousal relationships that create Jewish homes and bring holiness into the world. We are committed to a policy of inclusion and freedom for our rabbis to marry those couples they see are Jewishly-committed, regardless of gender or orientation. It is time for our states and our country to recognize marriage equality as an enshrined corollary of our American freedoms.

Do Justice, Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly with our God
We, the people who recall the words of our sacred Scriptures – You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9) – seek to do justice. We, people of faith who try to love mercy, defend vigorously the dignity of every human being, consistent with the principle that each of us is created in the Divine image. While we respect those who may be single, we uphold the values of marriage and family. Marriage, imbued with the values of exclusivity, permanence, intimate companionship, and love, provides fulfillment for each partner and adds to the common good of the community. Thus, in an attempt to walk humbly with our God, we affirm that every human being has an absolute right to such fulfillment, and that the loving, committed relationships of same-sex couples have the same potential for kedusha (holiness) as those of heterosexual couples.

I look forward to the ability to marry our gay or lesbian congregants to their beloveds, in ceremonies recognized by the state and our country. May that day come speedily.

As always, I invite you to join me in a discussion on these significant Jewish issues. Email me at Rabbipaul [at] orami.org or call me to set a time for us to get together and talk.

Sweetest Bar Mitzvah Moment #2

We were in the middle of the Baraghimian Bar Mitzvah. Child number three was doing a fabulous job leading the service. Parents were schepping nachas (filling with joy); friends and family were enjoying the experience.

Having traveled to Israel with the whole family, including the grandparents, I knew the grandparents were a wonderful couple, unafraid to speak of and share their love. I recall walking down Masada, sharing stories of how we each got engaged.

Now, during the Bar Mitzvah, as I looked over to where Grandpa and Grandma were sitting, I caught them in one of the sweetest Bar Mitzvah moments yet. Without taking his eyes off his grandson, Grandpa reached over, took Grandma’s hand and held on. Grandma wrapped her hand around his. All the while, their eyes never left their grandson.

That’s love. It made my Shabbat!

Ger Hayiti: Feel the Heart of the Stranger

Sermon by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA
Yom Kippur 5770/2009

[For full endnotes, textual references and lyrics of songs sung/quoted, see Rabbi’s writings on our Or Ami website.]

A story: In the year 120 CE, in the land of Israel, a horrible plague swept through the holy land. So many took ill. Thousands succumbed. The plague took beloved friends and co-workers. By the time it ended, 24,000 had died. Whole families were wiped out.

Devastated, people struggled to understand why this plague had come. In an age before the Centers for Disease Control, they turned to their rabbinic leaders for explanation and comfort. Following the best pre-scientific knowledge of their day, these ancient rabbis concluded that the plague must be punishment for some appalling sin they committed.

Which fit. Because it was a time of terrible partisanship in the halls of Torah study. Here they were talking Torah and their arguments were supposed to be l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. Yet as the disagreements intensified, words sharpened, and attacks by one study group on those who disagreed with them became vicious. Soon discussions about Jewish law became forums to destroy each others’ reputations, livelihoods, lives.

Then the great 2nd century scholar Rabbi Akiba figured it out. The plague’s cause to sinat chinam, the baseless hatred that the students had for each other. Searching for a cure, he turned to Torah. There in Leviticus, he read V’ahavta l’ray-a-cha kamocha – love your neighbor as yourself.

Having witnessed the way that so many students of Torah were engaged in the holiest of endeavors – the study of Torah – yet were still insensitive towards others, Akiva proclaimed that this great sin could only be remedied with gemilut chasadim, lovingkindness.

V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha set a high standard of behavior. It was not about feeling love. Rather, each action we take which affects others must pass a specific litmus test: Would we want to be on the receiving end of that action? Rabbi Akiva challenged: Loving yourself, you must take the needs and desires of others into account. Do so and the world will quickly be cleansed of hatred and violence. So he rallied his surviving students to this new cause, an aspiration for holy living which accompanied holy learning.

Cantor and Chorale sing the Chorus and Verse from Cantor Doug Cotler’s song, Amar Rabi Akiva

Accepting the plagues as the result of sinful behavior, Akiva’s 2nd century colleague Ben Azzai suggested another fundamental principle in Torah to guide us. Lifting up a verse from the Creation story in Genesis – b’tzelem Elohim, that we were created in the image of God – Ben Azzai taught that though we may seem different, act differently, speak different languages, we are connected by the miraculous process of our creation. B’tzelem Elohim, being created in God’s image, proclaims that each human being is equally blessed, because we all are born with intrinsic value and worth.

B’tzelem Elohim set a new standard for our actions: since God is neither white nor black, male nor female, Jew nor non-Jew, and since every human being is an image of God, there is no preferred image. Therefore all people should be well treated as equals. If each person harbors God’s image within, we have the responsibility to care for, protect, and embrace every person. Even those we do not know. We need to open our hearts to the strangers in our midst, and to create communities of inclusion, where prejudice and hate give way to love and respect.

What a wonderful world that would be!

Cantor and Chorale sing a Chorus and Verse from Sheryl Braunstein and Paul Kipnes’ song, B’tzelem Elohim

Another story. We all know Moses, our people’s greatest hero. He is one who wrestled with the challenges of being a stranger in a strange land. Saved at birth by a non-Israelite princess. Raised in Pharaoh’s home. Struggling for decades with the secret of his birth. Moses watched his people struggle under the whip and sword. Until one day, after witnessing the abuse heaped upon an Israelite slave by his Egyptian taskmaster, Moses became incensed. Furious, Moses killed the taskmaster. When the act became known, Moses fled into the wilderness. There, he met Yitro, a Midianite priest, and there he fell in love with Tzipporah, Yitro’s beautiful headstrong daughter. In this wilderness, Tzipporah gave birth to their first son. Moses aptly named his son, Gershom, which means Ger hayiti b’eretz nochriya. Gershom, meaning I was a stranger in a strange land.

Some rabbis point to the naming of Gershom as one of the pivotal incidents in the onset of the Exodus. Before God could call Moses to service, before Moses could go down to Egypt to rescue the Israelites, he had to embrace an existential reality – that a fundamental part of his identity was the experience of being an outsider. To lead God’s people, to nurture the community toward holiness, Moses needed to feel in the very beating of his heart, the heart of the stranger.

We all know what it is like to feel like a stranger. You step into a room filled with people who look at you, and then return to their conversations, as if you were not there. You sit alone in class or in the office, and nobody turns to say hello. You enter a synagogue – somewhere else, of course – and no one makes you feel welcome. Though we all descended from one human, Adam, most of us have a tendency to categorize people as “like us” or “not like us” – by skin color, by race, by religion or sexual orientation, by socio-economic status. Most of the time, if we hang out with our own crowd, we feel secure that we are part of the group. But step outside the circle, and we feel the heart of the stranger. We feel misplaced, different.

Then at Mt. Sinai we received the Torah, and with it a moral imperative to remain keenly aware of people living at the margins. Did you know that the commandment to protect the defenseless in society from exploitation is the most often repeated injunction in the entire Torah, appearing more often than commandments to love God, keep kosher, or observe Shabbat? According to one count by the Talmud, no less than thirty-six times are we directed to protect the most vulnerable among us. In ancient Israel, it was understood that strangers, as outsiders with few support systems, were defenseless against injustice.

Later, we Jews saw Israel, our holy land, twice destroyed. Two times we experienced being scattered throughout the world, separated from our holy places, the source of our identity. Then in the Middle Ages, a sense of our own insecurity deepened, created by years of living at the whim of city-state rulers, who at a moment’s notice could expel us with just the knowledge in our heads and whatever we could carry on our backs. Those realities entered our hearts, pumping through our veins the blood of being the stranger.

Now, at every Passover seder, we eat bitter herbs and matzah and relive our flight from being a stranger. Every Sukkot, we re-experience wandering by living in sukkah booths. Every Shabbat, we sing Mi Chamocha, thanking God for bringing us out of Egypt. Again and again in the Bible and in our rituals, the memory of our slavery points us to one commandment: You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger… Remember that you were a slave in Egypt.

What does it really mean today to feel the heart of the stranger? Sometimes it just makes you sick.

A story: this summer Michelle, the boys and I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Located at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the Civil Rights Museum chronicles key episodes in the oppression of blacks and the subsequent struggle for civil rights. There, we learned in depth about the cynical machinations of racism that permeated our country’s legal, business and governmental system. There, we saw how nefarious forces over a short period of time had transformed forbidden slavery into a then acceptable system of brutal racial discrimination. The Museum’s depictions of the brave struggle for Arkansas school desegregation, of Rosa Parks’ sitting up front of the bus, of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins and of Freedom Summer illuminated the radiant power of an organized caring community to roll back prejudice. There we learn how one inspired man, working with other insightful, motivated people, turned this country back on the road toward justice.

Yet walking through the museum was emotionally draining. The photos and news clippings, eyewitness accounts and whites-only signs, were startling. It defied sensibility that in America, in my lifetime, lawyers and preachers, judges and governors, bus drivers and businessmen, Jews among them – could wrap themselves in the cloak of Biblical morality to justify the subjugation, and later separation, of the races. I was ashamed at how our country treated its own citizens. How deadened do you have to be inside to ignore our biblical mandates of b’tzelem Elohim and love thy neighbor as yourself? How numb do you have to be to the heart of the stranger to lynch someone who is marching just so they can sit at the front of the bus?

The institutionalization of racial discrimination in America back then, and the continued marginalization and often exploitation of other groups of people – blacks, Hispanics, Asians, the physically and mentally disabled, gays and lesbians, the working poor – defies every fundamental principle Judaism holds dear: that we were created in God’s image, that we must love our neighbors as ourselves, that we were strangers in a strange land. What is a Jew to do, when we hear of prejudice and discrimination, especially when the Bible is used to justify injustice?

Our Jewish hearts, like those of the Biblical prophets of Israel before us, must become incensed by this twisting of our values to support a status quo. Our responsibility is to speak out and act up to ensure those pushed to the margins are embraced and cared for.

We feel the heart of the stranger. That’s why Jews have been at the forefront of every significant social movement then and now: civil rights, women’s rights, anti-apartheid, ending genocide in Darfur, end of sanctioned torture, and more. We feel the heart of the stranger. It’s why Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. The heart of the stranger. It is why so many Or Ami congregants step forward in droves to support children in foster care, kids they never even met. The heart of the stranger.

I’m proud that Congregation Or Ami strives to live up to the standards set by Akiva, Ben Azzai and Moses. Nothing makes me kvell – beam with more pride – than when people speak about Or Ami as the place where people previously felt like they were on the margins of the community are welcomed back into the center. Our sanctuary is filled with people who “are young and old; able-bodied and have special needs; single and couples, divorced and blended families; people of various sexual orientations; multiracial people and multiethnic families; people whose lives range from whole to broken, and from struggling to wealthy.” We are a mosaic of Moses’ people.

So this year, let’s continue to cultivate within the heart of the stranger.

Perhaps next time you see a person with a different color skin than yours – perhaps black or brown, white, reddish or yellow – you will look first beneath their skin color to honor the image of God that resides within.

Maybe when a client or co-worker walks into the office – the Persian or Israeli, the Muslim woman wearing the head covering, we will withhold that knee-jerk prejudging – and try to will love that neighbor as ourselves.

Perhaps when we see someone walking down the street, or bussing our plates at a restaurant, and we start to wonder if he is an illegal immigrant, we will remember that we too were often strangers in a strange land.

And when we see the poorest of the poor, sitting on the sidewalk or sleeping under a park bench, we will shine them a smile. And then when we go home, let’s call our city councilors or write our congress people, to tell them that we feel shame that God’s children are living in the gutters. And then we will write a check to a hunger organization, and volunteer at the SOVA food pantry, and vote for people who will help erase homelessness and poverty from our streets once and for all.

And when we listen to cable news and hear tirades about why we cannot, should not, enact serious reform of our inexcusably deficient healthcare and health insurance system, remember that the stranger sitting in the row right in front of us might be someone whose mother or father, or cousin or friend, or they themselves, cannot get the care they need because our current system, that might serve you and me well enough, stands idly by while our neighbors bleed. Hopefully our hearts will do more than bleed for them. Hopefully we will stand up and advocate for them.

And next time we think about the men and women, who share love, but cannot marry, because they happen to be of the same gender, we will remember our Torah, which sees the b’tzelem Elohim in all people, would bless monogamous, consensual, gay or lesbian marriages, and you will honor and bless them too, as do I, your rabbi.

It is Yom Kippur, and we stand together to ask forgiveness for our sins. For the ways we have harmed others by our actions, and by our inactions as well. For standing idly by while our neighbors bleed, suffer, or struggle. For numbing ourselves to the heart of the stranger, and pretending that we weren’t once strangers too.

Because we are all neighbors, commanded to treat each other with love. Because we all are created in the image of God, making each of us valued and worthy. Because we remember what it is like to be marginalized, oppressed and ignored.

On this day especially, may God grant us the courage:

To break the chains that bind us
And make oppression disappear.
To help the stranger find a bed.
To remember that [we] must share our daily bread.

Torah teaches Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. May we remember Justice, justice, I will pursue you.

Cantor Cotler sings his song, “Justice, Justice”

More Milk – An Israeli View

Ha’aretz wrote a profile on the Harvey Milk movie. (My previous comments here.) Entitled Gay activism with a Yiddish inflection, the article explores some of the Jewish elements to gay activism:

At the same time that Milk was pushing for people to come out of the closet and publicly embrace their gay identities, there was subset of gay San Francisco Jews who were embracing their Jewish identities. A group known as the Lost Tribe formed in 1978, after fundamentalist Christian Anita Bryant’s crusade to enact anti-gay legislation came to California in the form of Proposition 6, known as the Briggs Initiative.

The Briggs Initiative, which Milk helped to roundly defeat, would have barred gay and lesbian teachers from teaching in the public school system. The Lost Tribe, comprising dozens of activist gay Jews, worked within the Jewish community to drum up opposition to the initiative.

“It was a powerful and bonding time, and people made relationships personally and politically that have continued to this day,” says Avi Rose, a former member of the Lost Tribe. Rose is now executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay. Rose, who also coedited the 1989 anthology “Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian or Gay and Jewish,” which draws a direct connection between being Jewish and being gay. “As Jews, there are things we know about stigma and discrimination, and the importance of being visible,” he says. “I think for a lot of gay Jews, that translated from our Jewish experience to our gay experience. That’s what brought so many of us into the movement in prominent ways.”

Indeed, as with the feminist movement, Jews played leading roles in the early days of the gay rights movement. Milk’s campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg, was Jewish. And in New York, where the movement took shape following the Stonewall Riots of 1969, such leaders as Marty Robinson and Marc Rubin rose to prominence.

These days, Milk’s legacy continues with a new crop of gay Jewish political leaders. The first gay congressman to win election was Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank. And last month, Mark Leno became the first openly gay male in the California State Senate. Leno, a member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a San Francisco gay and lesbian synagogue, studied for two years at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Milk: Another Jewish Boy Working for Social Justice

My wife and I saw Milk earlier this month, a poignant film about Harvey Milk, gay rights activist, politician, martyr. Each of us recalled elements of the story: Orange County-born wife remembered the havoc state Sen. John Briggs caused; I remember Anita Bryant’s joyous, musical homophobia. Both nauseated us.

Watching the movie, one could not be but energized by Milk’s skillful marrying of passion, political activism, realpolitik balanced with values… by his ability to give hope to countless who needed hope.

Yet again, we find a Jew whose life, informed by the story of our people, steps into the forefront of an important social movement. From slavery to freedom, degradation to hope. Sure, Milk was a secular Jew, but, according to his nephew, his life was informed by our Jewish story:

As the Jewish Journal reports:

… Stuart Milk explains, that concern for the underdog stemmed from his uncle’s understanding of basic Jewish principles.

“He was 15 at the end of World II, and I can definitely say that he was deeply affected by the Holocaust,” Stuart Milk says. “So, yes, the Jewish sensitivity to civil rights absolutely had an impact on Harvey. In fact, he was the one who told me about how much support Jewish organizations and Jewish individuals gave to minorities. He often said that Jews feel they cannot allow another group to suffer discrimination, if for no other reason than that they might be on that list someday.”

“Furthermore,” he says, “Harvey was the first to tell me that in addition to the Star of David, which Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany, there were pink triangles that gays had to wear, and that almost a million gays were put to death.”

The Bible has Nothing to Say about Gay Marriage

Someone in the mainstream press finally said it out loud: Contrary to what conservative preachers would like us to believe, the Bible has nothing to say about gay marriage, and very little (positive) to say about marriage in general. Newsweek comes along with a blazing article – speaking truth to power – about the hypocracy and falsehoods being spread about what the Bible does and does not say about marriage. And why opponents of marriage equality scarcely have a leg on which to stand.

Entitled GAY MARRIAGE: Our Mutual Joy, the article notes that opponents of gay marriage often cite Scripture. But what the Bible teaches about love argues for the other side.

Let’s try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at their word and define marriage as the Bible does. Shall we look to Abraham, the great patriarch, who slept with his servant when he discovered his beloved wife Sarah was infertile? Or to Jacob, who fathered children with four different women (two sisters and their servants)? Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and the kings of Judah and Israel—all these fathers and heroes were polygamists. The New Testament model of marriage is hardly better. Jesus himself was single and preached an indifference to earthly attachments—especially family. The apostle Paul (also single) regarded marriage as an act of last resort for those unable to contain their animal lust. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion,” says the apostle, in one of the most lukewarm endorsements of a treasured institution ever uttered. Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple—who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love—turn to the Bible as a how-to script?

We read on:

In the Old Testament, the concept of family is fundamental, but examples of what social conservatives would call “the traditional family” are scarcely to be found. Marriage was critical to the passing along of tradition and history, as well as to maintaining the Jews’ precious and fragile monotheism. But as the Barnard University Bible scholar Alan Segal puts it, the arrangement was between “one man and as many women as he could pay for.” Social conservatives point to Adam and Eve as evidence for their one man, one woman argument—in particular, this verse from Genesis: “Therefore shall a man leave his mother and father, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” But as Segal says, if you believe that the Bible was written by men and not handed down in its leather bindings by God, then that verse was written by people for whom polygamy was the way of the world. (The fact that homosexual couples cannot procreate has also been raised as a biblical objection, for didn’t God say, “Be fruitful and multiply”? But the Bible authors could never have imagined the brave new world of international adoption and assisted reproductive technology—and besides, heterosexuals who are infertile or past the age of reproducing get married all the time.)

One correction: the author claims that most Jewish denominations do so publically support gay/lesbian marriage. Not true. The Reform Movement has done so here and here. The Reconstructionist Movement has done so. Some within the Conservative movement have begun to do so.

More on my take on marriage equality and LGBT issues in general here and from our Congregation Or Ami here.