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Taking Pride in the Parade

Part of a yearlong Torah series on spiritual building and builders in Jewish life.

Today is the Pride March marking 50 years from Stonewall and the beginning of the modern chapter of the LGBTQ liberation movement. So much has been achieved and still so much is left to do.

As rabbis and allies we want to build and tend spaces that provide complete inclusion and  equality. The daily reminders of the brokenness of this world help guide the work we do. The fight for LGBTQ rights is only necessary because society is defective. If there was no homophobia we wouldn’t need straight allies. We only need a trans day of remembrance because many have forgotten that trans folks are G-d’s folks. Our activism is necessitated by our communal failures.

Protests to dismantle socially constructed divisions and calls for radical inclusivity are nothing new. Korach and 250 of his followers bring these demands to Moshe in a dramatic confrontation.

Korach and his entourage say to Moshe and Aharon (Numbers 16:3) “It is too much, all of the nation is holy and God dwells within us all – why are you imposing a hierarchy on us?” At first glance, Korach’s argument seems to be a model of inclusion. All of us are spiritually elevated and divinely inspired. Indeed, Korach is echoing a promise that God held out to Israel at Sinai (Exodus 19:6), “And you will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Given Korach’s supernal desires, why do he and his followers end up swallowed by a hole in the ground? The rabbinic tradition places Korach in a unique position: apparently punishing him for being ahead of his time. In Psalm 92, the song of Shabbos, we say צַ֭דִּיק כַּתָּמָ֣ר יִפְרָ֑ח כְּאֶ֖רֶז בַּלְּבָנ֣וֹן יִשְׂגֶּֽה A righteous person will flourish like a date palm, and like a cedar, will grow tall. The last letters of the first three words of the verse in Hebrew spell Korach’s name and there is a tradition that this foretells that Korach will flourish eventually as a righteous person.

The mystics (Zohar and Ari z”l) understand Korach to have been motivated by the yearning to get back to the place before the brokenness, by asserting that we had already fixed it. However, if we do not acknowledge what is broken, we will not be able to properly rebuild. G-d’s justice is necessary and restorative because divine punishments are consequences of our inappropriate actions and position us to repent and return to that ideal place. Korach’s aspirations are holy, it’s his lack of awareness of the effort still needed to replace what was removed that is offensive to G-d’s experience with humanity.

While Korach may have wanted to get back to the moment that God offered to make Israel an entirely holy nation of priests, he is in fact ignoring many of the events of the previous year. Since Israel encountered God at Sinai, they sinned by building and worshipping a Golden Calf and were almost destroyed. The first born sons no longer have a cultic role; they have been replaced by the Levites. Aharon’s two sons died because they brought an unauthorized fire in the Tabernacle. And, most recently in last week’s parsha, the nation has sinned by believing the slanderous report of the spies. As a result, God has condemned Israel to wander in the wilderness for the next forty years. Korach and his followers aspire to return to the spiritual state that Israel was in at Sinai. A year later though, the people are different. Pretending that nothing has shifted does not help them get closer to where they were.

As we celebrate the monumental strides that our country has made in removing LGBTQ discrimination, we must take care not to be like Korach and assert precipitously that all has been fixed. Walking around a city adorned with rainbow flags and stores capitalizing on Pride merchandise is a beautiful and healing experience. But it also can make it harder to remember that in this country, the average life expectancy of a trans woman of color is only 35 years. Until all of the human rights of the LGBTQ community have been restored, we must protest and resist the narrative that says we have made it and our work is done. We are indeed all holy and it is our task to see that divine holiness respected in us all.

 

By Rabbis Wendy Amsellem and Mike Moskowitz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Coming out against hate for Shavuot

 

This weekend we celebrate, with pride, G-d’s “coming out” speech – the Divine Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Our need to be seen and understood for who we are draws from that very highest of the High Truths of sacred tradition.

The Jewish community and LGBTQ+ community share long experiences of being closeted, forced — in different ways — to choose between being unsafe or hiding the fullness of who we are. Walking in the world as someone recognizably Jewish or LGBTQ+ has often meant being subject to hate, discrimination and attack.

For centuries Jewish life and perhaps all spiritual life was built with closets.  As we felt the need to hide the fullness of our truest selves, we built in society and religion closets out of fear.

But that’s not the Judaism (or the world) that we are called to build.  We’re called to build a world that reflects and uplifts the many diversities of G-d’s splendor, the many colors of the rainbow refracting G-d’s infinite light.

To build that world, first we must stop fooling ourselves about how much work still lies ahead, or who must do it.  Many who grew up in America over the last 50 years believed that anti-Semitism had become far more an historical relic than a modern reality.  Many LGBTQ+ people and allies, especially over the last decade, believed that progress was flourishing: legal protections were expanding rapidly, and civic leaders increasingly took our safety and health seriously.

But Dr. Martin Luther King’s prophetic vision of an ever more just and inclusive world — while ultimately true on G-d’s time — isn’t automatically true on human time.  The arc of the moral universe doesn’t necessarily bend toward justice unless we build it that way.

Today, societal forces are mounting to undo the progress of the last decades — targeting houses of worship, inciting fear and hate, shoving whole communities back into closets that we thought we were well on our way to dismantling.

The good news is that we’re not alone, we’re not building alone and, as always, we’re far stronger together than any of us ever could be on our own.  Advancements against anti-Semitism and homophobia always have been incremental and cooperative: they happen slowly, and they require the collaboration of many hands on the “build team” of a futre worthy of everyone.

It’s easy to focus on building that better world “for us” — forgetting that the only way truly to build that better world is to build it for all.  How many cisgender white gays and lesbians celebrated when marriage equality became a reality, but went absent from ongoing activism for their trans siblings?  How many progressive Jews felt that anti-Semitism had vanished from their lives, not noticing that our visibly-Jewish Orthodox siblings faced continued attacks?  How many white Jews were absent from activism on behalf of Jews of color? It goes on and on.

Real progress means expanding beyond our own communities and specific interests.  The fact that we may not yet have experienced certain vulnerabilities and inequalities does not mean that we are protected from them. The privileges that shield us today can easily slip away in the future. But as history keeps teaching, if we don’t stand up for others, there won’t be anyone left to stand up for us.

This ongoing work is both external and internal. We need to build outward and advocate for others (for instance, straight and cisgender allies must advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, and non-Jewish allies must stand up for the Jewish community).  At the same time, we must build inward and strengthen connections internal to our communities as well.

Now 50 years since Stonewall, this work is far from complete.  To paraphrase the charge given at b’nei mitzvah celebrations: this must not be the end of our activism, but the beginning.  In the words of our sages, even if it’s it not our job to “complete” this work (it’s never “complete”), neither are we free to refrain from it.

This year’s Pride Month coincides with Shavuot, the end of Judaism’s seven-week cycle of counting the Omer, moving from the story of Passover to the receiving of Torah. Over these 49 days, we followed the example of the Children of Israel in the desert, working to transform ourselves from a newly freed mixed multitude into a unified humanity able to stand together at Sinai and receive the highest Torah.  During this time, we reaffirm our spiritual duty to ensure that all are protected and safe, so that we all can stand together.

The reason is core to Jewish spiritual life.  Tradition teaches that we received the Torah only as a unified community, with each and every person equally invited, present and welcomed.  The completeness of Torah depended on the wholeness of community. Just as a Torah with even one letter missing cannot ever be true Torah, so too a community with even one person excluded or dehumanized cannot ever be true holy community.

In that spirit, there are real spiritual consequences if anyone feels pressured much less forced to conceal who they truly are out of fear of not being fully accepted.  We learn that it is un-Jewish and un-holy, by definition, to exclude in those ways — as equally unacceptable as dropping letters from Torah itself.

In that same spirit, the Revelation at Sinai was a true divine “coming out” to the world.  What little our enslaved ancestors knew of G-d was in their liberation from bondage, but now G-d would reveal G-d’s Self. G-d’s “I” narrative of introduction at Sinai (Exodus 20:1-2) reminds that there is but one G-d, in whose image we all are created. To discriminate against a person for just being is to discriminate against the source of all being.

On Shavuot, we remember the moment when G-d said, “This is who I Am.”  G-d’s identity needs no affirmation, but G-d still gave humanity the opportunity to say, “Yes, we see You, and we will call You by the names You teach us.” G-d modeled coming out, and G-d modeled how we should treat everyone.

This Shavuot and this Pride Month, may we all continue the work and blessing of that ongoing Revelation – fully seeing each other, being completely present for each other, ensuring that no one ever is pressured to hide. That’s how we’ll build a future without closets of fear, a future truly for everyone.

 

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz and Rabbi Marisa James. 

Why This Firstborn Will Go Silent Before Passover: The Social Justice Ta’anit Dibbur

Among Passover’s many customs, the fast of the firstborn (ta’anit bechorot) fell into disuse. This ritual fast, commemorating Egypt’s victims of the Tenth Plague’s death of the firstborn, finds little traction among modern liberal Jews. Even most traditionalists arrange a ritual joyous reason to avoid the pre-Passover fast.

The day before Passover, however, this particular firstborn of Israel will fast – not just from food but also from speech. I will go silent – I will observe a total fast from speech (ta’anit dibbur) – and I will decline any excuse that might absolve me.

The reason isn’t virtue signaling. Rather, it’s to remind myself, and invite others to consider, that words and privilege can be as enslaving as iron shackles. It’s to renew my commitment to make space for the voices of all who feel excluded or diminished, whose identities or experiences have denied them privileges I enjoy – including the very privilege to write these words.

A Pre-Passover Fast from Food (Ta’anit Bechorot)

There are many reasons to fast before Passover – and not just make room for matzah! One reason is to mourn the too-high price of freedom. Talmud famously teaches that when angels rejoiced during the Exodus drowning of Egyptian soldiers in the Sea of Reeds, God rebuked them saying, “My children are drowning and you sing Me praises?” (Megillah 10b, Pesachim 64b). If Egypt’s first-born and soldiers died for Israelite liberation, their deaths are not less tragic. If angels had to learn that lesson, then so might we. Just as we spill drops of wine for each plague during the Seder (we can’t drink a full cup of joy at another’s expense), we can fast in poignant memory of the tragically high cost of freedom.

Another reason is to connect with today’s captives of body, heart or spirit. Until all are free, all are unfree. So taught Dr. Martin Luther King from his Birmingham jail cell: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We can fast, as I wrote elsewhere, to spiritually purge for every time co-religionists ever sung praises for another’s degradation. We can fast to rededicate ourselves to bringing Passover’s global message of freedom to the whole globe.

A third reason is to honor this year’s calendrical confluence with Good Friday. Jews need not understand the Jesus of faith as Christians might, but we can understand suffering, grace and redemption in common cause with our Christian cousins as they commemorate their own ritual descent and ascent rooted in Passover.

A Pre-Passover Fast From Speech (Ta’anit Dibbur)

The idea of a ta’anit dibbur (fast from speech) traces from the wisdom of Proverbs 18:21: “Life and death are in the hand of the tongue.” We fast from speech as a practice of purification. By ritually controlling the incessant drive to speak, we can refine the inner impulses they voice.

All the more so before Passover. Mystics re-read Passover (pesach) as the speaking mouth (peh sach), the spiritual liberation that could heal both Moses’ impaired speech and our own. Understood this way, the creative impulse that Jewish mysticism understood as speech – God’s speech, and our speech – can be healed and channeled to liberate the sacred in our world.

Consider the countless injustices and shacklings expressed as speech. Consider the enormous power of words to include or exclude, create or destroy, empower or enfeeble, uplift or suppress, liberate or enslave. Words can wound, or words can heal. Understood this way, any Passover worth its weight in matzah must focus intently on the power of words to help purify our words.

What does this have to do with the firstborn? In its day, primogeniture stood for privilege and societal power dynamics that locked privilege into the day’s reality map. By dint of gender and birth order, the firstborn male held special status legally, politically and ritually. Others were at best second best. And as for the individual, so too the collective: God told Moses to call Israel “God’s firstborn” before Pharaoh (Exodus 4:22). Later, liturgy attributed to Rav Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi, transformed Israel into reishit tzmichat ge’ulateinu, “the first flowering of our collective redemption.”

We’ve come far since primogeniture’s days, but Passover becomes a mere tasty relic if we rest on past laurels. A living Passover means bringing freedom and equality to all in the flowering of collective redemption. A living Passover means pushing boundaries outward until they include everyone, and feeling deeply wherever boundaries or the call to expand them feels tight. Those tight spots are our meitzarim, our “narrow places” – literally our “Egypt,” the frontiers of today’s Passover ongoing call to liberation.

Understood this way, the “fast of the firstborn” is a radical and evolving call to name and invert today’s social structures that hold people back. The “fast of the firstborn” isn’t mainly about the “firstborn” but rather about the privilege that primogeniture wrongly symbolizes. It’s strikingly beautiful that Judaism can honor Passover – a defining experience of peoplehood and liberation – with this internal hedge against its own imperfect realization of this sacred calling.

Now let’s get personal. I seem like the personification of privilege. I’m the firstborn child – and a son at that. I’m straight and cis-gendered. I hold two graduate degrees, from Harvard, plus a rabbinic ordination. I’m honored with a judicial role and a pulpit. I teach in seminary and I’ve led spiritual nonprofits. I have seemingly unfettered opportunities to speak, write and teach. I’m not just a man; euphemistically I’m The Man! And most who know me know that I can have much to say.

That’s exactly why I and people like me should go silent before Passover – to remind ourselves of the marginalization and subjugation that others experience daily, to make space for them, and to recommit ourselves to that cause as a way of life for all time.

To be sure, I wasn’t born on third base thinking that I’d hit a triple. I’m the son of an immigrant. I did not grow up affluent. I’m the first in my family to graduate from college. I faced and overcame many obstacles both personal and familial along the way. But such is the American experience and, often, the Jewish experience. All the more reason for me to make space for tomorrow’s “me” – whoever and however they may come.

I think of my own mom and countless other moms denied a Jewish education or countless other opportunities on the basis of sex. I think of LGBTQI friends still fighting whether in or out of the closet, denied their rights at tragic costs to themselves and society. I think of people of color, of all backgrounds, whose lives as visible minorities still are fraught 50 years after Dr. King was assassinated. I think of talented people of all ages and stages blocked from leadership by crusty, recalcitrant power dynamics that cling to their own false solidity. I think of Jewish life’s virulent allergy to wise succession planning that shortsightedly robs institutions of healthy and vibrant futures. And I think of many leaders who undoubtedly think they’re doing leadership right but who wield emotional or spiritual authority in ways that are pervasively self-perpetuating.

That’s why I will go silent before this Passover. I will reclaim the ta’anit dibbur as a deliberate space-making practice both within and without. I hope all firstborns, whether literally first out of the womb or metaphorical firsts of privilege, will consider doing likewise. Let’s make space for others starting with one day, then one week, then for a lifetime, for all Jewish life and for all life. Let’s make space to heal speech, to heal power, to heal the world.

When we break our ta’anit dibbur at the start of the Seder, let our first word be Baruch: ”Blessed.” Let that flow of blessing be the purpose of our speech and all speech. And in that merit, may we, all of us, experience a truly liberating and sweet Pesach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Rabbi David Markus

 

 

Noah’s Ark: A Failed Ally-Ship

Part of a yearlong series about building and builders inspired by the Torah cycle.

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“Justice can never be about just us.” Noah, therefore, certainly wasn’t a just person – and in many ways, failed at being just a person. For 120 years Noah toiled to build an ark of self preservation, but didn’t invest at all in building a better society. He saved himself, his family, and some animals, but didn’t offer a single prayer for the people of his generation. The Zohar writes that because of this, God names it the “Flood of Noah” and sees Noah as if he caused the destruction of the world.

At the beginning of the story (Gen 6:9) Noah is introduced as “a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God”. Before the flood (Gen 7:1) he is no longer perfect, but is still called righteous. After the flood (Gen 7:23) he survives only as Noah, and then defiles even that basic human identity (Gen 9:20). He finds himself alive, but not so different from those whom he let die.

He wasn’t able to see the Godliness in humanity. Not in others, and in the end, not even in himself. With all the effort towards self preservation, he failed to preserve even self.

Rashi interprets “Noah walked with God” as “Noah needed support to bear him up.” God was Noah’s ally and expected him to reciprocate towards God’s creations. Rashi contrasts this with Abraham about whom it is written (Genesis 17:1) “Walk before me.” He writes: “but Abraham would strengthen himself and walk in his righteousness on his own.”

These verses are referenced by the Vilna Gaon (18th century) in his commentary on the first entry of the Code of Jewish Law. The Rema, quoting the Psalmist, opens “I have set the Lord before me constantly” (Psalms 16:8); he then adds “this is a major principle in the Torah and among the virtues of the righteous who walk before God.” The Gaon ends his comments with “and this is the entirety of the virtues of the the righteous!”

The difference between one righteous individual and another is simply the degree by which one sees God in the world around them. In the mundane. In nature. In each other.

Abraham saw it; all of our great ancestors did. They prayed, argued, and negotiated with God to save and protect people. When we see something that isn’t ok we are meant to to something about it. Faith is a call to action and gives us hope that we can be part of the solution.

This November, there will be an anti-trans referendum on the ballot in Massachusetts that would legalize discrimination against trans folks. Some of us may find ourselves comforted with thoughts of how it doesn’t affect us directly – because we don’t live there, or because we are cis-gender, or because we don’t feel like we need those protections. But this kind of thinking makes us no better than Noah and part of the problem.

Judaism holds us responsible for inaction. It is therefore incumbent upon us, as Jews, to take action – to build a better society, to push back against measures that will hurt the people of our generation, and (if we live in Massachusetts) to vote yes on this referendum for the dignity and respect of all people.

We live in really hard times, with no shortage of things to be outraged about, but God forbid it should ever get easier to see the world being destroyed around us. We must pursue justice for all or soon we will be pursued for being just us.

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Post by Rabbi Mike Moskowitz; sketchnote by Steve Silbert.