PRIDE Torah 2022

Delivered on June 18, 2022 at Shaare Zion Beth El Congregation in Montreal.

Many years ago we attended Shabbat morning services at a very traditional, egalitarian shul in New Jersey where a few of our friends, several families from our Schechter school and many of my colleagues from the faculty at JTS belong.  Not being members ourselves, I expected no honors and indeed had never received any in the few times we had been there before.  So I was delighted that Shabbat when the gabbai, a friend of mine, asked if I would take the fourth aliyah.  

As the Torah reading progressed, I looked around at the people in the room and thought about how much I had in common with the numerous rabbis and educators around me, and also about how much I felt that Andi and I and our family stuck out like a sore thumb -- no doubt, the familiar, paranoia-laced ruminations of LGBTQ people who live in very straight worlds, as we did in Bergen County.

And then, I laughed to myself and said,  “Imagine if the aliyah I’ve been given is the one which has the verse prohibiting homosexuality!”  My pulse quickened. I stopped smiling and quickly flipped ahead to the page of the fourth aliyah, and there, in black and white, were the opening words of the portion I would be called any minute to bless: “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman, it is an abomination.”

Refusing the aliyah was not a choice for me, neither practically nor spiritually.  In the few moments I had left before being called up I wondered if this were some kind of cruel joke being played on me (more paranoia), and how all these religious figures, community leaders and scholars would react to the image of me standing by the Torah as these words are chanted.  Would they be offended?  Would I be offended?  Would they be proud?  Would I be proud?  

My name was called, with the “Harav” ("Rabbi") before it, which always gives me pause, for it is a title I do not take for granted.  I stood up, as tall as my 5”4 frame could reach, and approached the Torah.  I had to convey to those assembled - especially to my wife and children - that I knew what was being read, that I had wrestled with it, and that quite frankly, I had won, but not at the expense of my ongoing love for and loyalty to our sacred Torah.  I chanted the blessings with confidence, grasping firmly to the handles of the Atzei Chayim, and tried my hardest to embody with pride the paradox of sacred betrayal.

While no one said anything to me about it, I’m sure the dissonance of those few minutes of my aliyah was not lost on people.  And while I have done my fair share of teaching and speaking about the issue of inclusion in the Jewish community, nothing quite prepares you for a moment when you are called to bless the Torah over a passage that curses you.

At the very least, I knew I’d get some mileage out of the moment in a sermon sometime. So here we go.

The Hasidic Jewish tradition teaches that before God no wickedness may be brought.  How then, it asks, does Satan bring before God the sins of humanity?  The answer is that Satan brings only the holiness contained in sin, since sin contains the seed of repentance that turns a transgression into a good deed.

This subversive teaching turns upside down all our long-held conceptions about the notions of sin and transgression.  Taking up the mantle, Rabbi Nilton Bonder, in a short but powerful book called Our Immoral Souls: A Manifesto of Spiritual Disobedience, deepens the concept of sin as redemptive.  

Just as the Darwinian view of nature posits that the evolution of life often requires the destruction of, or aggressive assault upon, another form of life, as in “survival of the fittest”, Rabbi Bonder argues that the evolution of our souls, of our religious spirits, often mandates a violation of the very tradition to which our souls are bound.  Tradition and treason, he suggests, are two inseparable concepts.  

Tradition encompasses the instinct of our human consciousness to preserve our social and spiritual contracts by heeding convention and conforming to expectations and regulations.  Treason, or betrayal, by contrast, encompasses transcending expectations and regulations.  

The Torah is full of unusual transgressions that take place right in the midst of reminders about fulfilling the Law.  Consider the numerous violations of social contracts within the biblical families and the heresies committed against reigning belief systems.  

At the command of his own god, Abraham betrays his father and culture by setting off to settle his own land and begin his own story.  Over and over again the Torah’s insistence upon a firstborn’s right to inherit his father’s property is violated as the younger one takes center stage.  Isaac transgresses against Ishmael, Jacob against Esau, Rachel against Leah, and Joseph against Reuben.  The result of all these betrayals is the birth of the 12 tribes, the birth of the people of Israel.  Our history is full of betrayals on the road to redemption.

In these cases there is no failure to fulfill the Law but rather there is a transgression of the Law.   Lacking any reprimand, the Torah silently legitimates these initiatives.  It accepts them as necessary violations in the evolution of not just the personal journeys of our ancestors, but indeed as necessary violations in the evolution of their, and our, relationship with God.

In Rabbi Bonder’s words, “To transgress is to transcend, and our history would have no political, scientific, religious, cultural or artistic martyrs if it were possible to transcend without jeopardizing the survival of the species.”  Or, as he put it, “There can be no tradition without betrayal, nor betrayal without tradition.” 

Recognizing this tension between tradition and treason means treading very carefully on the path of change.  It means discovering how to achieve a balance in our commitments to both preservation and betrayal, to both the past and the future.

In the Talmud we find the provocative, rebellious statement of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish which says, “There are times when the setting aside of the Law might be the very means of its preservation”.  

Indeed, this is the thrust of the entire Talmud in which the Law is defined not in a manner that’s declarative but rather one that is argumentative.  The Talmud is written in the form of disagreements between the various rabbis trying to figure out the will of God and the application of the Torah to real life.  It not only records the arguments but also preserves the minority opinion alongside the majority opinion, teaching us that one rabbi’s apparently wrong judgment today may in time become the right one.  There is no absolute right or wrong in the quest for legitimacy in the eyes of Jewish tradition.  There are times when what is right is wrong and what is wrong is right.  The challenge is figuring out when what is what.

Hasidic wisdom tried to explain it this way.  “There is nothing in human experience which has been created without purpose”.  So nu?  “What purpose is served by those who deny the existence of God?  Are there circumstances under which it may prove more constructive to deny belief in God than to honor belief in God?

The lesson concludes:  if a needy person asks for help from someone who believes in God, the believer may respond piously by saying, ‘have faith and leave everything in God’s hands’.  A non-believer, however, behaves as if there were no one else in the world to whom the needy person could turn and thus he or she feels compelled to help.”

Being human requires us to maintain a tension between tradition and transgression so as to avoid two potentially damaging deviations: unyielding attachment to the way things are, and careless betrayal of the way things are.  Both are dangerous in that they tip the balance and kill the tension that’s vital to continued growth.  For inflexible attachment to the way things are is as much a violation of the human spirit, of our souls, as is unchecked betrayal of the way things are.

Let’s go back to Abraham for a moment.  Abraham’s story begins with a rupture from his culture, from his past, for the sake of the future, of a new home.  With this betrayal he launches Jewish history, your destiny and mine.  Where would we be today if there were never a place for such betrayal?  To suggest that we never “leave home” and redirect the ways of our ancestors towards the paths we feel called to walk is problematic on so many levels, not the least of which is the risk it poses to the future.  It undermines the human spirit, and possibly the whole of human history.  Abraham sacrificed the assumptions of yesterday to embrace the pull of tomorrow and declared it, with God’s endorsement, to be the new “right”.

As Rabbi Bonder put it, “For Abraham, being absolutely human – fulfilling what is expected of us – meant accepting the hypothesis that the best way of preserving his integrity may lie in relinquishing this same integrity.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel too understood this need to betray ourselves, to betray our own and even our tradition’s expectations of ourselves, when he said, “I consider in my own intellectual existence that the greatest danger is to become obsolete.  I try not become stale, I try to remain young.  I have one talent and that is the capacity to be tremendously surprised, surprised at life, at ideas.  This is to me the supreme Hasidic imperative: don’t be old.  Don’t be stale.  See life as all doors.  Some are open, some are closed.  You have to know how to open them.”

The decisions in recent decades within the Jewish community to sanctify the lives of LGBTQ Jews represented a serious break with tradition, an opening of a door that had always been closed.  Over the last 50+ years, each of the major Jewish denominations has taken steps towards recognizing the dignity of LGBTQ Jews, to different extents.  Some movements embrace LGBTQ Jews with unqualified equality in the eyes of Jewish tradition. Some have gone only so far as to teach compassion for those who find themselves outside the framework of accepted Jewish practice.  And yes, there are those who continue to maintain the strictures of the biblical and rabbinic prohibitions and who feel any deviation on this issue is to the detriment of Judaism and the Jewish people.

While I acknowledge the risks involved when change is contemplated, particularly for religious movements for whom authority and allegiance are touchstones of their continuity, it’s also important to acknowledge the risks of being static.  Halachik paralysis betrays not just those who remain outside who long to enter, but betrays Judaism itself.  The tradition contains within it the process and the permission - even the responsibilitiy - to change and to evolve.  To deny it the opportunity to do so is to suffocate the life force that has enabled it to thrive for four thousand years, and that will enable it to survive for thousands more to come.

Just as we know in our own human relationships that conflict is a sign of vitality whereas indifference is a sign of death, so too in our relationship with tradition, confrontation is a sign of our abiding concern and loyalty, while walking away would constitute the ultimate infidelity. 

And so, with deep humility, I submit that when I stood up those years ago to take an aliyah to the Torah over a portion which seemed to suggest that the Torah wanted nothing to do with me, my standing there with pride as a gay Jew, as a gay rabbi, in obvious and public rejection of the sacred words on the parchment before me, was nothing less than a show of faith, a statement of pride, an act of sacred betrayal.  It was a curse transformed into a blessing.

The name of our parashah, Beha’alotekha, encapsulates this all: Speaking to Aaron about lighting the menorah, the Torah says בְּהַֽעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת - when you rise to light the candles.

The Rebbe commented saying the lesson for us all is that we, too, should be lamplighters, rising to illuminate the world with the light of Torah, kindling it with our own light, and honoring and loving one another in such a way as to ensure that the light of every human being shines bright. In this way will we fulfill the Torah’s deepest wisdom and its most ennobling requirements.

On that long ago Shabbat morning there were those who expected me to rise and curse. But all I could do, all I was raised, trained and inspired to do, was to praise. All I could do was love.