Tuesday, November 10, 2015

How Do We Normalize the Conversation about Inclusion in our Faith Communities?



In 1951 a man by the name of Maurice Ogden wrote a terrifying poem called The Hangman using a pseudonym. It was first published in 1954. I have used this poem in my teaching often through the years. It is about a hangman who comes to town and one by one hangs all of the citizens. If you want to hear a dramatic reading of it, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgX-wtO_ys8

It is about community on an extremely important level, namely when community does NOT function as community and then people within that community are isolated, maligned, ignored, not included, and eventually destroyed. In Ogden’s poem, the destruction comes from the “stranger who came to our town.” However, what about those in our community upon whom we depend for support, love, validation and so much else?

These days, so much of my work is about just that – inclusion of all within our community. In this case, it is about including LGBTQ community members in our communities of faith. This includes the general Jewish community, the Orthodox Jewish community specifically and all communities of faith in my work with our area’s Multi-Faith Council. I approach this work thoughtfully and ever so intentionally, trying to convey that this is NOT about politics, grandstanding or making any large social statements. Rather, it is just about being…. who we are and who God made us to be. As you know by now, for me this has always been part of my hardwiring – this is the way God made me to be – an Ally for the inclusion of all members of our community. Yet, we cannot be so na├»ve as to think that this is not a huge leap for too many in our various communities of faith. So how do I approach this conversation?

I try to normalize it! Let us look back and consider that ever so long ago, the Talmud with its accepted Jewish authority as a seminal text is quite clear about how left-handed people only have qualified inclusion in our community. However, no one would question that in spite of centuries of thinking left-handed people to be sinister and of other such non-normative status; long ago, in fact in the Talmud itself, we acknowledge that we found a way to accept this variation in God’s created beings and accept those who are left-handed.

Women were definitely at a clear disadvantage and not included in so much of social gatherings, which is still a problem in too much of our world today. Even Jewish texts from so long ago speak to the need to meet the needs of this fully one half of our population. Other faith communities have definitely lived through many chapters of coming to terms with acceptance and provision of as full as possible inclusion of women in as many situations as possible. We in our civilized world acknowledge that we have found a way to validate that half of God’s created beings are women and accept them; while separating ourselves from societies who have not yet figured this out. Parenthetically, there are still needed steps to insure this equality but we would generally agree in this learning circle of which we are part that this must be on our agenda and that ways of consideration and inclusion have definitely been found and utilized..

In the Jewish community’s observant sectors, agunot (women whose husbands will not grant them a needed divorce) have had their share of challenges and in some communities become nothing s>hort of pariahs. This has hit families who could not be ignored as time has gone on, and here too, we are finding ways to deal with this challenge and to facilitate a process by which these women can move on with their lives. To not have done so would be oppositional to some of the most basic of Foundational Torah concepts, so we must find a way.

Members of our community who are hearing impaired also have limitations placed on them by the strictest and most basic reading of our Torah text and codes of law. Yet, we know all too well that due to hearing aids, cochlear implants, use of sign language and other strategies, our community members with hearing deficits can and do function fully as members of our community. In terms of Jewish law, ways have been found to validate and adapt this process so that full participation is granted in our religious as well as judicial spheres. The same challenge has been presented for the visually impaired, the physically limited, and other groupings. As a side comment, I find it ever so interesting that it is Israeli doctors and medical centers that are disproportionately so present in the field of creation of adaptive devices to allow such full participation and involvement. Yes, we have learned here too that where there is a will, there is a way.

Not so many years ago, children and members of our community who are learning disabled were excluded, not acknowledged, put away and families were ashamed because of the fear that such children meant that someone must have done something wrong. We have come to learn the incredible gifts that these children and the adults they grow into bring into our community. PTACH and other organizations with a similar mission have taught us all too well that EVERY Jewish child should be included and educated. There was a will, so a way was found.

And now, here we are on the cusp of an amazing time of growth, discussion, deliberations and consideration of how we fully include and validate the members of our Jewish community and other faith communities who are LGBTQ. Will there be religious challenges requiring creative and thoughtful and intentional approaches? No doubt there will be, but haven’t we done exactly that in so many different cases through the years? That is precisely what I mean by “normalizing the conversation.” We ask for no more and no less for our LGBTQ members than our left-handed members, women, our agunot, community members with various impairments, limitations, different learning needs and so many others. Where there is a will and a thoughtful intentional consideration of what it means to be fully human, we have seen in so many instances in the past that there is a way. May it always continue to be so.

So what is my ultimate goal in this work? Ogden ends each stanza of his chilling and horrifying poem with the execution of yet another not-to-be-accepted community member and fear regarding who would be next on his scaffold. My hope is that we will end each chapter in our own history of our faith communities by showing ourselves able to come to terms with the approach of “who do we include” by considering how we find a way that is reasonable and compassionate so that all are protected from whatever Hangman and cloak that may come by. That to me is normalizing the conversation – using those tools and strategies we have already learned for our beloved community members, whatever their differences may be.

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