Wednesday, March 2, 2016
The Story of a Yom Iyyun - An Important Day of Study
Let me tell you the story of a Yom Iyyun – a day of study of Jewish texts and issues that just occurred this past Sunday in the Greater Philadelphia area. This is a story of how we work within the system to get people to talk about challenging topics. As you know, I have been extremely involved on many levels with ESHEL, the Orthodox consortium for LGBTQ Inclusion in our Orthodox Jewish community. Due to a generous grant, I am working on several initiatives with ESHEL, including building community models of Orthodox Jewish inclusion. One of those initiatives is to join forces with another colleague locally in our Greater Philadelphia area and shuls and communities that are able to become more welcoming, thus amplifying the Welcoming Shuls Project (WSP) presently a large focus of ESHEL. The goal is to insure that we keep our LGBTQ members in our Halachic communities and not have them feel, unfortunately with legitimate reasons, that there is no place for them. This is a matter of validation, acceptance, and most importantly, נפש פיקוח, the foundational Jewish dictum to save a life and protect the well being of all of our community members.
We have been here before, excluding members of our community. Before 1976 and the advent of PTACH, the acceptance of the responsibility to educate all of our children, including those with learning differences and a variety of disabilities was too often not observed. We hid our children who were not unencumbered for whatever reasons – ranging from shame to fear that this was some type of punishment to some thinly veiled understanding of their lack of inclusion in our Halachic world. Baruch HaShem (Thank G-d) this has mostly been resolved, though truth to be told we still have miles to go in this regard in too many of our schools and Jewish institutions in our Orthodox Jewish world.
Then there is the matter of our women. Halachically, there are different levels of being bound by obligation ( חיוב ) that result in legitimate differences between men and women in various areas of religious functioning, such as making up a minyan ( מנין ) – a prayer quorum and fulfilling certain roles on behalf of others. However, within these definitions and differentiations, there is NOT any permission granted for misogyny, which unfortunately has occurred. Women have been maligned, excluded, and relegated to the category of “other” increasingly in too many aspects of religious observance and public assembly. This is NOT the Halachic way, and here too in many Orthodox circles the conversation has accommodated this disconnect and there is advocacy in many (though clearly not all) circles for correcting this situation, adhering to Halacha while not amplifying additional restrictions that are coming from elsewhere.
In the trajectory of both of these narratives, we have observed that where there is an honest will, there is a Halachic way to include and embrace, to validate and protect. This IS our Halachic obligation. It is within this context and using these precedents that I would suggest we can honestly discuss the inclusion of our LGBTQ members; and this is precisely what we did this past Sunday.
Years ago, a colleague of mine who was Orthodox and gay was never able to come out of the closet and even within the protective shield of our friendship and my caring for her, she could not say the words that would validate her being – the way the God chose to make her. I knew she was in great pain and tried to validate her in every way possible. She and her partner were at our Shabbat table, we sat together in shul, and yet, she knew it just was not enough. Some years later, she was found dead in her apartment, apparently or possibly having taken her life. This should NOT be in a community that adheres to the value of protecting each and every life. And to be sure, we know for a fact that there are too many others!
So, we as Orthodox Jews must discuss how we are endangering our own community members through inflammatory rhetoric, mean-spirited exclusion, lack of education and learning, and most important, not adhering to the very Halachic principles we claim inform every aspect of our lives. This was the purpose of this particular Day of Study – to engage in this dialogue, to learn about Halachically legitimate approaches to how we address our community members, and to check our politics, our socially informed fears and personal prejudices at the door. G-d created all of us – women, left-handed people, visually impaired community members, hearing-impaired people, physically disabled individuals, those who are mentally and emotionally challenged, and yes, LGBTQ individuals the way that G-d chose to create us. Within the tomes of Halachic discourse, all of these categories, not to mention children, are often indicated as “except for’s” in various listings (e.g. hearing a Shofar, Torah reading, sitting in a Sukkah, offering sacrifices, hearing Megillat Esther, etc.) but then Chazal – our teachers of blessed memory—engage in thoughtful and often caring discourse about what such exclusion means and so often, initially excluded groups are brought back into the fold of the practice under discussion. So often there is honest and caring concern in these discussions of 1400 years and more ago regarding our various groupings that make up who we are collectively. Would it not be wonderful, not to mention, well within the parameters of honest Halachic discourse, to do the same today?
As more than a few Orthodox Rabbis and scholars have suggested, yes, there is an act that is forbidden. That does not lead to complete exclusion of 10 – 13% of our population, not does it even speak to the individuals who were born outside of the presumed binary sexuality or gender spectrum. In fact, Mishnah Bikkurim, chapter 4 specifically addresses how we as a community must acknowledge and facilitate the performing of מצוות - Mitzvot (obligated actions) of our hermaphrodites and androgynous community members, and let’s time that text at about 1800+ years ago. Then there are Midrashim, other texts that cite everyone is obligated to do various things, and so forth. OUR ROLE AS COMMUNITY is to include all of our members so that these obligations can be fulfilled, NOT TO EXCLUDE members of our community due to other prejudices and politics. This is NOT the Halachic way.
As one Rabbi explained to me in a very well articulated way, his shul follows the “Sephardic way.” All are welcome and included to the maximum level allowed by Halacha. For this Orthodox Rabbi, whom I interviewed for an ESHEL survey dedicated to this topic, of course, gay men would be given Aliyot, of course, they could doven (pray)from the Amud, of course people should sit on the side of the Mechitzah (divider between men and women) that reflects their identified gender, and of course no one is asking any questions – any more than we would ask about Shabbat observance, honest business dealings, or a myriad of other issues. This is what we are asking – no more and no less – just accept and embrace our children and our other family members, our friends and our colleagues.
We are taught that the Mitzvot are given to us so that we may LIVE by them and not die because of them. If every member of our Orthodox Jewish community (and any other faith communities for that matter) would follow this single dictate, we will successfully move in the right direction in our observance of Halacha, both collectively and individually. Let us do for our LGBTQ community members what we have already come to learn we are obligated to do for ALL community members, including women and those with various differences! Then we will properly take our place as a Light to the Nations ( לגוים אור ) and NOT before!
So many Orthodox Rabbinic families have LGBTQ members and others have spoken out beautifully about this issue. For one example, read the following:
If you want to hear more about ESHEL, the Welcoming Shuls Project or have a Day of Study in your community, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org