Last Shabbat, I was invited by Rav Claudia Kreiman to give the drash (sermon) at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline for the GLBTQ Pride Shabbat. She asked me to speak on the question of why gay pride is a Jewish concern. Here's what I had to say:
In 1992, the summer before I started high school, I saw Falsettos on my second-ever trip to Broadway. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it was the combination of two earlier, ground-breaking off-Broadway musicals by songwriter William Finn: March of the Falsettos, which told the story of Marvin, a Jewish man in his forties who had left his wife and son for a male lover, but who wanted a “tight-knit family” that included all of them; and its sequel, Falsettoland, in which Marvin’s son struggles with becoming bar mitzvah while Marvin’s lover struggles with the disease that would come to be known AIDS.
I don’t know that there’s ever been another show — or ever will be — that spoke so directly to me. A large part of that is simply that it’s the first time I can remember seeing gay lives portrayed, well, anywhere. I didn’t know any gay adults, and while I had an inkling that some of my friends might also be gay, none of us had yet spoken the words out loud to each other.
I’m just young enough to have missed Billy Crystal on Soap, and Tom Hanks in Philadelphia was still a year away; Ellen wouldn’t come out for another five years. So in 1992, gay boys who loved Broadway musicals had Falsettos, lesbians had newly out of the closet country singer k. d. lang, and that was it. The gays of Falsettos were Jewish – and I don’t just mean Jew “ish” – the opening number of the show is called “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” which really sets the tone for how the rest of the show unfolds… that these characters’ sexuality and domestic struggles were wrapped in the familiar neuroses of my community intensified the resonance.
I had just returned from a six-and-a-half-week cross-country summer trip with USY on Wheels, a Jewish summer program that combined seeing the country with learning about religious Jewish living. For the first time in my life, I was starting to really grapple with what being Jewish meant to me. I was also 14, with all that entails.
Something about seeing Will Finn work out his own sexuality in such a Jewish milieu helped something click in my brain. Although I still had a lot of coming out to do, I more or less knew where I stood with regards to my sexuality. But I could work out my Judaism in a homosexual milieu. And, well, that’s what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years.
Needing a place to interrogate my own Judaism in a gay context eventually brought me to Keshet, the Boston-based nonprofit organization working for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews in Jewish life, and organization for which I am proud to sit on the board. Keshet’s combination of providing Jewish space for GLBTQ Jews and our friends to create our own community while simultaneously working to train Jewish professionals and lay leaders across the country in creating more inclusive Jewish life has given me an incredible home base from which I can both nurture my own Jewish needs while helping to shape the greater Jewish world into the more integrated community I know it can be.
When Rav Claudia and I spoke about what my drash this morning should be about, she suggested I speak about why this work is a Jewish concern – or, what makes gay pride Jewish. So, naturally I went straight to today’s parasha (Torah portion).
Bamidbar, the book of Numbers, gets a bad rap. “Ugh, we finally got through a whole book of laws about priests – we don’t even HAVE priests any more – and now the Torah wants us to be interested in census data from the ancient world? Is this for real?”
But the Torah’s obsessive cataloging of the ancient Israelites who wandered bamidbar, in the wilderness, has something to offer us beyond a glimpse into Biblical bureaucracy. In the parasha we read toady, we learn about the specific roles played by some of the families within of the tribe of Levi; we also read about each tribe’s contribution to the dedication of the altar, enumerated in great detail over 80 or so verses.
Why this attention to detail? Because our tradition says that every single person counts. Every individual has their own contribution to our story, our community, our people, and every contribution matters.
And while this may come across as both an oversimplification and a statement of the obvious, at the very basic level, this is why gay pride is a Jewish concern: every individual matters – a message our tradition drums home over and over again, from the first mention of humanity being created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, to the Talmud’s insistence on preserving a multiplicity of opinions, including those we don’t follow.
Of course, Judaism isn’t only concerned with the individual – we are also concerned with community. The values of achdut, of Jewish unity, and areivut, communal responsibility, are woven throughout our texts and traditions. The Talmudic dictum Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – all Israel is bound up in one another – emphasizes that and when individuals in our community are hurting, it is up to all of us to make things right.
Living in Massachusetts in 2012, it’s sometimes hard to think of us, the GLBTQ community, as hurting. We are privileged to live in a state that extends equal marriage to all couples regardless of the gender of the partners; just last year our legislature wrote many important protections for transgender and other gender noncomforming people into law. All things considered, we’ve got it pretty good.
But of course, our state marriage laws don’t extend important aspects of marriage to same-gender couples that are covered by Federal Law, from partner immigration rights to social security benefits and beyond. And our state protections around gender leave out some important facets as well, most notably protections around public accommodations – which means, for example, that a convenience store can’t fire an employee for being transgender, but the same store can refuse service to a transgender customer.
And you don’t need to read too far into the newspaper to see how much worse off GLBTQ people have it elsewhere in our own country, not to mention in places around the world where simply being gay or violating gender norms are capital crimes. For much of the world, to be GLBTQ is to be bamidbar, to be in the wilderness, with the promised land barely in sight.
But I don’t need to tell you all this, and certainly don’t need to convince people who come to TBZ for Shabbat morning services of why this situation needs to change. But I think it’s important, when framing a conversation about GLBTQ pride to remember that what for me as a relatively comfortable, white-skinned male in Massachusetts often feels like a waiting game as the arc of history continues to bend towards justice is still very much a life and death situation for people who are less likely to get to speak to congregations in Brookline.
Pride means something very different when I speak about being proud to know that most of my friends who are rabbis happily officiate at same-gender weddings than it does when I gathered with my friends in Raleigh, North Carolina the evening Amendment One passed to declare that our dignity and self-worth is not measured by a vote. And pride means something different too when we situate the word within a liberation movement, which is, of course, what gay pride is, although the privilege most of us enjoy allow us to treat gay pride more like a party than a protest.
Gay pride, as a movement, coalesced at the end of the sixties, on the heels of Black Power, Women’s lib, and also the Jewish pride that swept the US fueled by Israel’s performance in the Six Day War. And while the word pride tends to conjure images like an artist proud of her creation or a parent proud of his child’s accomplishments, that’s not the kind of pride we’re talking about here – even if it might seem that way every time some well-meaning Jew starts talking about disproportionate representation among Nobel Laureates.
These movements were about minorities asserting their visibility and value despite existing in a societal architecture structured to work against them. The reason these movements chose words like Power, Liberation, and Pride is really indicative of the tikkun, the repair, the movements set out to make – to reverse a history of powerlessness, of oppression, of shame.
There are those who might push back – what is there to be proud about? You love whom you love, congratulations. For that you need a parade? And you know what? Some day maybe we’ll achieve a world where that argument holds sway.
But in a world where my citizenship comes with fewer rights than my heterosexual neighbors, where pastors preach that I should be rounded up and put into camps, where gay activists abroad risk their lives to speak out, and where kids in our own communities kill themselves to stop the torment they face at school because “gay” is still the worst insult one can hurl… we can be proud that we wake up and face each day anew.
And as much as our gay pride parades may seem celebratory, make no mistake that their origins as protest marches remain very much alive. Our march towards progress moves ever forward.
One potent example for me:
Back in 1992, where I began my story today, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards released a Letter on Human Sexuality that, under the guise of affirming a welcome for gays and lesbians in the movement, reinforced their refusal to perform commitment ceremonies or ordain gay clergy, and left whether gay people could be synagogue employees or have Torah honors up to the individual congregations. Twenty years later – this very week – that same body approved frameworks for same-gender marriage, something I never could have imagined back in 1992.
Whereas I remember sitting in shul in 1992 hearing about that letter and wondering what possible place there would be for me in Judaism once I came out, I am unspeakably proud today to be standing here in this shul reading this news – in a congregation that employs a married queer rabbinical student to teach their children, so we’ve basically covered every bullet point of that ’92 letter… thanks, Suzie! – I can’t tell you how proud I am, knowing that my Jewish community walks alongside me in the gay pride march of progress.
And although we are still bamidbar, still in the wilderness, and although there are days when we seem to wander more than march, we Jews know in our kishkes that the path to redemption isn’t always direct, and that our ultimate arrival will be strengthened by the journey – and the arguments – we have along the way. We also know that even once we get to the promised land, our work doesn’t end – if anything, it intensifies. And we know that our own experience of powerlessness and oppression sensitizes us to the oppressed and powerless among us.
The longer I’ve been involved in this work – the more I see how much work is still to be done, and in particular the more I’ve come to understand how interconnected all our tikkun work, our repair work, is. For once you start down the path of GLBTQ inclusion, for example, you can’t help but see the ways we fall short in including members of our community with disabilities. Or with interfaith families. Or with socioeconomic inequalities. And sadly the list could go on and on. But as one of my favorite bits of Pirkei Avot, that mishnaic collection of great quotations, says, lo alecha hamlacha ligmor – you are not required to complete the labor – v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibateil mimena – but you’re not free to give it up either.
I’m sorry if my answer to Rav Claudia’s question seems rambling. Because the truth is, if you ask me what’s Jewish about gay pride, for me, in my life, the answer is everything.
I won't be able to participate in Boston Pride this year -- I'll be otherwise occupied with the wedding of dear friends -- but if you'd like to march with Keshet, we'd love to have you!
David Levy is the marketing director of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. From 2010 to 2013, he was editor of JewishBoston.com.