Standing Up for Our Gay Kids

We all don't have to agree, I know, but we all have to treat people with respect and dignity. Kavod ha'briot, honoring all living creatures, is a strong value in Judaism.
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I don't often share many personal things about myself in sermons, but tonight I am going to. Not so you can get to know me better, but to make a point. All things being equal, I have been very fortunate to live a pretty sheltered, privileged life. As a white, upper middle class, straight, American Jew born in the latter half of the 20th century and now living in the 21st century, I have had it good. I have never faced direct anti-Semitism or had my life threatened in any way. I have never been a slave, like Bill Nathan, the amazing director of the St. Joseph Home for Boys in Haiti told us this week, when he spoke at PJTC, that he was from age 6-8. I have never had any noticeable physical, psychological, emotional disabilities that would draw attention to me as being different, subject to potential ridicule. The worst that I have had, I guess, was when I was only 4'11'' tall through 11th grade, before shooting up 7 inches in one summer. But, I was cute and popular with the girls, so even that wasn't so bad. I was an athlete, did well in school, was student body president in high school and went on to college and a successful career. I don't remember being teased that much as a kid, was bullied once, maybe, in my first week of high school, but nothing major. I didn't stutter, have a birth mark, like my sister's huge red mark on her left cheek, always had friends. I went to Hebrew High school and excelled, summers at Camp Ramah where I was in the "in" crowd, and so, I have never really known what it is like to be subjected to humiliation, taunting, teasing, bullying or alienation.

And so, for sure, I have absolutely no idea what it must have been like to be Tyler Clementi, or one of the other four gay young people who took their lives in the last three weeks. These deaths are horrible tragedies, not only for their families, whose pain is unimaginable, but for us as a nation, as we mourn the loss of 5 young people, the oldest 19, the youngest 13, who took their lives, it appears in all five cases, because of either the torment they endured for being gay, or being thought gay by their peers, or in Tyler's case, because of the public humiliation that he felt after his college roommates video taped him and another young man having sex in their dorm room and streamed it live on the internet. Young Seth Walsh, a 13-year old boy in Tahachapi, CA, featured in today's LA Times, was a bright, loving child who knew he was gay, tried to be himself, express himself and was taunted for it. He was teased since the 4th grade because he liked to play with girls, didn't like sports, wasn't aggressive or assertive -- he was called a sissy, that is where it began. Three years later, it ended with him hanging himself in his backyard. The others were Billy Lucas, 15 and Asher Brown, 13. Five young people now gone. The challenge tonight is that this could be many sermons: the issue of homosexuality in our society, the issue of bullying and teasing amongst our kids, the issue of privacy and the Internet, and I am sure a few other things as well. I am going to focus on the first issue, homosexuality and our society, and our own community.

In his groundbreaking book, Wrestling with God and Men, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first self-identified gay Orthodox rabbi, writes about a response he got from another Orthodox rabbinic scholar asked to comment on his coming out and continuing to identify as Orthodox. Greenberg had been hiding his true sexuality since the time he was a teen, trying to date women, be a "normal" boy, and actually was almost married to a woman once. Raised in a non-religious home, Greenberg discovered Orthodoxy as a young teen and became more and more religious as he grew up. Greenberg's first step into speaking his truth came in 1992 when he authored a piece that was printed in Tikkun magazine, under a pseudonym, Rabbi Yaakov Levado, meaning "Jacob alone," which he writes is based on the story of the Biblical Jacob and how he remains alone the night before meeting his brother Esau, and famously wrestling with the angel, which most of the commentators understand as a wrestling with himself to identify who he truly is. The outcome of that Biblical story, as we know, is that Jacob becomes Israel; the outcome of Greenberg's piece is that he started to no longer be "levado, alone," but become fully himself. He explains why he couldn't reveal his true identity in the article, saying, "I feared that the cost of honesty and realness would be isolation and marginalization. Coming out would compress my life into a narrow and grossly overdetermined identity. I bristled at the thought of being known widely as 'the gay Orthodox rabbi.'" (Greenberg, p. 10) Yet, the letters he received, from folks around the world, both gay and straight, Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, gave him courage and a taste of support and acceptance. But, he also got responses such as this, from an Orthodox colleague, "A gay Orthodox rabbi is an absurdity as inconceivable as an Orthodox rabbi who eats cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur. There is no such thing as a gay Orthodox rabbi."

While this seems like a pretty ridiculous response, unfortunately, Greenberg got many of these, rabbis who seemed fine dismissing him, brushing off his soul and who he was with the flick of their finger, choosing to use Biblical and Talmudic laws to alienate this human being rather than using the same laws to try and embrace him. But, he didn't expect to find that from his Orthodox colleagues. Rabbi Greenberg is a unique and amazing person, a scholar and master teacher in his own right, and he responded this way to that comment, writing, "While commitment to halachic (legal) norms is central to the definition of Orthodoxy, the rabbi's comparison is absurd. Human sexuality is not a gastronomic whim, and lifelong intimacy is not a cheeseburger. Nobody jumps off a bridge because he or she is deprived of a cheeseburger. No one sinks in clinical depression or submits to electroshock therapy for the sake of a ham sandwich. The gross misunderstanding of human sexual expression as mere bodily gratification is all the more shocking in this case because the rabbi who made the comparison between sexuality and cheeseburgers is not only a scholar in the rabbinical school but a physician as well." (p. 12) One more word on Greenberg's life before coming to today. He remained within the Orthodox world, and is still a leading scholar. He writes in his book, "Is it possible to believe that, in light of new realities, the standard halachic ruling on homosexual relations is in error and still be a loyal advocate of the system? I think so. I am committed to the halachic system, both in theory and practice. However, I believe that the proper Halachah, the one that treats this phenomenon responsibly, honestly, and intelligently, is not the present one. In fact, I believe that avoiding the issue of sexuality and gender at this moment in history will prove disastrous." (p. 13) I couldn't agree with Rabbi Greenberg more. I have spoken several times before about my support of gays and lesbians, how I believe that we are all God's children and like other discriminations of the past, be it women, African-Americans, people with disabilities or any other subset of the human family that doesn't look like what we think is the "norm" for acceptance, I believe that we will one day overcome the discrimination against the LGBT community. And, in many ways, we have come a long way. Many states have civil unions for gay couples, even if marriage is not yet fully available. One day it will be. Many families have opened their hearts and souls to loved ones who are gay. One day, I pray, all families will. Our country is getting closer to not discriminating against gays in the military, and one day, pretty soon I believe, the "don't ask, don't tell" law will be repealed and those soldiers fighting for our country won't be discriminated against by the very government for which they are volunteering to risk their lives. And in our community at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, we are growing more sensitive and aware each year. We have gay families in our shul, one of whom you will hear from in just a moment, and we are planning a diversity training session with all of our staff, teachers and volunteers for sometime in the coming months. We are looking at our applications and forms for membership and the religious school to make sure they are welcoming and inclusive to all people, and we are looking to change how to format our synagogue directory for the same reasons. We have had conversations and dialogue in our high school classes on sexuality and we will continue to do so. My main thrust for tonight was to stand up, speak out and make sure it is known that I am fully supportive of the LGBT community, and as a clergy person, I am open to marrying two Jewish, committed and loving gay people, as I am committed to doing so for straight people. My office is a safe and welcoming place for teens to speak to me about their own sexuality, and I want to help with any fears, frustration or feelings that come with the process of discovering one's own sexuality. I will not tolerate any discrimination, taunting, bullying, teasing or exclusion of gays and lesbians, or anyone for that matter, at PJTC and I won't tolerate it from any of my staff or our volunteers. We all don't have to agree, I know, but we all have to treat people with respect and dignity. Kavod ha'briot, honoring all living creatures, is a strong value in Judaism, and one that is a part of our PJTC community.

I close with some words of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief rabbi of Palestine before Israel was a state. He was a unique figure, one who should be more well known than he is by the greater Jewish community, for he was a giant of his age. Writing in 1920, Rav Kook was one of the first Orthodox rabbis to declare his support for the Zionist movement. Most of his colleagues found it to be a rebellion against God, for only God could bring about the return to Zion, not to mention the Zionist movement was overwhelming secular in nature and not based on Jewish law or ritual practice; therefore it was deemed against Jewish law to support Zionism. Rabbi Greenberg, a revolutionary in our time, took courage from Rav Kook, who said, "There are times when there is a need to violate the words of the Torah since there is no one in the generation who can show the way to do it permissibly, and so it comes as a breach. It would be much better if such violations of the law came about as unintentional transgressions, as the saying goes, 'Better they be accidental sinners rather than intentional sinners.' However, only when a prophetic spirit rests on the people of Israel is it possible to fix such matters legally by a decree of the sages...But by the obstruction of the light of prophecy, the matter is fixed by a breaking of the law, the external manifestation of which saddens the heart and yet gladdens the heart by its inner essence." (Rav Kook, Arpelei Tohar, as quoted by Greenberg, p. 242) Rav Kook is saying that sometimes we have to be rebellious in order to create the change we know to be right. Rabbi Greenberg writes that Rav Kook teaches us that the legal system is not self-contained. That there are leaps of judgment that the legal system cannot make by its own internal mechanism. We are voices of the heart, we are the voices of the love and compassion that the legal system is not capable of, nor responsible for, creating. How many more children must take their lives out of fear and depression and sadness and loneliness before we, the adults and creators of the destiny of our world, stand up and breach the system? Even one more child is too many. I am standing up and saying enough, and I invite you to join me.

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