a sermon by Rabbi Michael Goldman of Temple Israel Center, White Plains, NY

5774/2014, Parashat Acharei Mot 

I’m wearing a tie this morning with a design by Keith Haring, which I got some years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has dozens of tiny “Radiant Babies” on it, one of Haring’s iconic images. Back in the 80’s, Haring spray painted hundreds of these babies all over New York, so this image really is part to the cityscape. There’s something poignant to me about the fact that you can buy this tie at the Met, the ultimate insider institution. Haring came from the outside. He died in1990 of AIDS, back when we were just waking up to the fact that, because many of us perceived AIDS as merely a “gay disease” we had not taken it seriously enough.

I wear this tie every year when we read Parashat Aharei Mot, as a commentary on Leviticus 18:22:  “Do not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination”—to use a traditional translation. My Keith Haring tie says to this verse: “If we reduce a person to what they practice in private, we miss their other contributions. We miss the whole person.”

It’s always struck me as a little bit funny that this verse attracts so much attention when our parashah is so often paired with Kedoshim, where it is written:  Ve’ahavta l’reiekha kamokha. —“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Which verse should really be the one we dwell upon?

Two years ago I gave a sermon at this pulpit in which I reviewed the halakhic (Jewish law) position of this community on the question of gay and lesbian relationships, particularly marriage. I can point you to Rabbi Tucker’s treatment of it in the famous responsa he wrote for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. But I don’t want to spend any time today going over the legal arguments because for our community they are already decided; it is no more necessary to go over them than to continue to argue why our movement should ordain women as rabbis or cantors, or allow them to lead prayer services. We’ve done that already. 

Instead, what I’d like to do today is to share with you some moments of progress in the Jewish world, and locally, and in our congregation. I’m doing this in part as a way of welcoming to our county some new, much needed partners, Mosaic of Westchester. Mosaic’s mission is to better integrate gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning Jews into our communal life. Mosaic recently became a member of the Westchester Jewish Council, and we’re delighted that they’ve arrived. 

Even though my update is really local, I want to begin it seven time zones anway.

My Friend Avi Rose lives in Jerusalem, with his husband Binyamin,and his two kids, Sarai and Atir. Gay families are not unusual for Israel. But Avi and Binyamin’s story is unusual, if not unique. They were married under a huppah and live in Jerusalem. They keep kosher and observe a traditional Shabbat. Of course, they had to be married outside Israel (but that’s the case with any couple who opts not to be married by an Orthodox rabbi; all the more in their case). Avi’s father and three brothers, all of whom are rabbis, officiated. 

Avi and Binyamin deliberately chose to live and raise their kids in Jerusalem, not in Tel Aviv, where life is generally much easier for gay people. Avi made aliyah from Canada, Binyamin from England, with the intention of living a committed, observant life in Judaism’s spiritual center. 

Avi also felt that he had a mission, which grew out of his sexual orientation. He traces it to his “coming out” in his 20’s in Toronto. At the time he was working for a Jewish organization. He wasn’t secretive about his sexual identity, but wasn’t into making public statements about it either. But then  he decided one year ago today to go to the Gay Pride Rally. He’d marched before, but this time he decided to do so with a group of other Jews carrying a banner with a star of David. A few days later, the local Jewish newspaper ran a front-page picture of Avi behind this banner. 

From that moment, he felt the office atmosphere to be somewhat changed

a little stilted. A few days later, someone let it slip: “I guess it’s clear now which group you’ve chosen to be part of.” Avi found it pretty easy to piece together the message, because he had already intuited it: it’s okay around the office to be gay, even to be somewhat open about it. No one was going to discriminate. But to announce, “Hey, I’m gay and I’m Jewish”—to proclaim a dual identity—crossed some sort of line. Avi realized that people were “cool” so long as the two identities were kept far away from one another. It was somehow more acceptable to have a gentile boyfriend than to have a Jewish one, and—God forbid—to talk openly about the possibility of marriage. To borrow Susannah Heschel’s metaphor, being openly gay and openly Jewish was like putting a loaf of bread on the seder table.

Avi & Binyamin spend a lot of time as activists with the Jerusalem Open House (Binyamin is on staff there a as therapist). Avi and Binyamin see their activism as encompassing two aspects. One is to promote tolerance of LGBTQ people among Israel’s religious Jews. The other (and this one is more subtle, but still very real is to help LGBTQ Jews to understand that Judaism has something to offer them. Avi and Binyamin try to show, through their work and their personal lives that, despite the homophobia that many religious Jews suffer from, that Judaism and Jewish community can enrich gay people’s lives. 

Which is to say, Avi & Binyamin feel misunderstood—albeit not in a life-threatening sort of way—when they travel to Tel Aviv. Israel is of the most gay-friendly country in the world; Israel’s Ministry of Tourism actually promotes it as a gay haven. But they don’t mean Jerusalem. And Tel Aviv offers relatively little in terms of Jewish spirituality (although this is changing).

The tension between “gay” and “Jewish” is less dramatic in the United States. But Avi and Binyamin’s situation illustrates a problem that is nonetheless real here, too. I was the rabbi for five years at Duke University. Whenever I’d visit Duke’s very fine LGBT Center I’d see a few kids I knew to be Jewish, and they made it clear that they were very glad to see me. But I’d rarely — sometimes never—see them at Hillel. The message they seemed to be giving me was that they were fine with seeing me at the Center, but “please don’t out me as a Jew!”

For many reasons, many of them too subtle for a straight person to see without seeing through a gay person’s eyes, gay people are not yet made to feel completely comfortable in religious environments

As a leader in a religious community, I understand that the onus is largely on the institution to win the trust of those who have, for so long, been banned from entering. So even though they have legal parity, many LGBT people still feel uncomfortable here in this, or almost any, synagogue. 

I know this from listening, about our family members, our friends, ourselves.

Again, this is an institutional issue, before it’s a personal one. Not everyone can be a Nahshon—the Israelite who, according to our midrash, was the first to wade into the parting waters of the Sea of Reeds as Pharaoh pursued with his chariots. It takes a lot of chutzpah to be a pioneer, like Avi and Binyamin in Jerusalem. We need to create shelter. And we need a perspective that is not just a straight perspective.  This is why we should welcome Mosaic into our family of Westchester Jewish organizations.

Even as I admit that our congregation has a long way yet to go, I would like to boast about some progress we’ve recently made. Our shul recently redid our membership form, which used to say “Male Applicant, Female Applicant,” and now reads, “Applicant 1, Applicant 2.” 

This year Havurat Torah our “Hebrew high school,” had a class on gender identity in Judaism. We taught the class with the hope of changing the language we talk about gays and lesbians from that of “permitted and forbidden” to talking about issues of dignity and personal journey and narrative. 

Anecdote suggests that our efforts have borne some modest success. 

I have been present at two conversations in HT in which students shared their struggles and questions over issues of sexual identity. Not only was it amazing that these students felt comfortable talking about these things in front their peers (and their rabbi!). Even more remarkable to me was that the other students listened with respect. No one squirmed, no one joked.

If some were uncomfortable, they—thankfully—kept it to themselves. When I think back to how things were in my generation— snickering & jokes if not a smack on the back of the head—I truly believe we have made progress.

Of course, that progress is incremental. And it’s not happening everywhere. There are still countries in the world where it is illegal to be gay. There are still 29 states in the US where a person can be legally fired from their job for being gay. In this zman heiruteinu—this Season of Our Freedom, Passover, we should celebrate our freedom, as we recognize that we are not entirely free.

We should praise the Nahshons, those who take personal risk to come out & publicly question—Avi and Binyamin, Rabbi Greenberg, my students at Havurat Torah. We should realize that it’s not all up to the heroes; they point the way toward change; it’s up to the rest of us to create it. 

I’ve had this tie for 10 years at least, and I realize that its symbolism may be ripe for an update. It used to be more about the tragedy of Keith Haring, a man who drew life—radiant babies—but was dealt death. This tie used to be more about what the world loses when it excludes a whole class of people. Now I feel the hope that, perhaps, these babies can just be babies, radiant babies, like my friends’ beautiful twins Atir and Sarai and their two wonderful daddies. And that these radiant babies can symbolize the hope that parents & children can thrive and rejoice as a Jewish family, no matter whether they choose to live in Tel Aviv, Manhattan, Jerusalem, or even Westchester County.