Author Archives: Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

About Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Rabbi Toba Spitzer is the spiritual leader of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in West Newton. She has bowled in 31 states.

By The Power Vested in Me By The Commonwealth of Massachusetts! : 10 Years of Marriage Equality in MA

As we celebrate the ten year anniversary of legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, we’ve invited members of the community to share their reflections. Today’s post comes from Rabbi Toba Spitzer of
Congregation Dorshei Tzedek
, a Reconstructionist rabbi who performed same-sex religious weddings before the verdict—but was finally able to legally marry Massachusetts same-sex couples 10 years ago.


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I performed a number of weddings while still a rabbinical student, in the mid-1990s, as my friends began to make lifetime commitments and, being unaffiliated, turned to me—clergy in training!—to help them with their ceremonies. It was somewhat ironic that so many of my (straight) friends and acquaintances turned to me for this particular lifecycle event, as I had never been a huge fan of marriage. That may have been due to my own inklings as a kid that heterosexual white-wedding fantasies were not for me, or due to many years of being single and having to sit through other people’s weddings, or to my feminist and lesbian questioning of an institution that had historically been far from progressive.

Yet with all of that, I was happy to help my friends take this first step in creating a Jewish household together. My movement, Reconstructionism, was the first to officially sanction same-sex religious ceremonies, and so I had no qualms about helping anyone, gay or straight, craft a Jewish ceremony that reflected their sensibilities and values.

What I realized, however, soon after I began to do weddings, was that I had no interest in being an agent of the state for an institution that discriminated against me. Once I became a rabbi, I concluded that to sign a marriage license for a heterosexual couple would be somewhat akin to driving a bus that I was forced to sit at the back of. If I couldn’t get legally married, then how in the world could I participate in legally sanctioning the marriages of others?

And so, my policy for doing (heterosexual) weddings was that the couple would need to take care of the civil piece themselves, and further, that somewhere in the ceremony we would need to mention that legal marriage remained a privilege not accessible to everyone. With these two stipulations in place, I found myself able to stand under the chuppah with couples with a sense of integrity and wholeheartedness.

The Mark Of Liberation: First Steps

Provided by SocialAction.com, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.

In his commentary on the first words in the book of Genesis, the medieval commentator Rashi asks a somewhat unusual question: Why does the Torah begin with the creation of the world? Why not begin in Parshat Bo, in chapter 12 of Exodus? There, the Israelites are given the first of many mitzvot (commandments) to observe: namely, the commandment to sanctify the new moon of Nissan, and to declare it the first month of the year, in honor of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt.

A Free People

Rashi’s question assumes that the Torah is fundamentally a book of law, and so should begin with the giving of laws. Yet his comment also reflects a deeper truth about these verses in Exodus–verses which depict a different kind of mythical beginning. While the story of the world might begin in the first chapter of Genesis, the birth story of the Israelites as a free people in covenant with its God occurs here in Parshat Bo.

Sacred Time is Marked

Just as the creation of the world entails a new structuring of time, beginning with the cosmic first day, this Israelite creation story also entails a new arrangement of time. "And YHWH spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Mitzrayim (Egypt), saying: This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you" (Ex. 12:1-2). God seems to suggest that the Israelites should begin counting their year in a completely different way. In this new arrangement of time, the "first month" is the one in which the redemptive moment of liberation from slavery and degradation occurs. It is as if time itself is beginning anew.

This sacred beginning is marked in a particularly powerful way. On the evening of the 14th day of this first month, each Israelite household slaughters a lamb, paints the doorposts of the house with its blood, and eats the lamb in a ritual manner, roasted in fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. This is the first Passover ritual, the prelude to the exodus from Egypt–a nighttime meal eaten in trepidation, as all around the Israelite houses the Egyptian first born are struck down by the angel of death.

And yet, in the midst of this terrifying scene, the bloodstained doorposts conjure up an image of birth. After the long night of the first Passover, we can imagine the Israelites emerging in the morning through bloody portals, leaving Mitzrayim–literally, "the straits," the narrow place–and coming into being as a free people.

Remembering Exodus

In Jewish sacred memory, we are instructed always to remember that our birth story is a story of liberation. As Moses tells the people, as soon as they have left Egypt: "Remember this day, when you went out of Mitzrayim, from the house of slaves, for with a strong arm YHWH brought you out from this place" (Exodus 13:3). We must remember that we were slaves, and that we were born into freedom by the Godly power of redemption. But what do we learn about liberation, from these verses in Bo? What did it mean to become a free people, on that first Passover night?

Proactive Freedom

Up to this point in the Exodus story, the Israelites have been essentially passive characters in the unfolding drama of their redemption. Marking their doors with lamb’s blood is the first thing that the people of Israel are asked to do for themselves. This act thus becomes their first step towards freedom.

God has told them: "I will go through the land of Mitzrayim on that night, and I will strike down all the Egyptian first-born.  And the blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and I will see the blood and I will pass over you, and there will be no plague against you to destroy you, when I strike in the land of Mitzrayim." (Exodus 12:12-13).

As Rashi points out, this instruction seems rather strange. Does God, the All-Seeing One, need blood on a doorpost to know who is Israelite and who Egyptian? Rather, Rashi notes, verse 13 says that "the blood will be a sign for you"–that is, a sign for the Israelites, not for God. But why did the Israelites need this sign?

Claiming Identity

In order to take a step toward becoming a free people, the Israelites had to mark themselves. An essential first step on any journey towards liberation is a willingness to identify oneself: to step up, to speak out, to mark oneself simultaneously as oppressed and as ready to break the bonds of oppression.

By painting their doorways, the Israelites were both claiming their identity and at the same time making public their rebellion. They willingly risked the possibility that nothing would happen that fateful night, that their Egyptian oppressors might not be killed and would rise the next morning to see the signs of a slave revolt, with the doors of each participant blatantly marked. They marked themselves as slaves, and they marked themselves as free.

This is the challenge that our ancestors leave for us. We may no longer be slaves, but the world is still far from redeemed, and these questions still echo for us: What are the steps that we need to take on our own journey of liberation? How do we mark ourselves as both oppressed and free? What is the risk that we each are willing to take, to signal the beginning of new possibilities? As the Israelite slaves were willing to mark themselves and take that first step, so too may each of us be willing to stand out, speak up, and make our mark on the road towards freedom.

The Four Steps Of Liberation

Provided by SocialAction.com, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.The following article is reprinted with permission from SocialAction.com.

If we can speak of a Jewish "liberation theology," then its roots lie here, in Parashat Va’era, in God’s second revelation to Moses. Their first encounter took place at Mt. Horeb, when God introduced Godself to the reluctant prophet by means of a burning bush. Now Moshe has returned to the land of his birth, the land of Egypt/Mitzrayim, where his people suffer the burdens of slavery. Here the Ultimate is introduced once again:

"I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH…" (Exodus 6:2-3). 

God’s Names

On first reading, this is quite a strange statement. This particular name of God, YHVH (the unpronounceable, ineffable Name), was used quite liberally throughout the book of Genesis, and in fact this is the name that God uses during that first encounter with Moshe at the bush! Certainly the patriarchs, and Moshe himself, were familiar with this particular name of God?

Rashi, the early medieval commentator, notes that the phrase lo nodati, translated here as "I did not make Myself known," should actually be read as "I did not become known." Rashi suggests that what is at issue here is not a particular epithet for God, but an aspect of Godliness that did not "become known" until this moment. Something is being revealed here to Moshe that has never been revealed before.

What Does This Name Denote?

The first thing we notice is that the fullness of this name "YHVH" becomes known in the heart of that paradigmatic place of exile and oppression: the land of Mitzrayim. A name that incorporates within it a timeless yet dynamic sense of Was/Is/Will Be, a name that denotes Becoming and Possibility, is revealed to Moses as part of a message about the nature of oppression and liberation. The message continues:

"I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am YHVH. I will take you out from the labors of the Egyptians, and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments, and I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God." (Exodus 6:5-7)

Stages of Liberation

God here outlines for Moses four stages in the process of liberation. There are many ways to understand these stages. To be "taken out" could refer to being removed–or removing oneself–physically from an oppressive situation. Hasidic commentators have noted that the first stage in the Israelites’ redemption was actually their outcry to God–that until that point, they were so subjugated that they were not even aware of their own oppression. To be "taken out" could thus also refer to an ability to even understand that one is oppressed, that there is the possibility of being removed from the bondage one suffers.

To be "delivered" may refer to a personal process of dealing with internalized oppression. Here we see the importance of not only removing oneself from the physical situation of oppression, but of removing the internal obstacles to liberation that keep us enslaved.

But liberation cannot remain on the level of the individual. Even if I am successful in achieving some measure of freedom for myself, whether physically and/or psychically, the oppressive situation remains. "Redemption" then refers to a larger process of working with others to address the cause of oppression, to begin to root out those factors that contribute to any type of enslavement or degradation.

But still, it does not end there–for the Israelites were not only freed from slavery, they were freed for the holy work of serving the Ultimate. "And I will take you to be My people" points towards the ultimate goal of our personal and communal freedom: to choose service to that which has ultimate value, beyond the limited human goals of wealth, power, and self-aggrandizement. To serve the Power of Becoming, the Source of Possibility, means envisioning and working to create a world where physical well-being and spiritual fulfillment are possible for every inhabitant of the earth.

To be "taken to" God’s service is to embrace the Possibility of Becoming, to be able to see beyond the constraints of this historical moment, with all of its violence and ongoing oppressions, towards a place of liberation. To know God, according to this text, is to experience the reality of moving from a state of slavery to one of freedom. And this is a communal endeavor, the text makes clear: it is not enough to just free myself.

God & Freedom

This piece of God’s message ends with the words: "And you shall know that I am YHVH your God, who took you out from under the bondage of Mitzrayim." We come back to what it means to know God/liness in a new way. Through the unfolding experience of liberation, the Israelites will come to truly know God, will have a new awareness of and connection to the Source of Life.

God becomes known in that place where all of us can be free.