Words of Torah, for Marriage Equality: Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Marriage equality is on the ballot in four states this November – Maryland, Washington, Minnesota, and Maine – which could transform the landscape of equality in the United States. Because this is such an important issue, this High Holiday season a number of rabbis chose to use their pulpits, or have congregants use them, to encourage support of local measures. In this series, we’ll share with you one sermon from each state voting on marriage equality, and hope their words of Torah inspire you. You can read the previous two posts in this series here and here.

Rabbi Aaron Meyer delivered this sermon at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Washington on Rosh Hashanah . Find out more about how to get involved in the fight for marriage equality in Washington, as well more information on the Jewish Coalition for Marriage Equality in Washington, at the Temple De Hirsch Sinai resource page.

Protest for Marriage Equality

Photo by: Bonnie Rosenbaum

“Your attention please: would Aaron Meyer please report to the Guidance Office – Aaron Meyer to the guidance office.”

Me?!? Me, who still held his mother’s hand to cross the street when I was 15? Who didn’t even think about kissing a girl until college? The only type of guidance I needed was which book to stay at home reading on Saturday night! I slowly trudged down the hall, one foot after another, my mind whirling with all of the possibilities of the moment, before finally I stopped at the closed door to the Guidance Office. After a timid knock, I entered and did my best to disappear into a corner – no small feat when you are as tall as I.

My sense of impending doom was eventually assuaged – though not entirely lifted – when I realized it was just my turn to flip through the giant binders of college scholarship possibilities. Ah…do you remember that time, a time long long ago, a fond memory in my heart, when information was written down on this stuff called “paper” and wasn’t always available on the Internet? I spent the next forty minutes, along with one of my peers, leafing through the different applications, essays, and qualifications necessary to receive financial aid: the Vanguard Women in Information Technology Scholarship Program, the National Association of Black Journalists Scholarship Program, the Gates Millennium Scholarship for low income families. After flipping through some 200 scholarship possibilities for various groups of students, I grew flustered. “Isn’t there a scholarship for average, American, middle-class, Caucasian males from the suburbs?” It became something of a mantra for me and my rather homogenous group of friends: “Why isn’t there a scholarship for average, American, middle-class, Caucasian males from the suburbs?” It was funny at the time, this expression of our exasperation, and it wasn’t until some years passed that I realized how misguided I was.

Fast-forward, if you will, to my fourth year of rabbinical school. With the help of a few student loans, I did manage to afford my undergraduate education – though after a few years in the “real” world I realized that working was for the birds. Rabbinical school was a great place to hide, and eventually I found myself spending the summer with students from the United Church of Christ Andover Newton Theological School. We studied a number of texts during the course of the summer, perhaps none as personally influential as Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

Now the Associate Director of Wellesley Centers for Women, one of the largest gender-focused research-and-action organizations in the world, Dr. McIntosh’s 1988 article forever changed the way we understand the concept of privilege. “Privilege,” she says, “is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” Originally focused on race relations, her work also applies to understanding how any subset of the population moves about in society. Privilege is like an invisible, weightless knapsack that we carry on our backs, a pack stuffed full of all of the unearned assets upon which we rely, both consciously and unwittingly, throughout our lives. Privilege allows us to feel a part of the majority, to know that we belong, and to have doors and opportunities open for us simply because of the invisible knapsack we carry.

Privilege, Peggy McIntosh describes, is being pulled over by a police officer or audited by the IRS and knowing that it is for our errors and not because of our race. Unspoken but present privilege is picking up a Band-aid that is labeled as “flesh” colored and having it match our skin. Privilege, she says, is when we can talk with our mouths full and not have people ascribe this to our entire race (or religion, or gender identity, or sexual orientation). Recognizing and labeling this privilege can change our daily consciousness, and the real question is what we will do with such knowledge.

Studying her article in an interfaith setting with the students at Andover Newton illuminated just how universal this message should be. My Christian peers spoke of God’s love for all people, privileging none, and shared a text from the Christian Testament of Mark. When asked which of the commandments is most important, Jesus affirmed that the first was “Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel the Lord is our God the Lord is One,” and the second, more germane to this sermon, was to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:28-31) In a moment of religious righteousness, I exclaimed that Judaism has an entire holiday devoted to defending the rights of those less privileged than ourselves! We read in our Passover Haggadah that each individual, every one of us, should feel as through we had personally been redeemed from Egypt. When we recite this text, we accept a personal responsibility for those in our midst who don’t share our rights and privileges because we, ourselves, remember oppression in ancient Egypt. This is, if you will, the true meaning of tzedakah. From the same root as tzedek, “justice” or “righteousness,” the concept of tzedakah is one of protecting the rights of everyone in our community – sometimes financially, allowing others access to food and shelter, and sometimes by standing tall in support of our values, affording everyone the same privileges we share.

After studying this article, I began to enumerate those privileges that I enjoy; I began to unpack my invisible knapsack. The exercise certainly cast my high school mantra, “why isn’t there a scholarship for an average, American, middle-class, Caucasian male from the suburbs?” in a new light and continues to shape the way I relate to the world around me. As a male, the whole array of undergraduate majors were available to me – science, math, engineering, arts – careers in which I would never need to change my clothing or my mannerisms to match a gender I am not (more on that inBeyond Bias and Barriers” by the National Academic Press). As a tall male, my earning potential has always been greater than that of equally talented men who are of normal, average, if-you-ask-me desirable height. As a male rabbi, I will never hit the stained glass ceiling that might hold back some of my more talented female rabbinic peers. As a heterosexual male, my partner and I had the “privilege” of getting married last November. Recognizing and labeling this privilege can change our daily consciousness, and the real question is what we will do with such knowledge.

Hayom Hara’at Ha’olam - today is the birthday of the world, and as we turn a new leaf, start a new page, as we pray that this year will be everything that last year wasn’t, we feel – we know – that our work in standing up for those without the same privileges we share is incomplete. As Abraham Joshua Heschel stood arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr., as Rabbi Levine welcomed Martin Luther King Jr. to this congregation, as New York City’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue took a risk in hiring Sally Priesand, so too must we continue our partnership with God to make this world a better place. Ensuring the rights and privileges of every person, intentionally unpacking the invisible knapsack, becoming “upstanders” against discrimination is our obligation. If history is any guide, as residents of Washington State we will soon hear a religious voice claiming to be the religious voice on marriage equality – and I refuse to stand idly by. As a religious person, as a religious people gathered here today, I believe that our prayers inspire us, our sacred scriptures challenge us, and our shared Jewish values obligate us to ensure equal rights for everyone created in the image of God.

Our prayers inspire us. The Jewish people are often described as “The People of the Book,” and anyone who has had to schlep a Jewish bookshelf knows how true this label is! Reading a Jewish book, studying a Jewish text, is an act akin to worship as we seek to become closer to God and to better understand God’s will. We are “The People of the Book,” but I would challenge you to articulate which book. Which book is it that is most frequently found on a Jewish bookshelf? The second most common book on the shelf is the Passover Haggadah, the narrative of our Exodus from Egypt. Its words inspire us – “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34) – its words inspire us to work for the oppressed in this world. The most common book? The siddur. The prayerbook. Our people’s evolving conversation with our history and our God. The prayerbook is our Jewish diary of the centuries, representing thousands of years of Jewish history and development, a compendium that should be our first line in understanding where Jewish tradition stands.

In the siddur, we praise God as the Creator of all and ask for our highest hopes. Prayer invites us to beseech God…and in return it asks that we be open to what God wants from us. When we pray the words of Hashkiveinu, “Shield and Shelter us beneath the shadow of Your wings,” we ask for God’s shelter of peace over all of us, regardless of the color of our skin, our gender, and our sexual orientation. When we pray the words of Oseh Shalom, asking God to bring shalom – peace, wholeness, completeness – for us and for all humankind, we do so without discrimination. When we pray to a God who loves righteousness and justice, “Baruch Atah Adonai, oheiv tzedakah u’mishpat,” we also pray that we might stand for that justice in the world. Our prayers inspire us.

Our sacred scriptures challenge us. In the Centenary Perspective, Reform Judaism affirmed that “Torah results from the relationship between God and the Jewish people….Lawgivers and prophets, historians and poets gave us a heritage whose study is a religious imperative and whose practice is our chief means to holiness.” This sacred encounter, first recorded some 2,500 years ago, has been interpreted and reinterpreted by Jews throughout the millennia. As a dynamic text, Torah grows through our ongoing dialogue with tradition and forces us to grow as people and as a community.

Our Torah text has a lot to say about unpacking privilege and ensuring equality and justice – and surprisingly little to say about sexual orientation. I was, for example, quite surprised to learn that it wasn’t until Augustine in the 4th century that it became popular to read the story of Sodom and Gemorrah as being about forced sexual acts. In Jewish tradition, the prophet Jeremiah thought their sin was false dealing and encouraging evil-doers (Jer. 23:14) and the prophet Ezekiel (Ez. 16:49) though their sin was failing to support the poor and the needy. I was equally surprised to learn that the Hebrew Bible uses the word to’evah, such as in the verse “a man should not lie with a man as with a woman, it is a to’evah,” in every instance that one group in society wants to belittle and demean another. Most surprising of all, though, is that people today look to the Hebrew Bible as a template for healthy marriages. Abraham offering his wife to the ruler of Egypt, every euphemism intended, is not the type of committed relationship I want partners to share in today. Isaac privileging one son over another until he was too blind to tell the difference isn’t a family dynamic in which healthy children can be raised. Jacob taking a second wife when the first one wasn’t pretty enough should not be the model for today’s loving relationships. When we pull individual biblical lines out of context, we do violence to the text and we do violence to our tradition. When we uphold these distorted texts above all else, we do violence to each other.

When we read the text, we decide which verses we give primacy. People seem okay with shaving their facial hair, eating non-kosher foods, and resisting the commandment to stone adulterers – none of us are biblical literalists – and we decide how Torah will guide and enrich our lives. Will we, as religious people, lift up those verses that seem to put down homosexuality, all 4 out of 23,000 of them in the Hebrew Bible, or will we stand in support of those that affirm the humanity of all people?

Genesis 2:18 – “It is not good for man to be alone;” Leviticus 19:18 – “Love your neighbor as yourself;” Deuteronomy 16:20 – “Justice, justice you shall pursue;” – our sacred scriptures challenge us.

Our Jewish values obligate us. Judaism is a religion that challenges adherents to work for the betterment and perfection of this world. Driven by our belief in one God and inspired by the history and traditions of our people, we all endeavor to live our lives in accord with Jewish values. Rabbi Janet Marder, past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, embodied the value of kevod ha-beriot, the laws and values designed to encourage dignity and respect for all human beings, when she affirmed in The Reconstructionist in 1985 that “reverence for tradition is no virtue when it promotes injustice and human suffering.” Abraham Joshua Heschel embodied the value of adam yachid, the mishnaic idea that we all derive from a single human being such that one cannot turn to another to say “my father was greater than your father.” He embodied this value when he taught in the 1960s that segregation and discrimination based on race is inherently evil. We all embody the value of ahavat ha’beriot, of acting in a loving fashion to any and all human beings, when we base our ethical responsibility not only on our cognitive understanding of what is right but also our emotive reality of what we, ourselves, would want in any given situation. Ensuring the rights and privileges of every person, intentionally unpacking the invisible knapsack, becoming “upstanders” against discrimination is our obligation derived from our shared Jewish values.

I have grown a lot, both physically and emotionally, from who I was in high school. “Why isn’t there a scholarship for average, middle-class, Caucasian males from the suburbs?” simply doesn’t seem as funny now that I have the perspective to count my blessings. As a male, as a tall male who looks like a rabbi – whatever that means – as a heterosexual male, I have the weight of tremendous privilege on my shoulders. Recognizing and labeling this privilege changed my daily consciousness, and the real question is what we will do with such knowledge.

Hayom Hara’at Ha’olam – today is the birthday of the world, and as we turn a new leaf, start a new page, as we pray that this year will be everything that last year wasn’t, we feel – we know – that our work in standing up for those without the same privileges we share is incomplete. If history is any guide, as residents of Washington State we will soon hear a religious voice claiming to be the religious voice on marriage equality – and I refuse to stand idly by. As a religious person, as a religious people, I believe that our prayers inspire us, our sacred scriptures challenge us, and our shared Jewish values obligate us to stand for justice. Will you stand with me?


Posted on October 12, 2012

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