Words of Torah, for Marriage Equality: Rabbi Rachel Isaacs

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 sermons for marriage equality from Washington, from Maryland, and from Minnesota.

This week, we bring you the sermon Rabbi Rachel Isaacs delivered on Rosh Hashanah at Beth Israel Congregation in Waterville, Maine. Learn how to get involved in the fight for marriage equality in Maine by visiting Equality Maine.

Rabbi Rachel Isaacs at ordination

Rabbi Rachel Isaacs at ordination. Photo by Amy Stone.

I remember one day in rabbinical school I was having Shabbat dinner with a professor and his friends. One of the women who was sitting at the Shabbat table had converted to Judaism decades ago and had raised three Torah-observant Jews. When discussing why she was so committed to raising her kids with such strong Jewish identities she said, “You need to give your kids religion at home, otherwise they’ll catch it out on the street.” Her statement has stuck with me for years. Is Judaism really like chicken pox? Better to get it early and at home — otherwise, you may contract a much more noxious version of faith at a later age. While her words may have been a little crass, I think that they were deeply true. Religion can be an amazing, healing, resonant influence in our lives that provides us with deep roots and a clear, ethical, beautiful vision of what the future can be. However, faith — when taken to extremes, religion — when it asks you to defy your instincts,  Judaism — when it brings you to hurt and exclude others — can be very dangerous.

The stories that we read on Rosh Hashanah highlight the advantages and pitfalls of belief in God and religion. Only a few chapters after the miraculous birth of Isaac, God calls upon his father to put him on the altar. According to the text, God tests Abraham, and he chooses to dupe his son into becoming a sacrifice. The rabbis later claim that Isaac was irreparably psychologically harmed due to this experience. After this trauma, the only thing that the Torah records between father and son is silence. Isaac is incapable of finding his own wife, and as the result of this disaster, he is the only patriarch never allowed to leave the land of Israel. His soul was so damaged that he could not journey, explore, and grow normally like his father and his sons. Abraham was tested by God — did he pass or fail? Even if he pleased God, he failed as a parent — destroying his son’s neshama, his soul, without any possibility of repair.

At this moment in time, we Mainers have a great deal to learn from this story. Like so many of our sacred myths, the tale of Abraham and Isaac is filled with drama, pain, ambiguity, and strong themes that challenge us to think about our relationships. In two months we will all walk into a voting booth to decide whether Maine will be the first state in the history of our nation to popularly endorse gay and lesbian marriage. And whether or not any of you will be wearing a kippah or a shmata as you make this decision, you will still be walking in as Jews, and whatever choice you make, Jewish values should inform your decision to make our state and society better. We are a people who were blessed with the Torah — a set of instructions that we are commanded to actualize in every one of our actions, no matter how seemingly mundane or profane.

As Conservative Jews we are commanded to follow halacha, or Jewish law. However, walking in the ways of Jewish law is almost always more complicated than it ever appears initially. How do we apply laws written thousands of years ago to contemporary situations unimaginable to the authors of those laws? Are there times when the law needs to be changed or put aside? Should the particular religious laws of the Jewish people be imposed in a secular, civil sphere? Are there ideals that we can call Jewish values — love, compassion, the centrality of human dignity, fairness, justice — that can guide us outside of the confines of the legal system? And what do we do when those values conflict with the legal system, or are at odds with one another? If you’re looking for easy straightforward answers to those questions, you’ll probably need to seek out another rabbi, and in truth, probably another religion. These struggles are what define the thoughtful, ethical Jewish life — they are hard and painful, but what allow us to be a people of faith and intellectual integrity at the same time.

Abraham struggled with this dilemma in the most extreme way — following the words of God (or an angel he thought was God), or being a loving, supportive parent to his son. Obedience to Divine Law — or Listening to the Inherent, God-Given Goodness of the Human Heart. As a father, there must have been something within his soul that saw the pain and confusion in his son’s eyes, something innate, instinctual telling him that his love for his son should not be sacrificed for an ideal. After all, it was his inherent compassion that brought him to protest for the people of Sodom and Gemorrah — who were sinners and strangers! But in this moment, for whatever reason, the Torah doesn’t tell us — he chooses obedience, and sacrifices his son and their relationship.

His story should bring us to ask ourselves — what does obedience mean for us? In the Conservative movement there is a split as to whether or not we regard the Torah as the direct word of God. Some of us believe that the Torah was delivered perfectly and completely at Mount Sinai, others assert that we received an imperfect version of the Bible at Sinai that was restored and completed during the time of Ezra the Scribe. And then there are others like myself, who believe that the Torah was Divinely inspired, but recorded by our flawed human ancestors and written in a language that they could understand. Due to the fact that revelation was filtered through these imperfect people, the Torah could never adequately express the brilliance and complexity of God’s true will. I believe that the Torah is as close as we get to knowing God’s desires, but that it could never convey them completely and with perfect prose.

The Torah never directly addresses the status of loving same-sex relationships, but it does assert a strong, clear opinion on the status of sexual relationships between men: quite simply, it’s forbidden. Scripture never discusses relationships between women, but there are midrashim and later rulings by Maimonides that forbid homosexual relationships between women. These prohibitions are not equally severe according to Jewish law, but in our contemporary congregation, I doubt that the intricacies of Jewish law are going to sway anyone’s opinion. There is a strong and clear condemnation of gay and lesbian relationships in traditional Jewish law, and emphatic encouragement for heteronormativity. It cannot be claimed, nor would I ever claim, that traditional Jewish law places same sex relationships on the same level at straight ones, or that it is “un-Jewish” (whatever that means) to oppose same sex marriage.

However, for me, the story does not end there. There are other ways to read the text, and even though these alternative ways were not mainstream in the first century, they have become central to contemporary Jewish discourse. Long before the sexual prohibitions outlined in the Book of Leviticus, we witness God’s creative process in the Book of Genesis. Av Harahamim, God the compassionate father, sees Adam alone, lonely, and scared. Immediately God could not let the world remain incomplete in this way and proclaims:

יח וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, לֹא-טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ; אֶעֱשֶׂה-לּוֹ עֵזֶר, כְּנֶגְדּוֹ.

2:18 – And the LORD God said: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper for him.”

In God’s quest to create the perfect world, the Divine could not allow such profound loneliness to plague his first human’s life. After God created each entity on each day in the book of Genesis, the Torah tells us “and it was good.” However, this is the first time God looks at the world and says, “Nope, not good, we need to rethink this one, and create a solution.”

According to these early verses in the Book of Genesis, we learn that our God feels our pain deeply and finds it disturbing. God is so upset by Adam’s isolation that the Transcendent One is willing to alter his original plans and fashion an immediate solution. The order that God has crafted and put into motion needs to be upended and reconstructed in order to be sustainable and just. In the Jewish tradition we are taught that there are 70 faces to the Torah — and contained within the polyvocal canon that is our Bible, we are exposed to a plethora of God’s faces and facets. There is another voice, another face, another story, and many other lessons. There are other paradigms of faithful fatherhood and pious personhood — ones defined by compassion, courage, and a fervent desire to see our children whole and spiritually healthy.

According to current polls and trends within the contemporary Jewish world, we have largely adopted these new paradigms of parenthood and citizenship. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, Jews are the segment of the U.S. population most supportive of same-sex marriage, even more so than people of no religious faith at all. Seventy-six percent of U.S. Jews surveyed either strongly support or support marriage equality for all Americans. The Conservative movement, two years ago, ordained its first openly gay ordinee (that’s me) and this year, the leaders of our movement presented official liturgy for same-sex marriages. And this tiny congregation, all 25 families of us, has played a critical part in the history of the Jewish people by embracing me as your rabbi and Mel as your, for lack of a better term, rebbetzin — or to quote the partner of our previous rabbi, “rebbitzout.”

And as most of you know, most of the time we do not talk that much about being gay. It’s not really relevant in our daily work at this synagogue. Most of the the issues that consume us revolve around making sure that there is challah at the potluck, a minyan for kaddish, enough food for 15 unexpected students for Shabbat lunch, securing an engaging text for Talmud study, finding sufficient brown paper lunch bags for our weekly Bible puppet show, and trying to find the cheapest, easiest way to make our social hall smell a little bit less like mold. But regardless of which goals we’ve achieved, and how many people have attended each event, at the end of each day, this place is our spiritual home and you all are our Maine family.

To be frank, I am not particularly interested in being viewed through the lens of this aspect of my identity, and continue to be anxious about delivering this sermon. However, I cannot help but address this topic at this once-in-a-lifetime moment. The truth of the matter is that our ability to be legally married in this synagogue is dependent on the choices of every person in this room. Everyone over 18 here — I pray to God — is registered to vote, and as such, has the ability to decide whether families like ours are deserving of the rights that most people take for granted. Every citizen of Maine in this room has the ability to decide whether or not we will have to go through years of litigation and tens of thousands of dollars to be legally recognized as the parents of our future children, every person here can decide whether we will be taxed for each other’s health insurance, and it is up to each citizen here to decide whether we can visit each other unquestioned if one of us, God forbid, ends up in the hospital. As we move forward with our lives, soon to be a married couple, this election will impact how safe families like ours can feel in this state.

This season we pray to God to see our merits and our dignity, to count us among those worthy of life, safety, and success. We sing over and over again during this season, “Zochreinu l’chaim, melech hafetz ha’haim — remember us for life, King who loves life.” This holiday season, as a rabbi and a second-class citizen who lives in the State of Maine, I pray for that recognition and remembrance not only from God, but from you, my congregation. To be in this position is deeply humbling, but has always helped me in my development as a spiritual leader. One of my core commitments as a rabbi is bringing those on the fringes of the Jewish community to the embrace of the center, a commitment that is strengthened by my own minority status.

I am sure it is not at all surprising that I have strong opinions on this topic, and that my opinions are rooted deeply in my understanding of Judaism. At the same time, I need to emphasize strongly that there are a variety of legitimate, Jewishly-grounded opinions on this topic. My hope and prayer is that whatever you approach to marriage equality, that you remember that the issue has a very human face. And if you are in support of marriage equality, that you seize this historic moment and work to actualize your principles. Voting is just one step in creating meaningful culture change. If you have friends or family that are on the fence, gather the courage to come out — as a committed Jew who supports marriage equality. This effort will only win conversation by conversation, personal interaction by personal interaction. There are a variety of ways that we can interpret our ancient faith and put our principles into action — be an exemplar of your faith, be strong, be louder (in that polite, Maine kind of way), and follow through. To quote the Reverend Martin Luther King, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Our tradition pushes us, “tzedek, tzedek, tirdof.” Justice, Justice, you shall pursue. It is not enough to passively believe something — you must act, you must run after making the wrong right and fixing that which has broken.

And if you aren’t a supporter of marriage equality, make an extra effort to show love and hospitality to those on the fringes. I studied for many years at a Seminary with students and faculty that had mixed attitudes toward marriage equality, and I work closely with chaplains who feel very differently than I do about this issue at Colby. However, I can count these individuals as my closest friends and most beloved teachers. I know that they have made the extra effort to embrace me in ways that were consonant with their faith when they felt duty bound to oppose marriage equality. Human relationships are never black and white, but we always have the choice to show compassion and consideration in the ways we can. I think it is those individuals who have walked that difficult and complex path are the ones that I will recall with the clearest memory and some of the highest regard.

Most of us will never be in a position as dramatic as Abraham’s, but on this day we all imagine ourselves facing his dilemma. How do I best express my devotion to God’s law when it causes pain to the people I love? How do I take a test with no clear sign of passing or failing? Should I be hearing and interpreting God’s message differently, and for that matter, I am really hearing God or the incomplete recollections of an intermediary? As Jews committed to the project of Torah life, we should be struggling with these questions always, and praying to God for precious guidance. As Jews committed to the project of crafting a more perfect world, we should approach everyone in our community with love, and express our commitments with discipline, follow through, thoughtfulness, and grace. For we all know that in Judaism it is never enough to believe — God’s will and our lives are never fulfilled but through deliberate action. And if we try our best in achieving that mission, we can stand before God our Creator with measured confidence on the Day of Judgment — knowing that we did all we could to bring the promise of progressive Judaism to fruition for another generation.

Shanah Tovah u’mitkuah – may we all be blessed with a sweet and good new year.

[Editor's note: Melanie Weiss, Keshet Communications Associate, is Rabbi Isaacs's partner, mentioned in this post.]

Posted on October 17, 2012

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