I am a Modern Orthodox Jew. As a Jewish educator, I have written, spoken and taught about homosexuality and our need as a community to address this issue within the framework of Halacha, or Jewish law, for many years. I had already been an advocate for the GLBTQ community for decades when one of our four children, our daughter Rachie, came out more than four years ago.
Why? Because I feel that as religious Jews, we have a moral imperative to insure that all members of our community are safe, valued and healthy. We are taught to use the midah of compassion, as we do for so many other issues.
Four years ago when Rachie was twenty two years old, she called me and my husband, and in the course of our conversation, basically said, “Mom, I am seeing someone I really care about and this person is a woman. I am gay.” Neither of us were surprised.
As an educated person, I am certain that biology and “how we are wired” is just the way G-d makes us. Further, I am aware that 10 to 15 percent of any community is on the gay spectrum, and there is no exemption from this reality in the religious Jewish community.
My husband and I firmly believe that as shomrei mitzvot, or Torah observant, Jews, we have an obligation to accept, protect and value all human beings who are created in the image of G-d, BeTzelem Elokim. Halacha teaches us this.
Of course, many in our Orthodox community and extended family do not see it this way. I am deeply saddened by any community that judges and pushes our daughter away. Any community that does not fully embrace and value Rachie is the one that loses, for she is a gifted young lady and an observant and knowledgeable Jew. I often lament how our observant communities are sending away some of our exceptional people who could contribute so much and would — if only they would embrace and value instead of judge and exclude.
Rachie has not been able to see herself associated with anything “Orthodox,” though she is observant and engaged Jewishly in profound and meaningful ways.
However, this has changed recently, due to her involvement in ESHEL, the Orthodox GLBTQ community, named for the tent into which Avraham and Sarah invited all who came by. Rachie (and the rest of us) now have a home for her religiously observant, gay self, being able to interface various aspects of Halacha with the reality of her life. It is so critically important for us to have ESHEL and KESHET as spaces for our GLBTQ Jews both as safe spaces and to hold the anchor while hopefully more of our community realizes that Jewish law can often be more kind and understanding than we are too often led to think. Our wish as a family is that more of our community would learn to see and accept and value each of our children for who they are and the sexuality they were born with.
Sunnie Epstein is a member of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection, a community of parents and family members of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Jews who are coming together for support, to hold events, and to advocate for change in the Jewish community. You can find a chapter or start your own here.
I’ve never been one to have high expectations. I tend to take situations as they come and to be spontaneous in my decision making. That being said, I didn’t have any idea what I was in for as I stepped out of van and onto the cold snowy ground of the Isabella Friedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut this January.
Maybe I was subconsciously hoping the sky would be teeming with a myriad of rainbows, the clouds would part, and beautiful, teenage, gay women would fall from the sky, dancing to the hora and studying Torah.
Well, that didn’t happen. However, the weekend Keshet had in store for me and other LGBTQ Jewish youth at the second LGBTQ Jewish Teens and Allies Shabbaton was equally as magical.
Nobody prepares you for those odd, out-of-the-way problems life presents every once in a while. I grapple with one such issue rather often – something I never thought I’d have to deal with. But then I grew up, fell in love with a (female) rabbi, and everything got complicated.
That’s when I took on the dreaded “r” word. You know — the word that describes a rabbi’s partner. A rabbi’s female partner. Because, you know, once you know that someone’s a rabbi’s partner, what else do you really need to know? There are so many rights (and rites) denied to me as a lesbian, in the world in general as well as in Judaism. This one word, which frankly somewhat offends my feminist sensibilities with what I believe are the implications it carries about the appropriateness of defining a woman (or anyone) through her partner’s profession, has not been one of them. It’s a word my partner’s congregants sometimes use, though most of them aren’t familiar with the term. It’s something tossed out with a grin by Jewish professionals, as though it’s somehow extra-cute to call me a rebbetzin when the rabbi I’m partnered to is female.
Maybe one day this can be a term I embrace, but clearly, I’m definitely not there yet.
“Integrating all of the disparate parts”
Welcome to our fourth installment of “Queer Clergy in Action,” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers.
Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. You can also read the first three posts in this series, about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum.
Rabbi Denise Eger was one of the first out gay rabbis ordained, receiving her ordination from Hebrew Union College in 1988. Since 1992, she has served as rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami, a community she helped found, which is dedicated to serving the LGBT and wider Jewish community in West Hollywood, CA. She is a founding member of the Religion and Faith Council of the Human Rights Campaign. In 2009, Rabbi Eger became both the first woman and the first gay rabbi to be president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. We caught up with Rabbi Eger about her work, her inspiration, and an exciting new role for her. Continue reading
20 years of inspiring and provoking
Welcome to our third installment of “Queer Clergy in Action,” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers.
Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. You can also read the first two posts in this series, about Rabbi Steve Greenberg and Rabbi Reuben Zellman.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum is no stranger to accolades – but this year, she’s being fêted not only for her accomplishments, but for reaching an important anniversary. Rabbi Kleinbaum was installed as the first rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the world’s largest LGBT synagogue, in September of 1992. She arrived at the height of the AIDS crisis, and quickly made a name for herself by addressing the community’s tremendous loss with compassion, leadership, and spiritual guidance. In the years since, Rabbi Kleinbaum has made civil rights for LGBT Jews – and the inclusion of their voices as part of the religious conversation – a major part of her rabbinate. This year marks her 20th anniversary at CBST, and the filmmaker David Sigal has put together a video in honor of the occasion, including interviews with politicians, famous rabbis, and of course, her mother, who immediately offers some sweet baby pictures of this indefatigable leader:
This video pretty much says it all, but we had a few more question for Rabbi Kleinbaum, so we quickly caught up with her, amidst all the celebration of her work. Continue reading
Creating inclusive Jewish spaces is a great goal — but how do you do it? While the answer is likely different for every synagogue, school, and youth group, it’s helpful and encouraging to hear about others’ successes, triumphs, and their lessons learned. So we’re running this regular column, called “The Tachlis of Inclusion,” to spotlight practices and policies that have worked for Jewish institutions all over the country. We hope they inspire you. Drop us a note if you have a story to tell and you may end up as next month’s feature! You can read the inaugural post in this series, on the Israel Center for Conservative Judaism, here.
Here, Elise Richman of Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, New York, shares what happened when they invited writer gay Jewish author Wayne Hoffman to speak at the synagogue for one of their first LGBT events. Special thanks to Rika Levin for sharing this with us. (Westchester County, where New Rochelle is located, is the 7th largest Jewish population in the country and one of the the fastest growing Jewish populations!)
On a recent Sunday, we all woke up a little more tired than usual. After all, we had to change our clocks and lost an hour of our precious time. Time means different things to different people, but this Sunday the large group of people gathered at Beth El Synagogue Center learned even more about the value of time as we “spring forward.” I refer not to the changing of the clocks, but to an effort to change perceptions, as Beth El strives to communicate a message of inclusiveness to its diverse Jewish community. More than 70 individuals, including over a dozen teens, gathered to hear the gay Jewish author Wayne Hoffman speak about his experience integrating these dual identities in his own life and work. Continue reading
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Amy Soule looks to Genesis — B’reishit — to truly understand how we are all created in God’s image.
So God created humankind in God’s own image; in the image of God humanity was created; male and female God created them. (Genesis 1:27)
Perhaps my friends laugh at me when they hear that B’reishit is one of my favorite Torah portions because so many times strict religious people look toward certain segments to judge me as gay, but it’s easy for me to explain myself.
Look hard at the holy, loving statement above. Genesis 1:27 states all of humankind was created in God’s image. Although it mentions sexual difference alone, it’s easy to extrapolate and thus explain that God created an array of sexual orientations, all of which are loved by God and holy. Continue reading
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Tucker Lieberman looks at the lesser-known holiday of Shmini Atzeret.
Gay and transgender people often feel like foreigners within our own communities. We sometimes feel as if we are treated with a double standard or altogether shut out from religious practices. Similarly, as Jews, who are a minority in every nation except Israel, we often feel as if we are foreigners in our own homelands. We understand the meaning of exclusion.
Yet in this week’s portion, in which the Jews are still wandering in the desert (Deut. 14:22-16:17), foreigners are excluded from the Jewish community in three distinct ways: they are not explicitly invited to the consecration of the first harvest (the festival of Shavuot), their debt is not forgiven, and, when enslaved, they are left unmentioned in regards to the gentle treatment and the eventual redemption to which Jewish slaves are explicitly entitled.
Thus, while the portion encourages the Jews to literally “come out” of the settlement to worship, celebrate freedom, give ceremonial charity, and cement our own identities, we are, at the same time, encouraged to use identity labels to divide us from others. What might we create if we apply the Torah’s vision of Jewish freedom and prosperity to all our neighbors, regardless of their identities?
The High Holidays are nearly upon us, and while it’s wonderful to carve out time for reflection, contemplation and community, the holiday season can also be stressful (dealing with family, long days in synagogue, confronting a challenging year). For LGBTQ Jews and our families, there is the added element of stress: during the Torah service on the afternoon of Yom Kippur we read from Leviticus. This reading includes the verses from the Torah frequently used as a religious prohibition of homosexuality.
So this year, Keshet’s providing you with a little extra High Holiday reading. Whether you make good use of these resources at home or slide them into your machzor (High Holiday prayer book) — we promise we won’t tell — we hope they enhance your understanding of the holidays, and add layers of meaning to your experience of them. You can find many more resources for the holidays in our Resource Library.
Days of Awe: Turning to Do Good
Dr. Joel Kushner, the Director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, examines the Al Cheyt prayer, used in the High Holiday liturgy, to look at how we deal with LGBTQ inclusion. The prayer lists all of our sins and Dr. Kushner uses them as a focus for how we are culpable for — and how we can fight against — transphobia and violence against transgender people.
Plus…You’ll never look at Leviticus the same way again:
Interpreting Leviticus: Contemporary Voices
One of the most challenging aspects of Yom Kippur for LGBTQ Jews is the portion of Leviticus read for this holiday which includes the injunction against men “lying with other men as with women,” and which is cited in several faiths as the textual basis for prohibitions against homosexuality. In this excerpt from the Hineini Curriculum Resource Guide, six scholars – Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rabbi Bradley Artson, Dr. Rachel Adler, Thomas Herz, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, and Rabbi David Greenstein – provide close readings and interpretations of Leviticus. Through historical context and interpretive translations, these scholars reveal a number of fascinating Jewish values and ancient prohibitions, none of which would condemn LGBTQ people in our time.
Homosexuality: An Insider’s Look at the Conservative Movement’s Halakhic Process
Another way to look at Leviticus: Yom Kippur is an excellent occasion to examine how one major Jewish movement has dealt with the Levitical injunction from a Jewish legal standpoint, and Rabbi Michael Beals’ sermon from 2006 — just before a major change in the Conservative Movement’s treatment of gay and lesbian Jews — shows how that thinking has evolved.
A Kavanah — Directing our Hearts and Minds: A Declaration of Intention that we bring to the reading of Leviticus 18 on the Afternoon of Yom Kippur
In a different examination of these same troubling verses, Rabbi Victor Reinstein of Congregation Nehar Shalom (a long timefriend of Keshet and host to many Keshet events) redirects our kavanah, or intention, in reading them, transforming them from a condemnation of homosexuality to one examining unequal power dynamics within a relationship. (You might remember Rabbi Reinstein from an earlier post featuring rabbis who spoke out for the Transgender Equal Rights bill in Massachusetts. You can read his beautiful testimony here. It’s the second one from the top.)
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Joshua Lesser looks to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah to find a more expansive vision of Judaism.
“Folks, in a moment we are going to hit the birth canal,” the leader of our spelunking trip chuckled. I felt the air thin as the 20 of us, mostly strangers, gasped at his description. Up ahead in the cave was a narrow tunnel that would require us to get on our bellies and contort and wriggle our bodies to make it through to the other side. Already muddy, I did not relish this part of the trek. I imagined spiders lurking in the dark. Taking deep breaths, I proceeded in line on hands and knees. Our headlamps provided little help as we moved forward, feeling the sides narrow. I imagined being trapped and buried under the earth. I heard the grunts and whimpers of those around me, straining to make it through, as we all lost any remaining sense of grace or composure.
My brief time in that cave is exactly how I feel about Leviticus, particularly when the texts of Leviticus are used to constrict Judaism and to squeeze people out of faith communities. I am frequently asked to speak about Judaism and homosexuality and how to reconcile Leviticus, its prohibitions, and its declarations of abominations. Recently I came to an important realization: using Leviticus as the starting point or the end game to talk about Judaism and homosexuality is a trap. By doing so, we buy in to a fundamentalist view that there is a narrow path to God and only a limited few can get there. Using Leviticus this way is to agree that Judaism is a religion of narrow laws that do not always have meaning, and that we have to contort and squeeze ourselves to make it through, often leaving our sense of dignity behind. I reject this Judaism because it is faith described as a weapon. I reject this kind of Judaism because it says blind allegiance to law is more important than people, and thus, misses the entire point of being Jewish.
Those who see Jewish law as an end in and of itself, and not as a means to a wider purpose, would subject us to a labyrinth of narrow places, with only the tool of a dimly lit headlight to look for cracks and fissures in order to breathe. Searching for breathing room in the legal loopholes is a stimulating intellectual exercise, but too often it can remove meaning and even God’s presence from the text. But the greater trap for us is to get completely caught up in railing against and rebelliously rejecting this Jewish way of living. Doing this we allow our “religion” to be reduced to what we don’t believe in, what angers us and what seems unfair. This may keep us out of the labyrinth, but it is not nurturing and does not support spiritual growth. It is a negation of faith, not an affirmation of God’s presence in our lives.