A Rabbi Reflects on the Journey Towards Marriage Equality

We in the Jewish community just spent forty-nine days counting the Omer, the period from liberation to revelation, from leaving slavery in Egypt to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. We marked the passage of time, each day, remembering, recalling, and reflecting. We arrive at Shavuot, and prepare to receive the gift of Torah, our story, our memory, our history, our guiding law.

Creative Common/Eric Austin
Creative Common/Eric Austin

The journey of the Israelites and the counting of the Jewish people have striking parallels to the work for marriage equality in Minnesota. The Israelites wandered for forty years, we are taught, after leaving slavery. Forty years is a long time of waiting, of watching, of wondering. They left Egypt full of hope and promise, but that youthful optimism quickly faded, and those who left slavery did not live to see the Promised Land.

We have been waiting a long time, some of us have been waiting for generations. I stood at the Capitol Monday with people who openly wept, remarking that they never could have imagined this day when they came out many years ago. They gave up marriages, children, homes, jobs, friends, family in order to be themselves and they doubted that their state would ever recognize them. They’ve been on a journey, stretching across miles and years. They never thought they’d live to see the Promised Land. But yet, in some ways, they have.

Creative Common/Eric Austin
Creative Common/Eric Austin

Marriage equality symbolizes the acceptance they have been seeking. And standing at the Capitol in St. Paul with 6,000 people for the bill signing is a feeling of community openness they never thought they would experience.

And our task as a community working for justice is to retell the story, to remember the liberation as much as the revelation, to remember the struggle as well as the victories.

We are like the Israelites at Mt Sinai. We have come so far. We are accessing something no one felt possible. But yet, we still have a distance to go. Safe schools legislation still needs to pass. Transgender nondiscrimination legislation is sorely needed. We still have a Federal Defense of Marriage Act and 80% of Americans live in states without the freedom to marry. We have a long way to the Promised Land. But we get there by joining hands, marching, together.

On Monday night, at a gathering for leaders of Jewish Community Action‘s Marriage Equality team, I reflected to the group that one of the things that kept the Israelites going for so long in the desert was that they were not alone. It wasn’t just Moses marching among the sand, it wasn’t Miriam solely searching for water, and it wasn’t just Aaron speaking out to the great expanse. They were strengthened by each other. They were helped by the presence of a myriad of people like them, trudging on together, helping them up when they fell, urging them on when they thought the trail was too rough.

This work for marriage equality similarly was supported by the tremendous work of so many. The leadership of Minnesotans United, OutFront Minnesota, and Project 515 knew that faith would play an important part of defeating the Marriage amendment and later would help bring marriage equality.

The leadership of the faith organizing wing of Minnesotans United helped gather tremendously diverse faith leader groups to shape approaches, highlight best practices and to support each other. I met some of the most inspirational faith leaders and found it my privilege to work with them. Just like Moses had to learn from his father-in-law Jethro, a Midianite Priest, I was blessed to learn from so many other faith leaders.

Jethro taught Moses “you can’t do it alone,” and my peers reminded me of that. I reached out to organize rabbis, which may be the hardest job known to humankind. I was particularly inspired by the work of rabbis serving conservative communities who spoke out at great personal risk and to younger colleagues who, despite their own newness in communities, raised their voices for equality. I have never been prouder to call myself a rabbi than when the statement from the Minnesota Rabbinic Association was published, the first statement from an organized clergy group against the then-proposed marriage amendment.

The Jewish community was the Nachshon of the faith communities, putting their feet first in the raging waters of the sea – holding giant faith gatherings no one thought possible and mobilizing hundreds of volunteers. This work was inspirationally spearheaded by the staff of Jewish Community Action. To me, they are the Shifra and Puah of this story. They are the midwives, the ones who deal with the gore and blood of birth, but who fade to the background when the baby arrives. They trained and organized, developed leaders and raised money. But they were often too humble to received the glory, and like the midwives of the Torah, the entire exodus story would not have taken place if not for their courage and forethought.

Shavuot marks the receiving of Torah. It is not, however, a one-time act. We receive Torah each time we teach it, each time we speak of it, each time we live by it. Similar is our work of equality and justice. We must teach it, we must speak of if, we must live by it. That is how we make this moment last throughout the generations.

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