From Futility to Freedom

The following is an excerpt from my personal Haggadah, a story of my enslavement to a principle and my discovery of the freedom to speak my mind.

For many years, I stuck to my principle to keep politics separate from my rabbinate. Though trained to engage in political discourse in the public square, I avoided discussing politics from the bima and on my blog until about a year ago, when I attended an advocacy training session for clergy led by Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality. Along with Robbie Medwed of SOJOURN, Jeff helped me recover the desire to raise my voice in the political arena. In particular, I find it impossible to remain silent when religion is hijacked by politics, as it recently has been here in Georgia.

During the weeks leading up to the holiday of Passover, I’ve had numerous occasions to cry out in protest against the disingenuously named Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) making its way through the Georgia State Legislature. Because my religion espouses that we love our neighbors and protect the most vulnerable members of our society, I find the guise of “religious freedom” to discriminate against anyone deemed “other” really rankles. I sent emails to my state representatives urging them to reject the bill, shared updates on Facebook encouraging friends in Georgia to join me, and took every action suggested by Georgia Unites Against Discrimination to ensure that my religious views were heard. Then SB 129 was passed while the opposition stepped out to use the restroom.

Suddenly, I remembered why I don’t like politics. Intense feelings of despair threatened to overwhelm me. To paraphrase Kohelet, everything seemed futile. Then, from the brink of despair I was lifted up, encouraged to stand on the steps of Liberty Plaza with clergy members at a rally to oppose RFRA. When Rabbi Josh Heller commanded the podium and delivered a resounding cry of “not in my name, not in our name, not in God’s name,” my despair transformed into exhilaration.

liberty plaza

In that moment, I understood that Rabbi Heller was reshaping the narrative of RFRA’s journey through the legislature. One week later, Rabbis Without Borders colleague Rabbi Michael Bernstein testified at the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing and inspired me to continue my political opposition to RFRA.

Another week later, watching the protests in Indiana and hearing that lawmakers in Georgia have postponed further hearings, I begin to hope. I find strength to speak at today’s Rally & March to the Capitol, to oppose RFRA and call for its defeat in these final days of the legislative session.

Friday evening, we’ll begin the maggid segment of the Passover Seder with verses from Deuteronomy describing how Laban sought to destroy our ancestors. The rabbis of the Mishnah suggested that we begin our narrative in despair and end with songs of praise to God, because they intuitively understood the transformative power of storytelling; the narrative structure is a scaffold that lifts us up.  As I raise the second cup of wine and sing the words, “God brought us from slavery to freedom, from anguish to joy, from mourning to holiday…therefore let us sing to God a new song” I will raise my voice in praise and thanksgiving. I will celebrate freedom from discrimination and the promise of redemption, here in my corner of the world.

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