Monday, January 28, 2013

The Queerness of Love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage

The queerness of love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf
Last year, I officiated at the first same-sex wedding in the 145-year history of my synagogue.  For a Conservative congregation, this was quite a break with tradition.  Nevertheless,  I was proud to stand beneath the wedding canopy with this couple, who affirmed the sacredness of their union “in accordance with the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.”  Before I chose to officiate, I studied the texts, teachings, and arguments in my tradition.  I didn’t make this decision lightly.  Today, I am unfazed by the apparent biblical injunction against homosexuality as an “abomination.”  I am confident in my stand, despite a 3,000-year-old tradition that has no precedent for such a marriage.  In fact, it is from a place of humility and awe before my tradition and God that I have chosen take this stand.
The Hebrew word for wedding is “Kiddushin,” which means ‘Sanctification,’ or ‘Holiness.’  A wedding is the formal declaration of the holiness of love.  All the blessings and rituals and formulae under the wedding canopy affirm one idea:  when two human beings find each other and love each other, it is Godly:   a taste of the World to Come, a world of perfected justice and joy.   It is in our capacity to love that we are holy, and most fully in the image of God.  If there’s anything that 3,000 years of Jewish history has shown us—3,000 years of so much exile and persecution—it’s that the only hope for humankind is to strive toward ever-more loving and just societies.
We Jews are a people who have never quite fit into the same categories of peoplehood or religion that other nations do.  We are a distinct people, even as we bear a message of God’s universality.  We affirm that we are different from other peoples, even as we know that we are no different than any other human being.  Our presence in the world has often been a source of anxiety for other nations, religions, and people.  In this way, we Jews have always been a queer people .  And yes, I use the term ‘queer’ deliberately.  To be queer is to be troubling, unsettling, not meeting expectations of the way others might want things to be.
It is, in fact, the Jews’ queerness in the world that captures our particular Divine message to all humanity:  the existence of God is the queerest thing about the universe.  God, too, cannot be categorized or boxed in.  The inexplicable mystery of God is a source of unspeakable anxiety to so many of us who long to reduce God to our simplistic categories.  Finally, we declare the love of a wedded couple to be holy because love, too, defies all classifications and can never be bounded--it’s a feeling, but not just a feeling; it’s a state of being that “have,” that we “are,” but it is larger than any one individual or relationship.  Love is queer, and in recognizing this, we find its holiness, its Godliness.
It is no accident that the famous Levitical injunction concerning homosexuality appears in a section of the Torah called “Kedoshim,” meaning “Holy.”  When seen in context, the homosexual act described comes amidst a series of many kinds of human couplings—all of which are abusive because they are not loving acts.  When one man rapes another man simply because he does not have access to a woman, such an act is indeed an abomination, a desecration of God’s holiness, a desecration of love.  Such an act is the farthest thing from the love of two human beings—of whatever gender—that we can and must sanctify whenever it arises in our human condition.
I reject the idea that the Bible declares that the only sacred love that can exist is the love between a man and a woman.  Love is queer -- it can never be limited to our categorizations of roles and gender.  Love is commitment, presence, and kindness so awesome and mysterious that nothing in our power can contain it.  We must, in our very imperfect world, celebrate, sanctify, and lift up love wherever we find it; because our loving relationships are the only way that we will bring Godliness to this world.  For these reasons, I proudly stand for the evolution of Judaism,  in awe of the wisdom of my Jewish people and tradition, the of holiness God and the queerness of  love.

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

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Monday, January 7, 2013

Huffington Post: The Idolatry of Guns

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf


The Idolatry of Guns

Posted: 01/07/2013 2:56 pm

"Guns don't kill. People do." I keep hearing this phrase repeated by gun-supporters. It sounds so reasonable. Even wise. In fact, it's a misuse of a truth in the service of a dangerous set of beliefs and principles. People indeed do the killing, but this idea implies that more handguns are the only answer to the fact that people kill. If you take this philosophy to its conclusion, this means that the only safe society is one where the maximum number of people are armed. If only all school-teachers were trained and could carry armed weapons in classrooms, more tragedies wouldn't happen. If only the streets were filled with reasonable people carrying loaded weapons, the killers wouldn't win. There's a human pathos to this philosophy, a yearning for a safer world. Behind this mindset, there's a heartfelt effort to address the deepest of human longings -- not to live in fear, to be safe.
In the Torah, the Israelites who receive the Ten Commandments are a group of former slaves. Their lives, for generations, have been defined by oppression and fear. The Voice of God rings out, "You shall have no other gods before me ... you shall not make for yourself ... any likeness of what is in the Heavens above..." (Exodus 20:3-4). Despite the undeniable clarity of the Divine command, the Israelites fashion the Golden Calf because they are afraid. They fear they have lost Moses, and when the calf is completed, they say "This is your God, O Israel..." (Exodus 32:4) to lead them in the wilderness. Their fear has brought them from holiness to idolatry. The Golden Calf stands as the symbol for all idolatries that are so bitterly scorned throughout the Bible. Time and again, God demands the total annihilation of idols in all quarters of the Land of Israel. All graven images and statues, all objects invested with magical power are a direct affront to the Divine who exists beyond any form or limitation. The Israelites must shoulder the difficult burden of being a people who live without seeking talismans, gods and objects to relieve their existential dreads and uncertainties. The salvation of the world lies in resisting the urge to find reprieve or escape in "things," objects, concretizations that get in the way of a deep faith in the possibility of human goodness and justice.
In our time, centuries away from the biblical epoch, we feel that we are long past idolatries. But we are mistaken. Ours is a society with many idols: wealth, fame, power, alcohol, consumerism and countless others. What these latter-day idols all share are the mistaken belief that they in some way can "fix" some lack in our human condition. Whenever we believe that any object or concept can totally heal our psychological pain, remove our fears, or relieve our anxiety, we participate in idolatry. Like the Israelites before us, our idolatry originates in innocent confusion, even as it results in destructive behavior for which we must remain accountable.
For many, guns have become a dangerous idol in our time. Like all other idols in human history, they have been invested by some with a power they do not possess: to keep us safe in the "wilderness" of life -- safe from all the unknown dangers and unquantifiable threats of life's journey; from all the murderers, rapists, maniacs and terrorists who represent the always-uncontrollable truth of our fragile existence.
But all the guns in the world will never "fix" the problem of fear. They will not rescue gun-supporters from a cynical view of humanity, of a need to live in constant hyper-vigilance against our fellow human beings. In fact, they will result in the opposite of the intentions of gun-supporters: They will only increase violence, threats, fears and cynicism. Idols have a way of doing that. They tempt us with their promise of providing the long-sought answer to our problems, but they always turn destructive in the end. Like all addictive substances, idols warp and twist our perception of goodness and justice. Guns seem to be the way to a life of liberty, free from fear. In truth, they are born of fear and can lead only to more fear.
Guns are, indeed, here to stay. They're a necessary evil. They can, indeed, keep people safe from threats. But we must uncouple the discussions about gun-control from an emotional, irrational idolatry of guns that lurks behind so many gun-supporters. Only when we agree to accept, together, the burden of life's uncertainty, will we find our way through the wilderness, into the true Promised Land of goodness and justice.