Friday, September 25, 2015

The Greatest Threat to the Jews

​As we enter this New Year, this is a time of great fear for the Jewish people.  There is great fear around the safety of Israel in light of the Iran nuclear deal.  There are many great fears about the safety and security of the Jewish people in a world of ever-increasing anti Semitism.  Issues surrounding Israel and its policies, issues about the Jewish relationship to the Obama administration, about a two-state solution are so fraught that they have become like a poison in Jewish communal discourse.  All the things we most fear are tearing the Jewish people apart.
​Over the past weeks, we have all witnessed rabbis and Jewish leaders of all kinds not only taking sides on the Iran deal, but rushing to the ramparts to defend their stance, and also bitterly attacking anyone who disagrees with them.  On the left, I have seen vitriol against right-wing Jews like I have never seen before, lodging words like "evil" and "fascist" against them.  On the right, I have seen a wholesale writing off of liberal Jews.   Some have declared that any Jew who does not agree with the Israeli government's position about the Iran deal to be a traitor against the Jewish people. I have personally borne witness to top Israeli leaders making cynical statements like "all liberal American Jews will be gone in two generations anyway, so we needn't concern ourselves with their opinions of Israeli policies."
​This is madness!  It must stop!  Today, I will not attack or defend the Iran policy.  I will not get in the fray of Israeli politics.  I won't personally attack fellow Jewish leaders.  Instead, I will speak out words of what in Hebrew is called tochachah--which means "words of loving rebuke"--against all the Jewish people.  I don't like having this responsibility to rebuke, but I am literally commanded to do so.  In Leviticus, it says "Lo tisna et achicha bilvavecha," "You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart," "Hoche'ach tochiach et amitecha," "You shall surely rebuke your fellow," "v'lo tisa alav chet," "so that you do not bring his sin upon you."  Those are strong words in the Torah.  Searing words that we must all sit with as we enter the year 5776.  They teach us that even feeling feelings of hatred in our hearts against our fellow Jews constitutes a deep transgression.  They teach that we must rebuke one another any time feelings or thoughts of hatred for one another arise.  Not to rebuke one another for hating our fellow Jews means that we ourselves bear whatever sins we see our fellow Jews commit.  As our rabbis teach, "Kol Yisrael aravim zeh lazeh," "All Israel is responsible one to the other." This is why we collectively beat our chests on Yom Kippur and take responsibility for the sins that we have committed--when one Jew sins, we all are sinners.  
​There is one sin far greater than the perceived sins of our opponents on the right or the left.  And that one sin is called Sinat Chinam -- pure hatred of one Jew for another.  Our ancient rabbis teach us that the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BCE because we engaged in the cardinal sins of murder, idol worship, and sexual abuse.  They go on to teach that the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE because of Sinat Chinam--because Jew turned against fellow Jew in hatred, and therefore, hatred between Jews is equal to all the other three worst sins put together.  And so at this New Year, we must listen to the voice of the ancient rabbis which tells us that the greatest threat not only to the state of Israel today, but to all the Jewish people is not Iran; it's not Palestinians; it's not terrorism; it's not even global anti Semitism.  The greatest threat to the Jewish people today is our own rising tide of hatred for one another.
​Look around at the Jewish world today.  Not only does the political left demonize the right and vice versa.  Ultra-Orthodox Jews increasingly withdraw from the rest of the Jewish people because they reject our modern progressive ways.  Young American Jews increasingly withdraw from Israel because of the Israeli occupation.  Instead of finding common ground and solutions together, we are becoming more entrenched in our alienation from one another.  And the greatest tragedy of all is that our alienations and hatreds come from the same source:  from fear.  We are all becoming more and more defined by our fears than by our strengths or our deeper values.  
​Right before the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70, the Jews believed that the world was about to end.  We were in a great rebellion against the Roman empire.  Messiahs of various stripes were rising up, claiming to be the one who will save the Jewish people.  Different sects of Jews arose all claiming their own path as the only truth, and that the end of the world was inevitable unless we followed their path.   In the year 2015, there are, once again, many who also believe that the world is about to end.  Whether it be fears of global climate change, fears of an Iranian nuclear holocaust, fears of resurgent anti Semitism, fears of not having Jewish grandchildren--our fears are ironically becoming the only unifying factor in our Jewish identity.
​What makes it all so difficult is that all of our fears are not baseless.  They all represent real threats, threats that we must deal with.  But if 3,000 years of Jewish history teaches us anything, it teaches us first, that all fear only leads to sinat chinam, hatred and destruction.  And second, that we must rise above our fears if we are ever going to create the world we want to live in.
​In the Talmud, in Hagigah, there is a very famous rabbinic legend known as "The Four Who Entered the Pardes," or the Orchard.  It's a strange and esoteric legend, so listen carefully: four great historic rabbis--Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shim'on Ben Zoma, Rabbi Shim'on Ben Azzai, and Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah--all entered into the mystical Pardes/Orchard--a place where they could come as close to the direct Presence of God as anyone can possibly come.  Right before they entered, Rabbi Akiva issued a warning to his colleagues:  'When you get to the place of pure marble stones, don't say water, water!' as it is said in the Psalms 'He who speaks untruths will not stand before my eyes.' (101:7) [Bear with me, I will explain this].  They entered the Pardes.  Ben Azzai gazed [and presumably said "water, water" and died right there on the spot.  Ben Zoma gazed [said "water, water"] and it says that he went mad.  Ben Abuyah gazed and forever more lost his faith.  Only Rabbi Akiva entered the Pardes in peace, and left in peace.
​It is a completely trippy story, and it always reminds me of Timothy Leary and his colleagues at Harvard who experimented with LSD in the early '60s.  There are many long and brilliant expositions on this legend across the centuries of Jewish tradition.  But I will cut to the chase and explain its relevance to our discussion today.  Whatever that mysterious place of pure marble stones was in the Pardes, it was obviously terrifying.  Only one of the four greatest rabbis of that generation left it unscathed.  Akiva warned his colleagues not to say 'water, water,' and the Zohar explains that this is a reference to the waters of Creation in the book of Genesis--that there are "upper waters" above the heavens and "lower waters" below the earth.  And the great mistake was to identify the upper waters as separate from the lower waters.  In other words, the most dangerous thing in the world is to see creation--all of reality--as composed of separate extremes, as separate polarities.  The only way to enter this world in peace and to leave this world in peace, like Rabbi Akiva, is to understand that all things in this world are one--no matter how separate and extremely polarized they may appear to us, in fact, we must never lose sight of how we are connected to everything.  Even to the things that seem the most alien to us are profoundly connected to us.
​Here's what I want us to take from this legend today. I believe that we are all in that terrifying Pardes all the time.  But it's too a scary thing for us to stay conscious of all the time.  And that place of pure marble stones?  That represents the thing that you are most afraid of.  What is your place of pure marble stones?  Fear of being alone?  Fear of dying?  Fear of suffering?  Fear of betrayal?  Fear that it's all meaningless after all?  Fear of the holocaust happening again? We all have our place of pure marble stones.  Some of us, like Ben Azai, die spiritually because our fears overwhelm us.  We see no options in the world, no choice, no hope, no path forward. Some of us are Ben Zoma:  we lose our minds, we become twisted and paranoid, seeing others as either for us or against us, and we lose our very humanity because of the thing that we're afraid of.  Some of us are like Ben Abuyah, who forever after the Pardes was known simply by the name Acher--the Other One--a name which stands for pure alienation from life, from God, from our people; it represents becoming cynical and bitter because of our fears--refusing to take action, and undermining those who might have hope.
​So what are we supposed to learn from Rabbi Akiva, the only one who survived?  I think Akiva's warning teaches us that we must go through life meeting our fear with wisdom.  If we allow our fears to get the better of us, our fears have a way of smashing our hearts and souls into extremes of separation and into polarities of thinking.  At this moment in our history, we--collectively as the Jewish people--stand in the Pardes.  Together, we stand at the place of pure marble stones and gaze into the unfathomable terrifying starkness of the reality that faces us.  What does this American deal with Iran say about the fate of the Jewish people in Israel, in America, around the world?  What does the increasing isolation of Israel in world opinion mean about our future, about our children and descendants, about our very survival?
​As we gaze at these, and so many other terrifying images about our world that frighten us so, don't make the mistake that the first three rabbis made:  don't let our fears cut us off from our seamless connection between heaven and earth; between one another, between us and God.  It is fear that distorts us, that kills our spirit, that alienates us, that drives us to hatred and to destruction.  
​You see, there is something about the figure of Rabbi Akiva in Jewish consciousness. He is a great rabbi not only in his brilliance and his wisdom, but in his fearlessness and indomitable spirit.  It was Akiva who, at the age of 40 as an uneducated peasant, noticed that drops of water bored through a stone at a well, and realized that Torah could similarly pierce his heart drop by drop, step by step, and so he began learning to read at 40, and in a few years became the greatest scholar of his generation.  It was Akiva who saw the ruins of the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem and laughed when all his colleagues rent their clothes and cried--because only he could see that now with this destruction, there were infinite new possibilities to rebuild spiritually as the Jewish people.  Where everyone else saw despair, he could see hope.  Where others saw destruction, he saw potential.  Where others saw death, Akiva saw life.  Where others saw fear and went to pieces, Akiva found peace and the seamless presence of God.
​If ever there was a time for all of us, the Jewish people, to walk in the footsteps of Rabbi Akiva, it is now.  As Akiva showed us, there is no reason to deny that we are in the Pardes.  There is nothing keeping us from gazing at the place of pure marble stones.  We must face what we fear most.  We must deal with the realities of the Iran deal.  We must face the existential threats to the Jewish people and to Israel's security head on.  We must be strong and courageous.  We must stand up for ourselves and the safety of all our people in every way that is reasonable.  But most importantly, we must heed Akiva's warning:  don't let our fears destroy us.  Here's a rule of thumb--in whatever action you take in response to the Iran deal, or on behalf of Israel, or the Jewish people, go inside and ask yourself:  are my actions coming from a place of fear?  Go inside and look at your own place of pure marble stones, go to your deepest fear.  Is that fear distorting my perceptions?  If your actions are in any way connected to reacting TO fear rather than acknowledging and transcending the fear, then you're getting it wrong.  Fear only leads to more fear.  Demonizing the other only leads to others demonizing us.
​Akiva was eventually murdered by the Roman authorities.  As they literally flayed his flesh in the presence of his students, he started saying the Shema.  His students stood in wonder and said, "Rebbe, even now [you can say the Shema]?" Akiva answered, all my life I wondered how I would fulfill the command to love the Lord our God b'chol nafshecha, with all your soul, and now as I die, I can finally fulfill this!  He died as he prolonged the word, "Echad" the last word of the Shema -- that God is One.  The man who taught his colleagues never to forget the Oneness of all Creation at the place of pure marble stones, at the place of greatest separation and fear:  he lived this wisdom of seeing the oneness--the possibility of God's presence, of spiritual transcendence--even to his own dying breath.
​If Akiva's life and spiritual triumph stands for anything, it is in realizing that even the moments of greatest despair and apparent hopelessness, there is always the same One Divine Presence that is always there.  In every moment of darkness, there is always something that can be done, however small that moves toward the light.  In every separation, even in every loss and in death itself, there is always the possibility of transcendence.  And Akiva's nefesh, his soul won.  The Romans and all they stood for are now long gone.  And the Jewish people and all we stand for are still here, two thousand years later.
​One final point about Akiva.  He wasn't afraid to do tochechah, to rebuke his students and colleagues.  Once (Nedarim 40a), one of his students was critically ill, and the rest of his students didn't go visit him because the student was obviously dying and their was no hope left and therefore no hope for him to survive.  Instantly, Akiva rebuked them for not going to visit their fellow student and praying with him anyway.  True to character, he rebuked his students the moment they gave up the possibility of hope.
​Like Akiva, we must rebuke those on the right who write off liberal Jews as traitors because they don't agree with Israel's official government stance.  We must rebuke those on the left who write off Israel as a hopeless apartheid state.  We must rebuke the ultra-religious for writing off their Jewish brothers and sisters as lost.  And, we must rebuke those of us who are giving up hope in Israel, in the potential of the Jewish people to come together as one and find reasons for hope step by step, drop by drop.  Like all other great leaders -- Moses, Martin Luther King, Gandhi--Rabbi Akiva showed us that there is nothing ever to despair, no moment to let fear win, so long as we never forget the power of our unity, and the Oneness that keeps us together.  May we overcome all that separates us in the coming year, and find new pathways to security, justice and peace--together--for all our people, and for all the world.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Are Jews White?

This summer, I had a conversation with a young woman about her Jewish identity.  She told me how she grew up in a family that was very involved in her synagogue.  She went to Jewish day school.  She had been to Israel multiple times. Despite all this, she felt very far away from her Jewishness.  Now out on her own, she didn't observe Shabbat.  She simply couldn't find the relevance of Judaism as she was making her way out on her own in the world.  I asked her to tell me what she did feel passionate about.  She told me how she has been reading and thinking a lot about racial justice in our society.  What moved her was the Blacklivesmatter movement--how, in light of Ferguson, Charleston, and seemingly endless incidents of injustice against black people in our society, she felt a pressing need to grapple with the racism that is so pervasive in this country and how it affects her identity.  I asked her to explain to me more about her passion for this issue.  She explained: "As a white woman, as the product of so much white privilege, it makes me all the more angry to see how other white people so blindly and carelessly feed into the racial climate of our society."  "So the fact that you are white makes this issue all the more painful, all the more personal for you," I asked.  "Yes," she said.
In that moment, I certainly identified with her angst over this issue.  Indeed, I find the reality of American racism, the legacy of slavery, the institutional discrimination that is so pervasive, the scourge of mass incarceration of black Americans--with its collateral damage on families; the on-going blight of housing segregation in America, and the role of law-enforcement in furthering racist systems and hierarchies--this and so much more, I, too, find unbearable.  And so, I took a deep breath and asked, "Are you so sure you're white?"  "Of course I'm white," she said. "I'm clearly not black, and I have had full access to all the privileges and benefits of white society."
I pointed out that she doesn't look stereotypically white: she has dark eyes and hair, and an olive complexion.  She agreed that people will sometimes speak Spanish to her, assuming she was a Latina, while others have asked if she was from a Middle Eastern background, even though her family is Ashkenazi Jewish, from Eastern Europe.  "But in this society," she hastened to add, "I still qualify as white."  "Of course," I agreed.  "But if you are regularly mistaken for a more "brown" person," I continued, "perhaps there are some, more stereotypically white, people who don't consider you as white as you may feel that you are."  She paused to consider this idea.  "I suppose that's possible," she said.  "Well," I continued, " in not being quite as white as you may have thought, you have found the beginning of your genuine Jewish identity."
Today, I would like to explain more of what I meant with this young woman.  You see nowadays, this woman is not alone.  In our very flawed and racist society, our Jewish people are prospering, reaching the top echelons of privilege and power.  With racism and injustice so pervasive and entrenched year after year, generation after generation, we Jewish people must now ask ourselves:  what role do we play in that injustice now that most of us live as white people in America?  This young woman is so right in questioning why her "whiteness" leads her to participate in the oppression of others.  And the fact that it never occurred to her how Jewish her thirst for racial justice is--this means that we must, all of us, consider the role of race in our 21st century Jewish identities.  Today, I will show why we all must cease to consider ourselves to be part of the social construct of being white--despite all the white privilege that America affords us--and how we must teach our children that we are, in fact, not white.
In the book of Genesis, there is a very famous story about a great tower that the early generations of human beings built after the time of Noah and the flood.  The story goes that all human beings spoke one language, and in an act of extraordinary unity, they built this tower so they could reach heaven.  God saw their endeavor, and realized that with only one language and one purpose, they would think that nothing, not even God and heaven, is beyond their reach.  So God thwarted their plan.  God confounded their speech so that one person couldn't understand the other.  With their unity obliterated, they scattered to all ends of the earth, creating many peoples and many languages.  And, because their speech sounded like babelling one to the other, the tower came to be known as the Tower of Babel.
It's a strange story, particularly to our American ears.  After all, our American motto is E Pluribus Unum--out of many we are one!  The great blessing and promise of America to our ancestors when we came here was that it was a land of opportunity, where we are all recognized as equal, where nothing, not even the heavens, is beyond our reach!  We all know that the story of the Jewish people in America is a stunning success story. Our success here is built on the efforts of the first generations of American Jews who struggled mightily to assimilate into mainstream America--to slough off the ways of the old country, to out-American the Americans.  In many ways, in 2015, it's difficult for us to appreciate how remarkable this success is.
A century and a half ago, racism in America was in some ways more complex than it is today.  There weren't just white people, brown people, yellow people, and black people.  In those days, the white people were considered to be mostly descendants of the British and northern Europeans.  Irish people were not considered to be white. Neither were Italians. And of course, neither were the Jews.  Well into the 20th century, we Jews were barred from the whitest country clubs.  We couldn't buy houses in the whitest neighborhoods.  Some of us here today have been called anti semitic names, have had pennies thrown at us, or have been beaten up because we are Jewish.  What some of us may not realize is that the particularly American brand of anti semitism has deep roots and connections to American racism.
That young woman, and all her young adult Jewish peers today can hardly fathom being singled out, being treated as "other", because of their Jewishness.  And the main reason why anti Semitism is no longer mainstream in our society is because sometime in the last half century, we have finally convinced America that we, too, are white.
All those years of singular focus on making it in America have paid off!  Our achievements in business, in medicine, in the arts, in government, in all circles of American life have resulted in something rarely known to our wandering ancestors--we are one with the power elites of our society.  Look at this very synagogue--Adas Israel Congregation.  I once read some papers written by the early founders of our synagogue over a century ago.  They dreamed of one day building what they referred to as a "great Cathedral synagogue" standing tall and proud in our nation's capital, as powerful as the great American monuments of this city.  In 1950 that great dream came true with the construction of this grand and impressive edifice.  We came here to practice a Judaism that projected our American dream--complete with decorous services and royal purple-clad clergy who emulated the pomp and circumstance of the Episcopal church.
 By the end of the 20th century, Jewish names were all over the New York Times wedding section along with the rest of lilly-white society weddings.  The country clubs, the exclusive neighborhoods are now as Jewish as they are waspy.  Indeed, we Jewish people have been building a great, shining American tower, and we have just about reached the highest heavens.
The ancient Midrash is a collection of rabbinic legends and stories.  The Midrash often fills out and expands upon stories in the Torah, giving us greater insight into their meaning.  One Midrash, in Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezar (24:7) expands upon and clarifies the story of the Tower of Babel.  Why indeed did God thwart the seemingly noble plan of the people to unite with one purpose and build a tower heavenward?  The rabbis explain that the tower eventually reached such a breathtaking height that it too a whole year to climb to its top.  Each brick was baked on the ground and had to be transported up.  The higher the tower went, the more precious each brick was.  Finally, the Midrash says the following: "If a person fell and died they paid no attention, but if a brick fell they sat and wept, saying, 'Woe upon us! Where will we get another to replace it?'"  
It's an incredible Midrash.  In a few short sentences, it conveys one of the greatest dangers of our human condition:  for all our well-intended yearnings to unite, to work together to achieve collective dreams--we risk creating societies that forget our essential humanity.  We risk creating societies that place ideals above human life.  We risk creating totalitarian societies, fascist societies, racist societies, societies that are intolerant of difference, societies that create the conditions for discrimination, for oppression, for racial or ethnic cleansing, for genocide itself.
In our century, we are waking up to the fact that our great tower, our astounding success in America, is a pyrrhic victory.  Our own children and grandchildren, raised as white American children of privilege, have completely forgotten who built the tower before them, or why their well-meaning ancestors so passionately endeavored to build it. Many no longer value their essential Jewishness in their worldviews or life plans.  For most, the tower of success built by American Jews is indistinguishable from the general American tower of white privileged success.  That young woman was right in noticing that most white Americans, Jewish or WASP or otherwise, can't abstract from their experience to fully notice how people of color, and all others who don't fit the white privileged mold, are falling off that tower.  They can't even identify how the social construct that is racism enfuses all aspects of their lives, their choices, and their expectations of themselves and others, despite their good intentions.
At this point, you might think that I'm not being entirely fair.  Yes, most of us and our children are a part of white America now.  But we know plenty of young Jewish Americans who are very proudly Jewish.  Many are devoted to Israel, devoted to good causes, and fight racism and other injustices.  But if we are going to take our Americanness seriously, we must take a better look at, and better own all the ways that we have, and continue, to benefit from the worst elements of American racist culture.  Whether we are comfortable with it or not, we American Jews are powerful! We ARE the power elite of this country.  Some of the most powerful people in the world are seated here today!
I speak about racism and Jewish identity today NOT because we are not good people.  I speak of this today because in owning race as central in American Jewish identity, we not only more effectively work with our success in this country, but we can return truly to the essence of what being Jewish in the world really means.
Our people have been known by many names over the centuries.  Once, we were called Hebrews.  In Hebrew, the word is "Ivri," which translates "the other" or "from somewhere else." We were also called Bnai Yisrael, the Children of Israel.  Israel, Yisra'el, literally means "struggling with God."  In other words, we are to be the ones who struggle with ultimate issues of life, of values, of justice.  Through the centuries, our moments of power in the world have been all too fleeting.  Mostly, our greatest hope has been to be tolerated by the elites and powers that be.  From our place of not living at the center of power, but at the periphery, we have responded always with the ability to critique injustice, to adopt the cause of the oppressed, and to envision a better and more just world.  Even in times of acceptance by the non-Jewish authorities, at times when we participated fully in their societies, we always knew that we stand with one foot in the mainstream, and one foot outside that mainstream.
America is unique in Jewish history because the social construct of power and oppression in this society came to be based more on skin color than on religion or ethnic identity.  Because of that, along with the best of American values and our own hard work, we now find ourselves among the authorities, among the power elite.  Despite our only good intentions, we are--all of us--full participants and beneficiaries of the American evil known as racism.
For all these reasons, I call upon us all this year to reject our own  self-labelling as white.  I call upon all of us, the Jewish people--those of us who have skin that passes for white--to begin teaching our children that we are, nevertheless not white people.  We are, and have always been--simply--Jewish people.  Being Jewish is not about identifying as a race, or with any system that oppresses.  The brilliance of being Jewish in all of human history is that we stubbornly refuse to fit into any social construct of power or oppression.  We are simply Ivri'im, people from "somewhere else," people who struggle with God and justice, and who demand that the rest of the world does too, and see every human life as sacred because we are all in the image of God.  And the truth is, we have never belonged to one race alone.  The Torah tells us that we left Egypt with the Erev Rav, with a mixed multitude of peoples.  Around the world there are Jews of color, Asian Jews, Jews of all kinds.  The idea that Jews are white is not only ridiculous, it’s offensive to who we really are! Yes, societies like America come along sometimes and give us privileges and even give the majority of us power labels like "white." In the American racist social construct, Jews are very much white people, but we must never again think of ourselves that way! It's time for us to opt out of the racist paradigm because we are Jews.
Imagine with me what we and our children could be like if we associate our Jewishness with an essential statement against all racism and discrimination in our society.  Even as our children benefit from the best schools and jobs and housing that whiteness affords, we can be the ones to challenge the American racist system from within.  We can be the ones who can change the business practices, the housing codes, the policing practices, the correctional facilities, the policies,the schools--motivated entirely by our values and our Jewish historical experience.  Indeed, so many progressive leaders in this country have been Jews, including Jewish founders of the NAACP, motivated exactly by this vision.  But so many more of us need to own our real power, which is not our whiteness, but our Jewishness.  Our real power is our Torah and our tradition that motivates us to remember the stranger for we were strangers in Egypt; that calls on us to lift up the cause of the stranger, the orphan, the widow, of all those who are oppressed.  The greatest advancement of 21st century American society may be how the Jewish people consciously and unconsciously complete the sentence, "I am..." If we learn always to replace the word "white" with Jewish, a great future awaits us and all peoples in this country and around the world.
I reassured that young woman not to feel bad that her years of Jewish education left her feeling uninspired. I told her that, in fact, she had a profoundly Jewish soul in her ability to question the white society that shaped her.  I reminded her of Hillel's famous teaching:  What is hateful to you, do not do to others.  All the rest is commentary.  If she lives her life creating a world where Hillel's wisdom guides the way, then all the rest of Judaism will open to her on her path, and she, and all her peers can go live proudly as  Jews, as a light to the nations.  May we all be that light in this world that so badly needs us.  Amen.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Leap of Faith: An interview with Rabbi Gil Steinlauf
Last fall, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Adas Israel Synagogue sent an email to his congregation. He told them he was gay. (And it was good.)
By Randy Shulman on May 28, 2015

 Rabbi Gil Steinlauf – Photography by Todd Franson
“I’m not going to go on record as saying Moses was gay.”
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf says this with a laugh — he laughs often and warmly, it turns out — but he’s also quite serious in response to a reporter’s offhand remark that Moses could be viewed as history’s first gay activist.
“But the story of Moses is a kind of coming out story,” Steinlauf says. “He grew up as a Prince of Egypt in the house of Pharaoh, completely in the center of power. Yet, he was nursed by his Israelite mother, so he knew that he had this secret identity. He lived in inner-conflict over those two worlds, those two identities of himself, until he finally came to a head when he killed an Egyptian who was oppressing an Israelite, and ran away. He tried to hide until God called him back. And then he spoke on behalf of his people.
“So I always make the argument that Moses has a kind of queer coming-out parallel in his life story, and that’s a fundamental motivational factor for his ability to recognize the suffering of his people and to stand up to Pharaoh, because of his ability to overcome his own limitations and insecurities and his shame of who he was.”
The same could be said for Rabbi Steinlauf who, in an act of courage last October, sent an email to his congregation of more than 1,500 families at Adas Israel, the storied Conservative synagogue that presides over the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and includes Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elana Kagan among its worshipers. In the email, Steinlauf informed his congregation that he, in fact, was gay and that he and his wife of 20 years, Batya, with whom he has three teenage children, would be divorcing.
The backlash could have been significant for the 46-year-old Steinlauf. It wasn’t. The news spread like wildfire after the Washington Post reported it. The congregation heralded their support. And then, things went back to business-as-usual.
 “It’s not that Adas has always been so utopian,” says Steinlauf. “As recently as maybe 15 years ago — this was before my time — there were huge fights on the Board of Directors about whether or not it’s appropriate to extend family memberships to gay families and gay couples. There was vehement opposition on either side of the debate.”
Steinlauf, a handsome man with the kind of calm, learned demeanor one expects from a Rabbi, hails from Long Island, where he was raised in “a very sort of high strung New York Jewish” way. His family wasn’t particularly observant, but they were very active in the Jewish community.
“We were very ethnically Jewish,” he says. “There’s an expression — ‘Bagels and lox Jews.’ Jewish food, Yiddish everywhere, always thinking about Israel and talking about Jewish issues around the world. We didn’t go to synagogue regularly but there was always a sense of Yiddishkeit around.”
As a boy, Steinlauf “was very interested in religion and thinking about God and all those things.” Though his family were members of a Reform congregation, he made them “join a Conservative synagogue, because I realized that the kids who went to the Conservative Synagogue were actually learning things that I wasn’t learning in my Reform temple. They switched for my sake.”
After graduating from Princeton, his interest in Judaism, in learning, in teaching, in spiritual introspection led him to Rabbinical school, where he spent six years training. He was an assistant Rabbi for three years in Columbus, Ohio, and then spent seven years at Temple Israel in Ridgewood, New Jersey, “right outside Manhattan.”
Then came the opportunity to lead Adas Israel, where he’s been since 2008.
“I was pretty honest with them,” he says. “I told them that I wanted to take it in a direction of really making it relevant and diverse and exciting in ways that they hadn’t, bringing conversations into the Synagogue that they’ve never had here in this context. And I would like to believe that’s why they hired me.”
Of course, the conversation he eventually brought proved to be a test — one that the synagogue passed magnificently, in a way that all other synagogues now have their eye on what has occurred. On a more active level, Adas Israel will, for the first time in its history, have a contingent in this year’s Capital Pride Parade on June 13, and Steinlauf has started a LGBT Torah study group, open to not just just Adas Israel members, but anyone who cares to partake.
“Adas Israel has a long-standing reputation of being a synagogue that can push the envelope in the Conservative movement,” he says. “It certainly is continuing in that tradition.”
Like so many, Steinlauf felt from an early age that he might be gay. But he kept those feelings tamped down, pushed to the side. “That couldn’t be who I am,” was a constant refrain in his head. His two decade marriage to Batya was as profound and meaningful as any other, a point he stresses throughout a two-and-a-half hour conversation — and beyond.
“I have been thinking about one thing I said in the interview, and I’m a bit concerned,” he wrote in an email in the days following our conversation. “I talked about how my ‘leap of faith’ involved realizing that it was ultimately about how I love. I’m concerned that it might come across as suggesting in some fashion that my love for my wife of 20 years was not real.
“In fact, my love for my wife was very real and complete. It’s critically important for me to ensure that there is no confusion about that. While my love for her was real and beautiful, I came to see that, as a gay man, I needed to love in a different way.”
METRO WEEKLY: For those readers who aren’t Jewish, or who may not have a clear notion of what a Rabbi is, can you give us a brief explanation?
RABBI GIL STEINLAUF: Unlike other religious traditions, a Rabbi is not considered a holy man or holy woman. The word Rabbi literally means “teacher.” And that’s really what I am. I’m a teacher of Torah, a teacher of the Jewish tradition. We are pulpit clergy, but the role that Rabbis play in modern American Jewish congregational settings is that we are setting the vision and goal of a congregational community. We rule on matters of Jewish law, and what applies and what doesn’t apply in our own communities. Judaism is a legalistic tradition, so we have to be knowledgeable about Jewish law. There’s lots of pastoral work and, of course, preaching and teaching. It’s a very busy, very rich, very intense life, because we’re dealing with people in all moments of the life cycle, from birth through death.
MW: You say a Rabbi is not a holy person. But I was always under the impression they were. Doesn’t the Jewish religion have the the equivalent of the Pope?
STEINLAUF: [Laughs.] Are you kidding? Jews agreeing on who would be the Pope of the Jews? Can you imagine such a thing?
In different Jewish communities, there is the equivalent of a holy man. For example, the Chasidim — the black hat people — have their Rebbe. He’s more like a holy man. Rebbes are like gurus. Rebbes have Chasidim who orbit around them and drink in their words. They can “see into your soul,” and when they give you a blessing, it’s life-altering. But in general and traditionally, Rabbis are just particularly learned Jewish people.
MW: The synagogue you oversee is nationally prominent.
STEINLAUF: Adas Israel is an historic congregation. It’s 150 years old — President Ulysses S. Grant was at the founding ceremony. It has a major presence not only in Washington, D.C. but in the American Jewish community because it’s a solid anchor in the Conservative movement in the Jewish world. So it’s a big and important place. When this job opened up and I applied, I didn’t think I was really going to get it. It was an amazing opportunity for me, because it’s a platform where you can really make a difference. A lot of the members here are people in leadership in the government and in think tanks and journalists who are influencing the tide of our society.
MW: How have you altered the synagogue’s course since coming here?
STEINLAUF: I like to put it this way: In the 21st century everything’s changing. How we make meaning, how we form our identities, how we connect our sense of who we are, and what we’re doing in life to a bigger picture, is different from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. My message to this congregation has been that we can’t be operating in this congregation like it’s 1965 anymore, because we’re going to become absolutely irrelevant in 5, 10, 15 years.
“I believe that to be Jewish is a form of being queer. When you think about the role of the Jewish people throughout history, we have always never really fit in.”
MW: How would you describe the atmosphere here in the years before it changed.
STEINLAUF: It has always been a very strong, powerful Synagogue. I would say it was much more in keeping with more conventional expectations of synagogues. So there were services, but the style of the services was very formal, very decorous. If there’s a kid crying in the service now, I think that’s just terrific, whereas a couple of decades ago, the service would stop and they would give dirty looks until the parents took the kid out.
The idea is to be very progressive. I’m interested in “disruptive innovation.” The grand experiment I’m working on in this congregation is what happens if you take one of the established institutions in American Judaism — the synagogue — and do from within new things that deliberately cut against the grain of expectation. You’re going to automatically discomfit people, you’re automatically raising anxiety levels, but in that creative tension new kinds of things can happen that people haven’t had the opportunity to experience before.
MW: Why so much change?
STEINLAUF: I’m doing this because I really believe that no matter what happens, no matter what we say, synagogues will always be the real centerpiece of the American Jewish experience. That no matter how disaffected or alienated a lot of Jewish people might be in our day, if they’re ever going to inquire about their own Jewish identity, they’re going to look to synagogues to provide something. And if synagogues meet the conventional expectations of what people grew up with, they’re going to walk right out the door again. So it has to be a very, very different kind of experience.
That said — and I have to say this, it’s important — Adas is a multi-generational synagogue. The older generations here are less comfortable with some of these innovations. So it is very important we still have conventional features so that everybody feels comfortable. The beauty of working in a very, very big and multifaceted urban congregation is that you can have it all.
MW: You’re Conservative. Do you look at the Reform movement, with its relaxed stance, as somehow — there’s no good way to phrase this —
STEINLAUF: Less than?
MW: Yes. Less than.
STEINLAUF: No, I don’t. Because I’m inherently a pluralist — my world view is diversity. There’s an expression in the Rabbinic literature: “These and these are the words of Torah.” It means there’s multiple opinions on everything. If you open up any page of Talmud, the Rabbis are arguing. And what’s interesting is, they always preserve both sides of the argument, even though we actually only follow one. Why? Because the other opinion matters, too.
One of the most beautiful and most powerful insights that Judaism has that other traditions don’t have as strongly, unfortunately, is that there’s an inherent diversity of perspective and interpretation to what the tradition means. So I inherently respect my Reform colleagues as having a particular understanding and take on what Judaism and the Torah is all about. As I also respect my Orthodox colleagues.
MW: I’ve always looked at Judaism as a religion but also as a culture. I probably fall on the more cultural side these days.
STEINLAUF: A lot of people who aren’t Jewish have trouble grasping this, but being Jewish is only in part a religion. In Judaism, we call ourselves “a people.” And our people is rich and varied and diverse and textured. There are observant Jewish people and there are secular Jews, but one of the things we all inherently understand is that we’re all Jewish.
I see tremendous parallels between the uniquely Jewish experience in the world and in history and the experience of being queer. I believe that to be Jewish is a form of being queer. When you think about the role of the Jewish people throughout history, we have always never really fit in. We have always been kind of on the outside of mainstream civilization — on the outside, and yet interestingly, right in the middle of it at the same time. One foot in and one foot out. That’s sort of what it feels like to be Jewish. It’s kind of also what it feels like to be gay. We’re completely a part of the world that we live in, and yet there something about us that’s fundamentally “other.” And to be Jewish is to be fundamentally “other,” as well.
Similar to being queer, to be Jewish is a source of anxiety for other people who don’t understand us. To be Jewish is to be a source of persecution and attack and oppression from those who project their nightmares onto us because we look like them, we might even dress like them, but then we’re somehow “other-fied.” And so, my journey of being gay, of being closeted, and then coming out has been deeply influential on my path as a Jew, on my path as a Rabbi, on my vision of Judaism and how Judaism can evolve in the 21st century. And all of that has been deeply formed by my insight and experience of being gay.
MW: Well, let’s go there. Talk about about your life before coming out. You were married, you had kids.
STEINLAUF: So I met my wife, Batya, in Rabbinical school. She’s a Rabbi, too. We were best friends and truly fell in love. We got married and had a beautiful marriage for 20 years together and had a really, really wonderful, close-knit family — two girls and a boy.
MW: But…
STEINLAUF: But I always knew from my childhood that I was always attracted to the same gender. That was always there. I didn’t act on it. And, I don’t know, maybe that attributed to my ability to, you know, to live this life in this hetero-normal existence, because it wasn’t in direct contrast to other kinds of experiences I’ve had. I just knew that these were very, very real desires and dimensions of myself that I disassociated from.
MW: Was Batya aware of your internal struggles?
STEINLAUF: She always knew I struggled with things. But she also knew that our marriage was very real in every way and that we loved each other.
“I only got one seriously nasty e-mail out of a congregation of 1,500 families. It was written on a typewriter and it said, ‘You took this job under false pretenses and you must resign immediately.’”
MW: How did you absolutely know you were gay? If you’d never acted on it, even before the marriage…
STEINLAUF: I don’t have a good answer for that. I just knew. I guess because I have always been so introspective and have been obsessed with the truth my entire life. Obsessed with it. I always felt there was a dissonance between how I was in the world and how I felt inside. I could never make those things match.
MW: Was there a catalyst to make those things match? Something that triggered it?
STEINLAUF: My realization actually happened — this is telling — three years ago on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It’s the time Jews are supposed to be spiritually naked before God. And with my personality, I get into profound introspection and have been taking stock of my life since I came to Washington of what’s missing, what’s wrong. I woke up that morning of Yom Kippur and it was literally waking up in the morning and realizing, “Oh, this is who I am.” That was a completely new concept for me. I’d never, never allowed myself to own it like that before. I had freaked out about it all the time. I worried about it all the time. I pushed it away all the time. But never on every level of my being was I able to simply say, “Oh, this is who I am.” And that’s the beginning and the end of the story.

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf – Photography by Todd Franson
MW: But what caused that realization?
STEINLAUF: I think I was ready. I was ready. Some of us are ready when we’re 18, and some of us when we’re 43 years old. Suddenly 43 years of shame dropped away. It really dropped away.
MW: How did Batya take it?
STEINLAUF: One of the reasons why I fell in love with her is that there is absolutely nothing phony about that woman. She says it like it is — to a fault sometimes. She had fundamental trust in me in the sense that I was always 100 percent honest with her to the extent that I knew how to be honest with myself. So we had discussions and over the course of three years came to the decision we would have to get divorced. We take the idea of marriage very, very, very seriously, and I wasn’t going to try experiences while still married. So if I’m gay, the marriage would have to end. We struggled for three years up till that point, getting to the precipice, then backing off and then to the precipice and then finally jumping off. It was a leap of faith.
MW: That’s a remarkable leap of faith because you might have found it wasn’t for you.
STEINLAUF: That occurred to me. It totally occurred to me. What if this whole thing is a total mishegas, as we say? When I was a kid in college, I would always wonder to my friends, “What if I’m gay?” I would literally say this to people because I was such a neurotic Long Island kid. I used to freak out about everything, and they were like, “No, you don’t have cancer. No, you’re not dying. No, you’re not gay.” So I relegated my gayness to just another neurosis. And when this became who I am, it was such an alignment of the stars, that it felt absolutely real and true, the seeking of this truth that was always out there suddenly was in here. It was a very spiritual experience for me. And in that reality, I was able to take this leap of faith. So now my wife and I are divorced, and I’m living as a gay man now.
MW: You didn’t have to do this. You could have remained married.
STEINLAUF: I wanted to. I tried. When I first had the euphoric realization that this is who I am, the intention I really set for myself is “I’m going to continue to be married this woman, I love my life, I love my wife, I love my whole everything.” I was very happy like this. With all these trappings. I wanted that. But once it’s out of the bag, you can’t stuff it back in again. I saw this as essentially the quality of my path in life. My path to God involves me being created in the image of God as a gay man in this way. So I couldn’t rectify the dissonance between that deep sense of who I am and the other aspects of my life that didn’t match with that anymore. It was truly agonizing, excruciating, those three years leading up to this.
MW: Was it worth it?
STEINLAUF: The act of owning those desires, the act of owning that as me, not other than me, was a tremendous healing in my life.
MW: It’s a pretty seismic event when a Rabbi at a synagogue of this size and this stature comes out. It becomes big news.
STEINLAUF: I honestly didn’t expect it to be as big a news story as it ended up being. I honestly expected something in the Washington Post about it, but I didn’t think it would get picked up in so many other papers. I didn’t anticipate that. I also didn’t expect literally the thousands of notes and e-mails I got from people around the world responding with incredible love and support. I mean, just overwhelming. People thanking me, men who had the courage to come out because they read the story, young people thanking me. I still can’t wrap my mind around it, actually.
MW: Does that say something about our world right now?
STEINLAUF: At the time, I joked that the thing that made news is the fact that it’s a non-story. Yeah, I came out, okay, there are lots of gay Rabbis. I came out at a conservative Synagogue, that’s a little unusual. I came out at a very big, prominent conservative Synagogue. That’s interesting. But the fact that there was no backlash, there was no drama within the Synagogue — that’s remarkable. And that’s the real statement about the times that we live in. That’s why it became a bigger story.
MW: Were you worried about backlash?
STEINLAUF: Sure. Up until the day that the story dropped, I really didn’t know what was going to happen. There are certainly people who aren’t comfortable with it, but we’re in a period of history where even people who have discomfort with it are smart enough not to make a big deal about their displeasure. I only got one seriously nasty e-mail out of a congregation of 1,500 families — one — and it was written by a long-time member. I believe he’s in his nineties. It was written on a typewriter and it said, “You took this job under false pretenses and you must resign immediately.” Which is really what the entire congregation would have said in his day, many, many decades ago. But, you know, I’m honestly amazed by the level of support here. Some of the older generation members here are some of my biggest supporters on this issue, interestingly.
MW: I have read some criticism from people who have claimed you should have just kept quiet and stayed in the marriage. How do you respond to that?
STEINLAUF: You know, honestly, because I love my wife and my children so much it became patently clear to me, completely crystal clear to me, that the way I can be the most loving to my wife and to my children was to end the marriage. Because if I stayed in the marriage, then it would have kept it from being a truly loving, very real marriage that it had been for 20 years into living a lie. And because I’m so profoundly focused on living a life of integrity and being in the truth, I couldn’t live with myself if I was living a lie. My wife would never have wanted me to live a lie, and I would have been a terrible father to my children if I’d been living a lie, because what kind of role model would I be if I had stayed in the lie? And frankly, what kind of Rabbi would I be in a congregation if I were a liar, pretending to be somebody who I’m not, just for the sake of holding on to whatever it is that people think I should have stayed in the marriage for. At some point, integrity matters most in leadership and in being a mensch. That’s the beginning of everything else. If we don’t have our own integrity as human beings then in what way can we truly be ethical in any other way?
“We have unbelievable amounts of societal shifting to do. We’re still a deeply racist country. And I think there’s going to be deep homophobia for a long time to come in our society.”
MW: The people who are critical are presupposing that you were hiding it all along.
STEINLAUF: Right. That’s the one thing that’s very difficult for some people to understand — and I don’t blame people for having a hard time understanding this. But I do want it to be said that you know, believe it or not, I had a real marriage to a woman. I really did. And I know that’s incredibly difficult for people to hold on to, but that’s actually what happened and yes, that process of coming to terms with myself meant that everything that we honored about that marriage, in order to honor it, meant that marriage had to end.
Divorce is horrible and divorce is painful and I’m not going to candy-coat this. Ending a marriage is a horrific loss and it’s very, very painful for my kids and for my wife and for me. None of us would have chosen this, you know? Being gay is not a choice. And so this is how it had to be and so they had to struggle with this. Are they thrilled with all of this? That I’m getting publicity for being gay, that the gay thing is responsible for the breakup of the family that we had as we knew it? It’s a tragic loss for my family and what I can say is that I am very grateful we’re going through this loss together. My wife and I are best friends. And that’s not going to change. We consider each other to be family no matter what. And we’re going to be family forever. I hope that she remarries and I hope that she has a wonderful life that moves forward. But we do consider ourselves to be family still. This is not a bitter divorce on any level.
MW: She sounds remarkable.
STEINLAUF: She is a remarkable human being. She really, really is. I’m very, very lucky. I’m lucky on so many levels I can’t even begin…. Really, I get teary-eyed sometimes thinking that I just can’t believe how well this has gone considering that this has been my ultimate nightmare for my whole life, imagining “I hope I don’t end up gay,” like that’s the worst death sentence. Look, I was a teenager in the ’80s. I grew up during the era of AIDS. And if I had any association with being gay when I was a kid growing up, it was being alone and isolated and rejected and unlovable. That’s how I connected those ideas together in my head, which I think is what led me toward a life of living in the closest in the way that I did. So to suddenly be where I am now, and to have the world not only be okay with it, but just the unbelievable degree of support, is beyond anything I could have imagined.
MW: Changing topics. What do you make of the recent rise of anti-Semitism in Europe?
STEINLAUF: There’s this cancer in western society which is anti-Semitism. And what that makes me think of in our context, of what we’re talking about here, is what I think is a very powerful connection between the Jewish people and gay people. Because the immediate reactiveness of going back to anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews in times of fear, in times of insecurity, and thinking that the Jews are going to undermine everything we live for and stand for means that the role the Jews have played for thousands of years that we’ve been queer.
We’ve been a queer people in all the ways that we take concept of “queer” writ large — that we discomfit, we make people face aspects of themselves that they’re terrified of facing about themselves. We give people the creeps because we do things that look like them but then we’re very different somehow in ways they can’t understand, that seem mysterious. In all of those ways, the Jewish people and gay people are on a shared path. I think that’s a very important place where we can actually learn from each other and learn from our collective wisdom from each other about how to not react with fear and mistrust to the world, because we’re all queer but rather in a way that’s compassionate and seeking further justice.
MW: Shouldn’t the anti-Semitism be a cautionary tale for gays as well?
STEINLAUF: It most certainly is. Thank God that this country is progressing so mind-bogglingly well right now when it comes to anti-discrimination for gay people but at the same time, when you look at what’s happening with Indiana and everything else in the American heartland and the Bible Belt, you know that a similar cancer exists — a societal cancer, that sense of deep-seated fear and mistrust of the other.
The deepest message of Judaism is you have to embrace the other. Don’t be afraid of the other. And that’s the great spiritual battle of our time. Do you reject the other, or do you embrace the other? We’re making great political strides in our society but that doesn’t mean our work is done. We have unbelievable amounts of societal shifting to do. Same thing with racism in this country. We’re still a deeply racist country. And I think there’s going to be deep homophobia for a long time to come in our society, which makes the kind of work that we have to do all the more important. There’s a famous line in [Jewish teachings] that goes, “You are not obligated to complete the task but neither are you free to stop working at it.” It’s a way of life. But you understand that the task we are doing is way bigger than us, way bigger than our lifetimes. You can’t give up working on it from generation to generation.
MW: And how are you working on it?
STEINLAUF: I’m starting simply. The fact that this is a mainstream establishment congregation in our Nation’s Capitol and there’s been widespread acceptance and that’s been the news story, that’s an important thing right there. The fact that other religious communities can look and see that this can happen and it can be not just okay but a celebration, that’s a very important message in our society to give. I’m not best served by being the “gay Rabbi,” but rather by being a Rabbi who is teaching my Torah, which is the Torah that I can teach based upon speaking from my heart and from my truest experience as a human being.
There’s this familiarity now in the congregation. If I’m in a class or I’m giving a sermon or having a discussion with the congregation about sort of a spiritual journey or how to respond to the times, I can simply say, “Well, you know, I’ve been through an extraordinary journey in my identity and this is what I’ve learned about what we need to do in order to face difficulty.” That’s something that gives weight and hopefully inspiration to people to be able to face whatever it is they need to face in their lives.
MW: I have to ask this. Since coming out, have you found any new romance?
STEINLAUF: Since I have come out, I have dated and I have met somebody very special. A nice Jewish boy.
MW: How does it feel?
STEINLAUF: I’ll answer as honestly as I possibly can. What I had constantly dismissed within myself as a hang-up, a neurosis, fill in the label, you know, I suddenly realized it was connected to my deepest capacity to love — and once you understand that about yourself, it even transcends the sexual thing. It’s in the capacity to love and in the way that one loves that becomes irrefutable. Yes, there a small voice in the back of my mind wondering, is this some horrible mistake? Am I going to completely regret this? Of course there was, of course there was. And what I can tell you now is this: I’m sure it wasn’t a mistake.

Adas Israel is located at 2850 Quebec St. NW. For more information on its services and programs, call 202-362-4433 or visit

Randy Shulman is Metro Weekly's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. He can be reached at

Monday, May 4, 2015

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Just Taught the Most Important Torah of Our Time

Embracing Same-Sex Marriage is Modern, American—and Jewish

Ruth Bader Ginsburg says unions, once defined by gender dominance, are fundamentally changed. It’s time for the Jewish community to catch up.

The proceedings about same-sex marriage in the Supreme Court last Tuesday began on a tense note. I was there. Almost immediately, Justice Roberts asserted that we are talking not simply about expanding marriage to include same-sex couples, but about fundamentally redefining marriage in America. The term “millennia” was echoed around among the justices: Hasn’t marriage “for millennia” been defined as a union between a man and a woman? Who are we to suddenly change it? 
As a rabbi present for the deliberations, I found it remarkable that the justices seemed to speak of marriage in such binary terms. After all, in the Jewish tradition, we have a long view on “the millennia.” As I listened, I wished I could pass a note to the chief justices in order to point out that for millennia, polygamy was in fact the essential definition of marriage.  In Judaism, it wasn’t until about one thousand years ago that Rabbeinu Gershom famously enacted a ban on husbands taking multiple wives.
When Justice Bader Ginsburg joined in the conversation, her voice was quiet and the room palpably leaned forward to hear her insights.  And indeed, she didn’t disappoint. “Marriage today is not what it was under the common law tradition, under the civil law tradition,” she said. “[Same-sex couples] wouldn’t be asking for this relief if the law of marriage was what it was a millennium ago. I mean, it wasn’t possible. Same-sex unions would not have opted into the pattern of marriage, which was a relationship, a dominant and a subordinate relationship. Yes, it was marriage between a man and a woman, but the man decided where the couple would be domiciled; it was her obligation to follow him.  There was a change in the institution of marriage to make it egalitarian when it wasn’t egalitarian. And same-sex unions wouldn’t…fit into what marriage was once.”
As the blogger Ian Millhiser pointed out on the Think Progress, Bader Ginsburg meant that same-sex marriages were inconceivable when marriage was defined by gender roles that assert male dominance. By removing patriarchy from marriage, the inherent egalitarianism of same-sex marriage becomes an undeniable possibility.
Sitting in that courtroom, I realized that Justice Bader Ginsburg just unwittingly forwarded a critically important insight about the Torah that I have been trying to articulate for some time. In the book of Leviticus, we read the infamous injunction against homosexuality (Leviticus18:22): “Do not lie with a male as you lie with a female. It is an abomination.” Justice Bader Ginsburg clarified Leviticus’ problem with homosexual unions:  in a patriarchal society, putting a male in the “role of a woman” was considered an act of abuse and debasement. In our modern discourse, however, we have moved on to egalitarianism. We seek no longer to define gender or marriage by roles of dominance and subordination.
In effect, Justice Bader Ginsburg pointed out that marriage has already been fundamentally redefined in our society; that limiting the definition of marriage solely to a man and a woman is dangerously anachronistic if we indeed strive for the more just value of egalitarianism.  And indeed, in non-Orthodox Judaism we have moved on. When I sit with couples who are about to get married, I explain to them about the patriarchal language of the ketubah, a Jewish marriage contract. I point out the way that the wedding ceremony had its roots in the male “acquiring” the female. We acknowledge this past together and then agree to add onto the ceremony rituals that reflect our modern values of equal partnership in marriage.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, therefore, has taught some of the most important Torah of our time. Like Rabbeinu Gershom, who responded to the changed reality of his time a millenium ago by banning the abusive practice of polygamy, Bader Ginsburg sees a need to respond to the changed realities of our time as well. She teaches us not in a Jewish context, but in an American one, as her insights resonate deeply with Jewish wisdom.
Jews have a long tradition of re-framing and changing our understanding of injunctions and permissions based on new insights about justice and compassion. Bader Ginsburg’s wisdom shows us how we must respond to ancient texts that vilify homosexuality and seemingly preclude same-sex marriage: by following the rabbinic process of embracing change for the sake of human dignity, justice, and holiness.
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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Closet of the Religious Right

When Governor Mike Pence signed the discriminatory RFRA bill into law, I reacted like any other gay man--with sadness and anger at the rejection of lgbtq individuals based on someone’s notion of a religious ideal.  But my anger has given way to a sobering realization:  I am not as different from the Christian religious Right as I would like to think.  
When repeatedly challenged, Governor Pence dug in his heels and worked hard to avoid acknowledging how this bill enables citizens of his state to discriminate.  For months as this issue has reared its head in similar legislation in this country, I have seen this kind of reaction many times in interviews and conversations with those on the religious right.
Every time I see this behavior--otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people desperately avoiding acknowledging the truth--I recognize it fundamentally.  I have been there.  For forty-five years of my life, I lived in a closet that I had made for myself.  There was nothing in the world that I wanted more than to deny the truth of who I am.  I honestly believed that the truth was unthinkable, a betrayal not only of who I wanted to be in the world, but of all those I loved.  The more life showed me who I really am, the more I clung to a false personal narrative of who I desperately wanted to be.  
In the story of Passover, the Torah says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart for the first five plagues.  Surprisingly, for the final five, it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  It would seem that Pharaoh lost his free will, that he became a puppet of God’s will.  I read this differently.  When the text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it means that Pharaoh’s reason for hardening his heart shifted.  Instead of merely reacting against Moses, Pharaoh, on some very deeply-felt level, began to understand that Moses was in the right, and that he himself was wrong.  The more the undeniable truth confronted him, the more he denied it from a place of fear and desperation.  For Pharaoh, the Truth  was unthinkable: that there is a God, higher than any human being, who demands justice for oppressed, a world of ever-increasing compassion for those who suffer.  In this way, it was the Truth (God!) that hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
There are many kinds of closets in our human experience.  Some closets are about sexuality, others about religion, others are about power.  The Torah doesn’t use the term “closet.”  Instead, it is called a “hardened heart.”  The religious right is in a closet of religious sensibilities and denial that they are now desperately using as a weapon of discrimination.  Make no mistake, their behavior is identical to that of Pharaoh and his hardened heart.  Their hearts are hardened because of a desperate fear of losing their cherished version of a world that they want so badly to be true, a world and a truth narrowly defined by their pastors along Biblical precepts.
I have come to see that the Bible is not inherently synonymous with truth.  Rather, the Bible is a precious tool to help us to find the truth in our lived experience.  Another name of God is Truth, no matter how unthinkable and frightening that truth may be.  God, the Truth, can never be reduced to a text.  God, the Truth, is bigger than we are, bigger than any stories or ideas we can project about what we want life to be.  I have come to see that all closets and hardened hearts--no matter how well-intended--bring about far worse plagues than the truth that we feared to be so unthinkable.  The inevitable reality is that the truth is on the side of anyone who stands up for the oppressed.  The religious right knows this at the core of their being.  That’s why they are so frightened and their hearts are hardened.   Like Moses, may we stand and act courageously in the face of all those with hardened hearts.   And may we  watch the modern-day version of the miracle of Passover unfold in our time.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Election results in Israel: The triumph of fear over vision in the Jewish State

On election day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted on Facebook that "Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out." With this fear-mongering, he succeeded in bringing out the far-right votes to secure his victory.  When I learned of these tactics, and of Likud’s victory, I was not angry.  I was overwhelmed with sadness and grief.  My sadness wasn’t only on account of dashed hopes for peace, or of an alienated American Jewry.  My deepest grief was on the triumph of fear over vision in the State of Israel. 
In many ways, the story of the Jewish people over centuries has been about the struggle between fear and vision--between the trauma of persecution and the mission to be a holy people, a light of justice and peace for the world.  On Passover we tell the story of how our people we were liberated from a fear-mongering Pharaonic state.  Our national narrative bears a message of justice and hope.  At our seders, we also acknowledge that “ every generation [enemies of the Jewish people] rise up to destroy us…”At the very core of our identity as a people, vision and fear exist together in a tense and competing partnership.
In the Zohar, a central medieval Jewish mystical text, this tension between a loving vision and a fearful darkness exists as an earthly reflection of a similar tension within the Godhead itself.  Even God struggles between the Divine “Attribute of Compassion”--an infinite desire to love and to embrace--along with the “Attribute of Judgment,” the inevitable need for limits and disappointments, for death itself.  Our rabbis teach us that God seeks to exist always with the Attribute of Compassion in ascendancy over the Attribute of Judgment. So, too, on earth, we must live so that our choices and actions place compassion over judgment.  If we incline more toward fear and judgment than compassion, we unleash greater potential for evil in the world.
The dream of the modern State of Israel came into being on the heels of the Shoah, when the world turned on us and sought to annihilate us.  Once again--now in real statecraft--the holiest dreams and hopes of the Jewish people were inexorably linked with trauma and horror.  Whether we realized it or not, the grand experiment of the Jewish state was a test of the Jewish people:  can we, despite six million reasons to incline toward the Attribute of Judgment, build a state that inclines toward the Attribute of Compassion?  Netanyahu would say that dreams and visions are nice, but the reality of Iran and an increasingly radicalized middle east calls for extreme defensive response.  He is not wrong about the realities of the Middle East and the very real existential threats to Israel. 
But in this election, and recently in the US Congress, Netanyahu has taken tactics deliberately aimed at striking fear into the hearts of the Jewish people, and of the world.  By playing partisan politics in the States, by eliciting a standing ovation for Eli Wiesel--thereby invoking the trauma of the Holocaust--by blanketly painting the political Left as in cahoots with the enemies of Israel and of Democracy, Netanyahu has tipped the scales toward the Attribute of Judgment.  The stage is now set for fear itself to be the defining characteristic of the Jewish state.  Under Netanyahu’s leadership, trauma and mistrust itself become the central bases of the future Jewish State, in all the ways Israel will respond to its neighbors, and to the world.
I grieve the results of this election because it represents the abandonment of the dreams of Israel’s founders, who sought a Jewish state that cherished all its citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. I grieve this election because it replaces the core Israeli value of “Hatikvah,” of Hope, with cynicism.  The grand experiment of Israel was whether a vision of hope, justice, and peace could overcome centuries of exile and trauma in the hearts of the Israeli people.  I grieve because Netanyahu’s leadership presents an answer to this experiment, and that answer is no.  May those of us refuse to give up on a vision of hope and justice remain undaunted, despite our grief.  And may we live to see the day when the Attribute of Compassion beats at the deepest heart of the Jewish State.
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation, the oldest and largest conservative synagogue in Washington, DC. He is the first openly gay senior rabbi in the institution's 150-year history, and speaks publicly on matters of Israel, LGBT Justice, and Jewish Spirituality throughout the Nation's Capital and the world.