We had set up the room for 30 people based on 25 RSVPs. By the time we were less than half way through our recent Pride Shabbat service, around sixty people were gathered in the auditorium singing and welcoming Shabbat and each other. Many were new to the DJC. Several confided in me they hadn’t been in a Jewish community or Jewish prayer space in decades. We were celebrating LGBTQ Pride as an inclusive, progressive Jewish community with Jewish and non-Jewish members and participants – a radical project. And we were gathered in Jewish community, celebrating Shabbat, offering prayer and song in the words of Jewish ancestors, and drinking from the nourishing stream of Jewish tradition, wisdom, and heritage – an ancient project.
We were together celebrating the fact that if you identify as trans, as lesbian, as gay, as bisexual, as queer, or if you love and support LGBTQ folks, you do not have to break up with Judaism and you do not have to get a divorce from Jewish community. You do not have to choose between being Jewish or being queer or trans. That is a wondrous reality.
Because this is not the case in all Jewish communities, our being together claiming Judaism as our own and insisting that Judaism claim us as beloved Yidn is not to be taken for granted for one instant.
And because it is the reality here at the DJC, and in increasing numbers of Jewish communities, that being Jewish and queer or trans is to be doubly blessed, kissed on both cheeks, and embraced in the center of Jewish communal life, it is to be celebrated as normative Judaism. It is to be celebrated as Judaism itself living out its fullest expressions of tzedek – justice, of kedusha – holiness, and osher – deep joy.
Our LGBTQ ancestors paved the way, with their courage and passion, with their unrelenting political tenacity and their spiritual resilience, in the ways they challenged norms and assumptions and fears and lived, into colourful new human and sacred truths. We would not be here were it not for them.
Our Jewish ancestors paved the way by giving us rituals and blessings and teachings that affirm the fundamental, unassailable goodness of every human being (and that includes you!) and that guide us in healing and growing our inner lives and the world around us. Our Jewish ancestors handed over to us the magnificently creative and daring tools of interpretation so that there is almost nothing more Jewish than to be part of reading and interpreting our texts through the lenses of our lives, being brave enough to know the Divine presence, not fixed in the text but in unfolding discovery together of what is just and noble and holy and how to live it. We would not be here were it not for them.
Our service moved through moments of vibrant singing and dancing, reflective silence, blessing each other, and softening into Shabbat. There were tears. There was laughter. As we approached the Shma (Judaism’s central declaration of Oneness), I noted that the prayers surrounding the Shma are prayers of loving and being loved. The practice of loving – strong, compassionate, ethically-bold, action-based loving – is a central, ongoing project and practice in Jewish life, embodied in the quality of chesed – expansive loving kindness. I can’t think of anything more elevating, more challenging, or more particularly loving in the face of hatred and violence.
The other day, when Dylan Roof appeared in court through video link facing nine murder charges, the victims’ families had the opportunity to address him and to address all of us. This occurred just days after their loved ones were gunned down at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in the midst of a Bible study session. It is significant that they were gathered in prayer and study. It is significant that the messages from families over and over again were messages of forgiveness, love, and the refusal to hate. These words in no way glossed over the racism of the murders or minimized the very present anger and pain. But the teachings of this African Methodist community gave them the tools and the regular practice to meet horror with the commitments of loving and forgiveness that are stronger than hate.
One family member said, “For me, I’m a work in progress and I acknowledge that I am very angry but one thing De Payne has always joined in my family with is that she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate and so we have to forgive.” Or in the words of President Obama, “The good news is I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship, indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome.”
For LGBTQ folks, loving and being loved can be dangerous. And for LGBTQ folks, loving and being loved can be liberatory. For all targeted groups, in different ways, loving is an act of resistance to oppression. And for all of us, when we concretely practice chesed, when we build the world from love – olam chesed yibaneh – not in sentimentality but in the joy and fierceness that loves against the grain of specific hatreds, fears, and violence, the tools of Jewish life move us all, step-by-step, toward liberation. What a joy to practice together, to practice building the world from love.