Parashat Shlach Lecha - "Born this Way"

For the Sonoma Pride Interfaith Service

June 12, 2011

Note: I was one of three clergy asked to "share words" touching on the theme of Lady Gaga's "Born this Way."

Good evening. I am humbled and excited to be here. I've had the good fortune to stand on stage at many a Pride event, but it's my first time doing it neither as an activist nor as a singing drag queen, but rather as a Jew. Truthfully, I can't even remember the last time I attended a Pride event in pants. And as I'm sure many of you can understand, I'm finding it rather constricting.

 But I'm honored to be asked to "Share Words," which seems to be the gentile euphemism for "give a sermon but please keep it short." In the Jewish tradition we call these words a drash, in which you expound upon a traditional text in order to draw meaning and relevance from it. Today I'll treat two texts: one from Torah and one from Gaga.

I'll start with Torah. This week, Jews around the world read and argue over a portion of the Book of Numbers called Shlach Lecha. In this well-known story, the Children of Israel are in the Wilderness, camped just outside the borders of the Promised Land. They send scouts to investigate. The scouts return and report that the land is flowing with milk and honey. "But," they add, "the people there are mighty. They are as giants, and stronger than we...

ונהי בעינינו כחגבים וכן היינו בעיניהם

...and we appeared as grasshoppers in our eyes and in theirs."

The sages of old discuss this moment and how their history of enslavement colored the Children of Israel's sense of self-worth. They were unable to take their rightful place not because they were weak, but because they believed themselves to be weak. And because of this, they were doomed to wander for forty more years.

Feel familiar? For those of you who like me are alte kackers, old timers, in the world of queer activism, this should feel very familiar. Because it also describes our pursuit of a place in this world.

Enter, then, our second text, the Torah of Gaga. In the earliest years of the fight for our rights in this country, our approach was tentative. This was revealed in our political rhetoric, repeatedly explaining that we were "born this way." Not in a Lady Gaga "we don't care what you think" kind of way. Not topped off with a defiant Queer Nation "get over it." We said it very much in a "we do care what you think" way. "We were born this way," we said, "so it is unfair of you to treat us poorly." At the time, in its context, "born this way" was the strongest case we could make for our rights and it was our great statement of identity. And I never liked it.

It was always a rhetoric of apology. A plea for tolerance, not a demand for anything particularly good and juicy. "We are grasshoppers," we seemed to say, "We were born as grasshoppers. It's not our fault that we're grasshoppers. So please don't step on us as you would step on, say, grasshoppers."

Besides feeling apologetic, the "born this way" rhetoric also felt to me to be simply untrue. Too restrictive. Too static. And under-appreciative of who we are. Yes, we might have been born that way but we didn't stop there. We might have begun with our particular genes and hormones and whatever else goes into the human cocktail, but we've all kept adding and shaking and stirring. And what we've each concocted with our raw ingredients is nothing short of brilliant and brave and, to my mind, holy.

Our births didn't define our destinies. After all, couldn't we have lived as heterosexuals? Just entre nous, couldn't we have? Couldn't we have lived in our body's biological sex? Maybe. Probably. Our forebears did. Could we have done it happily? Maybe not. But we might have chosen to make the tradeoff. We might have been willing to remain closeted or quiet or invisible in exchange for, I don't know, a prominent place in religious life or maybe a seat in Congress. I understand people do that.

All of us who were "born this way" have made choices, from the moment we realized we were different in some way that matters. When to pass. When not to. How to survive. How to leave home. How to create home. How to find community. How to make community where there was none. How to love. How to be brave. How to be fabulous. How to be in this world. Frankly, in a certain way, how any of us here was born is perhaps the least interesting thing about us.

I know that we Jews contributed to the culture the 6-day Creation story, which sets up the idea that things get created and then get set more or less on a kind of autopilot. In other words, things get made and it's a done deal. Things are as they were born. But this is a tediously static view of the world, and of us. And we are far from a static people.

So I'd like to introduce you to a different Jewish view of Creation, a mystical idea that only got written down after our traditions had parted ways. According to Jewish mysticism, often known by its drag name, Kabbalah, Creation is not something that happened once at a finite point of time in the past. Instead, Creation is renewed at every single moment. God's thought pours through the universe continuously. And through this outpouring of shefa, this Divine abundance, Creation keeps Creationing; the world continues to flow like milk and honey. Everything in it continues to become.

This Creation story I like. It moves. We all continue to become -- through our choices, our intentions and our actions. We continue to become by choosing integrity. Honesty. Insight. Compassion. Freedom. Love. Hot deviant sex. Courage. Creativity. Anger and persistence in the face of injustice.

We might have been born grasshoppers, or we might think we were. But we have become giants. We have wandered for decades in a wilderness of sodomy laws and marriage inequality and Will & Grace reruns and the God-hates-fagmongers of Westboro Baptist. We have had blessings and we have had reversals. We have had our Harry Hays and our Harvey Milks and our Phyllis and Dels. We've had our Radical Faeries and Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and Queer Nations and ACTUPs — and yes, our Lady Gagas. We have lost Matthew Shepherds at the hands of Amalek. We have lost hundreds of thousands of our dearest ones to plague. We continue to witness intersex children surgically "corrected" in the name of gender normativity and our transgender youth suffer the mistreatment of psychoanalysis. We continue to experience both hope and hardship. But we are making a Promised Land of this wilderness. We have become giants and we will have this land flow with milk and honey.

Were we born this way? No. We have grown and survived and flourished to become this way. Or, maybe, taking the mystical view, in which God's shefa, God's divine abundance, flows through and renews this reality at every turn, then we might say, "Yes, we are born this way. Not years ago, but right at this very moment. And we will continue to be born, to become more ourselves, in all our fierceness and fearlessness and fabulousness. We will more and more be the giants we have already dared to become.

And let us say: amen.

(A Gaga-based Kabbalistic Formula. Chant, rinse, repeat.)