Temple Beth El/Chadeish Yameinu Pride Shabbat – Santa Cruz
Shabbat Shalom. It is an honor to be here. Happy pride. I feel pride being here. As a queer Jew and as an emissary from the Northlands, from Cotati, California, a place that is queerer than you think and about as Jewish as you would imagine.
Rabbi Eli and I gave great thought and discussion to what I would talk about tonight. It was difficult and tense. I presented idea after idea to him – and every time he would just say yes. And that made it very hard to choose. Because who knows? Maybe you want to know about the skirt I'm wearing and what it means to me and how often I do that and do I get away with it? Or maybe you really want to hear some tell-all thing from a former drag queen. And you're not going to get any of that. Maybe at oneg. But not now.
Instead, I'm going to give you a little compendium of ideas, Jewish Queer ideas. Jewish-ish, Queer-ish. And I will call it the Gifts of the Queers. We all know about the book, The Gifts of the Jews. About our Jewish gifts to civilization. And we're all on board with that because we've grown up being raised into a sense of our specialness as Jews.
Whereas LGBTQI people are not so much raised into a sense of their own specialness. Including in the Jewish world. Where we tend not to be valued for our contributions, but instead seen for the halachic problems we pose. It's remarkable to me in rabbinical school how often a phrase like "same-sex marriage" is preceded by the phrase "the problem of."
So let's spend a little time praising the gifts of the queers. We'll consider it medicine.
Now if at any point you feel gratitude welling up in your heart for these contributions, feel free to just shout out "Thank you, Queers." Don't be shy. Queer people don't get thanked quite enough. It'll be good for everybody.
So nu, I'll give you seven items, and we'll start this non-exhaustive list with:
Gift 7. Love.
We queers have so much to say about love. We know what it is like to risk everything for it. We know what it is like to negotiate love without the crutch of gender roles to fall back on. We know what it was like, for many years, to love without benefit of marriage or any other kind of legal or social recognition. To love despite disapproval. We know what it is like to love lavishly, fiercely, sequentially or simultaneously, without the benefits or constraints of convention. We know how to hold love to be of greater importance than a whole mess of shoulds. And why is this good for the Jews? I don't know. I just think love is good for everyone. What the world needs now is love – sweet love. It's not the only thing but it is one thing that there's just too little of. And as Jews, when we do our interfaith relations, when we talk Israel and Palestine, when we have our tense Jewish arguments, wouldn't a little more love be good? We can help with that.
Gift 6. Marriage.
It was predicted by some that we queer people would, single-handedly, destroy the institution of marriage. For some of us that was what made it worth going for. But I am instead amused to announce that we, the queer people of this country, have made marriage great again.
Before the marriage equality movement, marriage was in a slump, dragging along in this country, with role models like Britney Spears, drunk in the middle of the night in a Vegas wedding chapel. People entered into marriage unthinkingly, impulsively and with unrealistic expectations.
But we, in our same-sex marriage quest, with our photogenic octogenarian couples waiting in line in San Francisco for wedding licenses; we, with our legal demand and our court battles, we made marriage desirable again, valuable. The country saw that marriage was worth fighting for. I don't think we notice this quite enough.*1*
And we offer a gift to Judaism in our marriages too, and I'll tell you how, and this gets perhaps a little arcane.
Our traditional model of marriage in Judaism is an acquisition model. It involves a man acquiring a woman or acquiring her exclusivity. The ring and the harei at mekudeshet – "behold you are consecrated unto me" – language is the holdover of that. We have tried to undo it, to rethink it, to announce that this language is metaphorical without going on to ask why, if it's only metaphorical, would we still do it at all.*2* We have tried reciprocity – having the bride say to groom the same language the groom just said to the bride. And in the progressive Jewish world that largely works. But the Orthodox would look at the same ceremony and consider the groom's words to be binding and the bride's words to be decoration. And the groom's words to the bride would trigger, in the Orthodox and Conservative world, and in the State of Israel, a union that can only be undone at the husband's initiation. An egalitarian straight couple like we might find in this room could end up in a horribly un-egalitarian place if they somehow ended up brushing up against the world of Orthodoxy.
It's a nasty business. And we, on the progressive edge, manage it by not looking too closely at it. We modify traditional Jewish wedding language and keep our fingers crossed.
But then here we queers waltz into the chupah with all our blatant same-sexness, and halachah is puzzled into silence, unable to discern who is acquiring whom. Obviously the Orthodox world would not recognize our marriages at all. But the Jewish world that is willing to marry same-sex couples now at last has to get serious about getting creative. The scholar Rachel Adler has created one good alternative model of marriage built on Talmudic law for creating business partnerships. And there might be other ideas we haven't tried yet. But when we develop something that works for same-sex couples and that we all find beautiful and binding, it will work for straight egalitarian couples too, giving them a new option for a Jewish marriage that reflects who they are.
Now after love and marriage, the next gift might logically be:
Gift 5. Family.
Here's what we have to offer Judaism about family. We queers are people who have learned how to create family in organic ways. Many of us left families of origin and formed new families of friends. Having children, for us, requires special thought and planning and technology. And we sometimes bring these children into complex and creative family arrangements – with multiple adults, exes, friends, an army of aunties, all playing a role in raising children who will, by the way, never have cause to doubt how wanted they were.
Queer families know the difference between biology and kinship, and that is something we can teach the Jewish world. We are family because of how we live, who we are, not how we were conceived.
And as we Jews continue our never-ending conversation about who is a Jew, maybe we here can be a gentle vote for a post-biological era, where a child's home and relationships and practices and desires are as or more important in determining whether they are Jewish than snooping to find out whose egg and whose sperm were involved, which, by the way, if you don't know, is a rude thing to do. I could tell you stories. Just don't do it.
In teaching an expanded notion of family, we don't have to look outside of Judaism's own stories. Consider Ruth and Naomi who, by vow and by practice, created family with each other. To the degree that when Ruth, at the end of the story at last has a baby, the neighbor women say, "a child is born to Naomi." This is a story of kinship that is voluntary, kinship that is recognized by the community, kinship that is independent of gender and genes.
Gift 4. Freedom from Gender.
All queer people have had to negotiate gender. All queer people have had to question how binding the rules and requirements of gender would be on them. Some queer people live in a gender they were not raised in. Some queer people are pioneering what it is like to live in a different gender altogether or no particular gender at all. Queer people have been punished for violations against gender, and we keep coming back, responding bravely, playfully, cautiously, heroically.
We have taught and we have modeled that gender doesn't have to be this way, so obligatory, so limiting, so insistent. And that is so freeing.
If we began to internalize how dynamic and flexible gender is, and then bring to this our Jewish understanding that this is all tzelem Elohim, the image of God, then how much more dynamic and flexible is our understanding of God? How freeing would it be not to be stuck in the rut of thinking or speaking of God as "he" and "king" and "father" and then trying to make up for it by thinking "Shechinah" and "Divine Feminine" every seventh or eighth time; or of avoiding gender altogether by going off of anthropomorphic God imagery so entirely that God is too abstract to love.
Imagine the freedom of taking our richer, more varied, fresh ideas of gender and seeing them as reflection of God in this world. I can hear our collective sigh of sweet relief, like you might make taking off a girdle that's been on for too many hours. Unhook it, let ribs re-expand, and at last a deep, unhindered breath.
Gift 3. Outsider Outlook.
Sometimes when you stand in the center, you don't know which way to look. But the perspective of the outsider can bring great clarity. From outside a system, you sometimes see what the mechanics of the system are, the assumptions built in, and you can articulate that. This is a lesson that Jews know. Jewish humor is all about observing and revealing assumptions as arbitrary. My friend Gale Kissin's favorite Jewish joke goes like this: Malkah and Sonja are talking over the fence. Malka says, "Sonja, did you hear? We're not in Russia anymore. Now we're in Poland!" Sonja responds, "Thank God. I couldn't stand another Russian winter."
For the Gentile world, national boundaries were natural and essential. To Jewish eyes they were arbitrary to the point of comedic. This is the role of the margin: to point to the center and question it. A delicious quality shared by Jews and Queers.
Gift 2. Political Correctness.
This one is, admittedly, a tangent. Not specifically Jewish and not specifically queer. But I, a queer Jew, was disturbed this week by something that went tweet in the night, and I have been stewing since and I have the podium.
Here's what it was. In response to the terror attack in London, our president wrote:
We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people.
By which our president means, more or less, "We must stop coddling Muslims."
Now queers did not invent the phrase "politically correct" – although it was in queer feminist circles that I first learned it in the 1980s. In that context it was a borrowing from a Stalinist phrase which had meant following the party line. But we used it ironically – ironically because we on the Left really had no power.
But we used it about our relationship to social change. New understandings of disempowered people's experience were creating a demand for new actions, new politics. We were expected to take these to heart and employ them in our lives. We joked about this being political correctness; we wanted to do these things, even if it was uncomfortable, and perhaps it was not fair to make the political correctness barb, because it did come froma place of undue privilege, and because it got stolen from us and it has done damage.
Now it is the Right's favorite critique of the compassion of the Left. When we want to protect the civil liberties or dignity of Muslims, we are accused of political correctness. When we speak up to defend the lives of people of color. Or the the right of trans people to use a public restroom safely. Or the right of intersex children to be left alone. We are accused of political correctness, as if we are the oppressors and not the advocates of the oppressed.
It is time to reclaim this moral turf. When accused of being PC, it is time to say yes, I am PC: Persistently caring. Proudly compassionate. A channel of Pure Chesed.
We know what it is like to be persecuted. And we are called to stand up in defense of others who are. And when accused of political correctness, to say, "If that is political correctness, then yes. Sign me up."
Gift 1. Joy.
It was recently pointed out to me that even in the direst moments of the AIDS epidemic, gay pride festivals were still grand celebrations. It is true that queer culture and queer community-building have always had elements of celebration, laughter, joy. And there is an important lesson here moving forward. We should bring joy to our resistance. Joy as a practice. All our activism should contain song, dance, humor, delight. If we are looking to build a future worth celebrating, there's no reason we can't get into the celebration habit right now. Experience joy not as an escape from our work in this difficult world but as a Vorspeis, an appetizer, in the way that Shabbat is a taste of the World to Come.
So that's it. Tonight's manifesto. Or personifesto, to be politically correct. May we continue to give our gifts, as queers, as allies, as Jews. May we share our light, our endurance, our joy, our love, our humor. May we have pride, not just one day, but every day. May we not just have pride, but be a pride, of lions, fierce and beautiful, protecting our young, the next generation that will surely follow, and inhabiting a landscape of tomorrow.
Now go celebrate your gifts.
*1* I am grateful to Anne Tamar-Mattis for this insight.
*2* This insight is from Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism.