A minister friend of mine told me the story of these were four ministers who were sitting at lunch together at a class reunion – one turns to the others and says, “You I can tell…I have a problem with stealing…from time to time when no one is looking, I take some money from the collection plate on Sunday.”
So the second says, “You I can tell…I have a problem with sex…often I can’t help having lascivious thoughts about women in my congregation, and sometimes it even goes beyond that.”
The third says, “OK, You I can tell….I have a problem with drinking…whenever I think no one is looking, I drink from the Communion cup.”
They turn to the 4th and say, “And you???”
“I have a terrible gossip problem…and I can’t wait for this lunch to be over!”
You have to be careful with whom you share your passions and problems in life. And this year has certainly been a year of passions.
There were the passions of Islamic Fundamentalists beheading captives and murdering hundreds of innocent people throughout the world.
There was our own government’s anti-Sadaam passion that has now led to the deaths, dismemberment and permanent injury of thousands of American and Iraqi soldiers and civilians.
And the passion of Palestinian suicide bombers deliberately murdering innocent Israeli women and children and families.
And of course there was Mel Gibson’s “Passion.”
And in the midst of all this was a different kind of passion. It was the passion of people in love.
For this was a year of public passion between same-sex couples, many of whom have had loving, monogamous relationships for decades, including at least three couples from our own congregation who stood proudly on the steps of city halls in four states to unite their lives in marriage – literally and symbolically legalizing their union as spiritual partners proudly and publicly for the first time in American history.
As you know, sadly just last month the California Supreme Court nullified all of them – nearly 4,000 marriages, saying that the Mayor of San Francisco had exceeded his authority in granting them in the first place. In one day, in one moment, those 7 judges invalidated the lives and love of 8,000 loving men and women.
And there was a passion of another kind. The passion of Bible-quoting religious fundamentalists who stood with placards of Biblical quotations in hand on those same courthouse steps, screaming at men and women whose only transgression was to love one another that they are an abomination, sinners, evil incarnate.
And unfortunately, they use the same Bible, our Bible to “prove” that the very existence of homosexuality itself let alone marriage between same-sex partners is literally contrary to the will of God. They try to prove it by quoting our Torah.
What is most frightening about fundamentalists of every religion is their certainty. They know they are right, because God said so. And they know that God said so, because they have it in writing – whether that writing is in Arabic, Latin, English, or Hebrew.
Many of you know how involved I have been over the years in interfaith work. I’ve even written several books about interfaith marriage and for years have been President of the interfaith Palisades Ministerial Association.
But today I am compelled to share my passion as well. It’s a passion that condemns the utter hypocrisy with which self-righteous religious fundamentalists use the Torah as proof that God believes homosexuality is an abomination, yet with selective blindness ignore every other instance in the Torah of God’s commandments where it simply doesn’t suit their beliefs.
Their favorite is to hold up placards and sport bumper stickers quoting Chapter 18 Verse 22 of Leviticus where it says if a man lies with another man in the manner of a woman it is a toeva, an “abomination.” Yet they conveniently ignore that the very same God in the very same Torah just 7 chapters earlier uses the very same word, toeva, “abomination” for anyone who eats lobster, crab, scallops or any other shellfish. Do they really think that God is only serious when it comes to gays and lesbians, but just kidding about shrimp?
Do they quote that in Chapter 21 of Exodus God commands that any child who strikes his parents should be put to death?
Or that in Chapter 20 of Exodus God commands that any child who even insults his parents should be put to death?
Or that in the same chapter of Exodus God declares that anyone who commits adultery should be put to death?
Or that in Chapter 21 of Exodus God says it’s OK for a man to sell his daughter into slavery?
Or that in Chapter 35 of Exodus God commands anyone one who works on Saturday to be put to death?
Of course they don’t pay attention to or follow those Biblical commandments even though they are handed down by the very same God in the very same sacred book. Because the world is not the same today as it was 3,000 years ago – and the fact is that everyone picks and chooses the Biblical ideas, commandments, values, and ethics, that they believe either matter or don’t matter today.
Everyone. It is only the hypocritical, the narrow minded, the fundamentalists who are so blinded by their own self-righteousness that they believe that there is only one truth, one correct understanding of what God wants us to do and not to do, and it has been given to them.
OK, that was the easy part. I suspect that all of us feel pretty much the same about Bible-toting, Bible-quoting religious fundamentalists regardless of the religious tradition they claim to represent.
But what about you and me? I think that’s the hard part. What about the religious fundamentalist inside each of us? You and me? I know you are probably thinking, “What’s he calling me a fundamentalist for? I’m a liberal Jew in a Reconstructionist synagogue on the West Side of LA. I don’t impose my religious beliefs on anyone.”
Well, our fundamentalist tendencies don’t manifest themselves in taking every story in the Torah literally. You probably don’t believe the world was created in 6 days, or that Noah saved the world by putting two of every animal in a big boat, or that Adam and Eve were the first humans and Eve was created out of Adam’s rib.
But sometimes, with some issues we all act as if we are suddenly fundamentalists. As if the Torah’s judgment ought to literally be our judgment as well. God’s condemnation becomes ours. At least I know that is how I acted in my youth. And I found my religious fundamentalism reinforced every day in school by my carton of milk.
When I was in elementary school, we would bring money to school each week called, “milk money.” You brought in milk money and every day you were given a carton of milk. It was homogenized, but I don’t remember ever seeing the word “homogenized” on the carton. Instead, printed in large, bold letters across the bottom of every single carton of milk I ever drank in school, were the words, “HOMO MILK.”
HOMO MILK. My friends and I would laugh every single time we read the carton of milk, every single day. And it became a fabulous way to insult a classmate, ridicule someone who wasn’t athletic, or simply get back at someone who was irritating you. Someone dropped the ball at recess: “What’s the matter, too much HOMO MILK?” Don’t pick him for our team – he drinks HOMO MILK.”
I didn’t know anything about sexuality as a young boy, but the one thing I did know – the worst thing you could be called by other boys, was a fag, a queer, a HOMO. We didn’t even really know what it was, but by age 9 the one thing we all knew was that whatever it is, it is definitely not OK to be a HOMO.
But “being a HOMO” isn’t something you decide one day to be. It’s something you are. I have gay and lesbian friends who didn’t know what label to put on it but knew they were different when they were 8 years old and younger! Imagine the horror of finally putting the label on the feelings they had and realizing, “Oh my God, I am that awful creature that everyone makes fun of. I am a HOMO.”
And I suspect that I wasn’t alone in my fear of being called one, or my ingrained, fundamental belief that to be one was wrong, bad, evil, sick, and yes, perhaps even a sin. And that my friends was me, and perhaps you as well, thinking like and acting like a religious fundamentalist whether we like it or not.
By now some of you are probably asking yourselves, “Why is he talking about homosexuality on the High Holy Days? Aren’t there more important more global issues to discuss? After all, this really affects only a tiny minority of the population.” Or does it?
Well if statistics and studies are correct, then between 7-10% of the population are gay or lesbian, including Jews. That means there are about ½ million gay and lesbian Jews in America.
They are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, our friends, our doctors, our lawyers, our accountants, our teachers, our rabbis and cantors and Jewish educators. They serve on synagogue boards, sing in the choir, car pool their kids to youth group meetings and religious school.
They are all around us. They are here in the sanctuary. And sadly, still too many of them are hidden away. Living lives of silence, living in perpetual fear of the sidelong glance, the whispers or sneers that might mean someone has discovered their secret and their lives as they know it might be blown apart.
They know that homophobia, denying equal civil and social and human rights to gays and lesbians in our society has become perhaps the last socially acceptable bigotry in our country – even among Jews who should know better.
What a tragic commentary it makes upon our society, that just one day after our supreme court invalidated California’s 4,000 same-sex marriages, James McGreevy, the married Governor of New Jersey announced, “I am a gay American,” and had to quit the governorship in public humiliation for among other things, having an affair with a man.
I am talking about homosexuality today, because the High Holy Days are a time of self-examination. To rediscover who we are, what our values are, iH and what our values should be as individuals and as a community.
Our challenge is to come together on Rosh Hashana and not just talk about our values, but walk them, live them as well. What values am I talking about? Here are 6 of the most important Jewish values that form the core of MY attitudes about homosexuality today, and I believe ought to be the values of this synagogue and this community as well:
First, the remarkable idea that Judaism brought to the world over 3,000 years ago, that every human being is created B’TZELEM ELOHIM, in the image of God. It doesn’t say in Genesis, that God created the human being in the divine image EXCEPT gays and lesbians – there is no “except” in the Torah, and there shouldn’t be in this synagogue or in our country either. The idea that every human being is created in the divine image is an affirmation of the inherent dignity of every human being as well – gay or straight.
Second, I believe in the spiritual challenge contained in Leviticus 19:18, VEAHAVTA LERAYEKHA KAMOKHA, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The imperative for us all, is to recognize that our neighbors are also gays and lesbians, individually and in families, and we are to love them as ourselves.
Third, I believe in the Biblical imperative of TZEDEK, TZEDEK TIRDOF, “Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” The fight for civil, social and human rights for gays and lesbians today, may in fact be the emerging civil rights issue of this decade.
Fourth, I believe that the goal of our lives is contained in Leviticus 19 – KEDOSHIM TEHIYU “Be Holy,” and that “being holy” includes doing acts of tzedakah and loving-kindness, and creating loving relationships. That’s why marriage in Hebrew is called, KEDUSHIN (Holiness), and why I champion the right of gay and lesbian couples who are in loving, committed, sacred relationships to be married with all the legal rights and privileges that heterosexual couples automatically enjoy.
Fifth, I recognize that the first mitzvah in the Torah is PERU U’RVU, “Be fruitful and multiply,” and that we ought to give support to gay and lesbian couples who marry, have and adopt children and raise them in loving, nurturing, Jewish homes, and I am proud that there are a number of such families in our congregation.
Sixth, I teach the value of SHALOM BAIT, “Family Harmony,” and celebrate the loving gay and lesbian families I know, especially those in our own congregation. And I pray that parents, siblings and extended families of gays and lesbians can embrace them with open hearts and welcoming arms.
They already spend enough of their lives living with rejection – the mitzvah of SHALOM BAIT is an intimate antidote to that rejection both within the home and the home that is our synagogue community, as well.
13 years ago I was invited to officiate at a naming ceremony for Fanny Rose, by her two gay fathers whom I had never met. It was an eye-opening experience for me that probably changed me forever. Not only were both fathers there, but her birth mother (a close friend who had agreed to give them this gift of the heart and has stayed a part of this child’s life ever since), the grandparents, extended family and friends.
They wrote the ceremony themselves, and it was one of the most loving and spiritual experiences of my life. They have been part of this synagogue community ever since and just a few months ago I had the privilege of officiating with Cantor Frenkel at Fanny’s Bat Mitzvah at KI. And she is a remarkable, loving, fabulous kid. That’s what our synagogue ought to be all about.
In the years since that naming experience, I have been privileged to officiate at several weddings and commitment ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples. Those too were inevitably among the most emotionally powerful, spiritually moving experiences of my rabbinate.
And just a few months ago I went to SM hospital at 7:30 in the morning to be part of a circumcision ceremony baby Jonas – born to Kathleen and Lisa, a lesbian couple in our congregation – their second child – and another of those profound and inspiring rabbinic experiences.
It was a privilege to be trusted as their rabbi. The joy and tension in the room was palpable as it always is at such occasions – but this one was tinged with a powerful emotion that transcended the ordinary – it was the wonder of their loving relationship, and the blessing of birth and renewal.
It was a moment when God was invited into the family and we knew that something profoundly sacred was taking place.
And another sad reminder of why I take part in the struggle for equal civil, social and human rights for gay and lesbian couples. For just like many heterosexual couples in our community with fertility challenges, they used a sperm bank and the birth mother was artificially inseminated. There they were, like any other couple in similar circumstances – worrying about the potential trauma they were about to visit upon their little boy, explaining what was going on to his big sister, Claire, holding each other’s hands for support and love.
But unlike every other couple you know, a month later I received a detailed reference form from an “adoption service provider” because the only way that Lisa, the mother who didn’t carry the child will have any legal rights, or claim or legal relationship with Jonas is if she applies to adopt him and is accepted for adoption.
It just doesn’t seem right, or just, or compassionate, or moral, or Jewish to me. Oscar Levant once said, “It’s not what you are, it’s what you don’t become that hurts.” Think of the hundreds of thousands of gay and lesbian Jews, and literally millions of gay and lesbian non-Jews who are hurt every day because of what they can’t become.
I started with a Christmas story, so I’ll end with one as well. This is the true story of a couple in Brooklyn, New York. The Thomas family and their little boy, George Thomas, who was 4 years old.
One day near Christmas they were walking down the street when an old man with a beard passed by them. Little George ran after the old man, tugged on his coattail, and said, “Santa, will you please bring me a teddy-bear for Christmas?”
The parents were embarrassed. The old man just winked at the boy, patted him on the head, and went on his way.
On Christmas morning there was a knock on the door even before little George was out of bed. There stood the old man, white beard and all, with a teddy-bear in his hands. He gave it to the surprised young parents and simply said, “I didn’t want the little fellow to be disappointed.”
As he walked back down the steps they said, “Goodbye, Rabbi Podolsky. Have a Merry Christmas.”
Well there is fanaticism and fundamentalism in our world, and then there are moments like this – remembering what all religions are really all about – to remind us who we are and what we can be, and what really matters. To speak to the best and highest and most noble in us and allow us to see the sacred spark of God in us all.
And so here I am on Rosh Hashana, our time to renew and begin again, affirming the values I cherish and that I believe are right for our congregation and community as well. I want to begin this New Year with a blessing, Supreme Court or not, I’d like to invite the same-sex couples in our congregation who have gotten married this year to stand here with me for a blessing