SERMON FOR JEWISH LGBT + GROUP EREV SHABBAT SERVICE, 27.05.21 via ZOOM
Shabbat shalom everyone. It feels good to be here with you this evening, celebrating Shabbat together as LGBT+ Jews, albeit, virtually.
This Shabbat, in Israel and progressive communities across the world, we begin reading the third book of the Torah. The book is known as ‘Numbers’ in English, because it opens with the recording of the number of males, aged 20 and upwards, organised by their tribes, who were encamped in the wilderness at the beginning of the second month in the second year following the Exodus. The Hebrew name, on the other hand, is B’midbar – which is the first significant word of the text that differentiates it from all of the other portions. We read: ‘The Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai – b’midbar Sinai’ (Numbers 1:1).
When I got involved in the organised Jewish community almost 40 years ago now, back in 1983, and began to read the Torah, although it felt like I was entering such an utterly unfamiliar world, certain stories and themes – and key teachings – spoke to my experience as a lesbian and a feminist, and have nourished me ever since. The theme that spoke to me most powerfully was the wilderness. So much has changed over the past 40 years for LGBT+ people – not least in the Jewish community. Those of us who are aged 60+, in particular – and I’m 67 – well remember, no doubt, what it was like to live in the wilderness; to live in hiding and on the margins, to feel isolated within one’s own family, to feel afraid of being ‘out’ in the open because of a prevailing climate of homophobia and laws that directly discriminated against LGBT+ people.
When I came out to my parents, aged 23, having already been married to a man because I couldn’t see any other option for me, my dad initially threw me out. We all have our personal stories. As a member of Lesbian Line, a helpline service that I joined in June 1979, I listened to so many heart-breaking tales. Among the most heart-breaking, were those that began with the caller telling me how happy she was because she had found love for the first time in her life. These callers were mostly married women – over 60% of the calls we received were from married women – who had found love with another married woman who, usually, lived next door, or down the street. Invariably, the caller would tell me that they were going to leave their husbands and find a place to live together with their children. And then, I would have to tell her that she would need to be very careful; that if their husbands found out about their relationship, they would lose custody of the children. That was how it was back then.
This is not to say that everything is okay now for LGBT+ people. Yes, there have been significant legal changes, including, an equal age of consent, same-sex marriage and adoption – and lesbian mothers no longer lose their children. But the situation inside traditional religious communities – including the orthodox Jewish community – is very different. Hopefully, the work of Keshet UK, in equipping ‘Jewish organisations with the skills and knowledge to build LGBTQ affirming-communities and create spaces in which all queer Jewish youth feel seen and valued’, will make a difference. In the meantime, those LGBT+ Jews, Christians and Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, who live in more traditional environments still suffer isolation and risk exclusion and persecution if they come out. Many LGBT+ people – including, LGBT+ Jews – may still feel that they live in the wilderness.
But the wilderness is not just a place of suffering. As the Torah tales show us, however hard it was to live in the wilderness for those 40 years, the wilderness was also the site of revelation and renewal. The festival of Shavuot, ‘Weeks’, begins in just over a week on the evening of 4 June. It’s called ‘Weeks’ because it falls seven weeks and a day after the first day of Pesach. In Temple times, Shavuot was the early summer harvest festival of the ‘first fruits.’ But after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, our life as an agricultural people who brought their offerings to the Temple came to an end. The festival might have disappeared, but the early rabbis came up with a creative solution. The narrative in the Torah relates that the ex-slaves arrived in the wilderness of Sinai, at the beginning of the third month after the Exodus. The timing was close enough for ‘the day of first fruits’ to become matan z’man Torateinu, ‘the season of the giving of our Torah’.
Let’s just pause for a moment and think about the significance of the encounter with the Eternal taking place in the wilderness; in a place where it is so easy to lose one’s bearings and to feel lost and insecure.
The ex-slaves – both the Israelites and the ‘mix multitude’ who made a dash for freedom with them – untethered from slavery, free to roam; what a bewildering, terrifying experience. But they heard the voice of the Eternal in the thunder and felt the presence of the Eternal in the quaking mountain. Out of that extraordinary moment, they found new life and purpose, and discovered the tools they needed to build community and become a people.
The endeavour of building community took 40 years; 40 years of getting lost and making mistakes; 40 years during which time, most of those who had escaped slavery had died. But the wilderness wanderers found their way in the end. We have also been finding our way as LGBT+ Jews during the past 40 years – indeed, during the past 50 years: this group, the LGBT+ Group, started life as the Jewish Gay Group in 1972. Contemporary discourse speaks of intersectionality. As LGBT+ Jews we juggle different intersectional identities. Speaking for myself: my bundle encompasses being a biological female and gender-queer, a lesbian and a feminist – and a Jew, whose maternal grandparents fled Cossack pogroms in 1905, and whose paternal grandparents fled Nazi-occupied Austria in 1939. They also experienced a pogrom: the violent attacks that took place on the night of November 9th-10th 1938, known as Kristallnacht, ‘the night of the broken glass’. My grandfather was deported to Dachau three days later, and only released on 19th January after promising to leave Austria with his family.
Finding our way as LGBT+ Jews means enabling ourselves to be all of who we are. In my view and in my experience, it also means finding a framework for our lives rooted in the Torah teachings that address the need for justice and for human relationships characterised by love and reciprocity. As Shavuot approaches, I will conclude by sharing the seven Torah teachings that are closest to my heart and that have inspired my quest for self-acceptance, equality and human rights as a gender-queer lesbian Jew .
The first teaching:
‘God created the Human … in the image of God’ (B’reishit, Genesis 1:27).
That is, each and every human, in all our diversity.
The second teaching:
‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Eternal’ (K’doshim, Leviticus 19:18).
In order to love our neighbours and forge reciprocal relationships, we must first love ourselves.
The third teaching:
‘You shall not oppress the stranger for you know the nefesh – the inner being – of the stranger seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Mishpatim, Exodus 23:9).
It is incumbent upon us as LGBT+ Jews, as it is on every Jew, not to oppress others. Each one of us knows what it feels like to be a stranger.
The fourth teaching:
‘The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Eternal your God’ (K’doshim, Leviticus 19:34).
Refraining from oppressing the stranger is not enough. Having experienced marginalisation, we must draw on our resources of empathy and love and treat others on the basis of full equality.
The fifth teaching:
‘Justice, justice, you shall pursue’ (Shof’tim, Deuteronomy 16:20).
Justice is so important, we cannot take it for granted; rather, we have to actively pursue it, both, for ourselves and our cause, and for others.
The sixth teaching:
‘For this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too wonderful for you nor too remote… the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it’ (N’tzavim, Deuteronomy 30:11; 14).
A rabble of ex-slaves became a people in the wilderness. In the course of 40 years of wilderness wandering, they learnt what it means to offer one’s unique gifts as an individual for the building of community. They also learnt that they were no longer slaves, subject to external compulsion. As liberated LGBT+ Jews today, each one of us has the power to choose the Jewish teachings that speak to us and support our lives.
The seventh teaching:
‘You shall choose in Life!’ – U’vacharta ba-chayyim (N’tzavim, Deuteronomy 30:19).
How many LGBT+ people over the centuries have chosen death; have chosen to kill themselves in response to their experience of persecution and exclusion, or in fear of rejection – not least from their own families? We are exhorted not to choose life in some abstract way, but rather to choose in life – ba-chayyim; we are exhorted to plunge into life, body, heart and soul. As LGBT+ Jews, in the face of bigotry and hatred and our own internalised homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, we are challenged to choose to live. We are challenged to choose in our embodied lives; to consciously choose with confidence and commitment all the dimensions of ourselves, so that we can then choose to participate, wholeheartedly, in the life of the community, the wider society and the world in which we live.
Kein y’hi ratzon. May this be our will. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Jewish LGBT+ Group Erev Shabbat Service, 27 May 2022 – 26 Iyyar 5782
Exodus 19:1 ↑
Ex. 12:38. ↑
Ex. 19 :16 -19. ↑
Ex. 24:7; 25:1-8. ↑
Exodus 25:2. ↑