Category Archives: LGBTQ Issues

Confessions of a Wicked Child: A Passover Reflection by Jay Stanton

1930sArnold Eagle.jpegHere are the remarks that Jay Stanton offered at Tzedek Chicago’s Passover seder last night. Jay was formerly Tzedek’s rabbinical intern – and I’m delighted to announce we’ve just hired him to be part of our staff for the coming year:

In a traditional seder, four children are described: a wise child, who likes learning all the ins and outs of Jewish law, a wicked child, who pokes fun at the whole idea of a seder, a simple child who seeks basic information, and a child who does not know how to ask.  These archetypical children help us explore what it means to fulfill the mitzvah of telling our children about the Exodus from Egypt.

I have a confession to make; I am a wicked child.  Of course, there are the ways society and the Jewish community in general have cast me as the wicked child: being queer and trans and supporting Palestinian rights not least among them.  But I’m also a self-identified wicked child. I am personality-wise and ethically the kind of person that voices my disapproval of standard approaches and doesn’t care what you think of me in response.  I’m a contrarian by nature, and I like asking difficult questions. Last year at this time, I asked all of us what we were doing here when we could be somewhere else doing something to make the world better.  And here we are this year, doing this peculiar ritual yet again.

I’m a wicked child.  I want to know what this means to you and why you think this is the way we should celebrate liberation.  Wouldn’t it be better to hear directly from people who have escaped modern slavery and to have real conversations about global abolition of slavery and how to establish reparations to address the ongoing legacies of slavery in America?  Plus, the Exodus never happened; the seder is an exercise in remembering alternative facts, which is to say lies.

I told you I’m a wicked child.  And I’m guessing I’m not the only one here.  Despair not! Wicked children are valued by Jewish tradition.  Because the Talmud values contrarians. Because the seder itself values the wicked child.  After their question, “What does this ritual mean to you?”, the wicked child is not sent to bed without their supper.  Instead, the parent responds in kind.

“This is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt.  For me, and not for you, because if you had been there, you would not have gone free.”  It’s a contrarian response, not a real argument. In our Exodus narrative, more people than the Israelites left Egypt together.  In Hebrew this is called ‘erev rav, translated as a very diverse group or coalition.  I imagine the wicked children marched out of Egypt as part of the liberation coalition, where they found ample opportunity to critique the choices of the liberatory leaders, like leading the group directly to a body of water while being chased by the Egyptian military.  Maybe a frustrated wicked child yelled at Moses, “What are you going to do now? Hold up your staff and just wait for God?!”

Voices of critique and dissent have pushed our conversation toward progress, inclusion, and more ethical behavior for thousands of years.  They are enshrined in Talmud and indeed in the Haggadah. Judaism is enriched, not threatened, by a multiplicity of opinions and approaches.

To put it differently, the vital role of wicked children in our Passover seder exemplifies spiritual freedom.  Spiritual freedom, one of Tzedek Chicago’s core values, is more than active inclusion of atheists, agnostics, and non-Jews in our midst.  It is an affirmation of the ‘erev rav as a diverse, universalist community, and it is an elevation of critique from an obstacle to overcome to a necessary part of collective liberation.  We not only allow the wicked child to derail the Passover seder, we need them. Judaism needs its wicked children.

Just as political freedom provides a check against political tyranny, spiritual freedom provides a check against spiritual tyranny.  Both human and so-called divine spiritual authority have tendencies toward the coercive and oppressive. We could dismiss this problem as one that only affects the religious right. However, we are also at risk of spiritual tyranny here at Tzedek Chicago. We could give too much power to our spiritual leader and follow Brant even if and when he’s wrong, but spiritual freedom gives every one of us the tools to speak up if Brant starts leading us down the wrong path.  We are a community for people who share Tzedek’s specific values, and we say freely that people who object to them can find other Jewish communities. There’s not much distance between that and establishing some kind of review committee to determine whether you faithfully adhere to every line of each of our core values in every aspect of your life. Don’t worry; we’re not going to establish an Inquisition. Spiritual freedom ensures we are universalist not only in our outcomes but also in our process. When our leaders are wrong or when we feel excluded, we get to speak up and remain wicked children at the table.

As a wicked child, I wonder how the rest of the wicked child Passover conversation goes.  If I were continuing it, I would caution the parent, saying “Now you sound like the oppressor.  Do you want to be like Pharaoh?!”

Mah ha’avodah hazot lakhem?  What does this ritual mean to you?

Seder at the Mountaintop: A Guest Post by Jay Stanton

mking_mountaintop
Delivered by Rabbinic Intern Jay Stanton at the Tzedek Chicago Passover Seder, April 4, 2018.

I have been thinking about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Today marks 50 years since his assassination, and I have been thinking about how blessed we are by Dr. King. Although his dream of racial equity is not yet realized, King’s vision of a just world and of a beloved community benefits us all. Still on the march to freedom, we shall not be moved. In the words of Ella Baker, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

So tonight bothers me. Why are we here? What are we doing here? We could be spending our time in so many immediately effective ways. We could be on the picket line with striking teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky. We could be outside the Israeli Embassy protesting the shooting of unarmed Gazan civilians. We could be praying with our feet. Instead, we’re here, engaged in a ritual that involves praying with our taste buds. Why not abandon the traditional Passover rituals and observe the holiday by working for justice? In familiar words, why is this night different from all other nights?

I found the beginnings of an answer in the speech Dr. King gave the day before he died. Often referred to as the “Mountaintop” or “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, the remarks he offered on April 3, 1968, on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis are striking (pun intended). The most revisited part chronicles Dr. King’s prophetic sense of his imminent demise. But in the beginning, King imagines the extraordinary opportunity of standing with God.

In Dr. King’s imagination, God offers to take him to any point in time. Martin Luther King says:

I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.

Though King’s choice is obvious, his purpose is not. Stopping in liberatory moments where freedom of thought and freedom of action expanded, he brings his listeners on his imagined journey through time. Finally, he arrives at the liberatory moment of the Poor People’s Campaign.

After acknowledging the injustices of his world, King continues:

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee – the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

Dr. King echoes a core aspect of the Passover seder. We say bejol dor vador jayyav adam lir’ot et ‘atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim – in every generation, each person must see themselves as if they themselves went free from Egypt. This fulfills the verse “You shall tell your child on that day that God freed you from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.”

We often take this as an echo of Torah’s most repeated rule. Having been strangers in Egypt, we must be kind to the stranger. But we don’t need a seder to have empathy for the stranger. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute have shown that the best way to cultivate empathy is habitual activation of a structure in the brain called the right supermarginal gyrus. We can activate our brain’s empathy structure by focusing on others. Increasing empathy cannot be the effect of telling our story.

Our seder tells us something different, tells us something Dr. King tells us in his Mountaintop speech. For King, humanity is always striving to become free, and God is always liberating the oppressed; today’s freedom marches are the same in sacred time as the Exodus from Egypt. When we see ourselves as if we went forth from Egypt, we live in that sacred moment.

Our seder allows us to live through the Exodus mythologically. Then, not only can we have empathy for the oppressed, we can share the joy of redemption and participate in liberation. For those of us currently experiencing oppression, the seder’s ritual journey allows us to memorize a feeling of having been liberated, which we will recognize when we get there.

In his Mountaintop speech, Dr. King details the ways demonstrators remained unfazed by Bull Connor’s violent tactics, stressing that liberation starts in the mind. Tonight, those of us facing oppression remember that Jews observed Passover even while oppressed – in the ghettos and shtetls of Europe and by the double standard of dhimmi status in the Middle East and North Africa. Black Jewish slaves in the American South also observed Passover, even while owned by Jews. (Yes, there were Jewish slaves and Jewish slave owners in America – feel free to ask me about it later. Can you imagine slaves serving at a Jewish master’s seder and then holding their own seder during the night?) Tonight, the oppressed among us, and those too oppressed to be here with us, assert that our liberation is God’s objective. Ain’t nobody can turn us ‘round.

For those of us currently experiencing freedom, the seder’s journey cultivates gratitude for our liberation and solidarity with the oppressed. Focusing on the Exodus story allowed Dr. King to emphasize solidarity with the striking workers in Memphis. Desegregation was an important step toward collective freedom for Black Americans, but desegregation did not solve the economic injustices of Black generational poverty and wage discrimination. As King points out in his journey through the history of liberation, our specific liberations, whatever they may be, are only pieces of a greater process of redemption. If we are free while others remain oppressed, we are still living in the bondage of a narrow place.

For most of us in this room, the reality is that we experience both oppression and freedom in different moments and in different ways. Some of us may experience sexual harassment at work but enjoy equal partnership at home. Some of us may be targeted by police because of the color of our skin but know simultaneously that Black is beautiful. Some of us may encounter hate from our family members concerning sexual orientation or gender identity, but enjoy the support of our queer beloved community. Some of us may encounter antisemitism from our Congressional candidates or in the newspaper, but benefit from white privilege.

We may be targets of oppression based on class, ability, immigration status, and religious affiliation, to name a few, but none of us are enslaved. We share the freedom of movement that allows us to be in this room tonight. We share the freedoms of religion and free association that allow us to have a seder here tonight. The seder, like our lives, reflects both our oppression and our liberation.

Right now, I invite you to step into this night of transformation. The root of the word “nishtanah” in mah nishtanah is change. What will change on this night, as opposed to other nights? I invite you to open your heart to be transformed by tonight. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you experience sacred time. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you know that you have been liberated. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you have gratitude for the freedom you enjoy. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you have a sense of history. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you stand on the shoulders of your elders. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you do so in a beloved community. So that tomorrow when you take action for justice, you are in solidarity with all the oppressed. So that tomorrow, when you take action for justice, you will not be moved.

Once we were slaves. Now we have been freed. How does that change you?

Chicago Jewish Delegation Stands Up for LGBT Rights in Uganda

1240376_10152190526038257_795601751_n

Members of the AJWS Chicago delegation delivering letter to the Ugandan Consulate

Today marked a day of global action of protest against the Ugandan Parliament’s so-called “Anti Homosexuality Bill.” It was my honor to participate by delivering a rabbinic letter to the Ugandan consulate in Chicago along with 15 other members of the the Jewish community, including five rabbis.

This bill, which was passed in December 2013, is a hate-filled piece of legislation that threatens the health and lives of LGBT Ugandans and is a grave violation of human rights. First introduced in 2009, the bill seeks to strengthen existing penalties in Ugandan law against homosexuality. Among the bill’s many cruel and unconscionable provisions is life imprisonment for “repeated homosexual behavior.” It also criminalizes what it describes as “the promotion of homosexuality,” which includes funding organizations that provide basic services such as healthcare to LGBT people.

Our action today was a sponsored by American Jewish World Service, who responded to a call from its partners in Ugandan Human Rights NGO by organizing in communities throughout the US. In addition to Chicago, similar actions took place in New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Here’s the text of the letter we delivered to the Ugandan consul in Chicago:

Dear President Museveni,

I am writing to implore you, respectfully, to veto Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill that was recently passed by the Ugandan Parliament.

As a rabbi, I honor the inherent dignity of each and every person. Jewish theology, tradition and history compel me to uphold the values of kavod habriyot, respect for all of creation, and btzelem elohim, the notion that all people–including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people–are created in the Divine image. Tragically, I know from our history that the stripping away of human rights from specific minorities is often a precursor to targeted destruction.

If this bill is signed into law, it would be a grave violation of human rights and would be one of the most abhorrent manifestations of discrimination against LGBT people worldwide.

My LGBT friends and colleagues in Uganda are frightened–and I believe they have every reason to be. I do not believe they should live in fear just because of who they are or who they love. I hope you share the same view.

I urge you, Mr. President, to use the power of your position to uphold the human rights and human dignity of all Ugandan citizens. Please stand on the right side of history by vetoing this bill.

I encourage you to click here to sign a similar letter currently being distributed by AJWS. (If you are a rabbi and you have not yet signed the rabbinic letter, click here.)

It’s time to stand with LGBT Ugandans – and all who are targeted by hate-legislation.

1798178_10152190525723257_1237770972_n

Members of my congregation, JRC, in front of the Ugandan consulate: (left to right: AJWS-Chicago Executive Director Taal Hasak- Lowy, Michael Sehr, Tina Escobar, me, Gonzalo Escobar)

On “Pinkwashing in Israel” – My Response to a Friend’s Blog Post

My friend and colleague Rabbi Gail Diamond recently wrote an eloquent post in her blog discussing Sarah Schulman’s recent op-ed about Israeli “pinkwashing” in the NY Times. I submitted a comment but alas, it was too long to post. So I’m posting it here.

If you’d like to participate in our dialogue, first read the op-ed, then click here and read Gail’s post, then go ahead and read my response below. Respectful comments – on her blog or mine – are always welcome.

Dear Gail,

Thanks for an eloquent post. I’m happy to discover your blog and am grateful that you’re willing to publicly consider these kinds of tough issues.

Re your first response: I couldn’t help but detect a very palpable alienation, isolation and overall spirit of “it’s us against the world” in your and your friend Rich’s words. I know that this feeling of growing isolation from the international community is widespread among Israelis across the political spectrum. There’s no small sorrow in all this, especially considering that Zionism arose in part to solve the problem of Jewish “otherness” in the world. Nothing else to say about this except that politics aside, it’s just so sad to consider the extent to which the Jewish political/national project only seems to have exacerbated Jewish isolation on an international scale.

In your second response, you agree that there is something unjust about the fact that as a gay couple, you and your partner can take advantage of laws in Israel that privilege you as Jews. You add, however, that

The reality is the every country that surrounds Israel has human rights issues. Nothing is black and white, and every country lives with a messy reality. Because Israel is subject to an organized media campaign of de-legitimization, and because Israel cares about its image in the eyes of the western world, for self-serving reasons no doubt, we have people out there making the case for what’s good about the reality here.

With respect, Gail, try though I might, I just can’t accept this argument. Of course nothing is black and white and of course every country lives with a messy reality. But there is messy and there is messy. And I simply cannot agree with the claim that Israel is essentially a healthy Western liberal democracy with some “human rights issues.” I have come to believe that there is a much more fundamental form of oppression going on here.

I respect and celebrate the fact that, as you put it, “the reality of gay rights is directly impacting the lives of many people in Israel – for the good.” But if we’re truly going to calculate the greater good here, it’s difficult for me to weigh the benefits enjoyed by LGBTQ Israelis against the massive injustices Israel committed – and continues to commit – against millions of Palestinians in Israel, the occupied territories and throughout the Palestinian diaspora. It’s just not a level playing field. And unless these inherent injustices are dealt with fairly and directly, I don’t think it’s honest to speak of Israel as an essentially healthy, if blemished, democracy.

I was taken – and somewhat surprised – by your reference to “an organized media campaign of de-legitimization” against Israel. In the first place, I’m just not convinced that the media has nefarious designs on the state of Israel. If there is any “campaign,” I’d say it’s less a media conspiracy than a growing movement of activists throughout the world who are responding to the Palestinian call for solidarity with their struggle. I think it demeans the motives of those of us who are publicly holding Israel to account on very real and serious issues of human rights by saying we are trying to “de-legitimize” the state. This is a term wielded wantonly by Israel’s hasbara machine, and I believe it’s only real purpose is to muzzle honest and open debate on this issue.

You write that “none of us knows where this is all leading.” While this is true, of course, I think we can certainly predict certain general trends. And in this regard, I am truly frightened that in Israel, the direction is moving directly away from democracy and toward the greater influence of the ultra-right and the ultra-religious. (I think you know what I’m talking about, so I’ll spare you’re the links to the op-eds – most of them from Ha’aretz and Israel’s increasingly embattled progressive blogosphere). Unlike you, I’m less sanguine about “the intertwining of Jewish tradition and politics.” I genuinely fear that this particular marriage is leading us all down a very dark road.

Gail, I understand the reality that because you and your partner and are a bi-national same sex couple, your family cannot live together in the US. I realize that for you, this is your life we are talking about. And I deeply respect the courage it took you to publicly air the ways this reality impacts on you and your family. I think I know you well enough to know that you did not raise this point to in any way shut down debate with those outside Israel who don’t share your reality – only that you wanted to sensitize your readers to the deeper human truth of this issue.

I have faith that we can continue to keep this conversation going, as difficult and painful as it is. Thank you for putting yourself and your feelings out there. I hope you know that I offer mine in the same spirit of dialogue and friendship.

Kol Tuv,

Brant

The New Jersey Standard’s Editorial Bigotry

Last week, the New Jersey Jewish Standard ran an announcement of a same-sex union – this week, after receiving pressure from local traditional/orthodox rabbis, they have announced that they will no longer “run such announcements in the future.” They defended their action by stating that their paper “has always striven to draw the community together, rather than drive its many segments apart.”

Well, I’d say the Standard is about to learn the true meaning of “communal division.” Their editorial decision is particularly appalling as it comes on the heels of the suicide of a gay New Jersey university student who was the tragic victim of cyber-bullying. We’d do well to ask which is more important: the views of a religious minority or sensitivity to prejudice that literally has life or death implications?

Please, please write to the Standard and let them know how outraged you are. If you are Jewish, I encourage you to add that this kind of bigotry has no place in our community.  Click here for the contact info.

Elegy for Janine Denomme

It’s a brave new world. I’ve just officiated at the shiva for Janine Denomme, a 45 year old woman who also happened to be an ordained Catholic priest.

I did not have the honor of knowing Janine personally, but I do know she was a profoundly important spiritual teacher to many. She was active in the Catholic Church and served as a lay preacher, church musician, parish council member, spiritual director and religion teacher. And though she was a gay woman, she consistently considered the Catholic Church to be her spiritual home, and had always dreamed of becoming a priest.

Janine was ordained just this last April by Roman Catholic Womenpriests, an initiative within the Catholic Church that seeks to create “a more inclusive, Christ-centered Church of equals in the twenty-first century.”  Tragically, Janine was diagnosed with cancer as she prepared for ordination – but as it turned out, her struggle with her illness gave her a new spiritual calling. She wrote deeply profound reflections on the journey of a cancer patient, primarily through her Caring Bridge blog. I’ve just finished reading “Via Delorosa” – a piece she wrote this past February in which she charts the stages of her chemo treatment using the religious symbolism of the Stations of the Cross.  It’s quite simply as powerful a piece of contemporary spiritual writing as I’ve ever read.

Needless to say, the Catholic Church does not recognize Janine’s ordination in any fashion – and even more painfully, the Archdiocese of Chicago refused to allow her to be buried in her Catholic parish. Her funeral mass will take place in a Methodist church in Evanston this Saturday.

In a final 21st century twist to this story: Janine’s beloved partner, Nancy Katz, is a member of my congregation – and it was my honor to preside over a Shiva service at their home this evening. Truly an interfaith gathering of the most sacred kind.

You can read more about Janine here in the Windy City Times and in this piece from the Huffington Post. May her memory be for a blessing.

Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill: The Plot Thickens

If ever we needed a lesson in how prejudice can fan the flames of oppression, how is this? The NY Times recently reported that three American evangelical Christians visited Uganda last March to give a series of high profile talks:

For three days, according to participants and audio recordings, thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality. The visitors discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how “the gay movement is an evil institution” whose goal is “to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.”

As it turns out, just one month after the conference, a Ugandan politician who claims to have ties to evangelical members of the American government, introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, which among other things, imposes a death sentence for “aggravated homosexuality.”

The evangelicals are naturally backtracking, claiming they had no idea their anti-gay ideas could possibly be used in such a way. (One is actually quoted as saying, “Some of the nicest people I have ever met are gay people.”)

I’ve visited Uganda twice with members of my congregation, and I can personally attest to the palpable growth of American evangelicalism in that country. Whether or not this bill bears direct American influence, I can’t help but note the disingenuousness of someone who preaches that “the gay movement is an evil institution” then expresses surprise when others prove more than willing to take him at his word.

Click here for a CNN article on the Ugandan bill, and here for a Human Rights Watch Report.