Category Archives: LGBTQ Issues

Seder at the Mountaintop: A Guest Post by Jay Stanton

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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

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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.

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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.

Pray for Tolerance

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Last night I had the honor of participating in a local vigil in memory of the two young Israelis who were killed during the tragic Tel Aviv Gay/Lesbian center last week. The gathering was convened by Or Hadash, a congregation that serves the Chicago LBGT community and was co-sponsored by a number of other local Jewish institutions and synagogues.

Our vigil was all the more powerful coming after a particularly disgusting local demonstration of anti-gay, anti-Jewish hate.  This past Monday a small number of  Fred Phelps’ notoriously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church came to Chicago for a series of protests targeting Jewish groups and synagogues (above.)  Even for Phelps it was a truly sick display: they gathered to demonstrate across the street from Emanuel Congregation (which houses Or Chadash), shouting and displaying signs that read, among other things: “The Jews Killed Jesus,” “Bloody Obama,” and “God Hates Jews.”

Last night’s prayer vigil, needless to say, offered us the welcome opportunity to voice a message of tolerance. It was especially gratifying that our service was attended by an impressively diverse gathering from across the spectrum of Chicago’s religious and political community. The high point for me: an address by Rabbi Michael Balinsky, Executive Director of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, who shared a sublime prayer which that was recently written by Rabbi Dov Linzer, the Dean of the orthodox Rabbinical School Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Among other things, Rabbi Linzer’s inspiring words helped to remind us that traditional religion and intolerance need not go hand in hand.

An excerpt:

Master of the Universe, give us the courage to stand up to and reject all forms of hateful speech and violence. Give us the strength of spirit to refuse to tolerate the rejection of any human being, each of whom is created in בצלם א- לוהים, in Your Divine image. Help us to internalize in our hearts and to manifest in our actions the mandate of the verse in this week’s parsha ואהבתם את הגר כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים, that it is our responsibility to care for, to love, and to protect all members of our society, and in particular those who are most vulnerable and most likely to feel estranged and rejected. Help us to value every member of our society for whom he or she is, to care for them, to support them, and to recognize that they are an equal part of our community.

Click here for the full text of the prayer.