It is so good to see you once again on this first day of the New Year, 5773. This is our fourteenth High Holyday season together. We are literally growing older together, although Oheb Shalom Congregation of Baltimore City, now in its 159th year, is growing much younger. When I became your senior rabbi, I was officiating at three funerals for every baby naming and brit milah. Today, we have literally reversed this trend as we are no longer a predominantly older congregation but a much younger congregation. We have almost three hundred children in our religious school, a 100% increase over six years ago. Oheb Shalom has a reputation in our community as a warm, embracing, and caring place where Jewish learning can be fun. We are doing our very best to enhance and build upon this reputation.
We have a lot to talk about this morning in a short time, so allow me to begin with a story. Four elderly Jewish women meet for their weekly Mah jong game. As they sit down at the table, one woman at the table says “Oy.” The next one sighs, “Oy.” The third one exclaims, “Oy, gevalt.” Then the fourth one says, “I thought we were not going to talk about our children.”
When I look at the coming election, all I can say is, “Oy.” While I have my preferences, I will not speak of them today. I will share with you some insight from David Brooks, the resident conservative at the New York Times, and an active member of the Jewish community. Brooks recently wrote, “I don’t know if we are worse off now than we were four years ago, but we were certainly worse off then than we knew. The financial crisis of the past years has exposed debilitating flaws in our way of life. It’s exposed the crushing burden of debt and the unsustainability of our entitlement system. It’s exposed flaws in our style of capitalism- the overreliance on finance, the concentration of power. It exposed a widening education gap; the educated have recovered from the recession while the unskilled fall further behind. It exposed even deeper dysfunction in our political system…the country that exists is not on the right track. What was there in (either) candidates’ recent speeches that make us think the next few years will be different? America will only be governable again if there is a leader who breaks the mold and reframes the debate …the next president has to do three big things which are in tension with one another: increase growth, reduce debt and increase social equity.”[i] Brooks, a Republican, writes that neither Governor Romney nor President Obama offers anything more than incremental change. Neither candidate can break the political deadlock in Washington. He says the Republicans understand the severity of our economic problems but put too much faith in tax cuts. They emphasize a hyper individualism that says individuals can determine their own fates. Republican rhetoric is about “me,” not about “we.” He writes, “The Republicans won’t be a worthy governing party until it treads the course Lincoln trod; starting with individual ambition but ascending to a larger vision and creating a national environment that arouses ambition and nurtures success.”[ii] President Obama, he says, has the intelligence, dexterity and sense of balance to navigate these challenges but lacks the creativity to break out of this trench warfare gridlock. David Brooks, a conservative commentator whom I respect, does not believe that this election, no matter who wins, will result in any meaningful change. Sadly, I agree with him. James Paul Clark (1854-1916, the 18th governor of Arkansas) once said: “A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman of the next generation.” Or, as George Pompidou put it a bit more cynically, “A statesman is a politician who places himself at the service of the nation. A politician is a statesman who places the nation at his service.” Our country needs more statesmen and fewer politicians.
While we cannot control what will happen nationally, we will be voting on a ballot issue in Maryland that will make a substantial difference in the lives of many. Among several initiatives appearing on the November 6 ballot is Question six, which asks us to affirm a law passed by the Maryland legislature and signed into law by Governor O’Malley on March 1, 2012. Question 6, also known as the Same-Sex Marriage Referendum, is an initiated veto referendum. The measure is in response to the enactment of the Civil Marriage Protection Act which will allow same-sex couples to obtain a civil marriage license in the state beginning January 1, 2013,and protect clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs. The referendum allows voters to decide whether the law will be upheld. “Question 6 was placed on the ballot after the State Board of Elections certified a petition to put the measure on the November ballot after verifying more than 109,000 signatures submitted by the Maryland Marriage Alliance, a church led group pushing for repeal. If the measure survives the November referendum, Maryland will become the first state in the country in which voters approved a gay marriage law on a statewide ballot.”[iii]
Sentiment has greatly changed over the last decade in favor of same sex marriages. Popular television shows like Modern Family and Will and Grace have helped to normalize same sex families. Just two weeks ago, Raven’s linebacker, Brendon Ayanbadejo, who has been a great advocate of legalizing same sex marriages, was castigated by Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Maryland state delegate who opposes same-sex marriage. On Aug. 29, Burns sent a letter to Steve Bisciotti, the Ravens’ owner, urging him to “inhibit such expressions from your employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions.” Burns’s letter elicited an aggressive, searing response from another N.F.L. player, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, who said he could not sleep after reading the letter Thursday night because he was too infuriated. So he wrote a response to Burns and submitted it to an online site.” Kluwe wrote “Your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level, adding later: “Why do you hate the fact that other people want a chance to live their lives and be happy, even though they may believe in something different than you, or act different than you? How does gay marriage, in any way, shape or form, affect your life?” [iv] You know that when NFL players, members of the most hyper-masculine league in sports, start defending gay marriage that this is an idea whose time has come.
I am exceedingly proud that our Board of Trustees, upon my request, overwhelmingly voted to endorse the Civil Marriage Protection Act. The Board urges our congregants to support civil marriage for our LGBT sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, and grandchildren. This is the first time in fourteen years I have asked our Board to back a ballot issue. There is no question whatsoever in my mind that this is the right thing to do and the Jewish thing to do. Question 6 is a civil rights issue and a deeply religious issue. I resent fundamentalist Christians telling me what is right and what is wrong. I am offended when they tell me what our Bible says and what our ancestors meant by it. I detest religious imperialism in any form, whether it denies women the right to choose or our gay son’s ability to marry in his home State of Maryland. You heard me correctly. Our youngest son, Benjamin, who was confirmed here, was president of our youth group, and was a member of our cantorial search committee, is gay. Many of you have known this as long as we have, which is four years. This has not changed my belief in the rightness of Question 6. It has only made me more firm in my desire to have it passed. I have officiated at commitment ceremonies, lovely moving services, for our LGBT congregants, for more than ten years. When you meet these couples and see the love they have for each other, you realize that love is beyond sexual orientation and that this love cannot be wrong. The love of two men or two women for one another can and should be sanctified by God and made legal by the state. These couples should have the same stability, privileges, and responsibility granted to heterosexual couples. They deserve it and their children need it. Our society is better for it. Maryland will be a more open, welcoming and moral place when we affirm Question 6 on the November ballot.
Sally and I always suspected that Benjamin was gay. It took him a long time to figure it out. After struggling with it for several years, he finally came to terms with his identity during his junior year of college at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was watching the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade and realized he should not be a bystander but should be marching in it. He told us one Saturday night in March of his senior year at college. Sally and my response to him was exactly the same, “We love you and are not surprised.” We also told him the rules were the same as for his brother and sister, “We expect you to marry a Jewish person and not to be promiscuous.” Like his siblings, he has kept the rules. Benjamin and his official domestic partner, Harris Kaplansky, have lived together for almost three years in the West Village in New York City where Harris works for Google and Benjamin is in graduate school. They have a great apartment, a dog, lots of friends, and a very good life. They are both very close with their families and we are close to Harris’ family. Benjamin is the same Benjamin we have always known. He is funny, charming, affectionate, and very smart. He, like his siblings, is working to make our world a better place. We are very proud of him. The difference now is that we have another son-in-law instead of another daughter-in-law. We have learned that there is no truth to the stereotype that all gay men care about interior design, live in lovely places, and are neat and clean- because their apartment looks like a gay frat house!
Why is this a civil rights issue? Just as we do not choose our skin color or the color of our eyes, so do we not choose our sexual orientation. That is determined before birth. I have never met someone who has chosen to be gay. We are simply born this way. Denying civil marriage to the 5% of American LGBT human beings is tantamount to denying civil rights to African-Americans or denying Jews the right to serve in the Maryland legislature because we will not take an oath on a Christian bible. Why is it a Jewish issue? Each of us was born in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 states, “And God created humans in God’s own image, in the image of God, He created them male and female God created them.” Since 1977, the Reform movement has backed civil rights for gays and lesbians. We have had LGBT rabbis in our movement for thirty years. So, you may ask, how do we deal with the biblical verses from the Book of Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13) that proclaim that a man should not lie with another man? There are several answers to this.
First, we do not take our Bible literally. It is an illusion to think there is a literal meaning to any text. Every text must be interpreted. You, for example, are now interpreting my words. When we leave this Sanctuary, some of you will have heard one thing and others something else. The message is always interpreted by the audience. So how do we look at our Bible? We understand it as a record of our ancestor’s encounter with God, a history of our origins as a people and of God’s role in the world. It is a book of wisdom, guidance, and inspiration. It is not a document of science but reflects the beliefs of those who lived over 2,500 years ago. We do not live by the Bible. If we did, we would still be sacrificing animals in the Temple in Jerusalem and stoning wayward sons. We believe that God engages in ongoing revelation, a revelation interpreted by our rabbis and sages whose knowledge enables them to filter our contemporary world through the prism of Jewish values. Our rabbis tell us that God created gays and lesbians and loves them just as God loves heterosexuals. There is no difference in God’s eyes.
Second, there is no prohibition against lesbianism in the Torah. The rabbis did not even discuss this until the Middle Ages. So, how do we interpret these verses in Leviticus 18 which prohibit a man lying with a man as one lies with a woman? As Rabbi Amy Scheinerman has written, “The key Hebrew words in this chapter are mishk’vei isha – as one lies with a woman. The entirety of Chapter 18 is addressed to men and all the sexual partners they might take. The problem with taking a male sexual partner is not homosexuality, but rather that a man puts another man in the position of being a woman: the weaker, inferior partner who lacks male prerogatives in a patriarchal society. Note that Leviticus 20:13 condemns both to death. Why would this be? The man who receives, and the man who penetrates, both participate in emasculating the receiver, is confusing the separation between male and female that is so strongly emphasized in Genesis chapter 1 and throughout Torah, which is often occupied with classifying and categorizing plant and animal species, and which time and again expresses concern over the blurring or crossing of these boundaries… In the same way, the Torah’s apparent concern about a man being put in the “position of a woman” no longer pertains either.”[v] We live in a world where women routinely take on what had formerly been male professions and where it is common to have “stay at home” dads take full time care of their children. The old categories as specified in the Torah no longer apply. That is why we cannot take the Torah literally. That is why we are not Orthodox Jews or Fundamentalist Christians. We are thinking, discerning, and caring Jewish human beings who want the same thing for our gay children and grandchildren as we want for ourselves, the right to have our marriages acknowledged by the State of Maryland as being legal with all the rights and responsibilities that entails.
So, dear friends, I am asking you to do something I have never asked of you before- please vote for Question 6 on the November ballot, and encourage your friends and family members to do the same. We have the opportunity to make history. The decision, like all decisions we make in this New Year of 5773, will literally be in our hands.
On behalf of Sally and our growing family, we wish you a happy, healthy and sweet New Year.
Shana Tova um’tukah
[i] David Brooks, New York Times, September 6, 2012.
[ii] David Brooks, New York Times, August 30, 2012.
[iii]Baltimore Sun Editorial, July 12, 2012.
[iv] New York Times, September 8, 2012.
[v] Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, Taste of Torah, April 29, 2012.