For too long, our Jewish tradition has been a co-conspirator in forcing anyone who has identified under the queer umbrella…anyone who has wondered even for a moment about their sexuality or identity…our tradition has, for too long, forced people into the closet…into a life of secrecy and shame and lies and suicide.
Like the martyrology of our Yom Kippur afternoon service, in which we recall Jewish history and the unceasing waves of anti-Semitism that have marked our existence in every generation, so too could we recite the narrative of woe that is the history of homophobia.
We speak of shame.
Shame on God – or Moses – or the Biblical Author – whoever was responsible for writing these hurtful words in Leviticus 18, verse 22: A man shall not lie with another man as a man lies with a woman. It is an abomination.
Like human beings, our Torah…which aspires to be perfect…is, alas, not. Our Torah, like us, has the capacity to be bigoted. Our Torah, like us, has the capacity to be hurtful. Our Torah, like us, has the capacity to judge and delegitimize through the use of language.
But we speak tonight of Pride. And I’m proud of this congregation for celebrating Gay Pride Month by inviting our community to this Pride Shabbat. I’m proud that earlier in our congregation’s history, we were led by an openly gay Assistant Rabbi. And I’m proud of the fact that as a liberal Jewish community tonight, we can simultaneously celebrate our beloved Torah, and turn to our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning friends and apologize to them for the bigotry that that verse from the Torah contains. Our whole-hearted desire to build an ever-more inclusive Scarsdale Synagogue is part of our teshuvah to in some tiny way right this 2500 year old wrong of Jewish homophobia.
I want to invite us tonight to give thought to the image of stones. Call to mind a medium size boulder, or the massive paperweight that is Stonehenge….
Robert Frost wrote of such stones in his famous poem “Mending Wall.” In the text, he meditates on these rocks and the role they play as fences, or boundaries, between two properties.
As all of our high school English students know, Frost’s poem is the story of the annual ritual of two neighboring property owners, who walk their property line together…re-positioning the stones, from the places where they don’t belong to the places where they do.
Boundaries are good things when it comes to property disputes. The crop that grows on my side of the line belongs to me. And the crop that grows on your side of the line belongs to you.
“Good fences make good neighbors,” one of Frost’s characters asserts. But is that really the point of the poem? Many literary critics have long argued that the poem is an ironic critique of boundary-drawing. Community-building happens when we are empowered to see the common humanity in our neighbors, however different they might seem to us. And as we know, that kind of community building only happens when we tear down the walls between us, the very opposite of Frost and his characters’ fence-building.
Frost writes: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out,/And to whom I was like to give offence.” It is the very question we ask tonight: who was the Biblical Author trying to wall in or wall out by writing that abomination of a verse?
One of the reasons that we are here tonight celebrating gay pride is because of the aptly named Stonewall Inn, and the riots that took place there in 1969, effectively sparking the modern gay rights movement in America.
I was in touch with the Reference folks at the New York Public Library this week, and asked them why the Stonewall Inn was called the Stonewall Inn. They pointed me to a 1930 autobiography by Mary Casal, entitled The Stone Wall. Her book is an important chronicle of lesbian life, and her own life, in New York and Paris at the turn of the century. The Stone Wall Inn was named in her honor. And the riots that were birthed at that site began the process of Wall-Mending that we continue tonight.
This evening we rejoice. For the barriers that have come down. For the right to marry that gay couples enjoy in so many states this week, and for the right to marry throughout the country that we hope the Supreme Court will rule in favor of in the weeks to come.
Most of all, we rejoice in our Reform movement of Judaism, which has been on the vanguard – leading the way in the work of teshuvah and tikkun, of mending, so that every single human being who wants to journey Jewishly can be a part of our community, regardless of their own gender identity, or the gender of the person they’ve fallen in love with.
We have much more work to do. For sure we have more to do. To teach our friends in the Conservative and Orthodox worlds….here, abroad, and in Israel, that two loving partners regardless of their gender, belong under a chuppah if they want to marry Jewishly. To teach our friends that queer Jewish clergy are every bit as authentic, capable, and qualified as their hetero peers.
But tonight we celebrate our progress….the strides we’ve made toward realizing a community that is mended and made more whole by reading Leviticus, and Robert Frost, a little less literally.