Temple Beth Zion
Buffalo, New York
Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld
Throughout our Torah, God exhorts us to remember those among us, either least able to care for themselves or easiest for us to forget. Over and over the Torah reminds us to, in its ancient language: “care for” or “not oppress” the widow, the poor, the stranger and the orphan. For us today, these categories represent those who still need an extra measure of our consideration, recognition, outreach and perhaps even help. Over the course of these High Holy days, we will look at each of these categories of people and our modern obligation to them. Tomorrow morning we will talk about the needs of children, on Erev Yom Kippur the poor, and on Yom Kippur afternoon the mourner. Tonight we begin by examining what I consider to be the overarching category, what it means to care for and not oppress the stranger.
The Torah gives but a few reasons behind the Mitzvot, the Commandments. Not oppressing others because: “we were strangers in the land of Egypt” ranks in the top two most frequent reasons the Torah does give. We often talk about the Exodus as our Meta story, the story which defines us as a people. Yet we also often forget that before we could move to freedom we lived as slaves, as strangers in a strange land. The Egyptians defined us as “other” as “strangers” enabling them to take away our freedom and impose forced labor upon us. In essence, our humanity became and remained invisible to the Egyptians.
Repeated through human history, the phenomenon of defining the stranger as other is almost a constant. Some of the most egregious recent examples include: the African slave trade, our American Constitution’s original definition of African Americans as 3/5 of a person, denial of suffrage to women in America until the 20th Century and of course the Nazi definition of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and people with limited intellectual capabilities as being sub-human.
To be honest, the Torah used the term Ger – Stranger to indicate “non-citizens”, resident aliens in modern parlance. Rabbi Michael Goldberg in his book Why Should Jews Survive echoes the historic Jewish practice of the past 2000+ years to not take our texts literally but to find in them ways to expand their application in each time period to contemporary Jewish life. Using the example of counting women as equal to men in the minyan as a metaphor for the inclusion of women in every aspect of Jewish life he says: “…as the Exodus master story tells it – and as the minyan retells it every day – it is through the surviving presence of the community of the Jewish People in the world that God’s own presence is most clearly made known to the world. As Jewish women were counted among those God rescued in the Exodus from Egypt in ancient days, so, too, in our day they ought to be counted in the minyan among those who can rightfully proclaim God’s saving presence to the world.”
The Torah teaches that our Brit, our covenant with God includes all Jews alive and present at Sinai as well as those yet to be born, old and young, women and men, the so called upper crust of society and those whose work many consider menial. If all Jews count, then all Jews count!
Further, we are also taught that along with the Israelites, many non-Jews attached themselves to our people as they left Egypt. Thus today we include in our congregation non-Jews who choose to affiliate with us as a full part of our family.
If Torah teaches us to include all, then why do we still see some as strangers, as other? Part of the answer lies in our unintentional, and yes at times intentional blindness. As our eyes scan those around we tend to see only what stands clearly in our line of sight. We assume everyone resembles us or, we have yet to grow to perceive those that feel “strangered”, who feel unseen for what their uniqueness adds to our community.
For most of us, our cultural upbringing limits our vision. Some of you have heard me discuss the book: Gentleman’s Agreement written by Laura Hobson, a non-Jewish woman, in 1947. If you read the book or saw the movie you know Ms. Hobson tells the story of a non-Jewish newspaper reporter who poses as a Jew and experiences first hand the subtle, not quite below the surface, anti-Semitism of the post World War II era. The protagonist meets a divorced woman with a career whose ideal of being a complete, fulfilled woman means giving up her career for marriage and motherhood. A non-Jewish woman with incredible sensitivity and understanding of anti-Semitism could not see beyond the definition of ideal woman of her time period. How prescient must have been the leaders of the abolitionist, civil rights and gay rights movements to be able to see beyond their reality to identify others, or even themselves, as living as strangers in society?
Throughout our 157 years and particularly in the past four score plus years, our congregation and its leadership reached out to and tried to embrace the strangers among us. From Rabbis Fink and Goldberg’s leadership in the areas of civil rights and interfaith relations to our more recent efforts to reach out to the intermarried and those new to our community, we traveled on a road of welcoming the stranger. Not only accepting those who are different from us but striving to hear, appreciate and understand the uniqueness they add to our congregational family’s life.
But, others live and worship among us and still feel estranged, left out. Even though on a policy level we consistently “do the right thing”, on the personal level, on the individual level we sometimes fall short. My parents, especially my father, taught me to treat each person the same regardless of race, religion or background. Just as Michael Goldberg says in the quote above, it is my natural tendency to expand that “same treatment” to other groups of which my parents could not conceive. Feminism as a concept was as alien to them as it was to many of their generation. Homosexuality was buried so deep in the closet that the gay community was the only group I ever heard my father speak of disparagingly.
Just as my feminist awakening took place in rabbinic school, so did the beginning of my acceptance of the GLBT community. During my years in seminary, don’t ask don’t tell would have been considered a huge step forward. If a student came out as gay or lesbian, expulsion was automatic. But of course there were gay and lesbian students in my classes. Not as an open secret, but only acknowledged in quiet whispers behind the closed doors of dorm rooms or apartments. How far our Reform movement has come! The rabbinate now includes, not only gays and lesbians but the first transgender rabbi will be ordained in the next few years.
On an official level, Temple Beth Zion has moved with the times. In all of our staff searches since I arrived, the issue of sexual orientation has not been a factor in determining who we hire. While we have not, as of yet, hired gay or lesbian clergy, in our clergy searches, each search committee committed itself to the understanding that the sexual orientation of our candidates would not determine who we would bring into our congregational family. We have for other program and professional positions hired gay and lesbian men and women. And when it comes to lay leadership, just as they do in so many ways, our young people have led the way by not only electing gay and lesbian YPS/TBaZy members to positions of leadership but supporting their gay and lesbian members when they feel some want them to remain strangers.
Consistently, we reaffirm that policy stand. We perform same sex commitment ceremonies and I am a proud and active member of the New York State Pride Agenda working toward the day when marital rights and marriage itself will be available to all members of our society. Our withdrawal from the Buffalo Jewish Review has in part, led to the Review reevaluating its decision to not even mention the words gay or lesbian in its pages. Just a few weeks ago, the editor of the Review ran a notice that in light of the Conservative Movement’s decision to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis as well as the Gay Pride service at Temple Sinai, the Review will now cover events involving, gay, and lesbian and yes also transgender Jews. I will be meeting with the editor of the Review after Yom Kippur to discuss this change in their policy and, if appropriate, see how TBZ can be supportive of their new position.
If God redeemed every Jew alive at the time or yet to be born in the Exodus and all stood at Sinai and entered into the covenant between God and the Jewish people, then clearly all Jews became and remain a part of that covenant regardless of race, gender, social standing AND sexual orientation. Just look at the Confirmation pictures on the wall at the Broder Center and look around this room. It is easy to see Jews of different races. It is easy to see Jews of different genders. It is not as easy to see Jews of different social standing. It is nearly impossible to see Jews of different sexual orientations. But they are in the pictures and they are in this sanctuary tonight. Therefore we must take our “official position” and make it personal.
Have we done enough as a sacred community to recognize, accept, reach out and meet the unique needs of the GLBT members of our congregational and our Jewish communities as we have with for example our youth and our intermarried households?
The answer is: no we have not. But beginning with this sermon, we take the first steps. After airing their concerns, some of our members have graciously agreed to set up opportunities for Rabbi Schwartzman and me to listen to the voices of GLBT Jews and we have agreed to actively listen and hear as they tell us their stories. Then together we will begin to plan how to provide an extra measure of our consideration, recognition, outreach to meet the needs of GLBT Jews, who too often feel like our ancestors in exile; strangers in a strange land. We are also committing ourselves this year to take a serious look inward. Are there others who feel as strangers in our midst? How can we transform TBZ into a congregation that has no strangers, a congregation in which all are recognized for the unique qualities they bring to our community and our people.
If we do not follow the command to know and accept the stranger, then we are guilty of abandoning our identity as Jews – those who understand the heart of the stranger because we were strangers in the Land of Egypt. If we do not follow the command to know and accept the stranger, then we become the Egyptians, seeing some of those among us as “less”. In the ranking of sins, this falls among the most egregious.
One year during these days of awe, the Baal Shem Tov, the great founder of Chasidism passed near a small shul. The baal habatim, the leaders of the congregation, rushed out to meet him and invite him in to pray with them. The Baal Shem Tov agreed but when he reached the door of the shul he stopped and did not enter. “What is the problem?” they asked him. “Why do you just stand here and not enter to pray with us?” The Baal Shem Tov answered: “There is no room for me. Your words of welcome and prayers of teshuvah, of repentance and change cannot rise to heaven. They fill the room from wall to wall, from floor to ceiling.” “What can we do?” the people asked. Gently he replied: “Match your actions to your words, welcome the stranger, reach out to help those in need and truly direct your prayers to God and then your prayers will ascend in a whirlwind to heaven.”
This year and every year, may our actions match our words. May we reach out to those who feel as strangers among us, get to know them and help them become strangers no more. And then may our prayers ascend in a whirlwind to heaven.