REFLECTIONS & SERMONS
JGLG & Twilight People: LGBTQ Interfaith Service (Montagu Centre 26th February 2016)
I’m delighted to celebrate, with JGLG and Twilight People, the launch of the touring exhibition.
Documenting: “Stories of Faith and Gender Beyond the Binary” is pioneering. As a Liberal Rabbi, I feel proud of this initiative supported by Liberal Judaism’s Chief Executive, Rabbi Danny Rich and in the capable hands of Founder & Project Manager, Surat-Shaan Knan.
Last year, I was invited to address a group of articulate, engaging, worldly people mainly from the Jewish community. This coincided with discovering my new voice: quite literally, its deeper tones and symbolically, in sharing my journey as a transman and a Rabbi.
Afterwards two people asked questions, which still linger:
“Is your story relevant to the LGBT community or the Jewish community?”
“How can you be transgender and still Jewish?”
I was surprised, disappointed and my sadness was palpable.
It felt like 2 integral parts of my identity ought to be mutually exclusive:
I should choose between the L-G-B-T-Q-I-A-Q and Jewish community, because it’s anathema to be a transJew.
Missing was recognition that people of faith who are LGBTQIAQ can connect with and feel integrated in both communities. In their eyes it was incredulous: I had made an impossible journey!
I give thanks for not being alone on this journey, for what Twilight People vibrantly and creatively portrays is that our identities can span communities.
This is not the only creative act to emerge from Twilight!
Interestingly, Pirkei Avot (1) mentions various things created on the Eve of Shabbat at Twilight: one, being the Rainbow – which connects all of our colours and hues.
The other, the Tablets of the Ten Commandments that God gives to Moses in Ki Tissa (Exod. 30:11-34:35), our Torah portion this Shabbat. His indignation at seeing the people worshipping the Golden Calf, leads to them being broken. (2)
When Moses asks to see God’s glory, he is told he will be sheltered in the cleft of a rock while God reveals Godself and he will just see God’s back.
Moses is told to carve two new stone tablets, like the first and God will inscribe upon them the words that were on the first set. After 40 days and nights alone on Mt Sinai, Moses returns to the people carrying a whole new set of Tablets.
He returns unaware “ki karan or panav”, that “the skin of his face shone”. (Exod. 34:29)
The past tense Hebrew verb “karan” used only once in Torah refers to “sent out rays (3) [of light]”, since Moses had spoken with God. This spiritual encounter renders Moses face radiant!
The verb “karan” however, was mistranslated in a noun form as “keren” meaning “horns”: so the Vulgate, Latin translation, refers to Moses face being horned. (4)
This informed the image of Moses in Medieval and Renaissance art with Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, portraying him with what look like horns protruding from his forehead!
According to Rabbi Josh Berkenwald it is clear that horns don’t fit this context as they ’“would grow from the [Moses’] head, not from the skin of the [his] face...” (5)
Nothing negative may have been intended “by attributing horns to Moses. In the ancient world, horns were… associated with power… Babylonians and Egyptians had horned deities, and the Romans used horns to symbolize might…” (6) However, the images of a horned Moses perpetuated the myth of Jews having horns like the devil, leading to stereotype and prejudice.
Returning to the Torah portion:
When the people saw Moses’ radiance: “they were afraid to come near him”. (Exod. 34:30) They were scared of Moses’ transformation, of this change and he had to give reassurance before they could reconnect with him.
So what became of the tablets, created within Twilight?
According to Talmud (7) the pieces of the first tablets were placed in the Ark, next to the whole tablets – reflecting both the brokenness and wholeness the Israelites carried with them.
At worst, faith persecutes what it perceives as “otherness”.
Just like the broken pieces: it can shatter our hearts and tear our souls. It perpetuates ignorance, uses fundamentalist notions and prejudice to marginalize, shun, shame, humiliate, dehumanize, and ultimately demonize: we might as well be people with horns on our heads that people are scared of and don’t know how to engage with...
Like the whole set of Tablets: at best, faith nurtures our integration and whole selves. It enables us to feel held, supported and secure. It is embracing of uniqueness, affirming, uplifting, challenging, giving meaning, solace and strength… along with the radiance of spiritual connection!
We know some of our LGBTQIAQ community struggle with faith - not surprising, considering the prejudice they feel and the many atrocities perpetrated in the name of faith…. And some of our faith community is challenged by our existence as LGBTQIAQ people.
But our faith, gender identities and sexualities can and do co-exist:
The acronym JGLG, revolutionary in its time, reflects being both Jewish and Gay or Lesbian. People of various sexualities can also be people of faith. Twilight People reflects that people of faith can be transgender and gender variant people.
That is not to suggest a co-existence is not filled with complexities and challenges!
I know JGLG is open to anyone identifying as LGBT, however please forgive me if I offer you a challenge: for there may be people struggling to fit within a JGLG acronym that doesn’t name some of their identity.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every community were welcoming of: P-E-O-P-L-E! (8)
Whether we are theists, atheists, agnostics, connected to our faith and spirituality culturally through festivals, traditions and history, being a person of faith is integral to who and how we are in the world and as unique as what it means to be LGBTQIAQ.
If one defines spirituality as a connection with ourselves, other people [and, for some, with a Being greater than ourselves] then our transitions: are a spiritual realization of what it means to be more fully our authentic selves.
I was struck by the poignant title of a book written by therapist Elizabeth Meakins: “What Will You Do With My Story?” (9) which is a question a client had asked her.
Twilight People invites us to consider what we do with our stories and what other people do with them.
As rabbis, faith leaders, educators, facilitators and members of faith communities we need to use our voices: to talk about every hue of life experience, to engage with spiritual challenges, including how we understand our Scriptures. If we can’t talk of gender identity and sexuality from the pulpit, in the newsletter, at a study session, in our liturgy and prayer, we retreat into denial and silence and our congregants, parishioners, brothers and sisters remain invisible and the message is: our lives are not valued and we don’t count. This doesn’t make it permissive for people to share their stories and struggles - it is such a risk for people to voice what they sense we cannot bare.
Twilight is about: in between, possibility, renewal and transformation as Czech author Bohumil Hrabal in his book, “Too Loud a Solitude” wrote (10):
“I always loved the twilight: it was the only time I had the feeling that something important could happen. All things were more beautiful bathed in twilight, all streets, all squares, and all the people walking through them; I even had the feeling that I was a handsome young man, and I liked looking at myself in the mirror, watching myself in the shop windows as I strode along, and even when I touched my face, I felt no wrinkles at my mouth or forehead. Yes, with twilight comes beauty.”
With Twilight People you have given voice and visibility to your stories. These are both your stories and our stories. “Yours”, by virtue of them being uniquely yours, “ours” because they are transgender and gender variant stories and part of the richness of who we are as human beings.
We cannot live our lives for other people, we cannot sacrifice who we are for their sake, to protect them from potential confusion, shame or pain. Nor can we live other people’s lives. We can only live our lives and seek to fulfill our unique potential – for only then can we make a congruent contribution.
May these empowering stories provide hope and be enlightening across communities. Twilight People is transdenominational in the fullest sense of the word! Let us merge our strengths, embrace our allies and celebrate our stories with pride.
May people whoever they are and however they define themselves: realize their potential, have faith in themselves and find and create safe, inclusive spiritual spaces, welcoming of diversity and manifold identities.
Then, we will truly emerge: from the Twilight… with Radiance!
(1) Pirkei Avot 5:6 http://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_Avot.5.6?lang=en&layout=lines&sidebarLang=all
Some sites list this as Pirkei Avot 5:8 (Rabbi M Lieber (ed.), Artscroll Mesorah Series: The Pirkei Avos Treasury, Mesorah Publications, New York, 1996) (p.314)
(2) Hertz, J.H. (ed.) The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, Soncino Press, London (1975) Commentary on Exod. 32:19, p.359
(3) used in this form once in Torah: Brown, Driver & Briggs, Hebrew And English Lexicon Of The Old Testament, Clarendon Press, Oxford (1952) (p.902)
(4) Plaut , G. The Torah, The Union Of American Hebrew Congregations, New York (1981) Commentary on Exod. 34:29, p.661
(7) Talmud Bava Batra 14b
(8) Although I don’t agree with all of the opinion expressed, the highlight is that “we are all just PEOPLE”:
(9) Meakins, E. What Will You Do With My Story, Great Britain, Karnac (2012)
CHANNUKAH SERVICE LJS/JGLG/BKY (LJS 11th December 2015)
Channukah is about a fight for freedom – for the freedom to live one’s life and Judaism with integrity, not to be shackled by anyone prescribing who we can and cannot be.
We read of dark times when the Syrian Greeks ruled over Judea. Although Torah study was forbidden on pain of death it took place, in hiding. As a child I learnt that when Greek soldiers passed by, those studying pretended to be playing with spinning tops.
A 19th century Rabbi Avraham Hirshowitz mentions the Spinning top, or Dreidel as a Channukah custom [Otzar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun 19:4]. However the Dreidel is probably not of Jewish origin, but a version of the 16th century medieval English game Teetotum played with a four-sided top, containing four letters.
The four letters on the Dreidel stand for the phrase: “Nays Gadol Haya Poh” – “A Great Miracle Happened Here”. Lettering on Dreidels outside Israel refer to: “Nays Gadol Haya Sham” – A Great Miracle Happened There”.
Perhaps the Dreidel evolved to keep children’s attention.
Whatever its origin, the Rebbe of Tzanz viewed the Dreidel as “a …critique of the covert manner in which our ancestors performed mitvos”. (Shefa Chaim Vol.2, no.283) It is associated with being unable to live openly.
We all know what it is like to hide: playing hide and seek in childhood, during awkward moments in our youth and as adults being unable to face something.
When self-acceptance eludes us we hide from ourselves.
We worry about being judged, losing relationships with family and friends, the loss of respect and a loss of earnings. In despair we wonder how we will survive feeling discarded and marginalized.
It is a relief when the fantasies are worse than reality and people accept us for who we are. But there are harsh realities. Homophobia, transphobia, every kind of phobia exists: people thrown out of their homes, gay men queer bashed and thrown off buildings, lesbians raped to show them what a “real man is”, transwomyn placed in men’s prisons, trans* people murdered… People lose their lives for not conforming to what others can digest.
Our fears can be so overwhelming that we hide in the closet and live stealth. To be self-preservatory we tell our families our partners are our just friends (“he sleeps in the guest bedroom”) or we relocate continents where no one knows our previous lives.
In hiding we also protect people who are challenged by our existence.
When yearning for self-actualization and liberation outweighs fear, hiding is unsustainable and hopefully resilience, love and support carry us forward.
Contrary to the hiding the dreidel symbolizes, our lit Channukiah proudly out on display is about being visible.
Rather than highlight the military victory of the Maccabees the Rabbis chose a more spiritual message, echoing Zechariah, our Haftarah this Shabbat: “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit...” (Zech 4:6). Faith in God triumphs and the miracle of the oil rests in Higher hands.
Re-enacting this miracle we light a visual representation, the Channukiah.
We are not to use the Channukah lights other than to gaze upon them.
We are to “Pirsumei nisa”– to “publicize the miracle”. The root of the word “Pirsumei” is “paras” – meaning “reveal” and “expose”. So we are enjoined to reveal the miracle, placing Channukah lights outside our door or on a windowsill facing the street, so passers by can easily see them. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b).
Visibility takes many forms – if not a Channukiah publicizing the miracle of freedom, maybe the rainbow flag draped across the window or walking down the street holding hands with a partner.
Activism is often equated with visibility. But it is not just about: campaigning, being front cover of a magazine, publishing an article or having a media presence – because each of us is an activist in the values we embody. How we live life touches and impacts other people.
Channukah means “dedication”. As we mark the re-dedication of the Temple, let us ask ourselves: what are we dedicated to? What values do we as Liberal Jews and Liberal thinking people espouse and embody? I would hope hiding in rhetoric is not an option.
It is no co-incidence that the root of Pirsumei “publicizing” (the miracle) is “paras” referring to both “reveal” and “expose” as “revealing” oneself, “coming out” can feel exposing.
At best our communities need to be inclusive, enabling our visibility and when needed, our hiding. Because it doesn’t take much for a community to make people feel marginalized and invisible.
Liberal Rabbis and communities are talking about whether to have a new edition of our prayer book or to keep our Siddur and make amendments.
Will our lives be integrated within its contents or be at some remove?
Will there be prayers and rituals acknowledging our lives as LGBTQIAQ people? Along with the gender-neutral language for God, will rituals reflect the lives of non-binary, gender variant and genderqueer people?
Is same sex marriage liturgy destined to remain a separate standalone booklet or be within a new Siddur?
What about a naming ceremony and gender affirmation for trans* people?
Is it time for our Siddur to reflect experiences often stigmatized, invisible and taboo: can we envisage a prayer for mental health and one acknowledging survivors of abuse?
Until each of us opens a Siddur (or for that matter a corresponding “book of rituals”) and sees some of our life reflected there we remain out of sight, hidden.
When our communities consider an LGBTQIAQ charity for the High Holy Day appeal,
When LGBTQIAQ books adorn the Rabbi’s bookshelf and shul library,
When at Cheder we teach of the rich diversity of humanity and our youth movements are in discourse around these topics,
Then we can say: “Nays Gadol Haya Poh” – “A Great Miracle Happened Here”
When we replace “Ladies and Gentleman” and instead welcome everyone & specific invited guests,
When we stop assuming people’s sexuality and gender identity from their clothing, the way they speak, their body language and their piercings (or lack of),
When we ask people their pronouns and how they identify,
When we have gender-neutral toilets,
Then we can say: “Nays Gadol Haya Poh”
When a call up to Torah is as: “ben” (son of), “bat” (daughter of), “mibeit” (from the house of) or “mimishpachah” (from the family of),
When there is a 5th son in our Hagaddah who was assigned female at birth, or a 5th child who is genderqueer,
Then we can say: “Nays Gadol Haya Poh”
When it’s ok to wear whatever we fancy… and not just at Purim,
When we mark Transgender Awareness Week and Transgender Day of Remembrance,
When there is a policy around burial of trans* people,
Then we can say: “Nays Gadol Haya Poh”
When people are less concerned about who we sleep with
and less concerned about what is in our pants,
and more concerned about what is in our hearts,
Then we can say: “Nays Gadol Haya Poh”
When we stop thinking of “us” and “them”,
When we embrace our allies and in turn become allies,
When we move beyond tolerance to respect and inclusivity,
Then we can say: “Nays Gadol Haya Poh”
Channukah has the same root as “Chinnuch” – education:
May we become enlightened through learning from each other, respectful of the hidden and visible and dedicated to being God’s partners in creating miracles: bringing radiance that shines beyond us, to future generations.
- Amen -
KAVANNAH - PRIDE SERVICE (WEST LONDON SYNAGOGUE 27th JUNE 2014)
At this moment in our service we are reminded of being on a journey: having left slavery in Egypt, we stand before the Sea of Reeds.
We have all made unique journeys to be here today.
Some sea voyages have been smooth sailing (and cruising); enticing and exhilarating; for others the waters have been fraught with anxiety, frustration, even denial and turbulent plummeting to the depths of despair. For some of us the destination has always been on the horizon whilst others have walked along the beach dipping their toes, “testing the tide".
However we have journeyed, we have faced the unknown.
Some of us were risk takers, walking or plunging into the Sea.
A Midrash mentions Nachshon ben Aminadav, who exemplifies this. He enters the sea, alone. In the face of uncertainty, Nachshon’s bravery evokes God’s response, the sea parts and a safe path ensues for the community of Israel.
Nachshon’s courage is a blessing, benefitting those around him. His mindset and action give birth to a transformative moment beyond that of an individual. In the “not knowing” Nachshon achieves freedom beyond himself.
Like Nachshon some of us have yearned for and found liberation: in “speaking and being out” and in living our loves and lives in quieter ways.
As a community celebrating Pride; we recall shedding tears of enslavement, alongside the joyous tears of liberation.
Each of us has a resilience and courage that has bought us here today.
Micah Bazant in “Timtum: A Trans Jew Zine” writes about the liberation of opening ourselves up to a variety of journeys:
“In order to understand transgender expression and see and respect people as they really are, we have to break down our gender conditioning. We have to get used to (and excited about) bearded ladies... short boys with ‘dessert hands’ and big-boned gals with deep voices. We have to trash the lists…”
This challenge invites us to:
• see beyond stereotypes
• sit with the known, unknown and the not needing to know
• accept the uniqueness of each other and to
• marvel at the spectrum of colours and diverse hues that emanate from our rainbow
There remains plenty to work towards, as liberation extends beyond ourselves. May we never take any liberties for granted, nor celebrate at the expense of others.
“Mi Kamocha” (which we will soon sing) is sung by Moses and the people, celebrating the crossing of the sea and Miriam, timbrel in hand, leads the women in dance. Like them we have much to be proud of, thankful for and to sing and dance about - tonight, tomorrow and whenever!
PESACH - SLAVERY AND LIBERATION (APRIL 2014)
COMING OUT OF EGYPT
In our Seder service we read from the Hagaddah which states:
"B'chol dor vador chayav adam lir'ot et atsmo k'ilu hu yatsa mimitsrayim"
"In each generation a person should see [him/herself/insert your pronoun of choice] as if [he/she/insert your pronoun of choice] had come out of Egypt"
The festival of Pesach brings with it an obligation and valuable opportunity for each of us to see ourselves as if we personally had come out of Egypt.
We cannot possibly know what it was like to be a slave in Egypt, to be subject to the whim of another and to hard labour, to fear death and to hope, dream and yearn for freedom. However we are exhorted to try and imagine what it might have been like. Our Hagaddah, in telling this story, assists in taking us on a journey that connects us to our ancestors: to their story of degradation, endurance and liberation.
Maybe the link is in our own stories, for surely each of us knows something of being in "Mitsrayim" (Egypt): quite literally a narrow, restricted place of discomfort where we don't want to be and the inevitable impact on our lives and those around us.
This Pesach is a yardstick of how far I have travelled from Mitsrayim.
For me Mitsrayim has been about being a child growing up in a family that to the outside world may have looked like a paragon of virtue imbued with shalom bayit (peace in the home) and tsiniyut (modesty). My parents were involved in and committed to the life of our synagogue and I was a child of the community. I attended Cheder (not only liked it but was enthused and inspired by it!), services every Shabbat and Festivals (never had to be begged to do so) and sat watching my father's every move: his charismatic personality reflected in the way he connected with people and his intonation and pronunciation as a lay leader and service taker. As a child I watched and listened to what he said and what he did, hanging on his every word: imbibing where he would pause or emphasize a word or phrase and I quickly learnt something of the art of leading a community in prayer.
My family, however, had a secret. It is not easy to talk about secrets; they thrive in the conspiracy of silence. I struggled to talk about it because it was impossible to say, the words eluded me and sometimes they still do. Over the years the palpable anxieties of how this revelation might be received meant I held on to it. I was scared of what people would think of me and the disrepute I would bring to my family. How could I acknowledge that my own father had done unspeakable things to me and had violated and abused me? That one of the very people who was meant to look after, care for, love and respect me had made me feel vulnerable, exposed, fearful and used.
As an adult it pains me every time I return to the synagogue and look at the Honours Board where his name is engraved, in gold letters, acknowledging his contribution as Honorary Secretary. I wonder why he held a position of kavod (honour), could honour people within our congregation and community and bring honour to the synagogue (which I often saw him do) but was so schooled in dishonouring me.
I guess I'll never know, as my father died when I was 16. I feel robbed of being able to confront him and I think I always will. Nonetheless I've done some things that have helped in vicarious ways but it's been a significant challenge trying to deal with the legacy left by someone who is dead. "Kabayd et avicha...", the commandment to "honour your father" left a lot to be desired.
Pesach is a reminder of where I have been, where I am now, where I am heading and want to be. Have I left Mitsrayim behind? Yes but pieces of it still inhabit my life and I sense that in some ways they always will. It's just that in looking back I can tell how far I've travelled and how far I still need and want to go. Most importantly, I can now also look forward with hope at new vistas and landscapes.
Part of the journey from Mitsrayim has been about finding wellsprings in the midst of the desert to quench a thirst, nurture my body and rejuvenate my soul. I've needed to find and create the space to be more than a survivor - to feel more congruent, to be who I felt I was and to be more fully who I am.
In 2012 I wanted to mark my burgeoning identity and decided to change my names. This enabled me to let go of my father's surname. It also gave me a way of affirming and acknowledging my masculinity.
My Mitsrayim has made me the person I am today for I carry this experience deep within. It has moulded me, impacted me, at times threatened to crush me, given me reasons to survive. It has also enabled me to connect with people, to hear and bear witness to their pain, to give them space to reflect on their own Mitsrayim, to offer support and to accompany them on their own unique journeys.
"Mah nishtana haliylah hazeh mikol halaylot?", "Why is this night different from all other nights?":
On all other nights I have struggled with the thought of telling some of my story: how could I find the words? How might people react? How self-centered and egocentric might it feel? How could I do something meaningful with it?
On this night I will have spoken: I will have told some of my story.
Within that lies unbounded liberation.
This Pesach may each of us be blessed with the courage to face our own Mitsrayim, to find inner strength, resource and resilience as well as good travel companions!