Friday, June 26, 2015

Nearing the Mountaintop - We Made A Difference

Forty-six years ago this weekend, June 28, 1969 in Greenwich Village at the Stonewall Inn, police raided a gay nightclub in an attempt to arrest its patrons because being gay was illegal in New York City. Being gay was illegal. Riots ensued and, in their aftermath, the LGBT rights movement was born.

In light of the situation in America five decades ago, today’s Supreme Court decision arguing that gay and lesbian individuals’ rights are ensured by the 14th Amendment, the equal protection clause, including the right to marry whomever they choose, could be seen as miraculous.

The Executive Director of the Central Conference of American Rabbis CCAR said:
As Jews, we believe we are all formed in God’s image. For many years, Reform Judaism rabbis have called for equal rights for all members of our communities, and we see today’s Supreme Court decision on marriage equality as a huge moral victory for the United States.
The Reform movement has been a strong advocate. Last March, the CCAR marked the 25th anniversary of a 1990 resolution calling for the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis, and installed its first openly gay president, Rabbi Denise Eger. I personally have performed a number of same-sex marriage ceremonies and spoke on several occasions at the Iowa Capitol about it. 

The majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy is not a simple legal document. It is beautiful. For example, it states the following about the institution of marriage:

The annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations. The centrality of marriage to the human condition makes it unsurprising that the institution has existed for millennia and across civilizations. Since the dawn of history, marriage has transformed strangers into relatives, binding families and societies together.

Beautiful! Yet, the stories of the three couples cited by Justice Kennedy in the opinion are heart wrenching:
  1. 1.     A married couple wherein one spouse died from ALS, but because the state in which they resided didn’t recognize same-sex marriage, it refused to list the surviving spouse on the death certificate. Imagine not being listed as the spouse of your beloved because the state decided you weren’t allowed to marry.
  2. 2.     A married couple with children, wherein because the state would not recognize the couple’s same-sex marriage, neither would it recognize both parents as the legal guardians of their adopted children leaving not only the couple, but the children as well, at risk should anything happen to one of them.
  3. 3.     A couple including a soldier who served with the Tennessee National Guard in Afghanistan, whom when he returned home found that he was considered unmarried.

Justice Kennedy noted:

Even when a greater awareness of the humanity and integrity of homosexual persons came in the period after World War II, the argument that gays and lesbians had a just claim to dignity was in conflict with both law and widespread social conventions. Same-sex intimacy remained a crime in many States. Gays and lesbians were prohibited from most government employment, barred from military service, excluded under immigration laws, targeted by police, and burdened in their rights to associate… For much of the 20th century, moreover, homosexuality was treated as an illness…

Change was slow to come. It wasn’t until 1990 that even the highly progressive Reform Jewish movement was willing to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis and congregations were not exactly banging down the door to hire them when it did.

Justice Kennedy explained that times and our understanding of our world changes, something at the basis of Reform Judaism, discussed 130 years ago in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform. The Justice wrote:

The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed…

It is noteworthy that rather than speak to a definition of civil marriage, Justice Kennedy spoke of what marriage should be. He stated:

The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation… Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.

While, in the opinion there are many paragraphs about legal benefits based in marriage and problems caused by exclusion from it, how beautiful is the statement, that marriage “offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other?”

I’m personally not sure I would have needed any more than that statement alone to justify what the Supreme Court of the United States did today. Yet, the concluding paragraph offered by Justice Kennedy is worthy of sermon and will itself be long remembered and oft quoted.

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

And so 46 years after the Stonewall Riot in Greenwich Village when simply being gay was cause to be arrested, today it is legal for two gay men to be married there and their marriage will be recognized everywhere in America.

I often urge us to action as I did last week. I point out that we can make a difference even if what our own actions contribute is but a drop of water. Many drops, as was all too clear this week here in Des Moines, create a river and sometimes a very flooded one. What we can clearly say, after this Supreme Court decision, is that our drops of water, all of our advocacy through the years, created that river. 

We made a difference.

I stand before you, thinking of my own family members, who were never able to publicly acknowledge that they were gay or lesbian.

I stand before you, thinking of those in our congregation and in our community who have struggled to have their freedom and rights recognized, often suffering persecution and discrimination because of their views.

I stand before you, having spoken often about Antisemitism and the Holocaust, remembering pink triangles and getting choked up about it. This has been a long and painful struggle.

I stand before you, knowing the elation of nearing the mountaintop, having labored so hard and long on the climb. What a feeling!

We are here on a day when these words ring more truthful, “We the people who hold this truth to be self-evident, that we all are created equal.”

Today, my friends, we live in a nation beginning to live up to the lofty promise made by its first President to a little community of Jews in Rhode Island 225 years ago. In the words of President George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in New Port Rhode Island and quoting the words of that congregation’s leader, Moses Seixas:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy, a policy worthy of imitation.

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of the inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support…

May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

This is truly a momentous day.

And so, how can I conclude this sermon with anything other than Shecheheyanu, thanking God for bringing us to this long sought after day?

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, for sustaining us in life, strengthening us, and enabling us to reach the day!

Friday, June 19, 2015

We Still Have A Dream - On the Charleston Shooting and Faith

The Torah relates that when Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, were killed, that Aaron was silent. Speechless. Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes there are too many words, perhaps too many unhelpful words. Rage words. Too few understanding words.

Tonight, we lift our prayers and give strength to those in Charleston, South Carolina, to the members of the AME Church across our nation, to the African American community that has once again suffered a grievous wound, to all those of faith…knowing it could easily have been us, too often for we Jews it has been us,… we offer support. It is a great honor for me to be able to host this service, to have heard Pastor Black share her thoughts tonight, to be joined by so many faith leaders and so many caring hearts here to offer prayers and strength.

My friends, a confession.
I am a prejudiced man.
I am a man who discriminates.
I am a man who bears hatred.

I am prejudiced against intolerance.
I discriminate against those who proclaim it.
I hate those who act upon it.

Such people have caused endless suffering. The history of my people is replete with haters who have acted in ways not unlike what happened in Charleston, South Carolina. I do not have to struggle to imagine something similar happening in a Jewish context, in a synagogue, in a community center, in a kosher supermarket. It happens all too often. We know that suffering.

But to apply Rabbi Hillel’s famous statement,
“If I am not willing to take on the challenge of changing the world, can I expect anyone else to do so?
What will I become if I do try?” and finally,
“If I am not willing to stand up here and now and say ‘NO MORE?’ When will I?” Too late? When Maurice Ogden’s Hangman knocks upon my door to take me to the gallows?

Here we are on June 19, 2015 mourning the killing of nine members of an AME Church in South Carolina, including four pastors.

June 19 is an important date in Black History. On June 19, 1865, a date that came to be known as Juneteenth and has been celebrated annually since, Union Solders landed on the shores of Galveston, Texas with the news that slaves were truly free. 150 years ago, today.

150 years after the end of slavery in this nation, a young man joined a prayer service at a historic black church, sitting with those attending for an hour, before opening fire on peaceful prayerful men and women simply because of the color of their skin.


I was asked by a man in despair over the martyrdom of the innocents in Charleston, how we may overcome the hatred in our world. I immediately thought of Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither may you desist from it.”

Tomorrow will not be the day that hatred vanishes from our world. It won’t be the next day either. It won’t be because you and I spoke out and said, “Hatred be gone!” or because God finally acquiesced and decided to make peace on earth because we sang a rousing chorus of Oseh Shalom as we will later on tonight.

When the time comes, when that day of peace finally arrives, when hatred and war are banished, it will be because each of us individually made a little bit of difference; little drops of water in the stream of justice will allow righteousness to flow like a mighty river.

We are in this together, my friends: as Americans and as people of faith.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous speech:

With this faith, we will indeed be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
With this faith, we will indeed be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
With this faith, we will indeed be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to stand up for freedom together.

Tonight, I am reminded of another line, often forgotten, in that same speech, the one introducing the dream. Dr. King said, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”

Do we still have a dream? Do we still have a dream? …I think we do.

We still have a dream.

We still have a dream that our children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

We still have a dream.

We still have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

We still have a dream today. Juneteenth, 150 years to the day.

We still have a dream of freedom from slavery, freedom from the shackles of hatred and the bonds of prejudice; freedom from those who see only skin deep and see otherness as inhumanity.

We still have a dream!

And we have faith! Look around you tonight. But don’t just look. Truly see! Perceive!
These people here tonight and all those around our nation gathering together in vigil after vigil are people who care. These are people who like you have had enough! These are people…We the People…who hold this truth to be self-evident, that we all are created equal. We all matter.

You are not alone.
We are not alone.
No one is alone.
We stand together.

That is our dream. Let us make it real.

Shabbat Shalom.