Friday, May 24, 2013

Striving to Be Human: Jason Collins's Coming Out is a Jewish Story

[Author's note:  This is slightly adapted from a sermon I gave on May 3, 2013.]

I don’t follow sports too closely. In fact, until attending Florida State University, I think it’s fair to say that I didn’t follow sports at all, but it’s hard not to be aware of football when your alma mater won the National Championship the year you graduated. Recently, though, a sports story rose to my attention and perhaps it did to yours, too, even if you don’t regularly follow sports. Jason Collins, a center on the basketball team the Washington Wizards, came out as gay. He is the first active male athlete in what’s known as the “Big Four” of team sports – baseball, basketball, football, and hockey – to come out.

The story first appeared on Sports Illustrated’s website on Monday, May 29, 2013 and is the cover story of their May 6, 2013 issue. Earlier in the week, the story sparked my interest, but not because it resonated Jewishly for me. Being part of the LGBTQ community, Collins’s coming out was a big deal, but I wasn’t sure it really mattered Jewishly. Then, as the week progressed, my thoughts changed. Later that week, a friend and colleague asked for advice in the rabbinic Facebook group. Having written a piece from a Jewish perspective about Collins, my colleague had gotten some nasty comments in a public forum. He was torn about whether or not to respond. As it turned out, the comments weren’t even related to Collins’s coming out. They were anti-Semitic comments because the article was written from a Jewish perspective. Our colleagues, rightly so, encouraged him not to respond.

It struck me how a story about a man speaking the truth about who he is was twisted into an attack on Judaism, even by people who claimed to understand and support the LGBTQ community, including one comment written by someone who identified as gay. I started wondering how much Collins’s public statement about being true to himself and leading the way for others resonated with what Judaism means for me.

In the Sports Illustrated article, Jason Collins begins: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay. “I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”

To me, that sounds Jewish. Because no one else is stepping up, I must. In Pirke Avot (2:5), Hillel teaches, "B'makom she-ein anashim, hishtadeil lihiyot ish, In a place where no one acts like a human being, strive to be human." There were plenty of reactions to the news about Jason Collins that didn’t deem it noteworthy. With Piers Morgan on CNN, Ben Shapiro, a conservative political commentator, defended a tweet he sent. Shapiro had tweeted, “So Jason Collins is a hero because he’s gay? Our standard for heroism has dropped quite a bit since Normandy.”

In the interview with Piers Morgan, Ben Shapiro argued that Jason Collins’s coming out was no different than Piers Morgan’s speaking with a British accent or his own wearing a yarmulke on national television. All three are just being who you are and there’s nothing heroic about that. I would agree with Shapiro, except for Hillel’s point. In a place where no one else can be who they are – perhaps they lack courage; perhaps they are simply too afraid – being the only one acts like a human being, being who he is, is courageous, in my opinion. Where no one else like him can yet be a full human being, Jason Collins is striving to be human.

On the other end of the spectrum, there were those who compared Jason Collins to Jackie Robinson, which is timely given the recent release of the film 42, the biographical drama about Jackie Robinson and the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers season. David Stanley, a member of a Reform synagogue in Michigan and a teacher, athlete, and coach, made such a comparison in a piece for the Reform Judaism Blog. David Stanley argues that Collins’s coming out is a huge deal on the scale of Jackie Robinson. He parallels the two athletes, sharing that part of the reason why Jackie Robinson was signed was because it simply was the right thing to do. Like Collins, Robinson wished he hadn’t needed to be like the kid in class raising his hand to proclaim his being different, but he was, and so he stepped up to the plate. He compares the athleticism of the two, recognizing Robinson “as a tough, hard-as-nails second baseman who took [nothing] from no one. Collins has always been the guy who set the picks, takes the charges, knocks guys to the floor – in other word, a tough, hard-as-nails center who takes [nothing] from no one.”

If there’s a message in Jason Collins’s story for us, it’s the constant reminder that the world in which we live is not yet perfect and that we have before us the task of perfecting it. We can’t just sit around waiting for the world to perfect itself. In fact, reflecting on why he hadn’t come out until now, Jason Collins wrote, “The recent Boston Marathon bombing reinforced the notion that I shouldn’t wait for the circumstances of my coming out to be perfect. Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?” This reminds me, the world is not perfect; we are perfecting it. We can’t do everything, but when we recognize that no one else is stepping forward, we have a responsibility to do so. We don’t have to complete the task, but we can’t be content sitting on the bench, either. Whether or not you’re a sports’ fan, I encourage you to read Jason Collins’s piece in the current issue of Sports Illustrated. His coming out, in my opinion, is a Jewish story. Jason Collins knows that where no one else is able like a human being, being human is a heroic act.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Stop the Marriage Amendment

I have spent the better part of the past two days at the Capitol in St. Paul rallying against the marriage amendment. It has passed the Minnesota Senate and waits only for a vote on the House floor. GOVERNOR DAYTON CANNOT VETO AN AMENDMENT PROPOSAL.

We have heard from supportive GOP leadership how critically important it is that we continue to be a presence at the Capitol to prevent enshrining hate in Minnesota's Constitution. WE CAN WIN THIS, BUT WE NEED YOU. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that the opposite of good is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference. PLEASE TAKE A STAND.

WE NEED YOU AT THE CAPITOL TONIGHT, THROUGH THE WEEKEND, AND ON MONDAY. Stay up-to-date through OutFront Minnesota's website
and be at the Capitol as often as you can. Every minute counts.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday the 13th

It's been a bad week. But today is Friday the 13th and in my book, that's a good thing. (My mother was born on Friday the 13th. My brother came a day early on Thursday the 12th.) This week's Torah portion, Behar, contains the verse inscribed on the Liberty Bell: Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof Lev. XXV X. (Or, You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all of its inhabitants (Lev. 25:10).) There will, one day, be liberty and justice for all. It may take a lot of work, but it will happen.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Retribution and Restraint

I was driving home from the Twin Cities community's Holocaust remembrance service last Sunday evening, listening to MSNBC on my satellite radio. All of a sudden, the broadcast was interrupted by an announcement that in 15 minutes, the President would be making a special announcement, but that the details of that announcement were unknown. I walked in the door at home and quickly tuned my television to the news so that I could see what was so urgent. An hour or so later, the nation and the world knew that a CIA operation in Pakistan had resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.

After the President had spoken, the news cameras turned to the crowds forming outside the White House, at Ground Zero, and at other locations around the country where Americans, many of them young adults, were celebrating America's victory. I, however, felt uneasy. Now, don't get me wrong, I don't disagree with the need to have protected ourselves by bringing the life of another to an end. Judaism demands that. In din ha-rodef, the law of the pursuer (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 73a), we are told that after warning a would-be murderer, we are obligated to stop him, even if it results in his death. But I also thought of the midrash of our crossing the Sea of Reeds where the angels rejoiced at the deaths of the Egyptians and God reminded them that even the Egyptians were God's children. Later in the week, Rabbi Joe Black reminded me of the verse from Proverbs, "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles" (Proverbs 24:17).

This week, in Parashat Emor, we are reminded of the Jewish law of capital punishment: "If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death. One who kills a beast shall make restutition for it: life for life. If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him" (Leviticus 24:17-20). What I learned today, though, in preparing for tomorrow's Torah study at Temple Israel, is that an eye for an eye, in the Biblical law, was not one that promoted retribution, but rather restraint. In those days, one was likely to respond disproportionately to an injury or death and Torah seeks to limit our reaction, protecting our relationship with one another and by virtue of that, with God.

Was it too much for the U.S. military to have killed Osama bin Laden? No. But it is too much if we don't show proper restraint in our reaction to his death. As one 9/11 victim's survivor put it, this is a time for us to honor the memory of those whose lives were lost, not to celebrate the death of a mass murderer; he doesn't deserve that much recognition.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Judge Your Kin Fairly; Do Not Profit By the Blood of Your Fellow

You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kin fairly. Do not deal basely with members of your people. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow: I am the Eternal. (Leviticus 19:15-16)

This afternoon, I sat in on a hearing of the Minnesota Senate Judiciary Committee, which was hearing testimony on a proposal to place an amendment on the ballot in Minnesota in 2012 legally restricting all marriage to one man and one woman. Unfortunately, the bill passed the committee and moves forward. There will likely be an same sex marriage ban amendment on the Minnesota ballot in 2012.

On my way back from the hearings, where I heard heartwarming, compelling, and emotional testimony from opponents to the legislation (not to mention misleading, hateful, and hurtful testimony from the proponents of the legislation), I was listening briefly to Science Friday, which featured Holly Tucker, author of Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution. Most of the piece that I caught focused on the advances of medicine regarding the circulatory system and the use of blood transfusions before science knew about blood types. One comment, though, caught me by surprise.

I had never really thought about the role of Jim Crow Laws in medicine. As it turns out, the Red Cross used to refuse donations from Black donors. And even once the Red Cross began accepted blood from Black donors, blood was segregated by race. In the 1930s, African American surgeon and hemotologist, Dr. Charles Drew, developed a method for preserving blood. "The American Red Cross enlisted Drew in 1941 to establish a blood bank program in the United States. That same year, the U. S. War Department declared, 'It is not advisable to collect and mix Caucasian and Negro blood indiscriminately for later administration to members of the military forces.'" It wasn't until 1949 that the U.S. Military stopped segregating blood.

Today, of course, men who have had sex with men since 1977 are prohibited from donating blood, even though research shows that the policy is antiquated and medically inaccurate.

In the 1940s, Black citizens who chose to donate blood were not judged fairly. In the Senate hearing today, an unfair decision was rendered and a minority is being unfairly judged. We know the cost of such discrimination and it's a price we shouldn't be willing to pay.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Tasting the Bitterness

Last Friday night I wasn’t on the bimah because I was among two dozen Temple Israel participants – including our 9th graders, TIPTYites, and chaperones – taking part in A Night on the Street, an annual sleep-out for homelessness organized by Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation, an organization working to end homelessness in Minneapolis. (Check out a video of our experience here.) There are 2500 youth who experience homelessness in Minnesota each night. We were part of a group of 400 participants from dozens of faith communities around the Twin Cities Metro who attempted to sleep outside for a night in solidarity with these homeless youth. I say ‘attempted’ because this was the first time in my six years of participating in the event that we had to allow the participants inside Plymouth Congregational Church because of the weather. If you remember last Shabbat, we went to set up our cardboard box villages while snow and sleet were falling and woke up to a light blanket of snow. Though it wasn’t a lot – certainly not enough to warrant plowing or shoveling – it was enough to cause our cardboard boxes to cave in, snow and rain to drench our sleeping bags and clothing. The tarps that we had were practically useless.

I never actually made it into my box. We gathered as a Jewish community at the event around 11:00 at night, along with participants and staff from Shir Tikvah, to mark the beginning of Shabbat. We lit little electric candles, shared challah, and in place of Kiddush, we shared a word about what made the experience holy for each of us. By the time we wrapped up our Shabbat blessings, the boxes were already damp and some were starting to cave in. Most of the teens tried crawling under the snow-speckled tarps towards their cardboard boxes. One Shir Tikvah participant, Naomi, crawled in and out of her box maybe a half a dozen times before coming up to me and asking if she could go home. By the time her father arrived, Naomi was in tears because she felt that she wasn’t tough enough to stick it out. I told her she still had a story to tell, a way to explain a taste of what it must be like to have to live on the streets, when she wanted to convince others to help end youth homelessness.

Around 12:30 am, the leadership decided to unlock the church doors and allow the participants to choose to sleep in Jones Commons, the lobby at the church. In the seven years that the event has taken place, we’ve never opened the church before. We’ve slept through rain and temperatures just above freezing, but the weather has never been so bitter that we had to allow the participants to sleep inside. At this point, a number of the teens were either not yet in their snow-soaked boxes or had climbed out of them, wringing out their clothing and sleeping bags of the puddles that had formed while they tried to sleep. We let them know that the warm, dry church was available to them, but that it was being treated like an emergency shelter. If they chose to go inside, they had to go to sleep – no socializing, no talking. In the end, about three-quarters of the participants and staff ended up sleeping inside. Among the Temple Israel group, we had three staff and a few kids who made it through the night outside.

At our Seder tables this past Monday night, we read the instruction of Rabban Gamaliel who teaches us that if we have not discussed three things – the Passsover offering, the matzah, and the maror – then we have not fulfilled the purpose of the Seder. When we discuss the maror, the bitter herb, we learn the importance of experiencing life from the perspective of others. The Baskin Haggadah tells us, “[Maror] was eaten, they said, because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our people, as it is written: ‘With hard labor at mortar and brick and in all sorts of work in the field, with all the tasks ruthlessly imposed upon them’ (Exodus 1:14).” The Haggadah continues, B'chol dor va-dor chayav adam lir'ot et atzmo k'ilu hu yatza mi-mitzrayim, “In every generation, each of us should feel as though we ourselves had gone forth from Egypt.”

At first, it seems impossible for us to believe that God actually expects us to really believe that we, ourselves, had gone out of Egypt, that it is neither a story about our ancestors who experienced the Exodus nor even simply a story that never really happened. We should feel as though we ourselves had gone forth from Egypt. How do we begin to experience this feeling? At the Seder table of Wendy Schwartz, our Adult Learning Coordinator, handheld mirrors come out with fabric draped over the top, like a curtain, so that participants can see their reflections wearing what their Egyptian garb might have been. But this is only a start. That’s still just make-believe.

The first step to realizing that it was we who came out of Egypt is to realize, as Rabbi Neil Gillman (in My People’s Passover Haggadah) teaches, “the Exodus was not simply a historical event that happened once upon a time, way back when. Rather, it inhabits an eternal present; it is contemporaneous, it is happening today, to us” (vol. 2, p. 74). The first detail Rabbi Gillman offers is that the text does not say that each Jew is required to see himself as having come free from Egypt. Rather, the text reads, chayav adam, each adam, each person is obligated. “The liberation from Egypt has universal significance that extends way beyond Jewish history. He then emphasizes the word k'ilu, ‘as though.’ We are to see ourselves as though we came out of Egypt. Rabbi Gillman acknowledges that their may be some exaggeration in the statement, but what we do have to realize is that as each of us reads the statement, as I read the statement that I was freed from Egypt, what I have to realize is that “I might have been—an accident of birth located me where I am now in space and time, but I could have been born in another time and in another place” (vol. 2, p. 79).

This is inherently part of the experience that our teens, our staff, and I had last Friday night. We were fortunate enough to be able to experience a taste of the bitterness of homelessness, fully aware that our experience paled in comparison to the reality of homelessness, just as the sharp burn of the horseradish barely conveys the depth of pain that accompanied slavery in Egypt. We were privileged enough to call parents and get rides home to welcoming arms and warm beds. We were lucky enough to have church doors unlocked to us, not to mention sleeping bags and even cardboard boxes and tarps, which though they failed us, were more than many homeless youth have living on Minnesota’s streets. We felt vulnerable nonetheless and that reminded us that slavery is happening today, homelessness is happening today. It is not a story of generations past. It is a story of now and each person must see himself or herself as having experienced that kind of vulnerability if we are to recognize the how at risk others are.

The experience also reminded us and our teens that homelessness isn’t something that happens to those people. It could be any one of us. Any of us could find ourselves a paycheck away from a food shelf, from sleeping on a friends couch, or seeking cover from wind and cold in order to survive the night. And we, the privileged, are often unaware of how at risk we all are when others are at risk at all. Following the Haggadah’s demand that each of us sees ourselves as having been personally freed from Egypt, it reminds us of the value repeated more than any other in our Torah: remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The Torah tells us, more often than any other commandment, not to wrong the widow, the orphan, or the stranger, because we know the feelings of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.

Judaism demands that we recognize our common narrative with all of humankind, that we look out for the weakest members of society – in Biblical times they were the widow, the orphan, and the stranger; today, they are the homeless, the poor, and so many others – not only because it’s right, but because we have been in their shoes. In Judaism, it’s no longer about walking a mile in someone’s shoes before we judge them. In Judaism, we have already walked that walk. We must remember it and use it as the narrative that drives us to bring redemption to the world. As we celebrate this holiday of Passover we cannot simply remember our own experience of slavery and our journey to freedom and stop there. No, we must work towards the ultimate redemption that the Seder demands. L'shanah ha-ba'ah b'Yrushalayim, Next year in Jerusalem, is not about geography. It is a hope for the Jerusalem that they mystics envisioned, one that is the centerpiece of a world free from slavery, tyranny, and, indeed, homelessness. Chag Sameyach and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Orange You Glad I Didn't Say Banana?

Will there be an orange on your seder plate on Monday night? Whether or not an orange is present, you should know the real story of how the orange came to join the parsley, the charoset, and the horseradish. There's a pretty good chance that if you've been to a seder with an orange present, you've heard that the orange came to join the other ritual foods on the Passover table in solidarity with the role of women in Judaism and with Jewish feminism. You may even be familiar with the line, "A woman belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on a seder plate." What you need to know is that that story simply isn't true. I know, I know, we may even doubt if the whole story of the Exodus is true, so what does it matter if we're telling the true story of the orange on the seder plate? Well, because whether or not the Exodus really ever happened, it still reminds us to use our experience as outsiders, outcasts, strangers to be sure that others don't feel separated. It still teaches us of our relationship with God and stirs our hope for a perfected world. Telling the wrong story about the orange actually serves against its original purpose. So, here goes. Brace yourself. This might feel a little bit like (cover your younger children's eyes and ears now) learning that the tooth fairy doesn't exist. Here's the real story of the orange on the seder plate, as documented at and MyJewishLearning (written by Tamara Cohen), among other places:

One of the newer symbols to appear on many seder plates is the orange. This custom has been around since the 1980s. In the 1990s a story circulated that the orange on the seder plate was a symbol supporting woman rabbis. The following article traces the actual source of this symbol. Though many traditionalist Jews would shy away from adding something to the seder plate, others feel that such new customs reinforce the underlying themes of Passover--freedom and liberation--and bring a contemporary focus to the seder. Reprinted with permission from

In the early 1980s, while speaking at Oberlin College Hillel [the campus Jewish organization], Susannah Heschel, a well-known Jewish feminist scholar, was introduced to an early feminist Haggadah that suggested adding a crust of bread on the seder plate, as a sign of solidarity with Jewish lesbians (which was intended to convey the idea that there's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate).

Heschel felt that to put bread on the seder plate would be to accept that Jewish lesbians and gay men violate Judaism like hametz [leavened food] violates Passover. So at her next seder, she chose an orange as a symbol of inclusion of gays and lesbians and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. She offered the orange as a symbol of the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.

In addition, each orange segment had a few seeds that had to be spit out--a gesture of spitting out, repudiating the homophobia of Judaism. While lecturing, Heschel often mentioned her custom as one of many feminist rituals that have been developed in the last 20 years. She writes, "Somehow, though, the typical patriarchal maneuver occurred: My idea of an orange and my intention of affirming lesbians and gay men were transformed. Now the story circulates that a man said to me that a woman belongs on the bimah [podium of a synagogue] as an orange on the seder plate. A woman's words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn't that precisely what's happened over the centuries to women's ideas?"

The problem with the newer - and inaccurate - version of the story of the orange on the seder plate, as Susannah Heschel points out, is that not only are lesbians and gay men excluded from Judaism by virtue of their being excluded in the new version of the story, but that the story intends to stand in solidarity with female rabbis, indeed with all Jewish women, and the voice of the woman - the actual woman, Susannah Heschel - is removed from the story, in contradiction with the story's alleged intention. Of course, Judaism has always changed and continues to change. But was we adapt tradition, adding new layers to it, making it more meaningful for us, we must broaden its scope, not narrow it. We must become more inclusive, not less. We must become more affirming and less restrictive. Now, if all of that was too academic for you, here's a lighter take on the matter:

Shabbat Shalom and Chag ha-Matzot Sameach, Happy Passover!