A Sermon for Equality on Yom Kippur

26 Sep

Rabbi Alexis Berk

Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. My good friend Donna sent me a link to a sermon from last year’s Yom Kippur which beautifully captures the spirit of the day. Rabbi Alexis Berk has served as rabbi of Touro Synagogue in New Orleans since the summer of 2008. It is a Reform congregation, committed to continuing the conversation started in the Torah. Looking around her, Rabbi Berk felt compelled to discuss marriage equality and civil rights for the LGBT community. Her words are powerful and invite hope.

She begins with a tribute to Rosa Parks and imagines a museum of the future that looks upon today’s anti-gay bigots much like the Parks memorial looks at racism. She then discusses a lesbian couple who were interested in joining her congregation and her struggle to find an honest answer about how accepting the community might be. Not how accepting they ought to be, but truly were. She then looks at the basis of Judaism.

First, what is written in Torah is the first record of our people’s struggle with God, one another, and ourselves. The Torah’s great sacredness comes from the fact that it links us in wonder and longing with our ancestors. After five years of seminary and ten years as a rabbi, much reading and study, no one has ever convinced me that Torah is or was ever meant to be the immutable word of God. And no one has ever convinced me that it has to be that in order for it to be a deeply holy, deeply valuable voice in our tradition. It is an echo of antiquity with time-honored relevance. It is a foundational tale of our coming to be a people, with a God. But, in my rabbinic opinion, it has elements of the Divine and elements of the human.

In that light, the conversation must continue. After a delightful romp through the many things that are banned (and permitted!) in Leviticus, she gets to the heart of the matter.

In this shellfish capital of the universe, I feel that is enough said [regarding Leviticus]. The Torah itself has not changed, but we have evolved in relationship with it. We have evolved very much. And, what about Jewish marriage? It too has evolved. And now we are asking questions such as: should a rabbi perform a same-sex marriage? If it is Jewish law that says no, that would mean that a rabbi should likewise never, ever perform an interfaith marriage. Or, for that matter, a rabbi should really never witness a marriage between two Jews who do not practice strict adherence to Jewish law according to the many codes of Jewish law. And, what defines a Jewish marriage according to strict codes of Jewish law?

The entire sermon is powerful and worth reading. The clincher comes — naturally — toward the end.

So, here’s the deal: if you want to loathe homosexuality, that is a personal choice. If you want to judge gay, lesbian, transgender, queer individuals or couples, that is a personal choice. If you want to use your energy and soul to prevent gay marriage, that is a personal choice. But loathing, judging, and preventing gay, lesbian and queer couples’ marriages is not supported anywhere, in any way, in Reform Jewish ideology or practice. So, if there is ever a consideration of hanging bigotry or hatred on a Jewish—let alone liberal Jewish—hook, forget it. It won’t hold.

Regular readers of TSM know that I have little patience with organized religion, especially as it is frequently practiced to divide humanity and belittle the “outsider.” I do understand that progress requires allies, however, and religious and spiritual allies who truly understand equality are invaluable. Thank you, Rabbi Berk, for being such an ally and for sharing your words on such an important day.

3 Responses to “A Sermon for Equality on Yom Kippur”

  1. Jay September 26, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

    Thank you for this profile of Rabbi Berk. While I certainly do not agree with her on everything (for example, regarding a Divine hand playing a role in the writing of the Torah), I certainly agree with her on many things, and I certainly view her as an ally regarding most of the most relevant and important issues..

    As we enter the final stages of this long Presidential election season, I’d welcome seeing similar profiles of people and viewpoints that should be viewed as valuable parts of the Very Diverse and Very Big Tent that will be voting for President Obama.

    So, though I am a somewhat vociferous atheist, I would like to see profiles of other members of our Very Large Tent: a Protestant Minister, a Catholic Priest or Nun, a Muslim Mullah. And hey, perhaps even include a profile of a nominal conservative who is nevertheless supporting the President’s re-election, like Andrew Sullivan.

    I agree on virtually everything with…..virtually no one. I see no reason to focus on our differences–either substantive or trivial–during this political season, since I know that the US system of ‘winner-takes-all’ necessarily means I must consider myself allied with literally millions of people with whom I have disagreements, including serious disagreements. I want to be in the biggest tent practicable, so long as the human rights and human dignity of no one is denied.

    Let the Republicans have their litmus tests regarding ideological purity. Democrats are bigger than that, both literally and figuratively.

  2. Christine Noble September 27, 2012 at 4:27 am #

    With the constant barrage of negativity and dogmatic authoritarianism coming from the religious right, it is easy to forget that there exists a large community of faith that supports equality, love and justice. I have friends that are leaders in that community and even I have trouble remembering that with the way we are bombarded by the religious right. Here’s to hoping that saner hearts take control of the narrative.

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