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Sh'lach Lecha 2022

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

It’s June. For many of us, June means the end of school and the start of summer vacation. Or it might mean a lighter work schedule and more family time. It can mean camp, warm weather, mosquitoes.

For anyone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary, etc., June means LGBTQ Pride month. LGBTQ Pride month goes back to June of 1970. That summer in New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, small groups of LGBTQ folks walked their city streets, standing open and proud for the first time in U.S. history.

June of 1970 was chosen as the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Early on the morning of Saturday, June 28, 1969, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people rioted following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City. The Stonewall Riots are generally considered to be the beginning of the modern gay rights movement, as it was the first time in modern history that a significant body of LGBTQ people resisted arrest.

Every year since 1970, LGBTQ parades have been held – first across the U.S. and eventually across the globe – from New York and Boston to Los Angeles and San Francisco, to Sydney and Perth, Australia to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to London and Paris and hundreds of cities and small towns in between, like Manchester, NH.

In 2002, when I was a second-year rabbinical student, I was invited to give the Gay Pride Shabbat sermon at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. This Reform congregation of about 2,000 households had been celebrating LGBTQ Pride for several years, beginning in the early 1990s when they were the first New York City congregation to hire an open lesbian as their assistant and then associate rabbi. That Shabbat, the portion was Sh’lach Lecha, as it is this week. And so tonight, in honor of this being LGBTQ Pride month, I will share with you some of the word I delivered that evening 20 years ago.

I began with two stories.

In the summer of 1973, I was one of the few remaining students from my Hebrew school class who hadn’t yet become bar or bat mitzvah. I met weekly with my rabbi to practice the service and my Haftarah portion – and for my rabbi to pat me on the head and tell me I was doing fine.

One week, at the end of my lesson, I turned to him and said, “Rabbi Zadonowitz, what does Judaism teach about homosexuality?” Horrified, he leapt to his feet, put his hands on my shoulders, and cried out, “Child, don’t have such thoughts. Put them out of your mind immediately.”

I was a fairly strong-willed and independent kid. I wasn’t traumatized by the rabbi’s words, but I did conclude that there wasn’t really a place for me – a budding adolescent well aware of my sexuality – in the Jewish world. I was not going to put the thoughts of homosexuality out of my mind. Instead, after my bat mitzvah, I pretty much put Judaism out of my mind.

A little more than ten years later, in 1984, I was attending Cornell Law School. One day, several of my friends and I sat in the grass, enjoying a beautiful spring day. I looked at our group – graduate students from several Cornell departments – and it suddenly dawned on me that we were all Jewish, all gay or lesbian, and all disconnected from our Judaism. We talked about it and discovered that we were all deeply troubled by our lack of connection. “What are we going to do about it?” asked my friend Josh.

Somehow, he and I were elected the problem solvers. We headed over to the Hillel office and asked to see the rabbi. He greeted us warmly. We explained our situation, and I asked, “So what can you do for us?” Rabbi Edwards didn’t miss a beat. “Passover is coming up,” he said. “How about if you and your friends and I have a second night Seder together? You find the space and I’ll bring the Haggadahs.”

A few weeks later, about a half-dozen of us crammed into Josh’s apartment with Rabbi Edwards. He brought a liberal and wonderfully accessible Haggadah, and augmented it with powerful readings from Martin Luther King on oppression, alienation, and spiritual connection. That night, I put Judaism back in my mind.

In Sh’lach Lecha, we read the story of the twelve scouts. God tells Moses to select one man from each ancestral tribe to go spy out the land of Canaan, the land that God has promised to the Israelites. Moses selects the twelve men, and sends them off, saying:

Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Does it contain trees or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.

The twelve men went off, gathered grapes, pomegranates, and figs, and returned after forty days. And upon their return, they reported on what they saw. They all agreed that the land was good, flowing with milk and honey and producing luscious fruit. But, at the same time, they noted that many tribes lived in the land in large, fortified cities.

Two of the scouts – Joshua and Caleb – were not concerned with the inhabitants of the land. “Let us by all means go up,” they said, “We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it.”

But the remaining ten scouts saw the land and its inhabitants differently. “We cannot attack those peoples, for they are stronger than we are. The country we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people who we saw in it were men of great size. We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”

When the Israelites heard the report of the ten scouts, they wailed and refused to go up to the land. God was furious and promised that this generation – except for Joshua and Caleb – would die in the wilderness and never enter the Promised Land. And so, our ancestors wandered for a total of forty years before Joshua, Moses’ successor, led them across the Jordan River into the land flowing with milk and honey.

Sh’lach Lecha reminds me of my experiences with Rabbis Zadonowitz and Edwards. Like the scouts, these rabbis had been named leaders within their Jewish communities. They both were working to secure a future for the Jewish people. And both rabbis were forced to suddenly confront the unexpected.

Rabbi Zadonowitz’s reaction was like that of the ten scouts who saw only the bad. “Our future is bleak,” they were saying in essence. “There is no hope.” That was Rabbi Zadonowitz’s fear for me, and so he reacted in the only way he knew how: with hysteria and denial.

Certainly, the Judaism Rabbi Zadonowitz knew and understood would brand me a sinner and an outcast. And he could not look beyond that, despite the fact that he had been my rabbi, teacher, and counselor for most of my life. He feared that in my future I would be like a grasshopper – small, insignificant, often stepped on, and like most of the insect world, hated and shunned.

Nachmonides, or the Ramban, the great Torah scholar of the 13th century, taught that the sin of the ten scouts was in over-reacting to their own fear. According to the Ramban, the roll of the leaders was to try to bolster the people’s courage and inspire them with joy and enthusiasm to trust God.

This was what Rabbi Edwards did. He sensed that life was not always going to be easy for gay and lesbian Jews – just like Joshua and Caleb did not claim that taking possession of the land would be easy for the Israelites – but Rabbi Edwards refused to lose hope. “Your future is bright,” he told us. “You are all creatures of God.” Sh’lach Lecha, God rebukes the ten scouts, saying:

I take no objection to your saying: “we looked like grass­hoppers to ourselves,” but I take offense when you say, “so we must have looked to them.” How do you know how I made you to look to them? Perhaps you appeared to them as angels![1]

We may not have been angels in the eyes of Rabbi Edwards, but he surely treated us as such. His embracing of us led me to join a synagogue – Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco – where I studied, learned, taught, found community, and recognized my spiritual self. I left there after sixteen years when I began my rabbinical studies at HUC.

Of course, Rabbi Edwards was quite forward thinking. Finding one’s place in the Jewish world in 1984 was not easy for most LGBTQ Jews. My seminary would not admit open lesbians and gay men as students, and one of the first people I had met at Sha’ar Zahav had been turned down by HUC in the early 80s because she applied to the school, open about her sexuality.

“Mainstream” synagogues didn’t particularly want open lesbians and gay men to join as members, either – Would it be okay for Daniel and Isaac to dance together at the annual synagogue dinner? Would Rachel and Ellen be invited up to light candles on their anniversary? The answer to these kinds of questions was always “no,” and so the 1970s and 80s witnessed the formation of gay and lesbian outreach synagogues across the U.S.

The place of gay and lesbian Jewish within the Jewish world has improved significantly since 1984, thanks in large part to the Reform movement. Although in 1984, HUC refused to admit open gay and lesbian students into the school, the now URJ extended membership to LGBTQ outreach synagogues in Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Dallas.

And while HUC would not admit open LGBTQ students, many LGBTQ folks chose to attend HUC while in the closet. This first generation paved the way for people like me and Cantor Shira, by subtly and not-so-subtly raising issues of injustice and inequality and putting pressure on the school. By 1990, HUC changed its position, welcoming openly gay and lesbian students. That first class included the woman I first met when I moved to San Francisco who had been rejected by HUC nearly a decade earlier. Openly transgender students began attending in the early 2000s.

Believe me, we have come miles from where we were 40 years ago, and yet LGBTQ Jewish clergy still face challenges. There are synagogues that will not hire us or will fire us if we later come out. There are synagogues that no longer want us when we have children. There are synagogues that don’t want us to talk about sexuality or gender “too often.”

Here at TBJ, I have felt that the congregation lives the words of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, who said, “the love of each human being must be felt im halev v’im hanefesh, with the heart and with the soul. The quality of love that is to be found in the souls of righteous people includes love for all people, and does not exclude anyone.”

The Zohar, the mystical commentary on the Torah, asks why Moses had the twelve scouts include in their report the answer to the question, “Does the land contain trees or does it not?

Moses knew there were trees in the Promised Land. The Zohar suggests that Moses was referring to not just any tree, but to the Eitz Chayim, the Tree of Life, the Torah. Moses was asking about the spiritual health of the land, not wanting the Israelites to settle in a place where they could not live good and honest lives guided by Torah.

LGBTQ Jews, too, seek places where we can live good and honest lives guided by Torah. We demand and deserve no less. And in partnership with the larger Jewish world, we will fulfill the words of Caleb, who said:

We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it.

Ken y’hi ratzon – may it be God’s will. Happy LGBTQ Pride month.


[1]Numbers Rabbah 16:11

Thu, February 29 2024 20 Adar I 5784