Within the next few days, all signs point to the US Supreme Court’s putting the stamp of permanence on equal rights for America’s LGBTQ population. The court is notoriously hard to predict, but even were the justices to equivocate slightly on the right to marry, and although some skirmishes remain to be resolved over what has been misidentified as “religious freedom,” the battle for LGBT acceptance has already been won.
One by one the opponents have yielded, whether in the courts, in state houses or pizza parlors. There are pockets of resistance, but listen to the Republican presidential candidates – or the Pope, for that matter – and we can see which way the wind is blowing.
It is truly astounding how quickly the landscape changed. It often takes generations for social attitudes to evolve, and we’ve seen how stubbornly slow that process can be with racism in America and anti-Semitism everywhere else. But in America, for LGBTQ rights, the change has been stunning and dramatic.
I believe the AIDS nightmare was the turning point. While it didn’t change opinions right away, it woke us up from our complacency and drove home to each of us the terrible price of bigotry in the face of horrific human suffering. At some point people had to look at that tear-stained face close up and it was then that the blinders began to come off.
This was driven home to me back in the early ’90s, when my cousin came to speak at my synagogue about his struggle with HIV.
Jeff, an aspiring actor and poet, was serious, soft-spoken and strikingly handsome. When I came to New York for rabbinical school in the late ‘70s, Jeff, several years my senior, provided me a keyhole glimpse into some of the diversity of New York culture and, when he became HIV positive a decade later, an insider’s view of AIDS’ devastation as well. At about the same time that I moved to Stamford, so did Jeff, with his partner Seth.
In late 1993, Jeff, who hadn’t set foot in a synagogue since his Bar Mitzvah, shared his life’s story from my pulpit. He said, “The God that I learned about in my home was a God of love, understanding, mercy and reason. That God has given me real strength…His love for us is not measured by the absence of hardships. His love for us is the life he’s given us.”
Six years later, when I last saw Jeff in hospice, curled up in a fetal position and barely breathing, I understood that no God of mine could have afflicted him so mercilessly. Rather, I sensed the sanctity in every heroic gasp of air, in each moment of survival. I reached back for every bit of kindness I could summon, and held his hand.
What I had grasped intellectually now was imprinted on every fiber of my being: This disease is horrible. This is desperately unfair. But it is no punishment. This is not what God wants. What God wants is for us to love all the more.
At the very end, Jeffrey looked serene when I last saw him, content with having made every day count. He took a life sentence and made of it a life’s exclamation.
At his funeral, which took place in my synagogue’s sanctuary, I read a poem Jeff had written decades earlier, when he was a teenager, called “Valentine to Man.”
“I listened to the music –
And it sounded so sweet that I shouted
up to heaven:
“Let me love.”
And God spoke to me and He said…
“You do love.
You feel the sun rise and exalt as it travels
Its long journey over its old road.
You see the great green wonder rolling in and out,
taking life from its depths of turbulence to its shores of peace
You hear the music of nature singing to you
Ringing sweetly in your ears.
You laugh and you cry, small yet large
against the majesty of life.
And while there is no one, nothing –
You do love…
And you breathe and sing along with the awkward,
AND YOU KNOW ME,
And you love.”
I’ve reflected on Jeff’s words as the world has become more accepting of people in their infinite variety, and more embracing of all who don’t fit so neatly into the categories that used to comprise what we called “community” but was in fact was leaving far too many behind.
Not only have I been freed from old, crusty preconceptions, my God has as well. My God is now, unequivocally, a God of love, not a God of exclusion, not a God who afflicts good, loving people with dreaded diseases to punish them for being so good and loving.
Some come out of the closet. I came off the fence.
Either one is a leap of faith, an act of great courage. It is also an act of return – a return to our true values, our deepest held beliefs, to who we were all along.
As my synagogue prepares for our first-ever Pride Shabbat this Friday night, I’ll affirm that the leap of faith that Americans are now taking, including most American Jews, can only be made into the arms of a God of love.