Eshel: Happy, Healthy, Holy and why I have Hope

I just returned from the Eshel retreat last shabbos, inspired and invigorated by those around me. My partner and I spent a beautiful shabbat with just over 100 other LGBTQ Jews in an Orthodox and inclusive setting in the Adirondacks. The theme was “Happy, Healthy and Holy” and it is why I have hope.

As I looked around the shul, or the dining room, or the lounge where we held our discussion group about making families, I was so moved to see a group of people who wanted to maintain their connection to Judaism, despite the rejection they faced from their families or communities. I knew then that we were not alone. I took comfort in them, but not in the fact that we all faced similar struggles, because the struggle should simply not exist. Jewish communities, Jews in general, who throughout history have faced discrimination, rejection and hardship, should never be the ones to promote or participate in such behavior against others. For are we not all “other” in this world simply by being Jews? Despite this reality, I still have hope.

At the retreat, I was honored to present a speech entitled, “Keeping the Faith: Recognizing the divine in each of us and the building of hope.”
Despite everything we have faced, I continue to hope. But I do and have struggled. Not so much with my faith, for I was never angry at God, although I often asked him, “Why?” But I was angry at man. Knowing that Rabbis and others can be cruel, despite that fact that we LGBTQ Jews are vulnerable members of almost any Orthodox community, and should be treated, as I have previously written, like the three protected classes in Judaism – the Ger (convert), the Yatom (orphan) and the Almana (widow). Because we are like them, I submit, we need and require the same protections and kindness that the Torah requires of each Jew when dealing with a Ger, Yatom and Almana. But how do we make it so? Here are my humble suggestions.

We stay. We hope and we stand up for ourselves with dignity and respect for ourselves and others. Why? Because each of us is a spark of the Divine, as Aryeh Kaplan wrote in his book If You Were God, “Man’s Soul Comes from the highest possible of Godly levels, and is therefore a portion of the Divine.” And further, “Man’s soul is therefore nothing less than a breath of God,” recalling the story of creation and how God breathed life into Adam. When we stay, when we are visible, we remind others of that. Each and every community we exist in.

Knowing all of this, we must also recognize that each of us has our own personal relationship with Hashem and that no person should be allowed to damage or infringe upon that relationship, in any way. That is where I personally drew the line. Instead of turning my anger towards Hashem, I recognized that sometimes his creations fail; but that would not keep me from trying to get closer to God and to build my relationship with him.
For my relationship with God occurs, in what Martin Buber calls, “the between” in his foundational work, I and Thou (or in German – Ich und Du – the familiar, indicating a closeness to God that was lost in the English translation of the title). It is my personal “between” with God – no one else’s.

No person has a right to affect it in any way, nor would I allow them to. As such, my observance of Shabbat, my keeping of kashrut, my search for the right shul for us, is simply not up for negotiation. In fact, I think it is up to each of us to be better than… to imitate God in his mercy and compassion. As Kaplan writes, “we resemble God most in our relationship with our fellow human beings.” So when we go out into the world and are kinder, better, maintaining our person hood, our observances of the Judaism we know, who we are, and leading by example – we not only come closer to Hashem, we show the world who we are; that we are greater than any label.

Why do I believe this to be true? Buber has an answer for us all. “One must… take care not to understand the conversation with God … as something happening solely alongside or above the everyday. God’s speech to men penetrates what happens in the life of each one of us, and all that happens in the world around us…. and it makes it for you and me into instruction, message, demand. Happening upon happening, situation upon situation, are enabled and empowered by the personal speech of God to demand of the human person that he take his stand and make his decision.” And my stand is to observe and practice the Judaism I know. And that gives me hope as well, because I believe it draws me closer to Hashem.

I hope, because I truly believe that Hashem made me as he wished – “she-asani Kirtzono.” How do I know? Because as I look at the sources regarding the creation of mankind, I found an understanding of who I was as the person made in Hashem’s image. I delved into the mepharshim and found Rashi’s comments about mankind’s creation – “Betzalmainu Kedmutainu” – in the image and likeness of God. What is that image? What is that likeness? Rashi answers, the intellect – the ability to perceive and understand – in essence, who we are on the inside; the sentient beings that we are, within the recesses of our souls.

Furthermore, what I found most interesting is that Rashi then discusses the Midrash regarding the story of man and woman being created, not from the well known rib story, but from one form and separated into male and female, almost as if our origins biologically were one; in the beginning – a little of male and a little of female left behind in all of us. So in his image, I propose goes for every human being, heterosexual, L, G, B, T or Q. We are all made in the image of Hashem. Understanding this, remembering this, embracing this – is our path to health, happiness, hope, and even holiness.

And as think about all of this I realize that story of the creation begets the following questions: What does Hashem want of us? Why were we all created? Hashem answers us – for the sake of the Torah. Hashem speaks to Shlomo about this and says “I have given you a good thing, do not forsake my Torah.” And what do we know about this Torah? It says “You shall love your neighbor like yourself.” A mitzvah that Rabbi Akiva calls the “core of the Torah.” Indeed writes Aryeh Kaplan, “We imitate G-d’s love for the world through our love toward our fellow [human being]. In this way, we draw ourselves close to God and fulfill His purpose in creation.”

When we stay in the frum world, as people like Sarah Weil, wrote for the Huffington Post, we force them to look at us from the inside and we remind them of their duties to their fellow man. We do not give up and walk away. And we are not alone – Eshel, JQY, PORAT, Rabbi Blau, Sarah Weil and Bat Kol in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – we are making waves and finding places for us. And in our own communities when we stay, they are forced to confront the thought of hating a fellow Jew for being “other” – the greatest of issurim.

Folks, I am strengthened by the people who reach out to me, who tell me their kids think it is cool my daughter has two moms. They clearly teach their children not to hate; and those children are the next generation. They are our hope. I am strengthened by those who approach me, or reach out to me through the internet, moved by what I write in my blogs for the Times of Israel, the impact it has on them, and even on people right in my own community, where I post my vocal blogs on our community Facebook page. They tell me I have support on the ground. Their words truly give me chizzuk and a sense of support for my family. They too give us hope.

I am strengthened by my own daughter, who is growing up in a home filled with tolerance; a tolerance she takes with her out into the world.
She is the next generation, and she gives me hope. As does a beautiful text I recently received from a mom of a young child who came along with friends of ours to our shabbos lunch table. She had a play date with their daughter and joined us for the meal. That child went home and told her family about ours. She asked if my partner and I were cousins. The mom told her that we were actually married, to which this young girl responded: “Every family is different and I like all families.”

I have hope, you should too.

For those interested, here is the link to the video of my Speech.

 

 

 

 

About the Author
Shlomit is a career prosecutor -- one who believes in seeking justice for others. She holds a degree in Judaic Studies from Brooklyn College and a law degree from Hofstra (1998). She is a yeshiva high school graduate (Central/YUHSG,1988). Shlomit recently spoke on a panel at the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) on the necessity for inclusion of the LGBT community in the Orthodox world and the impact that exclusion has caused to that community.
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