Rainbow Tzitzit: Pride Shabbat and Ever-Increasing Inclusion

Rabbinic disclaimer: I delivered this sermon this past Shabbat, so I apologize for last week’s Torah portion being posted this week. However, as I discuss the part about the tzizit, or fringes, it is always applicable when discussing the Shema and its third paragraph.  

As a modern art medium, television can be used as a barometer for societal change, or lack thereof.  The history of this medium is much longer than my own life, obviously, and in different periods, and in different ways, society’s movement, or lack thereof, can be judged, or at least observed, through what is happening on the screen.  Growing up in the late nineteen seventies and eighties, in the United States, I had a steady diet of television shows that offered a multiplicity of views on life, both current shows and those in reruns from previous generations. From the “Brady Bunch” to “Good Times,” from the “White Shadow” to “Silver Spoons;” from “Charlie’s Angels” to the “Bionic Man,” from “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “Mork and Mindy,” “Family Ties,” the “Golden Girls,” just to name a few.  What did I see in these shows?  What kinds of people were depicted or presented?

Where did I see women in different roles? Where did I see suburbia and inner city living? Where did I see whites and blacks getting along, or living in tension? Did I even see African American people on TV? Did I see any gays or lesbians, let alone the full spectrum of LGBTQ lives that we are honoring and celebrating this Pride Shabbat at PJTC?  What is the social anthropology that we can glean from examining what we watch in the modern world?  The history of media, and television in particular, in my opinion, is one that involves the ever lowering of barriers to different truths, that what we see on the screen is either real or not, possible or not.  What was once left to innuendo is now explicit.  “I Love Lucy” is not “Mad Men;” “M*A*S*H” is not “Breaking Bad;” “Dragnet” is not “CSI;” “The Jeffersons” is not “Orange is the New Black.”

As a sign of ever expanding inclusivity, what we see on television, and in film to a certain extent, is a much brighter rainbow, and while “Will and Grace” broke barriers in its time, “Transparent” and “Orange is the New Black” are bringing LGBTQ lives to the forefront of their medium, and winning huge awards and recognition in the process.  Both “Transparent” and “Orange is the New Black” have given transgender human beings a positive entry point into pop culture, both bold and the norm, which is what is most exciting.  So, that is my overall theme for this year’s Pride Shabbat: how can we continue to be bold and expansive in our inclusion, while making it totally normal and commonplace in the process?

To be honest, as a progressive rabbi, and being at what is in many ways a progressive synagogue, each Pride Shabbat, which I began celebrating here at PJTC very early on, around 2005, I work with the balance between accepting and being in a place that is very welcoming and open to diversity of all forms, therefore not needing this sermon again; and, the need to be an ally, thereby calling me to give the sermon, or some version of it, each year, as witness, support and love for the LGBTQ community, that is still striving for full inclusion in all aspects of society.

The Torah this week is Sh’lach Lecha, and there are two famous pieces.  One is the spies, which I will talk about tomorrow morning at Torah study.  Tonight, however, I want to weave an image from the end of the portion, which is also known as the third paragraph of the Shema, where we hold the four corners of tallit, which in ancient times was the four corners of your actual garment, tied with fringes.  What is the meaning of the tzitzit, and what is the meaning behind the ritual of holding them together and kissing them when we say the word each time?

The tzitzit, the fringes, are a very important part of Jewish life.  We wear them either in the morning, or some where them all day as an undergarment.  We wear them on Shabbat and holy days.  The paragraph itself talks about them as reminders, tangible threads that will help guide us in the weaving of our lives, moment by moment, thread by thread.  Then there is the challenge of not “exploring after your heart or after your eyes that can lead you astray.”  It ends with the oft-used reminder about coming out from Egypt.

I want to envision a rainbow set of tzitzit, ones that unite and bind all of the Jewish souls in the shadows, from the four corners of the community that for too many years, and in many cases still, exclude them from communal life and acceptance.  I will say, that as social movements go, the ‘L’ and the ‘G’ in LGBTQ are seeing enormous leaps forward in a relatively very short time.  I stand here tonight to bring the the ‘B,’ ’T’ ‘Q’ tzitzit, and all the new letters that I don’t know yet, and all the letters yet to come, into the fold of our welcoming tallit, our shawl of love, compassion and justice.  May we not only see with our eyes, but with our hearts.  And may we not only cry in our hearts, but raise our voices loudly in support of human dignity, human rights, civil rights, equal rights, for all of God’s creatures.

Minorities throughout history have always suffered, as we Jews know all too well.  As we honor the struggle of the LGBTQ community this Shabbat, may we stand with all who are marginalized, all who are demonized, all who are judged, against all forms of racism, bigotry, homophobia, Islamophobia, and hatred of others for who they are.  The tzitzit, which represent Jewish values and the mission of our people, offer us the opportunity to embody the holiness we seek, reminding us of the kind of people we are striving to be, to push us towards ever increasing inclusion.

As an ally, I stand here today, in the safety and security of my white, male, upper middle class, successful, even Jewish, life, and want to be the light and love for all those not able to enjoy the comforts and privileges, seen and unseen, that I enjoy because of the traits I just listed.  I don’t have to think about my gender or sex or color every time I step out of my front door.  Ultimately, as an ally, I will work for the day when the same can be said for all of the trans women being killed, all of the gay people still being shunned, here in the U.S. and around the world, all of those beautiful souls that don’t necessarily conform to what our society says should be the norm, the acceptable, the legal, the moral, the ethical.  May the fringes remind us to love others, to accept others, to embrace others, and to seek to understand and empathize with others.  We don’t all have to agree on things, but we do all have to respect one another’s rights and dignity.

Will LaVerne Cox, the actual transgender woman playing a transitioning man to woman on “Orange is the New Black,” change the way that we understand transgender people?  Maybe, maybe not. But is she helping to pave the way for the next generation? Absolutely. And the fact that a show about a women’s correctional facility, where gay and straight women; old and young women; black, white, brown and Asian women; rich and poor women; transgender, depressed, mute, mentally challenged women; all live together, form bonds, challenge each other, and ultimately accept one another for who they are, is one of the biggest shows on the air, seems to me to be progress in the cultural realm.  May we continue to expand our web of welcoming and acceptance, may those hidden become seen, may all of God’s creatures feel the love and warmth that we all deserve.  And may the next generation not be fighting the same battles we are.  Hazak v’amatz, shabbat shalom!

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater has been the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center in Pasadena, California since 2003. He is an executive committee member of the Board of Directors for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, co-founder and co-chair of AFPI, Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative and is co-chair of J-Street's Los Angeles Rabbinic Cabinet.
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