Sunday, October 5, 2014

Kol Nidre 5775: Dancing with the Angels

When former Senator Nicole LeFavour invited me to join a civil disobedience action with Add the Four Words last winter, my thoughts turned to Rabbi Milton Grafman, whose fateful decision fifty years ago secured him an enduring place on the wrong side of history.

Rabbi Grafman was an honorable man; as the longtime spiritual leader of Birmingham, Alabama’s Temple Emanuel, he had quietly backed efforts toward racial justice in America’s most segregated city.  But when his moment of truth arrived, Milton Grafman failed to muster the courage of his convictions.  And so, as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched an aggressive campaign to integrate Birmingham in the spring of 1963, Rabbi Grafman joined seven white clergy leaders in issuing a “Call to Unity” that condemned the civil rights activists for their  “extreme tactics” and urged them to work patiently within the established legal system.

Martin Luther King responded to Grafman and his cohorts in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, rebuking them for seeking refuge “behind the anaesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”  Dr. King declares that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”—then exposes calls for patience as tacit support for bigotry, noting: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.  For years now, I have heard the word, ‘Wait!’  This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’  We must come to 
see. . .  that justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Justice delayed is justice denied.  Like Dr. King, Senator LeFavour and many others had, by late last year, tired of waiting for justice to be done.  After eight years of legal demonstrations and lobbying to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act, they had failed to even get a hearing at the Legislature. Nicole and her leadership team concluded that the time had come to up the ante and risk arrest.  As they announced at a press conference: “We are here. . . to prevent the suicides, beatings, loss of jobs, evictions and fear that too many gay and transgender Idahoans live with every day.... We have tried every means to get the Legislature to consider the ‘Add the Words’ legislation. If they again choose to ignore us and not hear, or vote, on the bill, we are prepared to bring attention to their failure to protect our community from harm.”

Boise, Idaho in 2014 is not Birmingham, Alabama of 1963.  The actions that Senator LeFavour laid out posed nowhere near the peril that Dr. King and his supporters faced, as they risked their lives standing up to murderous segregationists and brutal police.  Still, I believe that the LGBT community’s quest for full equality is among the preeminent civil rights struggles of our time, and I did not wish to end up with Milton Grafman on the wrong side of history.  Having long admired MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” I could not take sit idly behind the security of my own stained-glass windows.  And so, when Senator LeFavour offered me the opportunity to join the effort, I replied without hesitation: “Yes.  It would be my privilege to be arrested for this cause.”

That choice turned out to be a remarkable blessing for me; my engagement with this movement has transformed and lifted my spiritual life.  Now, on this Kol Nidre eve, I want to share the experience with you, my community.  Your encouragement made my work possible.  Many of my fellow clergy who participated did so without the backing of their congregations.  They demonstrated enormous courage, risking their jobs; I, by contrast, was able to act knowing that I had your enthusiastic support. I am deeply grateful to you for that privilege.  And so, in return, tonight, I would like to share how and why I went to jail last winter (and am just now finishing my 30 hours of court-ordered community service).  I believe this story is well-suited for Yom Kippur, for it is marked by the same central themes as this sacred day: atonement and integrity and dancing with angels.  I hope that in the telling, my encounter with Add the Four Words will teach and inspire you much as it did me, and in so doing, encourage you to join us as we continue to work for justice in the coming months.


Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, a time to acknowledge failures and begin to make amends.  Working with Add the Four Words, I recognized that I have some significant atoning to do.  As a boy, growing up at a time when anti-gay sentiments were ubiquitous, I absorbed the bigoted attitudes of the age.  I now cringe when I recall the insensitive jokes I told or callously laughed at; the hateful language I sometimes used; the bullied classmates I failed to defend. Al chayt. I stand guilty. 

Even more disturbingly, on this Day of Atonement, I must acknowledge that I speak for, and guide my life by, a tradition that, while rich and revered, has also done real harm to the LGBT community.  Indeed, the biblical verse most cited in attempts to defend discrimination comes from the very Torah portion that is traditionally read at the Yom Kippur minchah service.  Most progressive synagogues, including CABI, have replaced this with an alternative parshah, but in Orthodox shuls everywhere, late tomorrow afternoon, the congregation will still hear Leviticus 18:22: “V’et zachar lo tishkav mi-shehvay ishah, toevah hee—Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman, for it is an abomination.”  
In recent decades, this passage has been intensely scrutinized and reinterpreted to render it less offensive.  The Conservative movement’s Machzor Lev Shalem frames it by noting that: “the biblical text does not refer to homosexuality as we think of it today. . .”  Still, imagine what it must feel like to be a gay man sitting in shul on the most sacred afternoon of the year, hearing this verse proclaimed as God’s word.  Again, al cheyt.  For the pain that we have inflicted on the gay, lesbian, and transgender members of our own Jewish communities, we have atonement to make.

Alas, the damage does not end there, for these words of Torah have become part of the Christian canon, too, rippling out into the whole of Western culture, where they have caused grievous harm. When I arrived in Boise, twenty years ago, our state was mired in debate over an anti-gay referendum known as Proposition One.  The sponsors of that ugly initiative received most of their support from evangelical churches.  They often expressed their strident opposition to homosexuality in religious language, usually brandishing Leviticus 18:22. In response, two liberal Boise clergywomen, the Reverends Nancy Taylor and Elizabeth Greene, created Voices of Faith for Human Rights as an outlet for religious progressives who supported the LGBT community.
In the summer of 1995, I marched with Voices of Faith in Boise’s then-fledgling Pride Parade.  I was deeply honored to be there, but as we stood behind our banner, I could not help but notice how our presence made many of the other participants noticeably uncomfortable.  Even now, two decades later, when I joined Add the Four Words, together with other clergy, gay and straight, from the Mennonite, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches, I met quite a few LGBT demonstrators who initially seemed ill at ease with representatives of organized religion.  How could it be otherwise, given the suffering many of these folks had endured from their own childhood faith communities?  How many had been urged to “pray away the gay”?    How many had been scorned and shunned and silenced for the supposed sin of loving a same-sex partner?  How many had been driven to dark and even suicidal despair by hateful invective heaped upon them by organizations claiming to represent God’s love?  If faith communities wish to earn back the trust of those we have betrayed, then we have a great deal of atoning to do, and that atonement must go beyond mere words to contrite deeds of rectifying justice.  An evening in a jail cell seemed a good start—a miniscule price to pay on the path toward renewal and repair.


Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is a time to face ourselves free of pretense.  Today all of our masks fall away.  We stand, open and exposed, cleansed of falsehood, utterly revealed before the Holy One, who sees through our disguises and, miraculously loves us as we truly are.   If we wish to grow, to make teshuvah, we must approach God and one another with honesty, openness, and integrity. 

Alas, over the course of our long history, many Jews have been compelled to compromise these virtues and live a lie.  A popular myth connects the composition of Kol Nidre with the conversos, those Jews who, in the time of the Spanish Inquisition, publicly converted to Christianity to avoid expulsion or death.  As the story goes, they secretly remained faithful to Judaism, gathering covertly each Yom Kippur eve to ask God to forgive their Catholic vows.  In reality, Kol Nidre predates the Inquisition by hundreds of years, but like most enduring legends, this one, despite its dubious historicity, conveys a deeper truth—for whatever its origin, the haunting melody of Kol Nidre captures profoundly the pain of a life spent hiding behind false fronts.

We Jews have all too often lived in just that fashion, fearfully concealing our Jewishness as we seek to get along in a largely non-Jewish world.  We sometimes struggle so hard to fit in with everyone else that we lose our essential selves.  The Zionist writer Ahad Ha’Am described this condition as avdut b’toch cherut—slavery amidst freedom.  His message is clear: any privilege purchased at the price of self-denial ultimately shackles us.  When a culture compels its citizens to betray themselves to gain acceptance, it is the culture itself, and not those seeking to join it, that is in desperate need of transformation. 

My time with Add the Four Words reminded me of this truth.  On March 18, the final day of last year’s legislative session, Senator LeFavour was removed from a closet in the Senate lounge, where she was preparing to engage in one last peaceful act of civil disobedience.  Just after she was discovered and the plan fell apart, in an interview with Betsy Russell she noted: “Closets are never safe for gay or transgender people.”

Closets are not safe places for anyone.  We Jews know this from our own history, and not just intellectually—we feel it in our kishkes.  You can’t really live in a closet; you can only exist there, for a while, dishonest with yourself and so, in the end, spiritually doomed.  Closets are extremely hazardous to human health, lethal to the soul and, all too often, to the body, too.  Just ask Add the Four Words demonstrators and grieving mothers Julie Zicha and Carmen Stanger, whose beloved children, Ryan and Maddie, committed suicide after suffering relentless bullying for being gay.  Listening to their stories—and to those of so many in this movement who have been driven to the brink of self-destruction because they were afraid to publicly affirm who they are and who they love—I could not stand idle while my LGBT friends and neighbors bled.

Listening Kol Nidre tonight, I was once again reminded just how much of a privilege it is to stand fully revealed before my Creator on Yom Kippur.  Let us give thanks for this privilege and opportunity to approach one another with honesty, openness and integrity—and as we do, affirm our obligation to work toward a world in which all people, especially our LGBT brothers and sisters, are able to do the same, free of fear and shame, every day.
My friends, today we celebrate.  We should not mistake Yom Kippur’s sobriety or sacredness with sadness, for it is anything but sad.  On this holiest of days, God invites us to dance with the divine, for on Yom Kippur, every Jew can become angelic.  As the Maharal of Prague teaches:  All the mitzvot that God commanded us on Yom Kippur are designed to renounce, as much as possible, a person’s relationship to physicality, until she is completely like an angel.  Just as angels stand upright, so do we spend most of Yom Kippur standing in the synagogue.  Just as the angels wear white, so, too, are we accustomed to wear white on Yom Kippur.  And just as angels do not eat or drink, so, too, we do not eat or drink.  Throughout the year, we spend our days focusing on food, work, material possessions and superficial pleasures.  But on Yom Kippur, like the angels, we restore our priorities to what really counts.

Now I suspect that many of you are thinking that come lunchtime tomorrow, “angelic” will not be the word you’d choose to describe how you are feeling!  You might prefer “hungry” or “parched” or “exhausted” or even “bored out of my senses.”  I understand this, because every Yom Kippur, I, too, experience all of those negative feelings.  But if you wish to dance with the angels, you recognize that such a privilege is hard-earned. You acknowledge that you cannot fully enjoy the cathartic spiritual release of the ne’ilah service that concludes Yom Kippur without enduring and even embracing the bodily rigors of the twenty-four hours that precede it.

The modern Orthodox actress and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik describes this paradox beautifully in a short blog post.  She writes: Last Yom Kippur, as the twenty-fifth hour of fasting was coming to a close and we were all exhausted and starving and ready to go home, our rabbi said, with a huge smile on his face, “I wish this didn’t have to end.”  And through my exhaustion and hunger, I felt it, too.  Fasting makes us like the angels, they say. On Yom Kippur we draw near to a different way of existence—and it’s heavenly.  Or as the Apter Rebbe proclaimed: “On the holy Day of Atonement, when we are purified of all sin and wrongdoing before the Creator of the Universe, who needs to eat?!”

Demonstrating with Add the Four Words felt a lot like Yom Kippur.  It was laborious and wearisome, exhilarating and sacred.  As it turns out, it takes a rather long time to get arrested protesting at the Statehouse.  It was not easy for me to stand silently in place, hand over mouth, for hours on end.  During our vigils, I experienced all of the discomforts of Yom Kippur: hunger and thirst, tedium and fatigue.  Nor did the challenges end when the police finally arrived to place us under arrest.  After the requisite pat down and processing, the officers cuffed our hands tightly behind our backs and loaded us on the stuffy, windowless prison bus for the short ride to the Ada County jail.  Then we’d sit for another ninety minutes in the parking lot until the jailers would admit us for one more round of processing before finally uncuffing us and locking us up, three or four people to a small, stark cell.  The police and jail staff were uniformly polite and kind, but the system was ill-equipped for mass arrests of forty or fifty people, so we would languish for another few hours in the cell until we were, at last, released, well after midnight—over twelve hours since the action began and we had last eaten.

Yet, at the end of such a seemingly interminable day, aching and exhausted and famished as I was, I felt great—not just ordinary great but over-the-moon, slice of heaven great—just like I will feel tomorrow night at the end of ne’ilah.  And I wasn’t alone.  I believe we all felt that way, the whole crowd of demonstrators and our friends and loved ones, too. 

You could see that feeling in the wide smiles we flashed in our mug shots, so very different from the usual down and out prisoners’ poses. 
You could hear it in the cheers for each demonstrator, echoing through the jailhouse lobby as we were released, one by one, to a warm and welcoming crowd of family, friends, and supporters.

And you could feel it in the bear hugs exchanged all around.

It felt like a small step toward justice, like a shot of heavenly love.

It felt like holiness.

What a just and loving and holy privilege it was to be there with my old CABI friends Terry McKay and Jeannette Bowman, who were each arrested with me.

What a just and loving and holy privilege it was to be there with my new CABI friend Chris Einhorn, who read about our arrest on her Facebook page and spontaneously drove to the jail, then waited into the wee hours of the morning to greet me and give me a ride back to my car.

And what a just and loving and holy privilege it was to be there with Senator LeFavour and all my fellow demonstrators, new friends and old, gay and straight, young college students, octogenarian activists and everything in between, whose tragic and triumphant and awe-inspiring stories moved me to tears.

On those long, cold winter days when I was arrested with Add the Four Words, as on this sacred Day of Atonement, I felt I was dancing with the angels.
In the spring of 1963, Rabbi Milton Grafman’s condemnation of civil disobedience in Birmingham earned him an enduring place on the wrong side of history.  But just a year later, in St. Augustine, Florida, seventeen Reform rabbis made a very different choice.  They answered Dr. King’s call for support and on June 18, 1964, they were arrested protesting outside the segregated Monson Motor Lodge and Restaurant.  That night, huddled in their small and sweltering prison cell, they drafted a joint letter entitled, “Why We Went”.   It concludes with the following words:

We came to St. Augustine. . . because we could not pass by the opportunity to achieve a moral goal by a moral means. . .

We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often.

We shall not forget the people with whom we drove, prayed, marched, ate, demonstrated and were arrested. What we have learned has changed us and our attitudes. We are grateful for the rare experience of sharing with this courageous community in their life, their suffering, their effort…

Each of us has in this experience become a little more the person, a bit more the rabbi he always hoped to be (but has not yet been able to become).

I, too, could not pass by the opportunity to achieve a moral goal by a moral means.

I, too, felt compelled to act in the spirit of atonement.

I, too, will never forget the people with whom I drove, prayed, marched, ate, demonstrated and was arrested.

And I, too, hope that through the experience, I may have become just a little more the person and a bit more the rabbi that I have always hoped to be and am still striving to become.

In this spirit, I make one last, simple request of you this evening: please join us.  The work is not yet done.  Those four vital words, “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” that will help secure justice and save precious lives, alas, remain yet to be added to Idaho’s Human Rights Act.
This can be the year.  As Hillel taught, “If not now, when?”  But it won’t happen without your help.  If you own or represent a company here in Idaho, call Governor Otter and your legislators and tell them that bigotry and bullying hurt our state’s economy and hinder your ability to do business here.  Otherwise, speak as an individual Idahoan with a passion for equality, and as a proud member of Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel who seeks liberty and well-being for our entire congregational family, including our LGBT members.  Make your voice heard.  Call and write and email and petition and speak out, where and whenever possible. 

And if you can, join us next legislative season.  It is my fervent hope that we will add the words as the first order of business when our legislature convenes, and another round of civil disobedience will be unnecessary.  But if our representatives fail to act, yet again, then we will need even more demonstrators and supporters to ensure that justice is finally done.

On this Yom Kippur eve, I am inviting you to join this movement with me.

Join us to be on the right side of history, to share the opportunity to achieve a moral goal by a moral means.

Join us, on this Day of Atonement, as an act of atonement.

Join us, on this Yom Kippur, because today, as we stand together in community, openly and honestly, fully revealed before the Holy One, we Jews know, all too well, that closets are hazardous to human health.

And join us now, in this sacred movement, on this holiest of days, because according to the labor, so is the reward—and if the task is daunting, it is a price we gladly pay to dance with the angels.  And then, dancing in the arms of the Divine, gay and straight, young and old, together with Psalmist may we all sing:

Zeh ha-yom asah Adonai, nagillah v’nis’mchah bo—This is the day that God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Ken y’hi ratzon.

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