Opening Our Doors – A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5774

Two thousand years ago, there were two great rabbis – Shammai and Hillel.

A man once came to Shammai with a religious challenge. He said to the rabbi: “I will become a Jew if you can teach me the whole Torah while I am standing on one foot.” Well, of course you can’t possibly learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot. So Shammai  – who was not known for his people skills – picked up a stick and chased the man out of the room.

Next that same man went to Hillel and said the same thing: “I will become a Jew if you can teach me the whole Torah while I am standing on one foot.” And Hillel didn’t chase him away. Instead, he answered with a single sentence: “What is hateful to you do not do to anyone else. That is the whole Torah. Now go and learn it.”[1]

Usually, when we tell this story, the lesson is about Hillel’s quote: the idea that Judaism is based around the golden rule. But this time, I’d like to invite us to look at the story differently. I’d like us to think not about what Hillel said, but about what he did. When an outsider showed up at his doorstep looking for knowledge and looking for acceptance, it would have been easy for him to turn the man away, to slam the door in his face.) After all, that’s exactly what Shammai had done.) But Hillel didn’t. Hillel welcomed him in; Hillel taught him; Hillel opened the door wide.

Our tradition tells us that we come  from a long line of door openers, stretching all the way back to the very first Jews. Abraham and Sarah are said in the midrash to have kept their tent open on all sides so that they could “go out and bring wayfarers into their home,” welcome them, feed them, and share with them.[2]

Judaism was born out of Hachnasat Orchim – the value of welcoming the stranger. Judaism grew up under slavery in Egypt, which taught us what it is to be a stranger. And in every age in history, Judaism has been strongest when we have opened the doors of participation and inclusion to all of those who want to be part of us. We have learned over the centuries that an inclusive Judaism is a healthy Judaism.

Now the truth is that while Abraham and Sarah may have kept their tent open 3000 years ago, it has really taken until the modern era for the doors to open for some in our community. The Reform movement has been a leader when it comes to breaking down barriers, especially with regard to the role of women in Judaism.

On this Rosh Hashanah morning, the haftarah is the story of Channah, the mother of Samuel.  We read about how she longs for a son, how she travels to the shrine at Shiloh to pray, how she becomes the mother of a great prophet. She sings:

         Alatz libi B’Adonai, ramah karni B’Adonai.
        My heart exults in God. My pride has been exalted through God.

Channah sings: for herself and her family; and she sings for the generations of women whose voices are hidden in the texts. Traditionally, she is one of seven Biblical women who had the power of prophecy. Among them are Miriam and Debora: prophets and judges, teaches and leaders, who cry out to us from the text that the voices of woman deserve to be heard in Judaism. And now, finally, after more than two millennia, we have started to listen.

In 1987, I was a camper at Henry S. Jacobs Camp, the URJ camp in Mississippi, the sister of our Camp George. That was the summer when our counselors introduced the chanting of the matriarchs alongside the patriarchs in the amidah. Effectively, they transformed the “Avot” into the “Avot V’imahot” that we know today. And at the time, many of you may remember, the Jewish world went up in arms:

“It’s changing tradition!” we said.
“What’s next, rewriting the Torah?”

And for a decade afterward, there was discussion and debate in our congregations about whether to include the matriarchs in our most central prayer.

But in 2013, nobody is debating anymore.

Last year, the Jewish world celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the rabbinical ordination of Sally Priesand – the world’s first woman rabbi. In 1972, her ordination was really controversial; it was trend setting; it was head turning.

But in 2013, more women than men were ordained as Reform rabbis. And nobody is turning their heads anymore.

It is hard to believe that only 40 years ago there were no women rabbis. It’s hard to believe that only 25 years ago, our movement was deeply divided over “Elohei Sarah, Elohei Rivkah.” It’s hard to believe that only a generation ago it was not clear to us that girls should read Torah, that Bat Mitzvah was equal to Bar Mitzvah, that women should stand on the bima and wear a tallit. But it is clear to us now.

Our member Karen Paikin recently told me a funny story about her son Jesse who is in rabbinical school now. Jesse grew up at Kol Ami in the 90s, and so of course his picture of a Rabbi looked like Nancy Wexler.  And so, when 8-year-old Jesse visited another synagogue for a family bar mitzvah, he was really confused by what he saw there. He turned to his mother and said, “You mean, men can be rabbis too?”

As it always is, the new generation knows little of the controversy, little of the turmoil of change. What was once a spark in a tinder box has become a non-issue. What was once a debate has become a consensus. Today, it is universally recognized that Reform Judaism is stronger, and more diverse, and has a brighter future because of the many female voices that can be heard both from the bima and from the board room.

To paraphrase an old commercial: “We’ve come a long way, baby.”

Our movement has embraced the voices of women, and the Conservative and even modern Orthodox have followed suit! Oh, there is still work to be done: the recent rabbinic salary survey showed that women rabbis don’t have the respect or the compensation of male rabbis. And the Women of the Wall have shown that the struggle to let women’s voices be heard has moved across the ocean to the Jewish state.

But at the same time, the women’s movement has become an inspiration and a model to other communities that are working toward inclusion within Judaism. One of them is the Gay and Lesbian community. And while this year’s news in that arena is coming out of the Russian Olympics and the US Supreme Court, as far as Reform Judaism is concerned, Canada set the tone for this discussion a long time ago.

Many of you saw the cover story in last month’s issue of Reform Judaism magazine. It was written by Judge Harvey Brownstone, who is Canada’s first openly gay judge, and a Reform Jew. He talked about the experience of growing up gay and Jewish:

My adolescent years…were very difficult times, as there were no “out” role models. I was also very mindful of the admonishments in Leviticus…. So I kept my feelings to myself….[3]

In the 60s and 70s, synagogues were not friendly places for gay and lesbian people. A whole generation of young people grew up feeling ostracized and separated from the houses of worship that should have brought them comfort and community.  But the last 40 years have seen the doors slowly begin to open. In the mid 80s, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College ordained the first openly gay rabbis, and our seminary quickly followed suit. In 1990, our Movement passed a resolution declaring that lesbian and gay Jews were full and equal members of our congregations. Next year, our Rabbinical Association will inaugurate its first lesbian President.  Guided by the principle of B’tzelem Elohim – that all people are created in God’s image, Reform Judaism has been increasingly enriched as it has helped to shepherd a creative and influential community toward the mainstream of religious life.

I say toward because, here as well, there is still work to be done. It is the case that our congregations have opened their doors to gay and lesbian Jews. And it is the case that here in Ontario, same-sex marriage has been legal for a decade. But as a movement, we have not yet fully officially addressed the question of Jewish same-sex marriage in a halakhic context. In fact, the last time our Reform Responsa committee weighed-in on that issue was, believe it or not, 1995. At that time, the movement was so deeply divided, that the committee couldn’t create a unified statement. Instead, it produced a majority opinion opposed to rabbinic officiation, and a minority opinion that granted autonomy to the individual rabbi, but cautioned against calling same sex marriages Kiddushin – the Hebrew word for marriage. In other words, it created an automatic differentiation between gay marriage and Jewish marriage.

So what’s changed in 18 years? Leviticus hasn’t changed. But as liberal Jews, we know that Torah must be read on the one hand with the knowledge that it was written in a specific time and place, and on the other hand with the conviction that it must speak to our time and place.  And as public opinion about same-sex marriage has evolved, so has our understanding of what Torah has to say about it. And here I turn to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, one of the great halakhic minds of the Conservative movement. He points out that while Torah does have something to say about certain types of relationships, but it also says “יהי כבוד חברך חביב עליך כשלך – Let your neighbour’s dignity be as precious to you as your own.”[4] The value of human dignity has long guided the Jewish approach to human rights and it should guide our approach to the gay and lesbian community as well.

And Rabbi Dorff even goes a bit further, to show that in a modern context, Torah could conceivably give its blessing to a marriage between two men or two women.

“The verses in Leviticus,” he writes, “should be understood to prohibit only those… relationships that offer no possibility of marriage [as in ancient times]. In an age when gay marriage is permitted by some jurisdictions…the Torah’s ban is no longer universal.[5]

So in a place like Ontario, where same-sex marriage is legally recognized, the possibility of Jewish same-sex marriage is very real, and some rabbis are already performing them. And while the Conservative movement has not yet taken the next step of formally tackling the issue of Jewish same-sex marriage, our Responsa committee is in the process of doing so right now. And it’s very likely that this new statement will grant rabbis the autonomy to perform these marriages, and also create grounds for calling them Kiddushin, calling them Jewish marriage.

This is excellent timing for me, because last month, I performed my first Jewish same-sex wedding. I have to tell you what an honour it was to stand under the chuppah with two partners who so deeply love each other. What a pleasure to live in a place where it is legally possible for me to give my rabbinical blessing to their union. It allowed me to finally formulate in my mind – and this is my own opinion – that I believe a marriage is a marriage. That Kiddushin – that Hebrew word for wedding which is related to the word Kadosh/Holy – should apply to all Jewish marriages.

On this issue as well, there is a bit of a generational divide. I don’t have another good Jesse Paikin story, but I did have the opportunity to talk this summer with a group of teens at Camp George, and with our own Confirmation class last year. Their reaction can be summed up along the lines of, “What the big deal?” For our young people, our 40-year struggle with the question of Jewish same-sex marriage is already essentially in the past. And they are looking to Judaism to lead the way into the future. As Reform Jews, as recipients of the prophets’ vision of a better world, we should do everything possible to open the doors of inclusion and acceptance to all Jews who want to practice Judaism and who want to be part of Kehilah – of a Jewish community.

Kehilah – community – is the core of who we are.  And as we talk about opening doors, it is important to recognize that there is a third group who are part of our community and who are seeking acceptance within the Jewish world. They are our interfaith families.

It wasn’t long ago that families broke apart over marriage between Jews and non-Jews. When Tevya tears his clothes and sits shiva for his daughter, he represents what was the norm for our not-too-distant ancestors.

Of course, things are different today, and things are very different within these walls. Here at Kol Ami, interfaith families are an important part of the community. Their children attend our religious school. They sit on our committees and help plan our programs. They are a part of us.

One of our members recently sang praises of inclusiveness to me about Kol Ami:

As an interfaith family, we did a lot of searching, and we didn’t always feel comfortable at other synagogues. But at Kol Ami, it feels warm and inclusive. The shul has made a huge difference in my kids’ life.

Now, there’s no question that we are not perfectly inclusive, but we should be glad to know that this has been the experience of many of the interfaith families within our midst. It should dismay, however, us that this is not in any way the universal synagogue experience – particularly here in Toronto.

A few weeks ago, I had a call from a father who was interested in Religious School for his children.  He said to me timidly: “There’s a little problem. My wife isn’t Jewish. Can my kids even come to school here?”

Well, of course the answer is: Yes! The answer is that Jewish families come in all shaped and sizes and from all backgrounds. But that was news to him.

And it is news to many of the interfaith couples who call this place each year practically expecting to be rejected. It should make us wonder how many families out there don’t even bother calling us.

What makes Reform Judaism unique is the willingness to meet people where they are. We are a Jewish community that is prepared to embrace people for who they are.  And we know just how much we have been enriched by the diversity within our ranks.

I wonder if the interfaith families who are members of Kol Ami realize just how much they strengthen and invigorate our congregation. Our non-Jewish spouses and parents bring their children to Religious School and stand alongside them as they become Bar and Bat Mitzvah on our bima. You participate in our Torah study discussions and Shabbat services. You sing the songs and prayers. You bring talent and passion and caring to Kol Ami.

And this is nothing new – the Jewish community has been enriched by interfaith families ever since the original interfaith family – Moses and his Midianite wife Tzipporah. (By the way, have you ever noticed that she was the one who made sure their kids had a bris?)

We should honour those individuals who have chosen to lend their voices to our people’s song. Whether they enter the mikveh or not, they are building the Jewish future and strengthening the Jewish present.

It is time for our Jewish community to find a way, without diminishing the integrity of our religious traditions, to let interfaith families know that we value them as Jewish families. That they are not only accepted or tolerated, but welcomed and appreciated here. That their children are as Jewish as any other, and that this is a place where they, too, can be part of Kehilah Kedoshah – holy Jewish community.

As it says in the book of Isaish, “Ki Beiti beit t’fillah yikara l’chol ha-amim – My house [says God] shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”[6]

So, Mr. Goldstein from Montreal was visiting China, when he stumbled onto an old synagogue. A synagogue in China, he thought? But since there was a service going on, he put on a tallit and sat down to pray. He noticed, though, that the people there seemed confused by his presence. After the service, an elderly Chinese man came up to Mr. Goldstein to welcome him. “We are so happy to have you here,” said the man. “But tell me, how to you know the words of the Jewish prayers?”
“Well,” answered Goldstein, “I also grew up with these prayers. I chanted them at my Bar Mitzvah.”
The old Chinese man peered at Goldstein for a moment. Then with a shrug of his shoulders, he replied, “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.”

In the 21st century, the very face of the Jewish people is changing. In the 21st century, we must move beyond bagels & lox and beyond stereotypes of Bubbe and Zayde, and see Judaism for what it is: an ancient and complex tradition that is enriched by people and ideas of all kinds.

Let us be the Hillels and Abrahams of today, opening wide the doors of inclusion to those who are interested in learning with us, or praying with us, or raising their children with us, no matter who they are or where they come from or whom they love. To those who are interested in throwing in their lot with the Jewish people, let us say, in the words of the Passover Seder:

Kol dichpin yitei v’yeichul:
Let all who are hungry, all who are searching, come here and here find sustenance.
Let those who are in need, who have been rejected or oppressed, come here, and here find acceptance and celebration.

 In the new year, may we continue to work to build a Jewish community that is a worthy descendant of the tent of Abraham and Sarah.

May our congregation welcome the stranger and embrace the searching; may our tent be open on all sides while at its centre, the fire of tradition burns brightly.

May we recognize just how much we are enriched by our diversity, and may we listen closely to hear Kol Ami –the many voices of our people.


[1] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a.

[2] Avot D’Rabbi Natan 7:1.

[3] Brownstone, Harvey, “I Now Pronounce You Wife and Wife,” Reform Judaism , Fall 2013, p. 20.

[4] Avot 2:10.

[5] Consvervative Movement Responsum: Dorff, Reisner, and Nevins. “Homosexuality, Human Dignity, & Halakhah,”  p. 5.

[6] Isaiah 56:7.

3 thoughts on “Opening Our Doors – A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5774

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