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LGBTQ Rights, Juneteenth and Antisemitism

 What follows is the sermon from this past Shabbat when we also marked Pride Month and Juneteenth.

On this Shabbat we recognize Pride Month and give honor to those, most especially those who are part of our congregational family and who identify as LGBTQ. We give honor to those who have struggled for equal rights for those who are gay and lesbian since the Stonewall uprising in June of 1969. We affirm that all human beings are created in God’s image, regardless of their sexual orientation. How one identifies, and to whom one is attracted, is a complicated, and mysterious, thing that is beyond human understanding and that we therefore should hesitate to judge. On this Shabbat we recommit ourselves to the Jewish values of hesed, compassion, acceptance and welcome. We open our arms to all. We celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision affirming marriage equality. It has been only six years since that date. The experience of LGBTQ teens is far different than it was when I was in high school. People were then hesitant, and afraid, to come out. People were counseled by rabbis, teachers, peers, and parents to stay closeted. We have traveled far since those days and made great progress.

But there is still unfinished business we need to get busy doing. Some people are still too hesitant to open their arms to others. People are still afraid to come out to friends, to parents, to teachers. And that is on all of us. Images are everywhere about what ideal love looks like. There is the ever-present image that an ideal couple is a man and a woman. Our tradition continues to uphold this. Our language supports this. We forget that when we idealize love, and couples in this way, we too often push aside those who are struggling with how they can measure up to what is most certainly a myth. We must make room for many, different images. We must insist that if an LGBTQ couple wishes to be married under a huppah, and sanctify their relationship, we will do so. Their love deserves to be celebrated. They deserve the hora just as much as any couple. God knows I am itching to make up for lost time and this past year bereft of dancing. We can do more. We must do more. We have traveled far, but there is still a great deal of unfinished business to which to attend.

On this Shabbat we also mark Juneteenth, now, and finally a national holiday. It was on June 19, 1865, that the last enslaved African Americans were granted freedom. Two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and one month after the last of the Civil War’s battles was fought. And again, we have traveled far since that day. No one would suggest (at least not publicly) that it is permissible for human beings to be enslaved, that some people are more human than others, but as we discovered last summer this nation has more distance to travel. People still believe, or at the very least act, as if God did not create all human beings in the divine image, that God did not endow each and every one of us with God-given rights.

Black lives are not valued as much as white lives in this nation of ours. We have not reckoned with our history of slavery. We have not come to terms with the fact that there were Jews who have stood on the wrong side of history, who bought and sold men and women as slaves, who brutalized other human beings, who turned away when their Black neighbors were denied mortgages or business loans or college scholarships. Only an honest accounting of these sins, only a true reckoning of these wrongs will help lift this nation towards fulfilling its promise for all its citizens. That is what Juneteenth is supposed to be about. Let it be a day when we come to terms with these wrongs so that we may, if we cannot right them immediately, at least atone for them. Have we made progress? Yes. Is there much unfinished business still do? Yes, and yes.

And in these last months we were also reminded of another realm where we have unfinished business to get working on. Namely, tackling antisemitism. And I raise this issue on this Shabbat when we are celebrating Juneteenth and honoring Pride Month, because it reared its ugly head in the intersection of these causes. To be sure antisemitism remains a threat from the right—I have not forgotten Charlottesville or Pittsburgh; I continue to worry what violence might spill over from QAnon’s fantasies—but of late the threat has emerged from the left and this hate has emerged from the very same corners that fight for LGBTQ inclusion and advocate for Black lives.

Do not apologize for this sin of antisemitism in order to come to terms with the sin of systemic racism. Do not excuse anti-Israel diatribes in order to be more welcoming to those who identify as LGBTQ. Just because those in power continue to delegitimize LGBTQ rights, just because power has too often been used to suppress Black lives, does not mean that Israel’s exercise of power in defense of its citizens is wrong. Be clear about what we stand for. Be certain of what is right and what is wrong. Israel, like this country of ours, is a wonderful, and miraculous, nation that is imperfect but given to glorious and ennobling moments. Most Israelis want to make peace with their Palestinian neighbors and have supported many peace plans, and withdrawals from territories that too many Palestinians, most notably Hamas, have rejected. Try this in particular. Travel to Tel Aviv for the gay pride parade! Read more about Gadi Yevarkan, a Member of Knesset, who was rescued from Ethiopia in 1991.

Do not run away from the causes of ensuring that Black lives matter as much as white lives in our country or that people should be free to love and marry who they wish and who they are attracted to because some who also advocate for these rights spew antisemitic hate. Call out hatred wherever it comes from. Lift up others. Help to make our nation even greater. Help to make Israel even better. Help to make our community even stronger.

There is a lot of unfinished business to which we must attend. Yes, we have made progress, but there is still so much more we must do. Let’s get busy. Let’s never forget our most glorious Jewish teaching. Every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image!