Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Parashat Shlach Lecha - "Born this Way"

I grew up at an amazing synagogue - Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (or BJBE as we call it) in the northern suburbs of Chicago. I learned from lot's of wonderful people there and those lessons have helped shape who I am. And the environment was so conducive, that we learned from one another all the time. When I am daydreaming about the kind of environment I hope to help build here at B'nai Israel in Connecticut, I find myself drifting back to BJBE. A lot.

So one of my friends from back in the day is Irwin Keller. Irwin confirmed a ear ahead of me. He was always a little bit brilliant, but not at all standoffish or scary as brilliant people sometimes are. On his Blog, Itzik's Well, he describes himself as a "Singer, comedian, writer, part-time para-rabbi and armchair parshan."He is also an attorney and a member of a really funny drag a capella group, the Kinsey Sicks (He is Winnie). He posted this on his blog. 

I am proud to belong to, work for and to have raised our sons in a synagogue that makes inclusion of all Jews a core value. That includes families with more than one faith in the home, learners with special needs, people with disabilities, people who are LGBTQ as well as Jews who have strong identities, who are ambivalent or just searching.*  Irwin reminded me why. Thanks pal!

I urge you to read the Hebrew above with a little rhythm! 

Irwin Keller
Parashat Shlach Lecha - "Born this Way"
For the Sonoma Pride Interfaith Service
June 12, 2011

Good evening. I am humbled and excited to be here. I've had the good fortune to stand on stage at many a Pride event, but it's my first time doing it neither as an activist nor as a singing drag queen, but rather as a Jew. Truthfully, I can't even remember the last time I attended a Pride event in pants. And as I'm sure many of you can understand, I'm finding it rather constricting.

But I'm honored to be asked to "Share Words," which seems to be the gentile euphemism for "give a sermon but please keep it short." In the Jewish tradition we call these words a drash, in which you expound upon a traditional text in order to draw meaning and relevance from it. Today I'll treat two texts: one from Torah and one from Gaga.

I'll start with Torah. This week, Jews around the world read and argue over a portion of the Book of Numbers called Shlach Lecha. In this well-known story, the Children of Israel are in the Wilderness, camped just outside the borders of the Promised Land. They send scouts to investigate. The scouts return and report that the land is flowing with milk and honey. "But," they add, "the people there are mighty. They are as giants, and stronger than we... 

ונהי בעינינו כחגבים וכן היינו בעיניהם

...and we appeared as grasshoppers in our eyes and in theirs."

The sages of old discuss this moment and how their history of enslavement colored the Children of Israel's sense of self-worth. They were unable to take their rightful place not because they were weak, but because they believed themselves to be weak. And because of this, they were doomed to wander for forty more years.

Feel familiar? For those of you who like me are alte kackers, old timers, in the world of queer activism, this should feel very familiar. Because it also describes our pursuit of a place in this world.

Enter, then, our second text, the Torah of Gaga. In the earliest years of the fight for our rights in this country, our appoach was tentative. This was revealed in our political rhetoric, repeatedly explaining that we were "born this way." Not in a Lady Gaga "we don't care what you think" kind of way. Not topped off with a defiant Queer Nation "get over it." We said it very much in a "we do care what you think" way. "We were born this way," we said, "so it is unfair of you to treat us poorly." At the time, in its context, "born this way" was the strongest case we could make for our rights and it was our great statement of identity. And I never liked it.

It was always a rhetoric of apology. A plea for tolerance, not a demand for anything particularly good and juicy. "We are grasshoppers," we seemed to say, "We were born as grasshoppers. It's not our fault that we're grasshoppers. So please don't step on us as you would step on, say, grasshoppers."

Besides feeling apologetic, the "born this way" rhetoric also felt to me to be simply untrue. Too restrictive. Too static. And under-appreciative of who we are. Yes, we might have been born that way but we didn't stop there. We might have begun with our particular genes and hormones and whatever else goes into the human cocktail, but we've all kept adding and shaking and stirring. And what we've each concocted with our raw ingredients is nothing short of brilliant and brave and, to my mind, holy.

Our births didn't define our destinies. After all, couldn't we have lived as heterosexuals? Just entre nous, couldn't we have? Couldn't we have lived in our body's biological sex? Maybe. Probably. Our forebears did. Could we have done it happily? Maybe not. But we might have chosen to make the tradeoff. We might have been willing to remain closeted or quiet or invisible in exchange for, I don't know, a prominent place in religious life or maybe a seat in Congress. I understand people do that.

All of us who were "born this way" have made choices, from the moment we realized we were different in some way that matters. When to pass. When not to. How to survive. How to leave home. How to create home. How to find community. How to make community where there was none. How to love. How to be brave. How to be fabulous. How to be in this world. Frankly, in a certain way, how any of us here was born is perhaps the least interesting thing about us.

I know that we Jews contributed to the culture the 6-day Creation story, which sets up the idea that things get created and then get set more or less on a kind of autopilot. In other words, things get made and it's a done deal. Things are as they were born. But this is a tediously static view of the world, and of us. And we are far from a static people.

So I'd like to introduce you to a different Jewish view of Creation, a mystical idea that only got written down after our traditions had parted ways. According to Jewish mysticism, often known by its drag name, Kabbalah, Creation is not something that happened once at a finite point of time in the past. Instead, Creation is renewed at every single moment. God's thought pours through the universe continuously. And through this outpouring of shefa, this Divine abundance, Creation keeps Creationing; the world continues to flow like milk and honey. Everything in it continues to become.

This Creation story I like. It moves. We all continue to become -- through our choices, our intentions and our actions. We continue to become by choosing integrity. Honesty. Insight. Compassion. Freedom. Love. Hot deviant sex. Courage. Creativity. Anger and persistence in the face of injustice.

We might have been born grasshoppers, or we might think we were. But we have become giants. We have wandered for decades in a wilderness of sodomy laws and marriage inequality and Will & Grace reruns and the God-hates-fagmongers of Westboro Baptist. 

We have had blessings and we have had reversals. We have had our Harry Hays and our Harvey Milks and our Phyllis and Dels. We've had our Radical Faeries and Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and Queer Nations and ACTUPs — and yes, our Lady Gagas. We have lost Matthew Shepherds at the hands of Amalek. We have lost hundreds of thousands of our dearest ones to plague. We continue to witness intersex children surgically "corrected" in the name of gender normativity and our transgender youth suffer the mistreatment of psychoanalysis. We continue to experience both hope and hardship. But we are making a Promised Land of this wilderness. We have become giants and we will have this land flow with milk and honey.

Were we born this way? No. We have grown and survived and flourished to become this way. Or, maybe, taking the mystical view, in which God's shefa, God's divine abundance, flows through and renews this reality at every turn, then we might say, "Yes, we are born this way. Not years ago, but right at this very moment. And we will continue to be born, to become more ourselves, in all our fierceness and fearlessness and fabulousness. We will more and more be the giants we have already dared to become.

And let us say: amen.

* I could have said: "interfaith families , special needs learners, the disabled, LGBTQ..." but today I learned a new truth from my rabbi, Jim Prosnit. The person comes before the adjective. We are all people before we are anything else! 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sustainable Jewish Education

This is from Joel Lurie Grishaver. He is my hero because he always sees ways in which the world around us can inform us about Jewish Education. I remember when he returned from seeing "The Nightmare Before Christmas" he said "They finally made a movie to teach about the December Dilemma! It's awesome!" I think he is right - we need to adapt the sustainability idea to our work. What do you think?

If you are in anyway a “foodie” you know the words “local and sustainable.”

Jamie Oliver is a British Chef who is very much part of the local and sustainable movement. He is also an upstander who has changed the nature of the food served in British State Schools, opened a restaurant where he trains and employs at risk teenagers, and in a reality TV show – Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution – has come to America to try to teach American’s about healthful eating.

His first season was in Huntsville, Alabama – the most overweight city in America – where he made some significant impacts on school lunches among other things. This year he came to Los Angeles and was pretty much defeated by the local ennui. His one big accomplishment was to get the Los Angeles School district to agree to remove flavored milks. Flavored milks (common practice in American public schools) are seen “as the only way to get kids to drink milk” have three times the sugar content of most soda and are probably significantly responsible (with other villains like pizza and fast food) for the dramatic escalation of diabetes in children.

Last year I wrote a probably incoherent tweet about Jamie Oliver being a fabulous role model for Jewish education—having the fortitude and skill to induce people to do what is right even if it isn’t the easiest or most fun choice.

Recently I sat at a conversation to discuss the future of the complementary school. I don’t know what the complimentary school is except that it is the hip-term now used by federated culture to indicate what most Jewish parents describe as “Hebrew School” and “Sunday School.” It joins Religious Schools, Religion Schools, Supplementary Schools, Torah School and Congregational schools in the list of euphemisms for what started life as the Talmud Torah.

All I can figure out is that a complementary school is a place where you get a lot of positive feedback. I hope it doesn’t mean that we are an accessorizing secular education.

Among the people participating in this discussion of the future of majority Jewish schooling was the local communal camp director. His comment was: “We had a school group out to camp for a retreat and at the end of the year the school voted the camp experience their favorite experience of the year.”
Chocolate and Strawberry milk always score highly when students evaluate their food choices.

Let me make two things absolutely clear:
  1. I am NOT saying that camp and camp-style learning present a clear danger the way that flavored milks do, and
  2. I am NOT saying that schooling should not be “fun,” but, I will continue to quote the mission statement drafted by the Brookline High School faculty, “We believe that education is an addiction to the tart and not the sweet.” (Quoted by Tom Peters in A Passion for Excellence.)
What I am saying is that good Jewish education should be “local and sustainable.”
By “local” I mean, that Jewish education should take place within the dynamic of a living Jewish community. Judaism that cannot be lived can’t be all that functional. Likewise, those who teach should be part of that Jewish community. This does not mean that one can only hire members to be teachers—BUT RATHER—communities need to work hard at making faculty feel invited to participate.

By “sustainable” I am meaning that Jewish Education should lead to future Jewish living. It is impossible for me to define what is adequate learning to sustain Jewish life. For me, it includes a lot of text literacy and tools for “making-meaning” out of primary Jewish sources. These are the tools to remix the Jewish tradition. But, I am more than willing to admit that adequacy has a lot to one’s definition of Jewish living.

I fully believe that the community built at a camp retreat is a useful and highly functional expression of the community that creates “local,” but I doubt that it transfers a lot of sustainability. I know that you can’t teach until you have engaged. That makes engagement necessary, critical, and probably achievable, but it isn’t sufficient to the task of continuity.

We no longer live within the physics of “if you teach them they will come” but I can’t support reduction past the point of sustainability just to achieve demographics. My tradition teaches me that sha’ar yashuv. We will be sustained by a surviving remnant.

Unflavored milk is best for kids even when it isn’t their first choice.

Cross-posted from The Gris Mill