Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
Rosh Hashanah 2015/5776
Rabbi David Lyon
Congregation Beth Israel, Houston
“There’s a Place for Us”
As child of the 1970’s, my school teachers drove VW Bugs, flashed peace-signs and lived by the lyrics, “Give peace a chance!” It wasn’t lost on me. I idealized my youth and dreamt about the future. But dreaming was just the beginning. Eventually, I learned that the most difficult part of an idealized youth is that “Give peace a chance!” was a great slogan but real peace remained elusive. The more anyone chased it, the more difficult it was to pin down.
In every generation, some people use age and experience to sustain their passion and achieve spectacular outcomes. Others lose their passion. It isn’t uncommon for youthful energy to wane over time. George Bernard Shaw remarked that “youth is wasted on the young.” Yet, the Jewish New Year awakens dormant passions and renews idealized dreams by summoning us never to “stand idly by.” “Give Peace a Chance” is a lofty goal that’s still worth every effort we can muster.
In Hebrew, we call peace, Shalom. Shalom is also at the root of completeness and wholeness. Feeling complete and whole, even periodically, is part of the formation of a more enduring peace.
For us, the formation of peace begins at the boundary of Judaism’s Golden Rules.
In Leviticus, we learn, “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.”
From Hillel in the 1st century (CE), we learn, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it!”
And, from the prophet Micah (6:8), we are told, “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God”.
On the other side of these boundaries people live without love, they’re despised by others, and they rarely find justice. Datareveal that 20% of the general population lives with disabilities that prevent them from full participation. They’re the largest minority in the world. They’re also among the loneliest and the poorest.
But, if you’ve noticed recently, the definition of who is “in” and who is “out” is changing. The boundary lines are moving and the circle of inclusion is growing.
Last spring, Jay Ruderman, representing his family’s foundation, visited Houston to meet with local rabbis about his concern for the Jewish future. He focused on Jewish children with special needs. Mr. Ruderman said something very important about the Jewish family. He said, “If you lose the child, you lose the family.” It struck a passionate and practical chord in me.
You see, in Jewish history since Biblical times, a full Jewish life was for individuals who could represent the community in public worship and enter a religious contract. But, Jewish law excluded major categories of individuals who were not obligated in the same way. They were the “shoteh”, the mentally unstable person; the “cheresh”, the deaf-mute, and the “katan”, the minor. Except for the minor who would outgrow his temporary age-challenge, the others were excluded permanently from the obligation of performing mitzvot. Though Jewish law demanded mercy for them, centuries went by without engaging them as whole persons in Jewish life.
The boundaries began to change only in the last 30 years and in two principal ways. First, Rabbi Judith Abrams, of blessed memory, wrote a book called, “Judaism and Disability: Portrayals in Ancient Texts from the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) through the Bavli (Talmud)”. She wrote in her book about traditional definitions of those who were shut-in; and, then she showed us how to understand them. Remarkably, she taught us how the Talmud got it wrong. Despite our observations of their challenges, all God’s children were created in God’s image; they were also full members of the Jewish community. She concluded that it was we who failed to bring them out and participate in Jewish life with us.
Second, following the path of science, Jewish communities learned how to employ new understandings, resources, and therapies. For example, in 2009, Jewish Family Service opened Celebration Company, a project of Jewish Family Service. Celebration Company is a social entrepreneurial program for adults with disabilities. It focuses on vocations, functional, academic, wellness, social and life skills. If you received a Honey Cake mix recently from Beth Israel, it was a sweet gesture for flood victims assembled by the gifted men and women of Celebration Company.
Mr. Ruderman’s visit was timely for another reason. Mr. Ruderman’s emphasis on the whole child and family is taking root at Beth Israel. This month, we’ll inaugurate a new program for children with special needs. Under the direction of David Scott, Director of the Miriam Browning Jewish Learning Center, and supervision of Pat Mintz, a master teacher, our congregation will joyfully open the doors to a multi-year learning program called “Aliyah”.
Aliyah means to go up; principally, to go up to Torah. Aliyah is currently funded by Margaret and Jeffrey Tucker, in memory of their son, Jeremy. He was a brilliant young doctor who, before succumbing to brain cancer, lived for ten years with special needs. Aliyah and the Jeremy Tucker Fund are at the heart of our invitation to families with children who have special needs.
We’ll serve every young learner according to their abilities. We have prayers and Torah written in Braille; we’ll use tactile manipulatives, music, art and worship to bring out the best in every child. Along the way, they’ll build a Jewish community of friends, including rabbis and cantor.
I personally know some of the children who will be called up to Torah in the future. Noah and Samantha Folloder, children of Jordan and Harry, recently reached the age for religious school. I’ve been counting the years since their birth to welcome them here. This fall we’ll welcome them to “Aliyah”. Noah uses Braille. I’m already excited to stand with him at the Torah on his bar mitzvah day, when he touches the sacred words with his hands and chants his Torah portion. Eventually, Aliyah will welcome every child to the Torah to become a bar or bat mitzvah.
I look forward to knowing personally all the children who enter the program. And, when the day arrives for the children’s bar and bat mitzvahs, I want you to know them, too. I want you to fill the sanctuary and witness their coming up to Torah. Their abilities will guide us into a Jewish future of inclusion where the promise to give Torah to our children knows no boundaries imposed by us on them.
Now, you might be wondering how a child with physical disabilities might reach the bimah. One positive consequence of the May floods that devastated our sanctuary is the opportunity to build an ADA certified ramp leading to an expanded and more welcoming bimah.
After the High Holidays, I’ll correspond with Jay Ruderman about “Aliyah”. He should know that Beth Israel can be an example of how Jewish families can find peace when they are whole and complete.
These Jewish families will undoubtedly remain committed to Judaism and support the institutions that support their children. The meaning of the Golden Rules will remain important links to Judaism’s highest ideals for Shalom. Rabbi Abrams’ memory will be honored through the children she helped us identify for their blessings. And, like Jeremy, who found peace in our sanctuary, these children and their families will find their peace, too.
* * *
Another segment of our population that has been shut-in is the gay community. Lately, their struggle has been focused on the same-sex marriage issue. It’s been debated on the porch steps of America and in the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court of the United States. Listen to this profound statement on the meaning of marriage:
“Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that, while both still live, there will be someone to care for the other…No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were.”
“Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”
Everybody can identify with these words. They were written by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority 5-4 decision. Whether or not one agrees with the role of the Supreme Court in this regard, legal same-sex marriage was increasingly spreading across America. And, as long as government, alone, ruled on who could obtain a marriage license, then the Supreme Court wasn’t overstepping its bounds to validate everybody’s equal access to their constitutional rights.
Since last June, same-sex couples have come out to join us as increasingly equal members of society who have the right to marry everywhere, including Texas. While struggles still persist, national polls are timely barometers of large support across the nation.
What does Judaism say about it all? First and foremost, a Talmudic rule instructs us, “Dinah d’malchuta dina,” the law of the land is the law. On a purely legal basis, Jewish leaders are obligated to obey the law of the land in which we live. Our duty is to accept their ruling in ways that are consistent with Reform Judaism at Beth Israel. Some background is appropriate.
Long before June 2015, the Reform Movement resolved and pressed lawmakers to recognize God’s handiwork in every human being, no matter their gender or sexual orientation.
In 1977, the CCAR (the Central Conference of American Rabbis), of which Rabbi Karff served as president 1989-1991, and I currently serve as a national board member, adopted a resolution calling for legislation calling for an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians.
In 1990, while Rabbi Karff was president, the CCAR endorsed a position paper urging “all rabbis, regardless of sexual orientation, be accorded the opportunity to fulfill the sacred vocation that they have chosen.” The committee endorsed the view that “all Jews are religiously equal regardless of their sexual orientation.”
About that same time, a nervous mother came to see me in my office here. She looked worn out as she told me that her son was gay. Then she asked me, “What do I do?” She didn’t come for therapy. She came for a Jewish response. I wasted no time in telling her, “Love your son!” I said encourage him to find a life partner with whom to share a monogamous, loving relationship; welcome them, together, into your home and learn with them. If there’s something you don’t understand, ask them. If there’s something you can’t understand, let it be for now. Begin by loving them.
In 1996, the CCAR resolved to “support the right of gay and lesbian couples to share fully and equally in the rights of civil marriage,” and voiced opposition to governmental efforts to ban gay and lesbian marriages.
In 1998, the CCAR concluded that “kedushah (sacred marriage) may be present in committed same gender relationships between two Jews and that these relationships can serve as the foundation of stable Jewish families, thus adding strength to the Jewish community.”
In March 2000, the CCAR made history by becoming the first major group of North American clergy to support its rabbis who perform same-gender ceremonies. It was about 2000, when I served as rabbi in Dallas, that I was approached by a lesbian couple in my congregation to officiate at their commitment ceremony. I agreed. They had been partners for many years. In them, I saw a loving and mutual bond that was as strong as any I had witnessed in heterosexual couples who had loved as long. Standing under the chuppah, I conducted a ceremony that celebrated their love, and asked God’s blessing to be upon their union and their home. Though not legally married in Texas in 2000, it was a relationship sanctified in God’s presence. After the Supreme Court decision in June, the couple wrote me a letter to remember that day 15 years ago, to thank me for being there for them, and to acknowledge how far we’ve all come.
It should be noted that in 2006, the Conservative movement, following the Reform movement, as it did in the case of ordaining women rabbis, adopted two majority opinions allowing the ordination of LGBT clergy, and the blessing of same-sex unions.
The current generation has benefited from years of work in this regard, and they expect a strong relationship with traditional institutions. Their search begins at home where the institution of the family is increasingly embracing its gay and lesbian children. Their search continues in the synagogue where, especially the senior rabbi, is ready to say, “Welcome to Beth Israel.” Finally, the search enters society where the institution of marriage now welcomes couples to sanctify their union with a marriage license.
You should know that it isn’t uncommon for young adults to visit with me and my colleagues to tell us that they’re gay or lesbian. They tell us, because they’re looking for our reaction. They want us to say, “Okay, We welcome you,” and we do say it, openly and warmly.
In reality, Beth Israel has always welcomed the LGBT community. It has never failed to strive to recognize and promote the humanity of every individual, all of whom are created in the image of God.
On September 8, 2015, the Board of Trustees of Congregation Beth Israel took the next step and voted on a resolution to welcome the full and equal participation of same-sex couples and LGBT individuals in our midst, and to accord them every right and privilege in our congregation. It will now be my pleasure and my colleagues’ to invite same-sex couples to be married here under the law of the land, in the State of Texas, and with God’s blessing.
All causes that foster the well-being of individuals whose humanity is experienced and celebrated in religious observance, worship, study and community will always find a welcome home here.
Friends, times are changing, but honoring what God created in all its myriad forms has never changed. It has always been our duty to find beauty and meaning in God’s creative acts.
The age of celebrating diversity is here. It’s wholly and completely consistent with Reform Judaism’s orientation to the world we observe and understand through faith and science. This age of diversity isn’t a threat to the able among us; rather it opens the way for everybody to find blessings in their God-given gifts. The age of diversity isn’t a threat to those who have enjoyed the institution of marriage or those who have enjoyed it multiple times; rather it magnifies the meaning of mutual respect and life-long love in sacred and legal monogamous relationships.
In the New Year, I urge you to make a date to attend the bar or bat mitzvah of a student in Aliyah. I urge you to renew an estranged relationship with a gay or lesbian member of the family. It’s never too late. Reform Judaism, at its best, has led us to seek and find what is sacred in places we never thought to look. When we do these things, I believe that our faith will be deepened and its relevance revealed. Diversity is all around us. Beauty is inherent in all creation. Together, we might discover that Shalom isn’t elusive, after all.
As the New Year unfolds before us, may we seek and find peace in our hearts and our hands all the days of our life. And, when our days are ended, may it be said of us that we honored the beauty of all God’s creations and brought peace to all who were touched by our life. Amen.