While most of us have had our eyes on the outcome of the election in Israel, another important election for the Jewish world occurred this week in Philadelphia. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform Movement’s rabbinical association, elected the first openly gay rabbi as its president. I was privileged to be present at the service when Rabbi Rick Block, now past-president of the CCAR, handed the “yad” (Torah pointer), representing the CCAR leadership, to Rabbi Denise Eger, as she was installed and read from the Torah. For all the Reform rabbis in the room it was a beautiful moment, one that represented the culmination of many years of struggle within the Reform Movement.
What we have experienced in one generation is nothing short of a sea change. In the 1980s, when Rabbi Eger studied at Hebrew Union College ““ Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform Movement’s seminary, people who were openly gay would not be admitted. Most gay students remained “in the closet,” and lived with the fear that, if their homosexuality became known, they might not be ordained or, if they were, they would have a very hard time finding a job as a rabbi. Rabbi Eger could only get a job in a gay and lesbian synagogue when she was ordained. (She is now rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami of West Hollywood, Calif., which is a “mainstream” congregation with both straight and gay members.) This year marks the 25th anniversary of the CCAR’s resolution endorsing a change in the admissions policy of HUC-JIR to accept openly gay rabbinical students. At the time I was a student at HUC-JIR and remember when Peter Kessler, a friend of mine, became the first openly gay student admitted to the seminary. While it took a number of years, what was once controversial became a central value in the Reform Movement. Reform rabbis and the Reform movement have been leaders in the struggle for marriage equality and the inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews in Jewish life. On Monday, as Rabbi Yoel Kahn, one of the first openly gay rabbis, put it, citing the verse from Psalms, “the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22).
I realize that some of those reading this may find these comments problematic, or even offensive. The readers of the Standard come from all different streams of Jewish life, some of which do not accept women as rabbis, let alone openly gay women. Others may just find the whole notion odd or uncomfortable, or feel that the Reform Movement has “gone too far”. I don’t expect all of you to celebrate Rabbi Eger’s election with me. What I do hope is that you might gain a little insight into where I and others of like mind are coming from so that we can be in dialogue as Jews.
And where we are coming from is not a rejection of Torah but, in our mind, a fulfillment of its most profound principles.
This Shabbat is both “Shabbat HaChodesh” and “Rosh Chodesh Nisan,” the first day of the month of Nisan, which makes it a power-packed day from a spiritual perspective. Every Rosh Chodesh, the first day of a Jewish month, is a minor festival. Nisan is “HaChodesh,” “THE month,” because in the time of the Bible, Nisan, then called “Aviv,” was the first month of the year. Moreover, it is the month when the great festival of Pesach is celebrated, the month when our liberation from slavery in Egypt took place. The special reading for Shabbat HaChodesh, Exodus 12:1-20, includes the instructions by God to Moses and Aaron in Egypt regarding the first Pesach observance – the sacrifice of the paschal lamb, the placing of its blood on their doorposts so that the angel of death would pass over our homes, the hurried eating of matzah and maror as we prepared to depart – all of which took place in Egypt right before our liberation. The month of Nisan continues to carry that joy and spiritual energy of liberation for us.
Indeed, the month of Nisan and the festival of Passover are not simply about our people’s liberation long ago. They are about liberation today. “In every generation,” the haggadah teaches us, “a person must see him/herself as if he/she went forth from Egypt.” In each generation we find there is a different struggle, a need to fulfill that great principle we learned from our people’s experience, “do not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” Those who were outsiders, those who were oppressed, must be brought into the community as equals. True equality means not only being permitted to take one’s place openly at the (seder) table, but taking a place among the leaders of our people. This is what we witnessed this week in Philadelphia. “Next year in Jerusalem; next year may all be free.”