Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum: God Loves Queer People


I see my life’s work to have one goal. And
that goal of my life’s work is to change the world for the better. It’s kind of a
big goal and I see it as happening on many different levels all the time. The reason
I was drawn to become a rabbi and what I ask myself most days when I’m most in sync with
my life’s work which is how do I create a world in which it’s possible that every
single human being can live their life fully and can have the impact we’re all destined
to have which I deeply believe. As a political activist, as a student of text and of ancient
studies and as a spiritual person I believe that we start by making sure that we can create
communities in which the individual soul is nourished and that we create a rich and vibrant
internal spiritual life. However, if that’s where it ended it wouldn’t
be enough for me personally. The reason to be so spiritually connected and to be constantly
at a level of deep spiritual work is to be about changing and improving the world in
which we find ourselves. And that’s how being a spiritual person and a political activist,
for me, are completely interwoven. I don’t see them as two different parts of myself.
I see being a political activist and a spiritual person and a spiritual leader, being completely
interwoven into one unified spirit. As an LGBTQ activist and leader I feel that
identity, that knowledge, that being part of this community as a lesbian rabbi has helped
me to reimagine what Judaism could be. First of all the radical religious right wing, not
just in this country but internationally, has become a force of tremendous oppression
focusing very explicitly on women’s bodies and on sexuality which embraces, of course,
LGBTQ. So I believe that if the radical religious right wing using the language of religion
can be used to oppress us I want to be about creating a religious movement that’s about
liberation and not just in reaction to but because I believe that religion can be a force
of liberation for LGBTQ people as much as, if not more so than the way it’s been an
oppressive force. So that’s the first thing that I think that the fact that the radical
religious right wing uses religion to oppress us as queer people says to me I need to take
them on. And I don’t want to just take them on as a civil rights leader arguing law and
civil rights which is absolutely essential. I want to take them on on issues of morality
and God. They don’t have the last word on religion and morality and God. They have their opinion and I believe in their
right to have that opinion and will defend their right to that opinion. However, I can
as authentically talk about what God wants from us, what living a moral life looks like,
what it means to believe in our sacred ancient texts informing our modern lives and come
out with a very different perspective on how God feels about LGBTQ people or what the Bible
says about that. So that’s at the first level. But I think politically and spiritually
it’s important for me to say and to be out there saying God loves queer people. This
isn’t a mistake that God’s embarrassed by and is tolerant of but this is essentially
part of God’s plan. So that’s the first thing. The second thing I would say that I
believe what LGBTQ perspective brings to Judaism and to world religions as well is the liberation
of all of us straight and gay. And by that I mean I think that straight people are oppressed
by religion and how religion has been used to oppress sexuality and gender roles and
gender relationships and has hurt men and women who are living extremely on the surface
traditional heterosexual lives. So I believe that it’s about bringing liberation to all
of us and rethinking the way we live in the world as men and women, intersex, transgender,
asexual or queer people. It embraces ultimately all of us. CBST was founded in 1973 and we’re told
it was a cold and stormy February night, of course, by a small group of people who had
this very what they saw small dream which was to have a place where they could be both
deeply Jewish and openly gay at the same time. We’re told there were 11 people at that
founding service although the number of people who have told me they were at the original
service would mean that the room was, you know, packed with hundreds. But of those 11
original people they just thought they were creating a small service in which they could
be both deeply Jewish and openly gay. We can’t even imagine what a revolutionary concept
that was. In 1973 when they did this not a single Jewish organization in the United States
or in the world supported the full equality of gay people. There was not a single openly
gay rabbi, no national Jewish organization supported gay civil rights, forget about religious
rights. No Jewish organizational rabbi publicly supported marriage for gay people or ordination
of openly gay students. There was an absolute silence at best and a complete condemnation
at worst by the gay community of anybody who was gay. These people came together and said they defied
the entire culture of the Jewish world and said we don’t want to just leave being Jewish
and be gay which is what people were doing. They would just leave the Jewish community
and be gay, live in the gay community and leave behind the Jewish community. The insisted
on their right to be both. And now 41 years later we have a booming synagogue with things
that couldn’t have been imagined by those founding members. We’re, in fact, coming
out – we’re publishing a book in September, Changing Lives, Making History: The First
Forty Years of CBST. It’s a spectacular coffee table book with lots of individual
stories about what CBST meant in people’s lives and how their lives were transformed,
how they lived as political activists in and out of CBST. It’s an amazing volume celebrating
these 40 years. Because in these 40 years these weren’t just random 40 years of course.
In some ways our community is a microcosm of 40 years of radical political change here
in New York City and in the world. Think about where we were in 1973 about gay identity and
gay rights, where we are now in 2014. We as a synagogue lived in the epicenter of
the AIDS pandemic losing somewhere between – somewhere around 25 percent of our population
died from AIDS, 50 percent were HIV positive, 75 percent HIV positive at a certain period.
So we’re completely epicenter – the epicenter of the baby boom that happens – that’s
been happening in the gay community for the last 15 years or so. The explosion of exploring
identities of transgender and queer and intersex, all of these movements are right there within
our synagogue. And many of our members have been in the leadership of the movements politically,
have been the intellectual heavyweights, have been the thought leaders, have been the street
activists as well as the CEOs and the EDs and the staff people and the lawyers and the
lobbyists. So it’s been a pretty amazing 40 years because we are a reflection of this
great city in which we live and of this country. And we’ve lost – we went through a tremendous
loss of AIDS and now this baby boom explosion. We’ve lived through the technology changes
that made reproductive options possible that no one could have imagined 41 years ago. So the very shape of our families as a queer
community is completely different. So that’s very exciting to see. Organizationally we’ve
changed tremendously. There was no – we had no staff people then. We have a very robust
staff now, two rabbis, two rabbinical students, a music staff and we take our high holiday
services, the Jacob Javits Center, where we have a strict policy of not charging tickets
which is often the most important way synagogues raise money because we want there not to be
a single barrier to anybody coming to be part of the community. And we get about 4,000 people
every year for the high holidays – gay, straight, Jewish, not Jewish, love God, hate
God, not sure, short, tall, family members. It is the most moving moment in my life is
every year when I look out and see these 4,000 people, all of whom are passionate, irreverent,
provocative. We want to be a little bit – a place where people feel like I never belonged
in a synagogue. CBST wants to be the place in which people who have felt alienated or
rejected elsewhere can find a home. Before I went to rabbinical school I was very
active in the pacifist anti-militarist activist community. I spent a month in Alderson Federal
Prison in West Virginia for bringing attention to the military budget and the unfair distribution
of monies in this country and the level at which the military’s funded when social
services are not. So I spent a month in Alderson Federal Prison for that. And I’ve been arrested,
you know, many, many times. I’ve learned a great deal over my history of civil disobedience
and encountering the system. One is the power of putting one’s body on the line and of
doing it in a prayerful and thoughtful and nonviolent way. I’m very much a student
of Gandhi and I’ve spent years studying Gandhi. Gandhi and religious and political
philosophy and theory of political action and I try to in all different ways of my life
in activism to integrate Gandhi and philosophy. And at the core of Gandhi and philosophy is
that every opponent is a potential ally and friend. And one never treats the police or
one’s opponents whether they’re the most homophobic baiters as anything but potentially
allies and friends. So, for instance, the Westboro Baptist Church
even came and protested me and CBST once a few years ago. And I led a prayer singing
session before we went down to confront them, brought my community in a prayerful way singing
so that we contrasted their hateful, vicious, cruel signs held up by their children and
these horrific tableaus of hatred. But I had all of us were singing and it was so powerful
to be singing these words of the psalms. And what I had done is to organize a Phelps-athon
we called it which is that we asked people to give money based on every minute that the
Westboro Baptist Church was out there protesting. And then we held up signs, you know, after
ten minutes. Thank you Westboro Baptist Church. You have just helped us raise $3,000 for the
work of our synagogue. You know, 20 minutes later the sign kept increasing the amount
so that they stayed for 45 minutes and we raised $14,000 by their presence there. And what we tried to do is not just confront
them and scream at them. Confront them first of all with a different option and pray for
them. I really do pray for them. But at the same time use our activism to make sure we
were present. We had our own signs but our signs were full of our vision of what we want
the world to be, not just countering their hate with our hate but countering their hate
with our love and with our image of what we want the world to be which is a world in which
all of the people can be, can exist in this way. And then politically to use their presence
to make us feel better. So the longer they stayed we knew they were funding our synagogue.
I felt like writing them a thank you note as a major donor to the synagogue. And my
board actually asked me if I would invite them back the next year and we could put it
in the budget line of the synagogue, you know, $14,000 is a lot of money.

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