Drash on Nitzavim-Vayeilech
Rabbi Gersh Lazarow
Temple Beth Israel
St Kilda, Victoria
This Shabbat we read the same verses that we will read in just over two weeks on Yom Kippur. Nitzavim-Vayeilech addresses the assembled people about to enter into a covenant with God with the words, "You stand this day, every one of you, before the Eternal your God--your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer" (Deut. 29:9-10).
Often we think of Torah and Jewish text as being androcentric, being mostly about men, often excluding the women. But this week's Torah portion reminds us that each and every one of us is included in the covenant with God, not just the people with titles, not just the men, and not even just the Israelites, but each and every person -- men, women, and children -- who were part of the Israelite community.
It's easy to be a part of a community when we are at the center of it, when we are its leaders, or when the community addresses us specifically. Often, though, we find ourselves outside the circle, excluded, and isolated from the larger community. Nitzavim-Vayeilech reminds us that just as we hope that others will reach out to us when we feel excluded, God expects us to make sure the people on the fringe are brought into the inner circle and made part of our community. This is part of our responsibility and God's expectation of us.
Like many of you, I have been thinking a lot about this divine imperative as I watch our nation consumed by a debate about marriage equality that seems to me at least to be utterly ludicrous.
Like many of my generation, I find myself asking how is it possible that we live in a world where the continuation of legal and legislative discrimination is actually being debated. A world where your and my tax dollars are going to fund a national campaign that will attack a community that is already vulnerable and marginalized causing hurt and pain that is entirely avoidable.
Despite what opponents of Marriage Equality might have you think, marriage is about sanctifying a loving relationship. It is an opportunity for a couple to celebrate the values of long-term commitment, faithfulness and the willingness to share life‘s joys and sorrows. It is about a public pledge of commitment.
Marriage has the potential to provide mutual care for both partners. Marriage enables the individuals to make a greater contribution to the common good. Marriage helps to make sure that all children are wanted, loved, and nurtured. The benefits of a good marriage are the same, no matter your sexual orientation.
As a faith leader, I understand that a large part of my role is to help shape and define the moral fabric of our society. To ensure that our values and principles are not only heard and understood but also applied and respected in our broader civil society. To this end, I need to speak directly to my colleagues – Rabbis on the political and religious right – to loudly and proudly declare that as Progressive Jews we believe that any two people, regardless of their gender, can have the right to have their marriage recognized not only by God and the Jewish community, but by our civil society too.
While the Australian Jewish News has dedicated column after column to analyzing the pros and cons of Marriage Equality for our community, I believe the time has come to remove any possible doubt about where this community stands on the issue of Marriage Equality.
Deuteronomy teaches us Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, Justice, justice shall you pursue. In giving the world the concept of justice, Torah gave the world equality: fair treatment of the poor, the orphan, the widow and the outcast. Time and time again, Torah commands us not to oppress the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We are Israel and we know what it is to be labeled as different. As our daily prayer book reminds us, “We are Israel, schooled in the suffering of the oppressed”. Their anguish is ours, their poverty and humiliation diminish us. Empathy is a central virtue in Judaism. It demands that we see things from the point of view of the other.
As Jews, we know what it is to be harassed and persecuted because we are different. We too have been considered dangerous, deviant, a threat to society, abhorrent. As Jews, we ought to be frightened when a majority tries to deny rights to a minority they think are not equal to the rest of us. We must have empathy and recognize the need for Marriage Equality in Australia.
My teacher, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, a Conservative Rabbi in Los Angeles put it this way: “I support the freedom to marry because I have never met gays and lesbians in the abstract. It is my son and my daughter, it is my sister and my brother, and I wish for them the privilege, the miracle, the gift of a long and lasting relationship. And in our faith community, we call that marriage”.
We do not know gay and lesbian Jews in the abstract. Gay and lesbian Jews are part of our communities. We participate in nearly every other aspect of their religious lives. We bless and name them as infants. We celebrate with them as they become b‘nei mitzvah. We bury their grandparents and parents and eventually, them too. But we are barred from fully participating in their marriages, because the Federal Marriage Act says that marriage can only be “between a man and a women”.
Now, I acknowledge that for some of you – perhaps even many in our Progressive Movement - this change is challenging. Seeing what you think is right one day melt away to be replaced by a new morality can be disconcerting to say the least. But disconcerting doesn’t make it wrong. Just as the time came when we in this country recognized that a convict could marry a freeman, an aboriginal could marry a European and an Australian soldier could bring his Japanese bride home from war – so to, must we recognize that the time has come for same-sex couples to be able to legally wed.