The Future of Queer Judaism is the Future of Judaism Itself
Keynote address by Rabbi Benay Lappe
It is such a privilege to have been invited to add my voice to the chorus of those honoring Lisa and Tracy today…and to have this opportunity to say thank you to BCC.
Lisa and I met 30 years ago at a convening of the World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jews, in Chicago. I was an aspiring rabbinical student and she was one of a very small handful of pioneering gay and lesbian rabbis. And Lisa quickly became my role model, my teacher, and my friend.
Lisa, you are not only the kind of rabbi I have always wanted to be—smart, insightful, wise, visionary, passionate, deeply learned yet so humble, but you are the kind of person I have always wanted to be—kind, patient, loving, gentle, generous, and funny. … As a rabbi, I stand on your shoulders. As a friend, I am blessed to have you by my side.
Soon after we met, you brought Tracy into my life as well. Tracy, you have been a loving, generous, steadfast friend and cheerleader, and the honest critic I have not always welcomed, but always cherished. Thank you, for being someone I could always trust to love me and tell me the truth. That is a rare gift.
You both took me in to your family, and over the years we have celebrated each other’s simchas—a highlight of which was getting to hold a chuppah pole at your wedding—and comforted each other through life’s most difficult losses. I thank God for you both in my life.
And to you, BCC: Before continuing with my remarks, I want to thank you as well. After having been a gay activist for ten years, I went back into the closet in order to go to rabbinical school at JTS. I started here in LA, at what was then called the UJ and, during those difficult years, BCC was a refuge, a safe haven for me. BCC was where I could remember who I was and be surrounded by people who saw me and loved me. You were my first queer Jewish community, the first place where I experienced myself as a whole, integrated human being. You modeled for me what a real community could feel like, and what such a community could make possible in the world.
When I returned to LA a few years after ordination, you all welcomed me back with open arms! We created the Queer Jewish Think Tank together, and you gave me the chance to develop my Torah with you, and to workshop texts and methods that eventually became SVARA, my Queer Little Yeshiva That Could. Your enthusiasm and encouragement gave me the confidence to keep going and to pursue my dream of creating a queer yeshiva. For all of this, and to all of you, I will be forever grateful.
So, the proposition I’d like to share with you today is simply this: The future of queer Judaism…is actually the future of Judaism itself. Full stop.
To explain what I mean, let’s take a quick look back at where the queer Jewish past started, and where I think the queer Jewish future is going. When BCC—and CBST, and Sha’ar Zahav, and Kol Ami, and the other LGBT congregations—began, we were primarily in the business of creating safe havens for ourselves, places where we could just be, in peace, where we could live out what was actually the revolutionary and radical notion of being queer and Jewish at the same time.
We didn’t have the luxury yet of even realizing the value of what we were bringing to the world. But that’s the way it works, I think. That’s the first stage of all liberation movements. Your first aspiration is just to be left alone, to be able to just live in peace. When you’re struggling for survival, that’s the farthest your imagination can take you.
The Talmud describes how the Rabbis, living under oppressive Roman rule, imagined what the world would look like when the messiah came. You know what they dreamed their lives would be like when the world was perfected? They said: When the messiah comes, we’ll be able to go to work, and come home, and not get shmiesed. They’d be able to go to work, and get home at the end of the day without being attacked. That’s the entirety of what they imagined the messiah would bring. To just be left in peace to live their lives was the biggest dream they could dream.
And it was not that different for me. I dreamed of a queer yeshiva mostly because there was simply no yeshiva in the world where I could learn as my full, queer self. But then, not long after workshopping my ideas here with you, and very much thanks to you, I suddenly knew what to do with all that we had created together.
It was June 26, 2003. I was sitting on a subway in New York City when I opened the New York Times. And in 2” letters, the headline read: Supreme Court Overturns Sodomy Laws. Remember that day? It was the Lawrence decision. And I sat there, on that train, and, probably like many of you, I wept. Because I realized in that moment that the world had just changed. The year I was born, it was a felony to be gay in every state in this country. And the year I came out as a young teenager in the mid-70’s, it was still a criminal act in 25 states, including the one I lived in. … And I sat there on that train and wept because I knew that never again would another kid realize he, or she, or they were gay or trans or queer, and think: they put people like me in jail. … And I realized in that moment that the world had just changed because queer people went to law school. As queer people. And I understood in that moment, that the Jewish world was not going to change until queer people went to yeshiva. As queer people.
And because I saw what you had done, here at BCC, I thought maybe I could do it, too, and I started SVARA to be that yeshiva. But because we all stand on your shoulders, all of us at SVARA (and 2,000 students learned at SVARA last year) are now actually able to imagine a world even beyond the one that merely fixes the Leviticus problem.
You, at BCC, taught us all how the insights of queer people could be brought to bear not only on the Jewish tradition, but on the entire world. You created gender-neutral God language that changed the way the world perceives God. You created baby naming ceremonies that don’t presume to name the gender of the child, that are changing the way the world perceives gender. Among hundreds of other world-changing innovations.
And in time, we realized at SVARA something I know you’ve long known: that queer normative space is not just a byproduct of what happens when we come together as queer people…it is world-changing and revolutionary, and is not only good for us, it’s actually good for everybody who comes into it.
And in a world in which, according to a recent study, today 52% of young people 13-20 years old identify as queer, gender non-conforming, or non-binary, Jewish teens will soon expect their Jewish spaces be queer-normative spaces…or they will simply leave the Jewish community. …
And let’s remember, you could easily have jumped ship. Twenty or so years ago, the mainstream Jewish world came up with the idea of “inclusion”—that mainstream shuls would do outreach to LGBT Jews, and invite us to be included as part of their communities. And for many of us, to be included for the first time in a mainstream shul—without getting shmiesed—sounded so amazing! And most of us believed that that was progress. We were so grateful for any shred of acceptance that we weren’t even able to perceive how inadequate and soul stifling our experience in those spaces actually was and still is. And as “inclusion” efforts increased, many wondered if there was a future for LGBT congregations.
But let’s face it: Queer folk never were, and never will be able to be our most fabulous, glittery selves in heteronormative spaces. It’s just a fact. [And neither can straight folk, but we can talk about that later.] At SVARA, the teaching assistants all wear glittery fairy wings when they’re teaching. They’re actually called bet midrash fairies. It’s a queer yeshiva, for God’s sake! We have fun! Now, are you gonna see me wearing fairy wings when I go and teach at JTS or HUC or Pardes or The Conservative Yeshiva? As much as I may love them, and they me, I don’t think so. And, to paraphrase Emma Goldman, “If I can’t wear fairy wings, I really don’t want any part of your yeshiva!” …
To all of you who have stayed put and continued to build the world of the future here at BCC, I applaud you. And SVARA, and I, stand on your shoulders. You have created the model for all spaces of the future—not just for queer folk, and not just for Jewish folk, but for all people. On behalf of the children of the future, I thank you.
As the science fiction writer William Gibson famously said: “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.” Well, I’m here to tell you: I have seen the Jewish future. And, take my word for it; thanks to all of you, it is a very, very queer one!
This article was taken from G’vanim Issue 47 vol 6, July/August 2019 Check out the full issue