The Meaning of the Rainbow: Parashat Noach, October 24, 2014
by Bracha Yael
Noach, this week’s Torah portion, includes an important and meaningful symbol for Jews, Christians, LGBT peoples and others—The Rainbow. We all know the Noah story, right? The ark, the animals, the flood. But, do you know the meaning behind the rainbow? When the waters receded, God placed a “bow” in the sky as a reminder never to destroy the earth again by flood. In Genesis 9:16, God says, When the bow is in the cloud, and I see it, I will remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living beings, all that live upon the earth. God made a “Rainbow Covenant” with all living beings. Isn’t it fitting that the human eye can see seven colors in the rainbow, the number of days of creation?
When you see a rainbow in the sky or a rainbow flag, what comes to your mind?
These simple, majestic rays of nature have captured the imagination of many peoples over the centuries, religious and secular. The Talmud says upon seeing a rainbow, one should recite the blessing: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who remembers the covenant, is faithful to God’s Covenant, and keeps God’s word. For Christians, it signifies both the Genesis Rainbow Covenant and the apostle John’s vison of a rainbow around the throne of heaven in the Book of Revelation. Have you ever blinked twice when you see a car in front of you with a rainbow bumper sticker plastered next to ‘Jesus is My Co-Pilot’?
Rainbows are hope: the cute Irish leprechaun’s pot of gold is at the end of the rainbow. Dorothy sees a better world ‘Over the Rainbow.’ They celebrate diversity: In 1994, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Nelson Mandela described newly democratic post-apartheid South Africa as the rainbow nation. In the United States there’s the Rainbow Coalition which grew out of Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign. And, of course, there’s us, the LGBT community. The rainbow flag in particular has become the universal symbol of LGBT pride; shown in Pride festivals, balconies and businesses around the world.
And where did that Rainbow flag come from? The story goes that Harvey Milk, who ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (in 1973, 75, and 77, when he was finally elected) on the message of hope, wanted to replace the existing LGBT image of the pink triangle, a reclaimed symbol from Nazi oppression. In 1978, he asked his friend Gilbert Baker, who was known for his gay rights and anti-war protest banners, to design a new LGBT pride symbol. The result was the rainbow flag.
Over the years, there’ve been many thoughts on what inspired the flag. Some say it was the June 1969 death of “Over the Rainbow” gay icon Judy Garland and the Stonewall riots that erupted a few days later. Others, the five striped Flag of Races carried by college students in the world peace movement of the 1960s. And, others by the hippie movement led by the likes of Allen Ginsberg.
However, Baker himself– in a 2012 CBS interview–said, “The rainbow came to mind almost instantly as an obvious expression of diversity and acceptance. The rainbow is a part of nature and you have to be in the right place to see it. It’s beautiful, all of the colors, even the colors you can’t see. That really fit us as a people because we are all of the colors. Our sexuality is all of the colors. We are all the genders, races and ages.”
Interestingly, the original rainbow flag had all seven of the actual colors of the rainbow— red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet—plus hot pink. Each color embraced the diversity of creation, natural and supernatural. Pink, Sexuality; Red, Life; Orange, Healing; Yellow, Sunlight; Green, Nature; Turquoise, Magic and Art; Indigo/Blue, Serenity and Harmony; Violet, Spirit.
The hand-stitched original gay pride flag flew in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978. After Milk’s assassination in November that year, demand for the rainbow flag rocketed, causing a shortage in the hot pink fabric; and cutting the eight striped flag to seven. In the following year, the flag was reduced from 7 to 6 stripes because of artistic reasons. As a show of LGBT pride, the Rainbow flag was hung vertically from the lamp posts on San Francisco’s Market Street. However, the lamp posts obscured the center stripe and it was decided the easiest fix was to make it an even number of stripes, so the turquoise stripe was dropped. The six striped version became the standard, an interesting intersection of practicality and art.
Tonight we put our rainbow flag on the bimah for you to see. For BCC and other LGBT Jews (and Christians), the rainbow has a double meaning: God’s covenant with all humanity and our universal connection with all LGBT peoples. You can see this double blessing expression throughout BCC. It’s in our queer liturgy, like Rabbi Lisa Edwards Ma’ariv prayer. It’s in our Pride Shabbat rainbow candle holders. And, it’s even within our sanctuary walls. Look at our beautiful stained glass windows designed and fabricated by BCC members including my beloved, Davi Cheng. Do you see the rainbow “notes” to God placed in our Kotel (Western Wall), maybe also our Stonewall?
When you see a rainbow in the sky, a flag, or in other ways you may encounter its colors—what comes to your mind? For me, it’s a reminder of what we share: God’s Covenant with us and by extension our Covenant with others. In a way, it’s a visible Shema. Listen! God is One! We are all One! If we remember the Rainbow Covenant there’s always the promise of hope, peace and the embrace of diversity.