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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Splitting the Sea......Musings on Same Sex Marriage in Pennsylvania and Beyond

Today Pennsylvania, the state in which I now live and in which I was born and raised, made same-sex marriage legal.   I am thrilled beyond words about this, even though I realize it is only one important issue facing the LGBT community (bullying and teen homelessness is at the top of the list, in my opinion) it is still an important victory.  

I am not thrilled because same sex relationships need to be recognized or validated by the straight community or the state.   We already know that these relationships are real and valid.  However, having state recognition allows same-sex couples to become legally married and receive the numerous benefits afforded straight married couples by the state. The most important one is probably spousal rights in the hospital, etc.

Though marriage is only one model of relationship, it is the only one that needs state recognition (even though I think it should be a spiritual/religious ritual and not a state one.  But that's a discussion for another time).  And so the fact that now a full on half of the 50 states either recognize same-sex marriage or it has been recognized, but is awaiting court challenges, is important not only for LGBT citizens of Pennsylvania, but for all LGBT people and all Americans.  For the more acceptance and equality spreads, the better it is for our society as a whole.

Many others have written eloquent and scholarly works showing how Jewish tradition supports not only the full inclusion of LGBT Jews and same sex marriage, but which have supported the ordination of LGBT rabbis in all non-Orthodox movements of Judaism.  And mindfulness teachings, regardless of the tradition in which they're found, are based on being aware of each moment and being non-judgmental.  We are reminded that nothing is permanent.  Everything changes from moment to moment, day to day, year to year, and so on.  And this includes laws which at one time people thought were permanent and perhaps even divinely inspired, even if they are discriminatory and promoted inequality.  

Within the mindfulness world view not only is everything impermanent, but everything is interconnected.  We are all part of the One of the universe.  I choose, along with other people of faith, to call this Oneness God. But others might call it something else.  But we are all saying the same thing.  The universe and all of humanity is one.  In truth there is no "us" or "them." These are concepts human beings have created to separate.  We instead need to focus on Oneness and trying moment by moment to connect with everyone and everything.  So of course, advancing the cause of equality for any group would be part of this endeavor. 

Of course, this blog is meant to consist of commentaries on sacred texts (mostly Torah - Five Books of Moses - and Psalms) from a mindful Jewish perspective.  Usually these commentaries are based on the weekly Torah portion read in synagogues on Shabbat.  But obviously this post is a little different.  In trying to decide exactly what I wanted to say and how I might connect it to Torah I realized that I didn't need to write anything new.  I just needed to edit and reprint a d'var Torah/commentary that I wrote in 2005 on the occasion of the first anniversary of when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same sex marriage.  Though this is going to make this post quite lengthy, it just seemed like the most appropriate thing to do.

Other than making some grammatical changes (it's amazing how many typos one can miss!) this is exactly as it was published (and delivered in synagogue) in 2005.  In reading this I realized just how far we have come since then.  As I wrote above, the work of helping everyone recgnize the truth that all human beings are equal  is nowhere near complete.  But progress has been made and we must keep working to see that this continues.  Reading my words of 9 years ago I can't wait to see what the next 9 years will hold for our country and our world.

L'shalom u'verakha - with Peace and Blessing,

Steve Nathan


 D'var Torah/Commentary on Parshat Beshallakh and the Splitting of the Sea from 2004

This week's parashah is Beshallakh (Exodus/Shemot 13:17 - 17:16).  This parashah contains the splitting and crossing of the Sea of Reeds (or Red Sea, if you prefer the older translations). Most of us are familiar with this event from Bible stories we have read or movies we have seen, and yet there is much more contained within this story than meets the eye.

At first glance, it is a story of God redeeming God's people through the performance of a miracle. But, it is also a story of a clearly masculine warrior God fighting a battle to rescue His people.  In Shirat ha'Yamthe Song of the Sea, sung by the Israelites after crossing the sea, God is called Ish Milkhamah/Man of War. However, in the original narrative the role of the people is clearly secondary to that of God, though there is some human involvement in the miracle. For when Moses is praying to God for deliverance at the shore of the sea God responds, "Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you [Moses] lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground." In other words, "Moses, if you want me to help the people you need to take some action as well!"

 In midrash (rabbinic lore), the ancient rabbis wrote that the sea splits because one man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, actually walks into the sea first rather than waiting around for God. His faith (or perhaps sense of futility) leads him to take action into his own hands. Only then does the sea split. In this version it would seem clear that without human action, miracles cannot take place. A kabbalist/mystic might say that our actions affect the Divine realms, whereas a a classical Reconstructionist might state that a miracle happens when human beings tap in to "the power that makes for salvation” (Mordecai Kaplan’s definition of God). However one chooses to frame it, miracles still require a degree of divine-human interaction. More than that, I would propose that the human action is of primary importance. For the Divine cannot enter our life and our world if we do not act first, nor is there a reason for God to enter our life if we do not first make it known that we have some desire for this to occur .

The image of the splitting and crossing of the Sea is a powerful one that contains a multitude of truths within it. For each of us faces seas that we must cross in our lives. We each face obstacles that seem insurmountable, often at the same time as we sense enemies breathing down our back, just as did the Egyptian army when the Israelites were at the Sea. Yet, we realize that we must either cross the sea or perish. In order to do so we must take the first step. We must leap into the sea as did Nachshon or we must raise our arms and stretch forth our staff, like Moses, showing the strength within us, in order to split the sea. 

 The Hebrew phrase for the splitting of the sea is k'’riyah. This same word also refers to the act of tearing a garment, or a ribbon, upon the death of an immediate family member. That tearing is meant to represent the tear in the fabric in our lives that can never be completely repaired when a loved one dies.  The 'splitting' of the sea is also a tearing. It is the tearing apart of the laws of nature, a radical action which reminds us that what we assume to be an unchanging part of the natural order of the world can indeed be torn asunder. One could call this a paradigm shift, but 'shift' is not radical enough. For what the Torah describes as the sea splits open is a total obliteration of the old paradigm. And what we witness after the Israelites have crossed and when the sea closes in on the Egyptians is the establishment of a new paradigm. Just as the tear in the fabric of our lives can never totally be repaired after a loss, so too the tear in the sea is always there. On the surface, the sea may look the same as before, but we know that beneath the surface it is not the same. If we look closely and pay attention we can actually see the almost imperceptible traces of the place where the waters were torn apart and the natural order of things was turned upside down. When we look at the sea before us it reminds us not only of our redemption, but of the role we played in that redemption and how our world and our lives had to be torn apart in order to be redeemed. We know that when we look at the surface of the sea that the Egyptian dead lie beneath its surface. Awareness of this fact brings to mind the constricting and limiting forces in our lives that needed to die in order to bring about our redemption. We must mourn the loss of these forces, just as a midrash teaches that God mourned the death of the Egyptians, for these forces too were a part of us.

The act of tearing apart, crossing the sea, returning the sea to its new form and mourning the death of those parts of us that must die is a powerful metaphor on both an individual and a communal level. We all can name examples of sea crossings that we have experienced, witnessed or heard tell of. A year ago, just prior to the reading of this portion of the Torah, our country and our society witnessed a sea being torn in two when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples deserve the right to marry just as do heterosexual couples in our society. In making this ruling the justices of the Supreme Court were the human change agents in the divine-human partnership that allowed the sea to split wide open. 

Of course, I am not so naive as to believe that the crossing if finished and that the sea has closed up and redemption is complete. I am well aware that the crossing will be a long and probably difficult one. There will indeed be many dead left on the floor of the sea after it closes. Just in this past year we have seen challenges to the law in Massachusetts and numerous state laws prohibiting marriage for same-sex couples passed in our country under the guise of “defending marriage.” However, I also am still confidant that the redemption will occur and that the crossing will be successful, no matter how long it takes. The new millennium is now more than five years old and paradigms are being torn apart and reconstructed all around us. We must choose, as did the Massachusetts court, what role we will play in the splitting apart of the old paradigms and the creation of new ones. In addition, we must remember that each moment provides the opportunity for the sea to be torn apart. At times it takes great human effort, as in the Massachusetts case. At other times it seems to happen on its own. In either case we need to watch and pay attention so that we do not miss the splitting. For just as quickly as the sea splits it can close up again.  And if we did not pay attention enough to see it split we will never know that it did.

We often spend much of our lives experiencing it as consecutive moments of stasis trying to avoid change – and the pain it often brings. Perhaps we believe that if we do not pay attention the sea will never split and everything will be as it "always" has been. Perhaps we are simply so caught up in the minutia of our lives that our oblivion unintentionally takes over because of our lack of attention to what is really happening. No matter the reason, ignoring the changes that take place in our lives and our world does not prevent them from occurring. Lives change, the world changes, seas get torn apart every moment. Noticing this can cause uncertainty or pain, but ignoring or trying to avoid this reality is what will eventually cause true suffering for us.

In Shirat ha'Yam, the Song of the Sea, there is a verse which later became part of Jewish daily liturgy, mi khamokhah ba'elim adonai. "Who is like you God among the divine beings; Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in splendor, working wonders!" We usually translate this as a declarative statement or a rhetorical question, but I would like to suggest that it is a question, beyond rhetoric, that cries out for answer. The answer to this question answer is simply ... us!

It is the human being, who is created in God's image, according to Genesis. And we are just slightly 'lower than the angels’ according to Psalm 8. We are indeed like God, though we are not God. We have the godlike ability to tear apart the seas which can prevent us from becoming what we can become.  We can split open the waters that repress and enslave ourselves and others.  We are living up to our potential as human beings containing within us a spark of divinity. WE also have the godly ability to see with our eyes and our soul when seas part and to respond accordingly. We, along with God, have the ability and the responsibility to be holy, to act in awesome ways, to work wonders in our world and to simply pay attention to and recognize all that is happening around and within us at every moment.

May we each face our seas, individually and communally, with faith, even in the midst of fear. May we pay attention to the changes happening in each moment and continue to praise creation even as it constantly changes and shifts around and beneath us. May we also do the work necessary to tear apart paradigms that prevent redemption and freedom and that block compassion and love from entering our world. In that way we, together with God, we can create a world filled with love and compassion for all human beings. Doing so, we can face the uncertainty of each moment together, at one with God, as we change the world, and watch it change. By paying attention we can marvel at the world and our lives as they are at this moment, knowing that they will never be this way again.

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