Strength + Courage = Pride

Pride Shabbat Sermon / Parashat V’etchannan
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Strength + Courage = Pride

V’chazakehu v’am’tzehu ki hu ya’vor lifnei ha’am hazeh’– ‘And strengthen him and give him courage for he shall cross and go before this people’. (Deut. 3.28)

These are the words that God commands Moses to take to his brave general, Joshua. They have come to the boundary of the Promised Land and Moses is not allowed to enter after his anger flaring up when striking the rock. The people wait anxiously for further instruction. Their journey has been long and arduous, filled with peril and despair. And Joshua bin Nun must reach beyond his own fears and lead this desert generation on.

V’chazakehu v’am’tzehu’ – ‘strengthen him and give him courage’.

Joshua is bound to feel ambivalent. He’s come this far but it’s been a struggle. He is so close; all he needs to do is to cross the Jordan River, into the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey. He will lead his people home to truest selves. Joshua has to come into himself and out—coming out as a sacred experience of leading yourself out of exile, to your eternal and internal fount of milk and honey. Where you can be your truest and best version of yourself.

So universal is Joshua’s experience that, across time and history, we can still relate to it and be inspired by it. This week’s reading from the book of Deuteronomy addresses many themes but surely, having the strength and courage to come out is one of them.

And tragically, it is strength and courage we need in the GLBT community and her allies.

Until two days ago, I had planned on writing a very different sermon. I wanted to write something that reflected the deep joy of seeing gay and transgender rights become more and more entrenched in society; where 22 countries have legalized marriage equality, where the current President of the United States of America speaks up against homophobia on a state visit to Kenya, where a transgendered woman graces the cover of Vanity Fair, where even in the small ways of personal experience, I am overjoyed to be leading Sinai Synagogue’s first Pride Shabbat, a first in Leeds and in a way, our own ‘coming out’ as a community. I am not yet so old but old enough to have seen momentous shifts in my lifetime—from the time Freddie Mercury was stigmatized because of his HIV and his closeted bisexuality in the late eighties until the moment that I as a Progressive clergywoman am granted the opportunity to conduct a same sex marriage service. Throughout my life already, I’ve seen gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people display strength and courage to cross into their own Promised Land. This sermon then, should have been about celebrating how far we have come.

But we have so much further to go. What we have achieved is not enough. We must be stronger still.
And we can say it six times; one time for each person who was stabbed last Thursday by a Jerusalemite homophobe, Yishai Schlissel, at the Jerusalem Pride Parade. It is bone-chilling to think that Schlissel had been convicted ten years earlier for a similar hate-crime and had just been released from prison. And to know that he has done this in the name of God and Torah.

I wish we wouldn’t have to talk about this. About how religion often hurts the GLBT community; about how we have to parse the difficult passages in our religious texts that undermine the dignity of gay and trans people. I wish we didn’t have to talk about Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 and how these verses ban male same sex intimacy (although, anthropologically, we cannot be sure what the Torah exactly means with ‘mishkevei ishah’, ‘the lyings of a woman’). I wish we didn’t have to talk about the 79 countries in the world where homosexuality is criminalized, of which 10 inflict the death penalty. About trans teens from religious homes in the ‘Enlightened West’ committing suicide because they feel so profoundly alienated from the values of their church.

I wish we didn’t have to talk about hate crimes committed with the Bible in one hand and a gun in another, metaphorically or literally.

It would be easier to hide behind a sense of achievement, of having ‘arrived’ in our progressive faith communities. We are doing OK, aren’t we? We try to include members of the GLBT community. We put on Pride services. We even officiate at same sex weddings. We try to normalize and humanize, build bridges and empower. And yet it is not enough.

We too, should show ‘chozek’ – strength – and ‘ometz’ – courage.

All of these achievements will be for naught if the least of our brethren cannot live in dignity or freedom. Whether it is about honouring the memory of those who were murdered in the Sho’ah or those who are cravenly stabbed at a Pride Parade in the world’s holiest city.

We should show ‘chozek’ and ‘ometz’ by not only openly condemning such hatred but also affirming a new covenantal love. This is an issue of morality, a question of spirituality, a matter of theology. To show strength and courage is to not only support marriage equality but to also marry two seeming opposites: the values of an open society and the sanctifying, eternal values of religion.

To say that for all of us to love according to how we have been created, to follow the river to our innermost fount, to honour our most authentic self, whether through heterosexual or homo- and bisexual relationships, whether through cisgendered or transgendered identities is not only acceptable, but desirable. Is not only desirable but divinely ordained.

To state that every gay and trans person is created ‘b’tzelem Elohim’, in the divine image. To sing proudly in praise that your love—our love—is not only authentic, but true to God’s will.

The rest of this week’s Torah reading talks a lot about love, that teaches us about being in relationship with God and each other. It is the portion that gives us the Shema, the second version of the Ten Commandments, the cities of refuge and that affirms that God wants us to be in relationship with God’s self. That God is ‘rachum’, compassionate. Ultimately, Joshua’s strength and courage—what we would call pride—is not rendered in emptiness. No, it comes from a deep place of compassion and love. Love for and by God, love for and by the people he will lead across the river. As trite as the word ‘love’ may sound, it is an unsurpassable force that levels mountains and valleys, that brings down the haughty and raises up the lowly, that comforts and speaks tenderly to us.

This is true religion. Be strong and courageous, together, for all of humanity who seek acceptance and love, with healing in its wings.

Shabbat shalom.


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