god vs. gay?

I was fortunate enough to be able to hear Jay Michaelson, author of God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality, speak at the Washington DCJCC in October, as part of the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. At the end of his excellent talk, a man in the audience stood up, ostensibly to ask a question. He announced, “Well, I wasn’t going to come to this event, but then I saw a picture of you.” We all laughed. A shallow disclosure perhaps, but Michaelson is indeed good-looking — and I think anything that gets people in the room is good. As many as possible need to hear what he what he has to say.

First and foremost, Michaelson is a scholar. He has a J.D., an M.F.A., an M.A., and he’s working on his Ph.D. — and all of these degrees are from Columbia, Sarah Lawrence, Yale, and Hebrew University. He’s also what I would probably call a Conservadox Jew. He makes learned, articulate, and persuasive arguments. This last fact is fortunate, because he covers in this book one of the more contentious issues of our time: what the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament say about homosexuality. And Michaelson doesn’t think those texts even come close to what every day we’re told they say.

Note: I am using the word “homosexuality” because it’s the word that Michaelson uses, and because many of the arguments that have been made against equality are based on verses that are concerned with “homosexuality” in the strictest sense (that is, same-sex sexual behavior), the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures having nothing to say about the social or cultural concepts of “being gay” or the same-sex relationships we’ve come to know in modern society. I do acknowledge, though, that the word can be clinical, distancing, and archaic.

Michaelson begins with the premise that while for him — and many others — the secular, constitutional argument for equality is sufficient, many religious people feel conflicted (at best) by the understood condemnation of homosexuality in scripture. He wants to meet these people where they are and address their concerns. “I sincerely believe that our shared religious values call upon us to support the equality, dignity, and full inclusion of sexual and gender minorities — that is, of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.” It is said that only Nixon can go to China; similarly, only someone truly committed to the importance of religion could convincingly make this argument. And one of the things I like about this book is Michaelson’s willingness to take seriously the concerns of self-identified religious people. I don’t know that those of us who are absolutely committed to civil and legal equality for LGBT folks get anywhere by telling people their religious teachings don’t matter (and indeed, I would say we haven’t gotten anywhere).

I can see how some might feel that this endeavor is either a fool’s errand or completely irrelevant to the current debates about how our governments should treat LGBT folks. It might be both. Michaelson was preaching to the choir with this reader, so it’s hard for me to say objectively how convincing his arguments are, especially in the face of the constant drumbeat from places of worship of “Man shall not lie with another man as with a woman; it is an abomination!” As for relevancy: like it or not, religious beliefs inform opinions about secular issues; I think anything that addresses the motivations of prejudice is a good thing.

Michaelson divides the book into three parts: why our fundamental values support, rather than oppose, equality for sexual minorities; what the “bad verses” really say about homosexuality; and why inclusion of sexual minorities is good, not bad, for religious values. I found the first two more compelling than the third, and the second most of all. I am a fan of close textual readings, and it always amazes me when really important issues (like how we treat our fellow human beings) are decided on the basis of modern and often agenda-driven English translations of ancient texts. As Michaelson points out, only seven verses, out of more than 31,000 in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, make reference to same-sex sexuality activity. So we don’t have much to go on — and we’d better make sure to get right the limited text that we do have. Indeed, the first part of Michaelson’s book is concerned with the values that should and must drive our understanding of LGBT folks in that absence. For instance, Jesus never made one recorded statement about homosexuality. Christians, then, are left with his teachings about love, compassion, mercy, tolerance, and justice for guidance about this issue.

I did have a few quibbles with Michaelson: More than once he mentions Eddie Long, who has been accusing of sexually abusing teenage boys, in the same sentence as other clergy condemning homosexuality found to be engaging in same-sex sexual behavior. But the problem with Eddie Long is that not that is he a closeted gay man or a hypocrite, as the others — it’s that he’s a perpetrator of child sexual abuse! Michaelson also uses the judgment-laden word “promiscuity” and similarly makes negative judgments about prostitution.

Overall, though, this book was excellent: persuasive and well researched. I picked it up because as a religious person, it’s important to me to know what my tradition says about homosexuality. I had assumed that mainstream interpretations were more or less accurate; I’d just dismissed them as archaic, as much use to me as the prohibition on wearing clothes made of linen and wool. Sadly, I’m not sure of the book’s chances of gaining a wider audience. But I can’t think of a book that our country needs more.

visions of freedom and justice

Tonight was the eighth annual MLK Shabbat at Sixth & I. (I didn’t know it had been going on that long; I thought I had gone to one of the first, in 2006.) Held in conjunction with the Turner Memorial AME Church, this is, hands down, my favorite Shabbat service each year.

Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel march in Selma.

The service commemorates both the federal holiday dedicated to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. One of the most influential Jewish theologians of the 20th century, Heschel marched with King in Alabama in March 1965. He famously wrote, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

Every Jewish social justice activist knows this story. We are taught about Heschel as much as young black kids are taught about King. We aspire to be like Heschel the way they want to be like King. We know Heschel’s words about Selma as well as they know King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

And, I imagine, we ask ourselves, “Can I be as brave as Rabbi Heschel?” as much as they ask themselves, “Can I be the next Dr. King?”

The service is a mix of a traditional Jewish Friday evening service with pieces of African Methodist Episcopal worship: The Howard Gospel Choir sings; the Agape Liturgical Dancers perform; the Senior Pastor preaches. And in between we say Shehecheyanu, the Sh’ma, and the V’Ahavta.

I can’t adequately describe the power of this service. I alternate between goosebumps and tears — and I feel like my feet are praying as I walk home. I love the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat service: It is real and spirited and inspiring and beautiful. But I wish I could go every week to a Shabbat service with the Howard Gospel Choir. And communal prayer should always end with “We Shall Overcome.”

Tonight Pastor William H. Lamar IV spoke. My mouth was literally agape by the end. (My friend Bert asked afterwards if I had taken notes during his talk: “You have to learn how to do that when you’re a rabbi!”) A self-professed “King-ophile,” Pastor Lamar talked about his desire to remember the living, breathing legacy of Dr. King, instead of the ossified version enshrined in the memorial on the mall. He cited Cornel West’s warning not to “Santa Clausify” the civil rights leader: We have, in other words, turned him into a cartoon — one that teaches us to ignore much of what he stood for, because what he stood for remains such a threat to the political establishment in this conservative country. Dr. King was not afraid to speak truth to power, and he sometimes focused on issues that his community thought didn’t pertain to it (the war in Vietnam, for example). But as we all know, Dr. King believed that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Pastor Lamar noted that being a leader sometimes means betraying your tradition and your people — to move them away from prescriptive views.

I love this service because it represents the best of what Judaism can be: pluralistic, visionary, radical, inspiring, and insistent on our obligations to one another as human beings. In the words of Rabbi Heschel:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.

merry strasmas!

First, a hat tip to the Washington Post for that bon mot.

Last night, my husband and I ventured out to Nationals Park to see the much-hyped debut of the Nationals’ new 21-year-old ace, Stephen Strasburg (versus the Pittsburgh Pirates). He didn’t disappoint.

Joe and I left our apartment near downtown D.C. around 5:00 for the 7:05 p.m. start, and the train was still packed by the time we got to Navy Yard. The excitement in the air inside the stadium was palpable, a feeling not at all fitting for a match-up between two sub-.500 teams.

Even the elements conspired in Strasburg’s favor. It was absolutely perfect ballpark weather: 68 degrees, and not a cloud in the sky. Joe and I found our seats in the infield gallery, along the third baseline, in section 306. Among the sold-out crowd (pictured here in a photo taken by Joe on his iPhone), practically every other person wore a “37” red or white T-shirt.

Ken Burns (“not local,” Joe informs me, after checking his iPhone) threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and then the crowd was on its feet as Strasburg calmly jogged to the mound. There were so many camera flashes during his first pitch that I’m amazed the umpire was able to make out the tiny white speck in their midst. But he apparently did, calling . . . a ball.

But Strasburg doesn’t throw balls!

After a rocky start (it took him eight pitches to throw two strikes), Strasburg got the first two batters to line out and ground out, respectively. And when he fanned Lastings Milledge (a former Nat) for his first strikeout of the game, the crowd erupted into pandemonium.

Strasburg ended up striking out 14 over seven innings, including the last seven batters he faced. He walked none. By about the sixth inning, the crowd was again on its feet, cheering every pitch — and booing the home plate umpire when he dared to call a ball.

And the Nats gave their new ace uncustomary run support. Ryan Zimmerman hit a solo homerun in the bottom of the first, reminiscent of his walk-off homer during the park’s inaugural game in March 2008, the last time I saw Nationals Park so packed. Adam Dunn hit a two-run shot in the sixth, which Josh Willingham immediately followed with a solo shot of his own. That turned out to be enough, but Zimmerman managed to score again in the eighth.

The only part of the night that was a disappointment was the Presidents Race. Usually (rather insultingly) billed as “the main event” during the fourth inning, the promotional gimmick pits the four U.S. presidents on Mt. Rushmore in a foot race around the edge of the field from the Nats’ bullpen to home plate. Perennial loser “Teddy” is a favorite of mine, and the internets had been buzzing about whether the powers that be would finally let him win, in honor of the new era for the franchise that Strasburg was said to be ushering in. But alas, while Strasburg walked away from the game with his first “W,” Teddy just racked up another “L.”

Earlier in the day, the Nationals said that they had credentialed more than 200 members of the press for the game. The D.C. Sports Bog reported that Willie Harris, upon seeing the media crowd, remarked, “Damn, is this the World Series?”

Jesus of Nats-areth (h/t Steve Fox), indeed.