When we can't simply agree to disagree... Or claiming my rabbinic authority as community gate keeper
Gate Keeper. In rabbinical school we were presented with the notion of rabbi as gate keeper. The rabbi is the one who stands at the gates to Torah and lets people in or turns them away. The rabbi is the one who defines the boundaries of the community. Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, which we study at this Omer season, advises us post-2nd Temple Jewish leaders: make a fence around the Torah.
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah. Avot 1:1
Making a fence around the Torah, for most of Jewish history, had meant developing an elaborate system of laws that function keep Jews practicing in a manner which upholds tradition and moves them towards strictly adhering to community norms that maintain cohesion. Two examples from the code of dietary restrictions includes: Not eating milk and chicken together, lest one mistake beef for chicken and violate the Torah law of not cooking a baby cow, a kid, in the milk of its mother.
Separate dishes for meat and dairy also function to achieve the same goal of not inadvertently mixing beef and milk. These rules are some of the core pillars in making a fence around the Torah for halachic Jews. My community is post-halachic. Jewish law, in the worlds of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, may his memory always be a blessing, has a vote but not a veto. Making a fence around the Torah can, and for post-Halachic Jews, is so much more than ritual regulations. The fence is also about moral conduct.
The fence that one should make around the Torah is, according to Moses Maimonides, the boundaries one sets in their own lives to keep oneself on the right path, the path that leads away from sin and towards our highest Jewish moral values. In his commentary on Pirkei Avot he teaches:
and make a fence for the Torah: they mean to say the decrees and ordinances that distance a man from sins. As He, may He be blessed stated (Leviticus 18:30), "And you shall guard My guarding." And it was said in its explanation (Moed Katan 5a), "Make a guarding [fence] for My guarding."
I read the opposite of sin as virtue—making a fence around the Torah is a tool for increasingly living a life of goodness, a life emanating Divine qualities: compassion, grace, generosity, patience, and lovingkindness. Most people in progressive Jewish communities are not bound by Jewish religious law. It is not at the core of understanding of what it means to be Jewish. According the Pew Center for Research, close to 80 percent of American Jews do not observe the rabbinic laws of kashrut. The clear majority DO mix meat and milk and DO NOT keep separate dishes. The classical interpretation of what it means to make a fence around the Torah, obeying halacha, is nearly obsolete.
Why is it so few American Jews uphold Jewish law and the norms established during the rabbinic era to keep group cohesion? It all goes back to the fence. If the laws of Judaism create a fence prohibiting many American Jews from being included in secular American culture and civil society, they will see the halachic fence as the fence of a prison. It keeps Jews separate from the population and within American Jewish life this prison has been rejected. Prohibitions that preclude American Jews from being able to eat in restaurants, the homes of neighbors, friends and family and prohibitions that curb their ability to enjoy the bounty of American life, will simply not be followed.
This is statistical fact. This is the Jewish community I inherited. The three pillars of halachic Judaism, kashrut, Shabbat, and the laws of family purity (mikvah for women) have been abandoned by most modern American Jews. Most American Jews have chosen to position themselves outside the halachic fence. It no longer serves them, it is no longer a safe place and it is no longer a place of continuity and comfort. At this very moment, the halachic fence functions to exclude, not include, most Jews in this world.
As a rabbi, as someone charged with leading the Jewish people, I have struggled with my role as gate keeper. I strive to interpret this ancient wisdom passage “make a fence” to include and not bar. The fence I strive to build is wide and open, with lots of gates and everyone gets the keys. It is a sweeping feminist interpretation of this text. This interpretation of Pirkei Avot 1:1 is what grounds me in making an extra effort to be welcoming towards people who have been traditionally marginalized within our community: women, LGBTQ individuals and families, those with disabilities, patrilinel Jews, etc. Doing the work of tikkun, of repairing our broken community by including those who have been excluded, is moving in the direction of virtue and away from sin.
An inclusive, as opposed to an exclusive, interpretation of this passage in Pirkei Avot has enabled me to say yes to officiating at intermarriages. I have seen the positive effects of this interpretation within the Jewish community. Saying yes to interfaith couples is creating a dedicated and joyful generation of young Jews who come from interfaith families. This approach to making a fence around the Torah has also given me the courage to welcome Jewish baby boys into the covenant without circumcision. While it is not the choice I made in my own life, I honor the choice of not including body marking in the welcoming ritual for Jewish baby boys. This sweeping interpretation of the text is also what enables me to have a community that does not uphold all the laws of kashrut, which therefore enables us to potluck, share food from our own homes with members of our community. As a rule, when faced with a challenge to Jewish law and custom, I err on the side of inclusion.
I can agree to disagree about many issues within Jewish life. I keep a kosher home. Most my community does not. I keep Passover, the majority does not. There is a long list of differences in Jewish practice and theology that I not only tolerate but welcome. We can disagree without being disagreeable because of mutual respect. We do not judge each other. Honoring choice and difference is core to the pluralism we uphold within progressive Judaism. But this honoring and tolerance has its limitations. And those limitations come into play when considering how to make the space within our fence, the space close to Torah, a comfortable and nurturing location for traditionally marginalized people.
Three years ago this July I began to serve as senior rabbi (the only rabbi) of a small Reform congregation in a once rural, now suburban, part of my state. The congregation grew quickly and people who have known me as a rabbi in the community at-large, for over a decade, decided to follow me to my new pulpit. They came as both new members and curious guests. The people who came have known me as an “includer”, a rabbi known for welcoming interfaith, LGBTQ and other traditionally castigated people in the Jewish community. Right away I realized there was going to be an issue within our community regarding inclusion of trans people. We were not all on the same page about inclusion. Within the first year I contended with witnessing one large family who committed themselves to standing up and leaving the service, in a very public manner, whenever I spoke from the bima about LGBTQ issues. And then we had a bathroom incident where someone reacted in very insulting way to encountering a non-gender binary individual. We had a problem on our hands. We had transphobia and homophobia alive in our community. And not for lack of education. My own community was not a place I could honestly recommend to trans people. I felt sick over it. My own community was not a safe place. And the task ahead of me required setting new norms and boundaries within our community to ensure trans and non-binary people would feel at home within the hedge of our congregation.
I am fortunate as a Reform rabbi, the movement, the Union for Reform Judaism, passed an extensive list of guidelines for welcoming trans and non-gender conforming people into our communities in 2015. Check it out. The body of Reform Jews voted on this resolution-hundreds of congregations and thousands of people were involved in weaving inclusion into the fabric of our Jewish life. As a part of this tapestry, a primary weaver, I feel obligated to ensure access and inclusion to our community. In establishing these norms, I have been moved, by my own ethics, to exclude some IN ORDER to include others. This is where the rubber really hit the road in my rabbinic life. I had to set firm boundaries for behavior and attitude. We could not simply agree to disagree on this issue.
I sat face to face with the woman whose family was walking out during service. I shared with her that when her family makes such a visible and strong display of rejecting trans rights they are creating an unsafe and unwelcoming environment for others in our community. Can you imagine what it would be like to be a LGBTQ person sitting in Friday and watch people walk out in protest when the rabbi teaches the value of including you. It was not something I could allow in the community I serve. And I told her. I did what so many rabbis avoid doing—I told her, "this congregation might not be the right fit," for her family and that they might want to look elsewhere.
As someone who inherently strives to include, it was one of the hardest things I have done in my professional life. Telling a family to look elsewhere for their Jewish life is not something I relished doing. But it was also a pivotal experience. It was the moment I took the true mantel of my rabbinic leadership in upholding and ensuring the norms of the community. I held the key to the gate and I was telling this family—I am not letting you inside, I do not want you inside, unless you agree to behave in a certain way and unless you can accept the values of our community, which includes honoring and including LGBTQ individuals and families. I excluded a family so that other families could feel included. It felt awful. But it also was moving away from the path of sin and towards the path of virtue. I used my might to do what was right.
Recently there has been an effort to discredit me as a rabbi with claims that I kick out anyone who disagrees with me. I knew that there would be consequences for using my power to exclude instead of always include. Male rabbis (I am married to one) enforce norms and boundaries all the time without comment but for female rabbis it is different. And this was a bold move that messaged to the others in the congregation that there are certain issues which I simply refuse to agree to disagree. On social media I have been colored, in an active campaign by a small group of former members, as a rabbi who is intolerant of people who do not share my “politics”. My critics never mention that the rift between myself and some former members centered around drawing boundaries around important moral issues within our community. My job is not to validate every Jew but to teach and establish norms for a holy community—a community moving towards virtue and away from sin. Homophobia and trans-phobia are sins.
From the URJ statement on inclusion of trans-gendered and non-binary folks: We welcome and celebrate people of all sexual orientations in our congregations and oppose laws that fail to uphold principles of equality for all. North American culture and society have, in general, become increasingly accepting of people who are gay, lesbian and bisexual, yet too often transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are forced to live as second-class citizens.
Welcome and celebrate. Oppose laws that seek to marginalize. The body of our community, in passing this statement, has added an important gate to inclusion. It is a courageous statement. And it is a new norm. We will stand up against efforts to ban people from the bathroom of their choice because to refrain from acting is to follow the path of sin. We will gather signatures and lobby and do whatever we can to uphold the dignity of our fellow community members. And if this is too “political” and excludes some people who are uncomfortable with LGBTQ community members, then so be it. Some people believe that trans rights are “too divisive” for the Jewish community to take on and that we should not drive wedges within our people by taking on controversial issues, like opposing bathroom bills. I can’t tell anyone what to believe but I can draw boundaries in forming our community and who is in and who is out based on how they treat other human beings.
Gatekeeping. It is an honor and a burden. It means being the face of both inclusion and exclusion. It means creating a viable future for Judaism and ensuring that the Jewish people move forward in history along the path of righteousness. It is impossible to be a non-judgmental rabbi. In Pirkei Avot 1:1, before we get to the part that directs us to make a fence around the Torah, we receive this guidance:
Be deliberate in judgement: I do not take the authority I hold in my hands as gate keeper lightly and I always strive to be respectful of differences. Suggesting to this woman and her family that they might want to look elsewhere for community is, to reiterate the point, one of the hardest things I have ever done. It required deliberation and judgement that some might question. It was terrifying to use my own power in a way that excluded but I knew it was the holy choice.
Raise up many disciples: Every week I interface with children and teens. They are an essential part of our congregation’s life and they are undeniably the future of Judaism. I am obligated, as their rabbi, to build a Jewish community in which youth can learn, thrive, and build foundations for taking up the mantel of leadership when it is their turn. More than any other group within the community, children and teens are the disciples with whom we should concern ourselves and privilege. I want to build a community with fences wide enough to house every child in my community and high enough to block out bigotry and discrimination. I want them to know that who they love and their own identities are important to our community in that we strive, in our fence making, to honor and celebrate them. The children and teens in my community get this. They understand the value of including traditionally marginalized people. It would shock many of them to know that there are Jews out there who would reject children or their parents based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. Inclusion is their norm. They are disciples of modernity, of pluralism, of egalitarianism and tolerance. And I want to ensure they remain disciples of Judaism within an open and progressive society.
From generation to generation the Torah has been passed…right down to this season of counting the Omer in 5777. Every generation should feel as though they personally left Egypt. We all stood at Sinai. Torah is to be taken personally. Judaism is a living path, one that adapts and transforms as our world moves increasingly towards the messianic vision of the lion lying with the lamb, of turning our weapons of war into plow shares, a world in which the hearts of parents and children turn towards each other, a world where the Divine spark within everyone is honored and encouraged to shine. I am heartbroken that ensuring this vision means drawing firm boundaries and possibly excluding anyone. And at the same time, my heart is filled with the light and hope of what is possible in this world when we do not tolerate the sinfulness of bigotry and hatred within the camp of the Jewish people. I know what rabbis and Jewish leaders before me knew-guarding what is HOLY is hard work and it requires courage and wisdom. I pray for both courage and wisdom daily in serving the Jewish people as a leader, a gatekeeper, and a teacher.