Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Presume Nothing

Blah blah blah, death, blah blah blah, sadness. Yeah, I know; you're sick of it already. Trust me, though, this time it's a jumping off point for a larger discussion. This Friday night is my mom's yortzeit, for which I will be attending shul and saying kaddish. Deciding to attend shul, despite my recent, ideologically-induced crisis, was not a difficult decision. I've always valued the Jewish ritual surrounding mourning. I had this discussion with the Queen of the World about a month before she died, right after I posted on atheism (If You're Going to Yell, Please Yell Softly.) She asked me to answer my own question: Why choose religion? What benefits does religion offer?

Of all the things that religion does wrong, I think Judaism does death right; or about as right as death can be done. The ritual surrounding mourning, the impulse to surround someone with community not just in the seven days following a death, but every time we are forced to say the Mourner's Kaddish, the prohibition against speaking first, the symbolism of wearing a torn ribbon, the immediacy of the burial, covering the mirrors, having a set of laws and rules governing what you can do when: for all my posturing on hating restriction and prescription, I have always found these constraints comforting in a time when nothing makes sense and the easiest tasks become unbearable.

That said, I knew that if I were to return to shul, it would have to be a place where I would feel comfortable as a Jew, as an activist, and as a dissident (alright, I can't write that with a straight face, but I do like to write in "threes" as David Roskies taught me). Luckily, I live in NYC, the most vibrant and varied place for finding a Judaism that "fits" from Kinky Jews to Brooklyn Jews to the UWS. This Shabbas, I'm heading to the brilliant Andy Bachman's shul in Park Slope, Beth Elohim, where Prettyboy, my BFF, and her girlfriend can all go and feel comfortable; a place where I can respect my mother's memory, in a community where I know that she, in all her hippie, activist, dissident glory, would have felt at home.

I chose Beth Elohim not because it is Reform (I was raised Conservative and tend to feel more comfortable in a traditional, Hebrew-heavy service), but because I know Andy to be an outspoken advocate of LBGT rights. Of course, that's true of the other groups that I mentioned, above, and of many minyanim in New York. The decision-making process for Friday night reminded me of a conversation I had with the Rooster months ago. We argued (as usual) over whether choosing to be part of a religion meant that you are endorsing the wing nuts in your community. If I identify as Jewish, am I tacitly condoning the behavior and attitudes of the extremist factions? Am I condoning bigotry and discrimination?

So long as I am cognizant of making Jewish choices with an eye to their repercussions, with a consciousness of whom I'm supporting with my presence, I think I can be Jewishly engaged in a way that has positive ramifications for the LGBT community and for other marginalized groups. I cannot control the actions of others, but I can control the co-opting of traditions and rituals by those who would hold that Judaism cannot be progressive and liberal.

I also think it's about time for Jews to take a stand on behalf of LGBT civil rights as we did for Black civil rights in the Sixties. Just as with Civil Rights, it’s the moral imperative of the Jewish community to advocate on behalf of LGBT Civil Rights/Liberties. What would have happened if race discrimination was codified Biblically and in halakha? Would we really fight for racial discrimination because it’s halakhically enshrined? Or would we have realized that we live in a time and an age where that is an unacceptable stance.

This post is already too long, so more ranting on the LGBT issues later, I promise. See? Look at you get all excited. Calm down, calm down. Your co-workers are staring.

P.S. The title of this post comes from a t-shirt my mom used to wear that I, for some reason, inherited (why anyone inherits t-shirts is beyond me). It was white and in hot pink letters, it said, "Presume Nothing," which was my motto from the ages of 7-10. I'm just now realizing I was a very odd child.


Sarah said...

My favorite davenning to date was at Beth Elohim (granted, it was with Brooklyn Egal and not the main congregation there). Two new babies (both cute, incidentally), one lesbian couple (one of whom was celebrating becoming a Jew, the other of whom was reading her bat mitzvah portion for what I imagine was the umteenth time), candy thrown at all with reckless abandon, and congratulations all around.

My beloved grandmother, z''l, would not step foot into a shul where diversity of all types wasn't actively celebrated. Consequently, she wasn't much of a shul-goer. I feel lucky that I can uphold her values (and mine) and still go (and still manage to fight the things I see as wrong within the system that, on the whole, I do love).

Tamara said...

I'm not from NY but I recently attended a service here in L.A. with a rabbi who used to work with BJ (lol, love the acronymn) B'nai Jeshrun I believe it is. It's in NYC and an active Reconstructionist community (i.e. traditional services and traditions but liberal and socially active in Tikkun Olam - at least that's the sense I got.)

I'm sorry for your loss. I too lost my mom. Just this past October. My mom too would love a liberal congregation. She was quite the liberal hippie mom too, not to mention her gay son :) My brother would approve (he too passed away 11 years ago).