Everyone Has a Seat At The Table

I’m moved by the appreciation of difference and diversity that blessings from the Jewish tradition offer us, says Rabbi Lisa Edwards

LILA: Thank you, Rabbi Lisa, for participating in this issue of Inter-Actions as our Renaissance Person. At LILA, we believe that an organic sphere is gradually forming around us with a consciousness of sensitivity, kindness and compassion, against a parallel world of extreme violence and discrimination. The belief derived from that consciousness is essential for the survival of humanity. What role can religion play to preserve, protect, and strengthen that belief in today’s turbulent times?

Lisa Edwards: I think the purpose of religion is to preserve, protect, and strengthen the human impulses toward sensitivity, kindness and compassion, as you have described.  While religious people can feel fear as easily as other people, we have long traditions that move us away from responding out of fear (I’m not alone in thinking fear is the main cause of the extreme violence and discrimination you mention).

One example in Judaism of the push toward compassion is the commandment expressed many more times than any other in Torah (36 times):  do not oppress the stranger. The commandment takes a few different forms. The one I especially appreciate is, “do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger” (Exodus 23:9).  This is a religion that invites/commands us to feel empathy, to put ourselves in another’s place, to recognise our own self in another.

Another gentle nudge that I find inspiring can be found in a (these days) little known blessing, commonly found in traditional prayerbooks among the lists of short blessings to be said when witnessing certain ‘amazements’, such as a rainbow, or a beautiful tree, a thunderstorm, a person of royalty, a great scholar, a huge gathering of Jews, to name a few.  One I often reference is a blessing to be said when seeing someone (people or animals) of unusual appearance, typically kind of frightening. The blessing reads, ‘Blessed are you, God our God, ruler of the universe, mishaneh habriyot (Hebrew in transliteration) who makes all creatures different (who varies the forms of creation).’  I’m moved by the appreciation of difference and diversity that blessing offers us — a reminder that such variety comes directly from God. Custom is that this blessing is only offered upon seeing such a being for the first time because after that they no longer look strange to us.

LILA: Like any other classic religion, Judaism is also very particular about its teachings, rituals and laws. How did BCC find its way to serve a specific objective without modifying the fundamental system?  

LE: Jewish tradition encourages questioning, discussion, and disagreement. In its origins it invites varied opinions, and it respects the people who offer those opinions. In the Talmud, those who give dissenting opinions (even losing opinions) are included by name, not to belittle those who offered them, but to hold them up in respect.  Everyone has a seat at the table.

BCC, really from its inception, has been affiliated with the Reform Movement of Judaism.  One of the gifts of Reform Judaism (and liberal Judaism in general) is its recognition that Judaism has always been a religion and a way of life that promotes growth, change, adaptation to circumstances, and new understandings of nature and human nature and the world in which we live. That’s why Judaism at its core understands that our role in God’s world is to partner with God to nurture and strive toward societies that treasure life, that encourage us to live fully, to empower people to be who they want to be/were meant to be. Judaism as we understand it values all God’s creations and understands the teaching that God created human beings in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27) as a push to us all to embrace and appreciate the diversity of humankind.  

How we understand and live Judaism in our community is well within the bounds of Judaism as we know it: gender inclusive, egalitarian, radical in its politics, traditional in its emphasis on human rights and justice.

I had a conversation recently with one of our early BCC presidents (Louis Hirsch) who said that in those early years and still today we saw responses to us in the larger community that covered the full spectrum – those “boxed by law and those open by heart.” Within BCC, we tend to attract those “open by heart.”

LILA: What inspired your decision to become a Rabbi? How have you evolved in your 24 years of association with BCC?

 LE: My path was a bit of a winding one. I know it started as an act of rebellion: when I was quite young (before there were any women rabbis), one of my religious school teachers happened to say, “Women can’t be rabbis.”

I was indignant, and thought to myself, “oh yeah? I’ll show you.” Luckily I was not quite old enough to be the first women rabbi. Years later, I was influenced in a positive way by my older brother becoming a rabbi, and also by the first woman who went to rabbinical school.  Still, I took a different path for quite a few years, getting a PhD in literature. I did that at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, IA, the first place I’d ever lived where Jews really were noticeably a minority, and it felt more important to me to be “out” as a Jew.  Then when I came out as a lesbian, I really felt my various identities coming together – I felt more whole – and as that started to happen, I wanted to engage in work and live a life that allowed me to blend my identities, and also encourage others to be themselves. Really, other people noticed I was heading down this path before I did. When I wrote my literature dissertation on some American Jewish writers and the ways they used traditional Jewish texts to write about the Holocaust, three of the five professors on my dissertation committee asked me when I was going to go to rabbinical school.  A friend of mine actually had a dream of me doing so, and then I dreamed up the idea of a primarily lesbian and gay congregation only to discover such communities already existed. It just all came together.

As for how I’ve evolved in my quarter century as a rabbi and rabbi of BCC — well, I’ve never wavered from feeling like it was what I’m supposed to do. So in a way, I haven’t evolved, but sure I’m older and I hope wiser.

LILA: You are a part of the BCC as a Rabbi from 1994. LGBTQ rights did not become legal in US till 2003. How did you keep leading your congregation and inspire them not to lose courage and hope amid hate crimes which many times resulted into murder?

LE: LGBTQ rights didn’t arrive in one fell swoop in 2003 (in fact, I’m not sure what you’re referring to there).  BCC was well established when I arrived there as a rabbinical student at the end of the 1980s, so in many ways they inspired and encouraged me rather than the other way around.  They had already seen the way being out, being who you are, could help move people who opposed rights or welcome for LGBTQ people. They already took seriously their self-chosen “parallel missions” of trying to educate Jews about what it means to be gay or lesbian (those were the main terms used then), and trying to educate gay and lesbian people about how one could be religious and openly lesbian or gay.  And that kind of advocacy really had good effects in LA and the world in general, so our community was seeing change for the better.

The two huge ‘moments’ I had the privilege/challenge of being part of at BCC were the AIDS crisis and then marriage equality. AIDS bonded the congregation to each other – people were there for each other, we learned about grief in ways people shouldn’t have to experience grief – the loss of significant numbers of young men, burying so many peers when we were still young, encountering the pain of families withdrawing support or needing our support.

That the queer community came out of AIDS and into marriage, and then (now) into advocacy and community with transgender/non-binary people really showed us how life affirming human nature is, and Judaism as well.  Grief gives way to joy again, and Judaism has always understood that, and our community came to understand and experience that as well.  A few weeks ago, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum from our sibling congregation in NYC, Beit Simchat Torah came to BCC to help celebrate my upcoming retirement, and she talked about the ways our communities and Judaism too engaged in “joy as an act of resistance.”  Our congregation has really been resonating with that teaching, that articulation of our joint lived experience.

LILA: You have worked extensively on the streets of Los Angeles. In the face of a massive globalised cosmopolitanism in the 21st century, do you still feel that the need to have a separate synagogue for the LGBTQs will always exist?

LE: That question used to be asked a lot, then people stopped asking it, and recently it has surfaced again. I think there will always be a “need” for a variety of synagogues – no one congregation can serve all needs/wants/desires. One thing that easily gets overlooked if you’re not living in or experiencing an LGBTQ oriented community (ask the straight people who are members of BCC) is the culture – queer culture has much to offer that isn’t seen or felt at more mainstream congregations.  

As much as we hear about marriage bringing “normalcy,” queer families have differences. Not every queer family seeks out others experiencing similar differences, and it’s wonderful that we’re more accepted at mainstream congregations than we used to be.  But what a gift, for example, for our children to have a significant number of friends who also have same gender parents. What a gift to queer parents to have significant numbers of other queer parents also trying to raise Jewish children. What a gift that families with ethnic diversity, children being adopted or fostered, get to hang out/grow up with other kids whose families look more similar to theirs.

LILA: Is women empowerment and equality an issue within the LGBTQ community? How do you address them?

 LE: Of course.  We don’t always address these challenges well.  Before I came to BCC, one of my rabbinic colleagues serving a queer congregation said to me, “just remember – gay men and lesbians make ‘strange bedfellows.’”  We don’t always or automatically understand each other. Gay culture and lesbian culture and queer-culture and trans-culture and bi-culture all vary from each other, and change over time. We try to notice and sometimes, more than other times, we take seriously a self-imposed charge to be self-reflective, to work together toward positive change. 

LILA: Does BCC have any outreach program for the Jews residing as minority in other countries?

LE: We livestream most of our services and post to our archive so people can watch anytime, and of course we have a website that we try to keep an audience in mind of people inside and outside BCC. We have some regular viewers/readers who live otherwise isolated lives in small towns and in other countries. Some of them stay in regular touch with us through email or Facebook.

LILA: What are your future plans?

LE: I’m not sure yet.  Some travel and unwind time with Tracy (my wife).  Reading of course. Eventually, I have some writing I might like to do. And I expect to get more active in social justice work – especially homelessness in LA.  It depends of course on what else happens (or doesn’t happen) in the world that might demand attention from someone like me who finds herself with more flexible time. In a year or so, I’ll also probably do some teaching, etc. again at BCC in my position as Rabbi Emerita. I’m pretty sure I won’t be bored or focused only on myself!

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