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Going Head to Head with the Religious Right

Lawrence Bush
May 15, 2006

An Interview with Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum

[caption id=“attachment_37496” align=“alignleft” width=“150”]Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum Photo by Eric Poor[/caption]
“SOME SAY THAT A SYNAGOGUE is not a place for politics,” Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum told her congregation in 1999, “but a place to go deep inside ourselves and to forget the world outside. If this were true, then I say we should close our synagogue doors and make the space into a parking lot.”
As rabbi since 1992 of New York City’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST), Sharon Kleinbaum is as immersed in politics as one can get. She is the openly lesbian leader of the world’s largest gay religious congregation, and is at the forefront of the movement to secure basic civil rights for lesbian, gay bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.
She is also the North American co-chair of World Pride 2006, an interfaith LGBT festival and conference scheduled for August 6th-12th in Jerusalem. World Pride has been attacked by the religious right. “We manage to unite all these right-wing religious figures who usually don’t even talk to each other,” Kleinbaum observes. It has also been criticized by some anti-Zionist leftists for being sited in Jerusalem.

CBST WAS FOUNDED in 1973 and has been “philosophically unaffiliated,” she notes, for its thirty-three years. “No denomination would have had us years ago,” she explains, and while “both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements today would love to have us affiliate, we’re very committed to a pandenominational approach to Judaism. We have about eight hundred members, from all the movements, including graduates from the Yiddish shules.” Her own background embodies much of that diversity: She was a yeshiva student in high school, a radical, secular undergraduate at Columbia, and received her rabbinical ordination in 1990 from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Her career includes stints at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. and as Assistant Director of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. In her office, a bust of the classic Yiddish writer, I. L. Peretz, has pride of place on the cabinet behind her desk.
In 2005, to celebrate her leadership at CBST, the congregation published Listening for the Oboe, a collection of Rabbi Kleinbaum’s sermons and Torah commentaries over the course of a dozen years. The title piece, a 1997 Rosh Hashanah sermon, draws an analogy between trying to become literate about classical music — specifically, learning to hear the oboe in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — and striving to become Jewishly literate. Other pieces in the book deal with such diverse issues as reparations for African-American slavery, diversity within the LGBT community, the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, and Martin Buber’s “I-Thou” theology.
With her life partner, Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, Rabbi Kleinbaum is the mother of two daughters and lives in Brooklyn. JEWISH CURRENTS caught up with her in her office at CBST’s rented headquarters in Greenwich Village.

JEWISH CURRENTS: Listening for the Oboe opens with a sermon about living in exile, in which you describe how each of three patriarchs of the Bible takes a journey from the familiar to the unknown, each under radically different circumstances. Abraham is called forth into exile by revelation; Jacob has to flee into exile after stealing his brother’s birthright; Joseph is sold into exile as a slave.
SHARON KLEINBAUM: That was my keynote drash (Torah commentary) at the Twelfth International Conference of Gay and Lesbian Jewish Organizations, in San Francisco in 1991. I was speaking about coming out — to oneself, one’s family, and the world — as a process of risk-taking and revelation.
JC: The paradigms of exile have shifted a great deal in the LGBT community. Even the advent of that acronym, LGBT, which includes bisexual and transgender people, is pretty new. [“Transgender” comprises transvestite, transsexual, and other identities that diverge from typical gender roles that are usually assigned at birth —Ed.] There have been changing family dynamics, civil unions, the struggle with AIDS, and the attacks of the religious right. How have all these changes affected the “culture of exile” in your community and the LGBT community as a whole?
SK: One of the greatest contributions Jews have made is to provide an outsider perspective on society. The gay community is another community for whom life on the margins has provided a rich awareness of how society functions — an awareness that “insiders,” who breathe the air of the culture, with all of its assumptions, only rarely have.
But within the LGBT community itself there are also those who are more “insider”and those who are more “outsider.” There are ways in which we get settled and a bit comfortable: economic ways, Jewish identity ways, sexual ways. Our congregation is committed to the exploration of that dynamic.
Socioeconomically, the heterogeneity in CBST is like nothing you’ll see in any suburban synagogue. We have people who own multimillion-dollar Manhattan townhouses, and people who are homeless and struggling every day. We also have diversity issues apart from the economic. I recently asked the congregation to go see the movie Transamerica, and then I gave my Friday night sermon about transgender identity. Most of the people who came to our discussion are gay, but some of them are extremely uncomfortable about transgender issues. We were pushing the envelope for members of our own community, people who are already “fringe” but have to think about others who may even be more so.
JC: Perhaps we all have a desire to be left alone and cozy within whatever level of privilege we’ve got.
SK: Yes, there are people in this community who legitimately feel that they’ve paid their dues, they’ve opened the world enough that they have found a comfortable place to sit, and that’s enough. But we challenge that, both internally and through our social action work in the larger world.
JC: In the sermon from your fifth anniversary as CBST rabbi, you observe that many of the congregation’s founding generation were men, while the 1990s brought an influx of women, especially young women.
SK: We lost about twenty-five percent of our male members to AIDS during my first few years here. Our yizkor services were unbelievably painful. Even today, the straight community does not understand what AIDS has done to us. The mainstream Jewish community does not know the leadership, the wisdom, the humor, the outrageousness, and the vision, which have been lost to AIDS.
So yes, our community has had to respond to many changes. In my installation sermon in 1992, I used the haftarah [supplementary Bible reading] from the Book of Isaiah: “Enlarge the site of your tents; extend the size of your dwelling. Do not stint! Lengthen the ropes and drive the pegs firm.” I was trying to tell the community not to become like today’s America, which has declared, “This is how big we are, and this is the language we speak; now we close the doors.”
We prefer to open our doors. We get about four thousand people to High Holiday services, which we hold at the Javits Convention Center. We have a no-ticket, open-door policy. Building a home of our own at New York City real estate prices is a real challenge. Until then, we’re kind of the wandering Jews of New York.
JC: You’ve done some wandering yourself. How did you come to work at the National Yiddish Book Center?
SK: I was there from 1981 to 1985, when I left for rabbinical school. My father had grown up in the Sholem Aleichem Houses, but he didn’t speak Yiddish to us, so I didn’t learn the language until I went to Columbia and studied it as my foreign-language requirement.
I met Aaron Lansky [founder of the Center] when I was hitchhiking in Northampton. He picked me up in a van full of Yiddish books. I opened the box I was sitting on and I said, “What are you doing shlepping around cartons of the collected works of Peretz?” He slammed on the brakes, looked around at me and said, “What are you doing, being able to read those titles?”
We became good friends, and he invited me to come and work with him when I finished college. I made my living teaching Hebrew school at the Northampton Jewish Center, and Aaron and I started teaching classes about Yiddish literature. Then the Center moved into its first home, the elementary school building in Amherst.
JC: What caused you to move on to rabbinical school?
SK: The Yiddish Book Center quickly became a kind of home for many young, disaffected, rural Jews, and I started to realize that I was able to answer a lot of their questions because of my religious education. I had gone to an Orthodox high school and got quite a Jewish education, but it was impossible for me to reconcile being Orthodox with being a lesbian. During my college years, I was very secular and very radical. But in Northampton, I realized that knowing Yiddish literature wasn’t enough — in fact, you can’t really understand Yiddish literature without some understanding of Judaism. It began to feel false to me to have a love affair with Yiddish and reject Judaism. In Eastern Europe, you could do that: You could be a renegade and not have any religious practice, and Yiddish might be enough, because there was a Judaism to be in conversation with, even if you weren’t observant. In America, the situation is very different. The religious and Yiddish worlds aren’t much in conversation.
JC: Gender identity and sexual orientation have been the subject of quite a bit of biological research and speculation over the past couple of decades. What used to be classified as a mental disorder or character failing or “sin” is now often thought of as biologically predetermined. What used to be called “sexual preference” is now called “sexual orientation.” What do you think of this shift?
SK: I put it in the category of “Who knows?” Obviously there’s biology involved in all aspects of being human, but how do we really know the depth of that involvement? Clearly there’s a role for biology. For example, something like one in four thousand babies are born intersex, with uncertainty about their gender identity. That’s a spectacularly high number, which our society has pretty much made invisible by saying, “No, they must be assigned, either male or female identity.” Now biologists are saying it’s not so simple: male and female are not so binary.
JC: Doesn’t the emphasis on biology dampen down some of the liberationist ideology of the gay movement? It’s one thing to say, “Let’s be tolerant, they can’t help themselves,” and another to say, “We all should have the opportunity to define ourselves, to make our choices, and still deserve equal rights.”
SK: So I resist the ways that biological determinism can be used to define us and confine us. But that doesn’t mean I want to resist scientific knowledge.
There is obviously no one gay experience, or straight experience, or transgender experience. Some people, from the moment they are two years old and have any inkling of the universe around them, identify a certain way; others go through shifts, and phases, and feel very fluid in their identifications. Whatever the etiology of gender and sexual orientation, what matters is that discrimination is still preventing people from feeling free to express those essential pieces of themselves.
Emma Goldman was once asked how she could possibly believe that people could behave in responsible ways without the imposition of laws and a government. She observed that people are now acting like animals in a zoo; you can’t predict what they would be like in their natural environment based on how they behave when they’re behind bars.
I think the best contribution of the gay community has been to talk about getting rid of those bars, particularly when it comes to gender identities and relationships. We have brought to the fore issues like: What does it mean to be a man? A woman? A man in relationship to a woman? A woman in relationship to a woman? In gay relationships, there are no predetermined answers to these questions. The social constructs don’t necessarily apply. Hopefully, by asking these questions, we bring to heterosexual relationships a certain freedom, too —a freedom for people to define themselves.
We’ve also had a real impact on Judaism by confronting its heterosexual biases: the God who is male, in the upper realm, while Israel is female, in the lower realm. Their relationship is heterosexual, classically so: the male in the dominant role, the female in the subordinate. If we’re going to reject the heterosexual bias in Judaism, just as many have begun to reject the male bias, Judaism is going to look very different.
JC: A secularist might wonder about the vocabulary you’re using: the same religious vocabulary — with a vastly different interpretation — as the fundamentalist world. Aren’t you therefore contributing, in some way, to the “hold” of religion on human beings, a hold that yields, after all, a lot more conservatism than liberalism?
SK: Just the opposite. By saying clearly and with absolute self-confidence that Pat Robertson does not own the language of religious discourse, we’re challenging the religious right and their hijacking of religion. They would love it if we were all secular activists. And it would kill me to give it over to them so easily!
JC: You think the religious LGBT community in the U.S. has a particular leadership role to play?
SK: The freedoms we have in the U.S. are extraordinary. In many other parts of the world, being gay is criminal. It is punishable by death in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Mauritania, Sudan, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and the northern provinces of Nigeria. Egypt has sentenced gay men to five years at hard labor. Uganda’s government has a record of torture and abuse of LGBT people. China has persecuted them as “mentally ill.” On the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority actually expends resources entrapping and arresting people for being gay — while Israel refuses to give asylum to gay Palestinians who have been persecuted.
What we contend with in America, however, is a radical religious right-wing movement — which doesn’t exist in Europe, not even in Eastern Europe. Their presence makes the work we’re doing very important. Our insistence on belonging in the universe of religious morality challenges them and their ideology in a very direct way.
JC: LGBT issues have actually provided their greatest fundraising cause — especially the gay marriage issue.
SK: The religious right is very deliberately using gay marriage as a wedge issue, just as they’ve used the “partial-birth abortion” issue to make inroads on abortion rights. They haven’t yet been able to succeed at abolishing abortion rights head on, but a lot of people are uncertain about partial-birth abortions, a lot of people are confused about parental notification, so the right is going after those wedge issues.
Similarly, most Americans would not deny employment to their gay bank teller or hairdresser or neighbor! But they’re confused about the marriage issue. It’s been a brilliant, political choice on the part of the religious right. I recommend a book by Mel White, who was a fundamentalist, a speechwriter for Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. He then came out as a gay man and wrote a book called Stranger at the Gate. He writes about how, until the fall of communism, every one of the Christian right’s fundraising letters said, “Protect your children from the spectre of communism — send money now!” Now they all say, “Save your children from the spectre of homosexuality — send money now!” The anti-gay stuff kicked in big time as soon as communism collapsed.
Their attack on gay marriage is very strategic: They looked very carefully to find out which issue on the gay agenda, so to speak, is the most controversial. What they’re after, however, is the elimination of the open participation of gay people as equals in American society.
JC: Has this given you pause about taking on the marriage issue?
SK: Not at all! I’m very much in the lead in New York State for fighting for gay marriage. If they’ve thrown down this gauntlet, we have to pick it up. This is about equality for human beings. If people want to refuse to perform gay marriages in their churches and ostracize any clergy who performs them, fine! This is America, where we have separation of church and state. But they don’t have the right to codify their religious practice into state laws. It would be like the Catholic church insisting that the government refuse to give marriage licenses to anyone who has ever had a divorce.
JC: In Listening for the Oboe, you also included a piece about reparations for slavery.
SK: That was a sermon I gave to honor Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose anniversaries — King’s birth and Heschel’s death — fall close together in January.
I think it is morally incumbent upon us as Jews to be in the leadership calling for reparations for African Americans, for several reasons. First, our moral obligation from Torah. We were “slaves in Egypt,” and we are never to forget that, which means that we must never enslave or participate in the enslavement of another. The fact Jews were not here in large numbers during slavery — though we did participate in the slave system, both in the trade and in ownership — means that we don’t have quite as much guilt as the rest of white America and can therefore see the issue more clearly.
Second, the Jewish community has accumulated a great deal of wisdom since the Holocaust about the complex issues involved in reparations. We have very real advice to offer.
I’ve actively advocated for passage of HR-40, John Conyers’ bill that seeks simply to set up a commission to study the issue of reparations. Among the nearly entirely African-American sponsors of the bill are two Jews, Eliot Engel and Jerrold Nadler. There are more Jews in Congress who should sign on.
What makes people anxious about the issue is the lack of clarity about the form reparations would take.
JC: Randall Robinson, whose book, The Debt, you referenced in that sermon, makes clear that he’s talking primarily about institution-building.
SK: Once people understand that we’re not talking about a cash handout but about meaningful restitution, opinions do start to change. Representative Conyers once observed to me that it took him fifteen years to get Martin Luther King Jr. Day recognized as a national holiday. On such issues, patience and persistence will win because justice is on our side.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.