The following d’var Torah by Nancy Katz was delivered as part of Pride Shabbat, June 23, 2023 at Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill. Judge Katz was the first out lesbian to sit on the bench in Illinois.
In this week’s parsha, Korakh, several of the Levites challenge the leadership of Moses and Aaron, saying “you have gone too far” in raising themselves as leaders of the congregation.
The Lord supports Moses’ leadership. First Adonai has each of the 250 who challenge Moses prepare fire pans with incense. God then opens the ground and sends to Sheol, Korakh and his allies and families, 250 in all. Their fire pans become plating for God’s altar.
The next day the whole community rail against Moses and Aaron saying they had brought death to the Lord’s people. The Lord then sends a plague against the complainers, wiping out 14,700 of the community.
That doesn’t quell the rebellion. So, the Lord has Moses ask each of the tribes’ chieftains to take their staffs, including the staff of Aaron, write their names on them, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting, where they sat overnight. The next day, only the staff of Aaron has sprouted – it brings forth sprouts and blossoms, and it bears almonds. This was the Lord’s sign of the righteousness of Moses and Aaron’s leadership.
Unlike the militaristic and violent earlier signs, the deaths and plagues, this sign was life affirming – flowers, blooms, almonds, and sprouts on the man’s staff. And I thought to myself – Leading the troops with flowers! How gay is that?
This is a fitting image for this week’s celebration of LGBTQ pride. Yes – celebration, although there are dark clouds on the horizon. This has been a hard last year – almost daily we are faced with the increasingly hostile climate towards the LGBTQ community.
We have become the pawns in a political battle. The Chicago Tribune reports that there are over 500 anti-LGBTQ bills pending in state legislatures across the country: the “don’t say gay” laws prohibiting discussion of sexual orientation, gay sexual orientation that is; laws prohibiting discussion of LGBTQ families; laws banning gay and trans affirming books in libraries; laws prohibiting transgender access to public spaces, like bathrooms and locker rooms; and laws interfering with the hard decisions families of transgender children need to make about life-affirming medical care. So many of these bills have targeted the transgender community, the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ rainbow. The Human Rights Campaign has declared that we are living in a state of emergency. Like Moses and Aaron, we are being told that “we have gone too far.”
Like many members of our community and our allies, I am enraged. And I am terrified. I do not want to relive the bad old days of threats, suppression, and discrimination, and see our children live it. And it is easy to despair as we see hard won gains reversed.
But despair is not an option. We do not have time for despair. We have work to do. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said, in remarks about the fight against racism in our country, “The greatest heresy is despair, despair of men’s power for goodness, men’s power for love. Surrender to despair is surrender to evil. It is important to feel anxiety, but it is sinful to wallow in despair.”
One way that I combat despair is to look at the progress we have made in my own lifetime in the recognition of LGBTQ rights. I came out in 1973 – 50 years ago. Some of you were not born then. For context, in 1973, the height of technology was the princess phone. We still had phone booths, with real phones in them. The first woman rabbi was ordained in 1972, one year before, and it was controversial. I was 18, in 1973, and when I recognized that I was gay, I thought I was about to jump into a great abyss – that was my image then – I knew it was going to change my life, but I could not see the bottom or the sides of this abyss. But to live an authentic life, I knew I had to be truthful and out about who I was. I had to take the plunge.
Fast forward to 1983, 10 years later – the gay rights movement in its infancy began to blossom, just like Aaron’s staff. The great tragedy of AIDS began to politicize elements of the gay community not active before, and the LGBTQ community began flexing some political muscle. By 1983, when I began law school, the abyss did not seem quite as frightening. I knew there was movement up. But the abyss was still there. I was cautioned not to be fully out due to prejudices against LGBTQ community in the legal profession – advice I totally ignored of course.
Fast forward again to 1999, 24 years ago. For context, we still had phone booths, and cell phones were as big as your running shoes. The internet was in its early stages. We had made good progress towards rights and acceptance as a LGBTQ community. AIDS activists and others brought issues to the streets and to the legislatures, and we began to see anti-discrimination laws on the books here and there. We started to see openly gay politicians in political offices. Lesbians and gays were being admitted to rabbinical training, beginning in 1984 by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, of course, and had been ordained as rabbis.
I became a judge, in 1999, the first out lesbian on the bench in Illinois, following two gay men who had joined the bench earlier. Yet the LGBTQ community still had ways to go towards equal rights. In the first month I was on the bench, I was the first in my class of 15 new judges to be assigned a Saturday rotation in the Cook County Marriage Court. We all took turns staffing there. I remember coming into the room where 6 of us were in a shared conference room we used as our chambers. I was upset. When my colleagues asked me what was up, I said, “here I have the authority to marry couples, but my partner and I are not allowed to get married.” My colleagues were shocked, and it was an aha moment for them. One offered to take my shift. Another said I should refuse. They were all trying to help. I told them that I wanted to do the shift, that “it’s a great privilege to be able to be a celebrant of a marriage – but I want to be able to get married myself!”
Fast forward again to the present. In the 2000s states gradually began recognizing first civil unions and then gay marriage. But it took until 2015 for a supreme court decision – a 5-4 one, made marriage equality the law of the land and granted same sex couples in all 50 states equal recognition under the law. My marriage to my wife Kathy would now be recognized in all states.
So, we have come far in 50 years. We do not have to give in to despair. Now, rather than thinking of my future as an abyss, I like to think of another metaphor. – an arc. In the words of the 19th century abolitionist, Professor Theodore Parker, as made famous by Reverend Martin Luther King: “The arc (of the moral universe) is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve… I can divine it by conscience. And… I am sure it bends towards justice.”
So my collective prayer is let us continue to do tikkun olam – to repair the world. Let us make sure the 18-year-olds of today imagine the arc of the moral universe, the arc of the rainbow, and not an abyss. Let us celebrate pride this Sunday! And like Moses and Aaron, let us continue to go too far, and be leaders in the fight against discrimination and division. Amen