“It is not up to you to finish the task but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot)
In recent days I’ve been thinking about the genius of our nation’s founders. When describing this nation, a nation whose imperfections and inequities were clear from the very beginning, they used the term “more perfect union.” They had high aspirations for their nation but were aware of its many flaws. In this way they were, at one and the same time, both realistic and aspirational.
Almost 250 years later America is still an imperfect union.
Almost 250 years later, there is still a great deal of work to do if we are to overcome systemic racism, gender inequity, bias against the LGBTQIA+ community, islamophobia and of course, anti-Semitism. Recognizing that these social inequities still exist is painful, but it does not lessen my love or appreciation for this country. This is, after all, the nation that took my grandparents in when they fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe.
And while, almost 250 years later, our more perfect union still eludes us, it is also important to recognize how far we have come. That is especially true during Pride.
There is a signature on Rabbi Klein and Cantor Moses’ smicha (Ordination Certificate) that is sadly missing from mine. When I was ordained in 1993, this individual did not believe members of the LGBTQIA+ community should be ordained, and rather than single out specific students, he decided to simply not sign any certificates. He eventually reevaluated his position and the year Cantor Moses was ordained was the first year he was willing to affix his signature.
A few years after I arrived at TSTI the Reform Rabbinate was debating whether or not to endorse rabbis officiating at what was at the time called a “commitment ceremony.” After a TSTI Board Meeting the night before the vote, one of our past-presidents and my mentor tried to persuade me to vote against the motion. I explained that I saw my vote as a moral statement and, as such, would vote accordingly. He told me he disagreed but respected my conviction.
A few years after that the New Jersey Legislature was debating a bill to legalize civil unions. (It passed on December 21, 2006, and I am embarrassed that, at the time, I thought that anything short of complete marriage equality was sufficient.) I was invited to go to Trenton to testify before the Assembly and urge them to support the bill. The night before my testimony there was a TSTI Board Meeting during which I shared my comments. When I finished the entire board of trustees applauded. I was particularly moved when I realized that the loudest applause was coming from the very same past president who, just a few years prior, had encouraged me to vote against marriage equality.
It was a powerful statement about this congregation and its leadership. And it reflected a sea change in attitude. Yes, it took longer than it should have. Yes, even I was slower to change my perspective than I could have been. But when I reflect upon our own Reform Movement’s growth over the last few decades, I cannot help but be grateful that we are constantly striving to create ever more inclusive communities.
But it is not enough to simply believe in equality. We also have to act upon it.
When I was in Trenton in 2005/6 there were a number of rabbis who spoke before me. The first spoke against the bill in a fairly benign manner. The second was a bit more pointed. The third and final rabbi among this trio didn’t even attempt to hide his bias against the LGBTQIA+ community. When I approached the microphone, I was seeing red. I threw out my opening statement and instead said something to the effect of, “My name is Dan Cohen, I am also a rabbi and, quite honestly, I can’t believe that we are even having a debate over this. There’s only one moral path.”
I was sickened to see religion used, yet again, as the basis for bias and hatred. That’s why it is important that we, as a community, dedicate this evening’s service to celebrating Pride. It is not only a statement about who we are as a community, but it is also a statement about the Jewish values we seek to amplify.
And it is why we will have a tent at the Pride picnic this Sunday. It looks like it will be a nice day and I hope you will stop by, say hello and show your support and commitment to doing the work required in this glorious but still imperfect union.
Looking forward to seeing you for Shabbat in the Lot at 6pm.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen