Saturday, September 22, 2007

Save Us from Weak Resignation

One of my favorite hymns is “God of Grace and God of Glory.” The music is the great Welch tune, “Cwm Rhondda” by John Hughes, and the words are by Harry Emerson Fosdick. In the fifth and last verse, he writes: “Save us from weak resignation, To the evils we deplore.”
As the war drags on and the deaths and misery keep mounting, this verse is a desperate cry for us not to sink into apathy and go shopping. With the Republicans supporting Bush and the Democrats unwilling to confront him and persist in demanding an end to the bloodshed, most people have moved on, actively willing the war out of mind. In his column of Sunday, September 16th, Frank Rich highlights our indifference to this intractable conflict. Thirty years ago, when Gen. William Westmoreland urged staying the course in Vietnam, all three networks pre-empted their midday programming for his appearance. When Gen. Petraeus gave his recent testimony on Iraq, no network interrupted a soap opera for his testimony. Rich points out that America can not win a war abandoned by its own citizens. The evaporation of that support was ratified by voters last November. For that, they were rewarded with the "surge." Now their mood has turned darker. Americans have not merely abandoned the war; they don't want to hear anything that might remind them of it or of war in general. Television programs and movies about our wars are ratings disasters and box office poison. The public has changed the channel. They don't want to see American troops dying in Iraq or Afghanistan, because they ask, “What can be done?” Now, writes Rich, our America, unlike Vietnam-era America, is more often resigned than angry.
Most Americans may have given up trying to end the war, but under their resignation, anger still lurks. This past week, when the Senate voted to censure MoveOn for its ad denouncing Gen. Petraeus, MoveOn reported the biggest outpouring of donations ever, ensuring more ads against the war.
So resignation is probably our attempt to forget, hide, or tamp down our anger. This is not likely to be helpful and may cause harm. As Harry Emerson Fosdick writes in his great hymn, we should not yield to resignation, but let our conscious and therefore focused anger be the weapon we wield against this terrible war. Write your members of congress, join protests, contribute money to causes that work to stop the war. Above all pray that your resignation be replaced with the determination to end this and all wars.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A Prayer on Yom Kippur

In the Jewish Mosaic E-News on Sept. 21 (, Rabbi Steve Greenberg writes about the Yom Kippur dilemma. He writes:

Every Yom Kippur, gay Jews who attend services are faced with a dilemma. In the afternoon service the portion from Leviticus delineating the sexual prohibitions is read in most traditional synagogues. The whole of chapter 18 is read. It is a list of sexual violations from incest, to adultery, from sex with a menstruant woman, to bestiality and of course sex between men. And with a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman, it is an abomination. How are we supposed to respond to this public humiliation?

For nearly two thousand years gay Jews, and particularly gay men, have had to listen to their lives debased on the holiest day of the year, their sexual relations demonized with the word toeva, abomination. It’s no wonder that many liberal synagogues have rejected this tradition and have replaced it various other readings.

However, despite the difficulty, there is good reason for communities to sustain the traditional reading. Repressing difficult texts is a lot like repressing feelings; they inevitably resurface and often in much more destructive ways. It seems better to me that we read Leviticus 18 and deal with it than deny or ignore it. Moreover, reading the text in shul on Yom Kippur makes us present in a powerful, if challenging way. With acknowledgement, it can become a call to greater empathy, understanding. We can use it to bring to communal memory the countless people throughout the ages, who, on the most holy day of the year, had no voice in the face the most devastating misrepresentation of their hearts. And lastly, it can serve as an impetus for learning and reinterpretation of the biblical and rabbinic texts that should no longer be a cause of self-loathing or exclusion.

Toward this end I wrote this prayer along with my friend Danny Wohl to accompany the afternoon Torah service on Yom Kippur. It is printed below for communities to use and where that is not possible, for individuals to use privately. With wishes for a Yom Kippur that helps us all to overcome the obstacles in our way toward greater authenticity, generosity of spirit and aliveness and may Jewish communities everywhere come soon to embrace their gay and lesbian sons and daughters.

Prayer to accompany the Torah reading of Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur Afternoon

by Rabbi Steven Greenberg and Danny Wohl

Master of the Universe
On this Yom Kippur,
As the noonday sun descends,
We open up your sacred scroll,
And read with awe its words of wisdom.
Troubled, we share our meditations withYou.

In the beginning You created us in your image,
Breathed into a pure body opposing desires,
The human was created, lonely and alone.
When You repaired the flaw, transformed it by love
Your creations rejoiced, their longings fulfilled.
Flesh of Flesh, bone of bone,
One made two and two made one.

But You have also kindled the storms of our passion,
How, brazen and reckless, we slake our thirst.
We are overwhelmed by a sea of desire.
Only the bonds of covenant restrain the torrent,
Setting boundaries that cannot be breached.

You call us to read on this sacred day
The verses that ban the uncovering of nakedness.
The sins committed in the embrace of families
That trample innocence and humiliate with touch,
The degrading coercions that cry out unheard,
The breach of trust and the betrayal of loved ones
Fill the land with violence from within.

Shield of Abraham and Defender of Sarah,
Grant safety and security to those who have suffered abuse.
Send them peace of mind and soothe their spirits
As they turn to you for healing on this Day of Awe.

Master of the Universe, to Whom all secrets are known,
As the reading closes and “abhorence” is spoken
Women and men, in every congregation
Hear the words “Thou shalt not lie” and weep
In the back rows of synagogues,
Outcast and broken.

On this Day of Judgment, please God remember
The myriad souls, who from the beginning
Found in their hearts a fierce inclination,
A mighty love, toward members of their own sex.

Remember O Lord their paralyzing fear.
The unspeakable longing, the shaming embrace,
Accusing them with the full force of Law
Of perversions that could only be remedied by death.

Remember throughout history the thousands upon thousands,
Who consumed by self-hatred and the scorn of others,
Were cast out as outrage, or suffered unseen.
Not one dared imagine that they were not cursed
But blessed by the One, Who revels in difference.

And I further observed the tears of the oppressed
With none to comfort them.
And I saw the power of their oppressors
With none to comfort them. (Ecclesiastes 4:1)

Master of the universe, Creator of humankind
Are the oppressors of your children,
The verses themselves or those who interpret them?
What tragedies do we inflict when we drive away
Beloved daughters, beloved sons?

Our scholars once knew how to look in the book
To create new worlds in both awe and in love.
Open their eyes to the marvels and wonders,
The ways to expand and deepen your Torah
and draw down among us your spirit from above.

Where there is no comfort for the maligned and oppressed,
Then be Thou their comfort, their strength and fortress.
Bless us with peace in the midst of our differences.
Grant understanding and courage to our Sages,
Wipe away shame from the hearts of your children
And give hope to all for both wholeness and love.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Curse of Virginity

Lutherans (of whom I am one) teach justification by faith, not works. We say that we cannot win God’s approval by what we do; God loves us unreservedly. However, the history of the church, including the Lutheran church, shows that there is one work traditionally required for acceptance into the church family. This is sexual renunciation, which is often encoded in Christian scripture, liturgy, and hymns as: “purity.” The flip side of purity is fornication and adultery. This summer in the Lutheran Church, the epistles read in the liturgy have kept up the drumbeat condemning both, and St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians links fornication to impurity without defining either. Webster’s dictionary defines fornication as “consensual sexual intercourse between two persons not married to each other.” This seems quite nonjudgmental, particularly the “consensual” part.
However, Googling “fornication + Bible” produces, for the most part, very different results. Most sites point out how forcefully many Bible passages condemn fornication and how we fornicators are going straight to hell if we don’t repent. I found only one site that takes a different approach: “Liberated Christians” (, which writes of fornication: “I Cor 6:9 badly mistranslates "porneia" as fornication. Corinth was a wide-open port city. People there could get sex any way they wanted it. Where our English translations read 'fornication', Paul's original Greek word was 'porneia' which means to sell and refers to slaves bought and sold for cultic prostitution. What was happening in the Temples of Corinth was farmers were visiting the temple priestesses who represented the fertility Gods. By having sex with these prostitutes they believed their fields would be more fertile. It didn't even have to do with going to prostitutes, but pagan cultic worship.” So, perhaps fornication in the Bible is not “consensual sex,” but religious sex with gods (or their representatives) who are not the God of Abraham.
Adultery, of course, is a sin. It is defined in Webster’s as: “voluntary sexual intercourse between a married man and someone other than his wife or between a married woman and someone other than her husband.” However, “Liberated Christians” has an interesting slant on adultery, writing: “The Jews understood ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ very differently than Church tradition. It only applied to men if they had intercourse with someone else's wife, but it was allowable for a married man to have intercourse with a single woman. Adultery was the sin of "trespassing" on a man's property. Until marriage women were the property of their fathers. After marriage they became the property of their husbands.” So, in this light, adultery is more about property than about sex.
Christian preachers (at least those I listen to) probably know all too well how “impurity, fornication or adultery” have been used in the past to shame their listeners and to attempt to control their sex lives. Preachers these days rarely use these words. They may speak about “broken relationships,” but they steer clear of Paul’s harsh language, leaving us pew sitters to figure out as best we can what to make of these words in scripture. The traditional Christian message has been (and, as most of the sites on Google attest, still is) that any sex, in thought, word, or deed, outside marriage is sinful. Augustine went further, claiming that even within marriage, sex was sinful if not entered into with the intention of procreation. The ideas that fornication might refer to idolatry or that adultery might be about property rights are lost on most Christians. So in order to be a good Christians, acceptable Christians, church people were directed to renounce sex. Thus, they have been asked since the church began to perform this work, this obviously very difficult work, to be good Christians and, it follows, to gain salvation.
Where did this emphasis on sexual renunciation in the church come from? In “The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity” (1988), Peter Brown traces the development of the thinking and practice of men and women in late antiquity, starting with Paul and concluding with Augustine, as they defined and sought sanctity. The result of their frequently very strenuous efforts at ascetic renunciation was that it moved to the center of Christian life early in the church’s history. Brown shows that the church, from its early period right into the Middle Ages, opted to make sex and contact with sex one of the main benchmarks of the hierarchy of the Christian life. Celibacy for men and virginity for women took on great importance.
We church people live with this works righteousness (the idea that our works will save us) even today. Although celibacy and chastity for men have always been important, it is women’s virginity that is emblematic of sexual renunciation. It is only a translator’s slip that has given us Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a virgin. Isaiah 7:14, the passage in the Hebrew Bible that speaks of the mother of a deliverer like Jesus, uses the words, “a young woman” not “virgin.” However “virgin” was the word chosen in the Greek translation, and virginity very early in the church became the ideal state for all. Of course, the cult of virginity brings the concept of purity to its fullest flower (If I may be allowed this sexually fraught metaphor). The Virgin Mary is revered not so much for her role as the mother of Jesus, but as an exemplar of virginity and, thus, purity. In high Mariology, Mary is conceived without sin, leads a sinless (think sexless) life, remains always a virgin, and as befits her special status was assumed into heaven without dying, a feat that not even Jesus could manage. Mary becomes the exemplar of virginity, rather than, as in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the servant of God, who, while noting her lowliness, is quite assertive, presenting a quite liberal, if not socialist, vision of a world where the poor are fed while the rich are pulled from their thrones of privilege. This is not the traditional virgin, meek and mild, but a strong woman with a radical program for social change.
So, I believe, virginity, or, more precisely, what it implies, is the curse of Christianity, making us, as sexual beings, always guilty and never “pure” enough. I think that, rather than being guilty about our sexuality, we should embrace it, and learn how to be responsible sexual people. What’s involved in this, is the subject of an upcoming blog entry.