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Articles of Faith: How Do You Mend a Broken World? By Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum

Date: 
October 04, 2005

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The High Holy Days are the time of the Jewish calendar when we examine the year which has past and look toward the New Year to come. We pray for atonement for the past year's sins and for renewal of spirit during Yom Kippur, the "Day of Atonement."

The spirit of repentance and atonement is one which the American people must face gravely this year. During the Jewish year 5765, 13 states passed constitutional amendments denying, and in some cases revoking, the rights of lesbian and gay citizens to marry or form legally-recognized partnerships. Already, these ill-considered amendments have led to violence against same-sex and straight couples — in places such as Ohio, where domestic violence laws have been challenged for creating a parallel legal institution to marriage, and in Michigan, where state employees have had health insurance denied to domestic partners during their most recent contract negotiations. Other state legislatures have taken steps this year to pass similar measures, as well as legislation to deny the right of same-sex couples to adopt children. The religious right continues to use homophobia to build political power with the result that violence against our community is skyrocketing. Before this year is "sealed," our nation will have much to atone for.

How do we get past the feeling that we are caught in the midst of a Mabool, a second Flood, whether we experience it as LGBT people, as Jews or African Americans, as people with AIDS or people washed out of their homes by Katrina — even as relatively privileged Americans with a nagging sense that we've gotten everything we want in life except the sense of meaning that would make it all worthwhile? How do we get past the feeling that God has forgotten the covenant with Noah, has forgotten the promise of the rainbow, has forgotten us?

One of our rabbinic legends tells us that the first light God created filled the void so fully that there was no room left over for the rest of creation. So God gathered up the first light and put it away in jars to keep it for another occasion. But this light was so strong that it broke the jars and got away, leaving behind only scattered shards. These broken shards are our world, and our job is to mend it — tikkun olam, they called it, the mending of the world.

How do you mend a broken world? First, we must believe that change is possible. We must believe that we influence the cosmos, that what we do matters; our lives, our actions, our words, even our thoughts can make a difference; that we are all here — every one of us — for the sake of what we can do together.

Then we must realize the power of our own lives to transform. As the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a synagogue founded for LGBT Jews, our family and friends, I have officiated at the funerals of leaders of the gay movement who believed they had an obligation to change the world. I have married same-sex couples who understood that such a ceremony was not only an expression of love but also a political act of defiance against a society that still does not accept their relationships as equal. I have given blessings over newborns and newly adopted infants of couples who believe that raising a family is a part of Jewish heritage that is legitimately theirs, even if the racial or gender make-up of their family is not considered traditional. As a rabbi, I am fortunate to see my members at the "boundary places" of life — birth, bar and bat mitzvah, marriage, sickness and death. I see the profound transformative effect of lives lived with quiet dignity in the face of an unequal and sometimes hostile society.

During the High Holy Days, we must examine our own shortcomings. Not only specific sins we may have committed in the past year, but the systemic ones: how we have discriminated based on race, gender or religion, and how we have contributed to the vast inequity that is American society. This kind of self-examination is a mitzvah, an action of good faith that leads to a better world. But we must also realize that as LGBT people in a homophobic culture, we do actions of good faith simply by living our lives with integrity as a means of transformation of society. By living honestly and refusing to allow our fellow citizens the comfort of their own prejudice, we perform a mitzvah in rebuking the sin of homophobia in a loving way. By reaping peace where our enemies have sown discord, we perform a mitzvah in living according to the mandate to justice called for by the prophets.

This is the tikkun olam, the mending of the world, which we all must do regardless of our religious beliefs or faith practice. As Jewish people, we call the world to account simply through our continued existence. As LGBT people, we are no different. Let us all come together to gather up the shards of light that lie around our world and piece together a brighter light to illuminate our way through this New Year.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York City, the largest LGBT synagogue in the world.

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The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the political power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from the ground up. We do this by training activists, organizing broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and by building the organizational capacity of our movement. Our Policy Institute, the movement’s premier think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality and to counter right-wing lies. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Cambridge.