Image: It is said that the tent of Abraham was open on all four sides. This is the tent of a modern bedouin household, also open on four sides to the desert around. (Pixabay)
A candidate for conversion once said to me, “I am glad that my name will be ‘bat Avraham v’Sarah,’ because my family of origin was so dysfunctional. It’s like I get a new family.” We had an interesting discussion.
That comment comes to mind every time I read Parashat Vayera, because it is difficult to imagine a family story more troubling than that of the extended family of Abraham. In this parashah alone, Lot offers his young daughters for rape, Abraham offers Sarah to Abimelech as a concubine, Sarah demands that Hagar and Ishmael be tossed out to die, and Abraham acquiesces to her demand. For a finale, Abraham meekly accepts the command to take a knife to his son Isaac. Next to this stuff, the soaps are tame.
As Judith Plaskow points out in The Torah, a Women’s Commentary, God is implicated in the violence in the text, commanding it, supporting it, or failing to comment. She asks, can we read these stories to strengthen our resolve to hold both ourselves and God accountable?
The lone voice against violence in this portion is that of Abraham, who advocates for hypothetical good people in Sodom. Abraham is abundantly imperfect – he did not choose to advocate for Sarah, or Hagar, or Ishmael, or even Isaac. Abraham could and did speak up for strangers, even though his track record at home wasn’t very good.
Abraham was imperfect. We’re all imperfect. Some of us come from wonderful families, and some of us don’t. However, we don’t have to come from perfectly happy backgrounds to speak up for those who are suffering or under attack.
Each of us faces choices about what we will allow to go unchallenged, and when we will speak up. May we be inspired by our imperfect ancestor to stand up for what is right and good when our time of testing comes.
This d’var Torah appeared in the CCAR Newsletter in a slightly different form.
This is an updated version of a post I originally published on Open Salon in September of 2010. In thinking about the things I’m grateful for this LGBTQ Pride Month, it occurred to me it was still very timely.
I posted it again in 2012, when things had changed a lot. And now I find I’m reposting it again, partly as a reminder that we’ve come a long way, and partly as a warning that if we are not vigilant in preserving our progress, we may be back there someday, heaven forbid. Here’s my 2015 version.
I came out in 1988, just after a rancorous divorce became final. A very nice woman asked if I’d ever tried kissing another woman, and a few minutes later it was clear to me that I’d been barking up the wrong tree all my life. It was a moment of great joy, followed by sheer panic.
I had two little boys, ages 4 and 6, and nothing, absolutely nothing, was more important to me than the two of them.
Was I going to mess them up for life? Was I going to lose them? Should I just declare celibacy and give it up? I wrote to an acquaintence who had been “out” many years, with two daughters from a previous marriage, and poured out my fears. She wrote me back with the phone number for the National Center for Lesbian Rights saying, “Call them. Do whatever they tell you.” Then she said my kids were going to be fine.
I did, and they are. But there’s much, much more to it than that.
The attorney to whom NCLR referred me informed me that for the umpteenth time in my life, I was the Queen of Dumb Luck. My divorce had become final in one of the very few counties in the United States where my orientation alone was not grounds for taking my kids from me in 1988. My best bet was to come out of the closet completely, so I did. On March 17, 1988, I phoned my ex and told him. To his credit, it has never been an issue.
I told the boys that I had fallen in love with a girl. They liked her. Unlike their boring mom, she was good at catch and knew everything about baseball. Sure, fine, and what’s for dinner?
The kids were in kindergarten and first grade, and there I wavered. Surely this was my private business. Surely it wasn’t appropriate to phone up the principal and say, “Hi, I’m a lesbian.” So I waffled along for a while, hoping for the best. And that’s where I went wrong.
Aaron began getting into fights at school. The teacher called. I went in to chat, and it turned out that he was out there defending my honor. The words “gay” and “fag” were favorite schoolyard epithets (in first grade!) and whenever someone used them, he took it personally on my behalf. He told them to take it back, and then two little boys would roll on the ground, fighting.
I outed myself immediately to the teacher, explained that this was a young man defending his mother — and please, could we just ban those words on the playground?
“You are what?” she gasped, and when I repeated it, she said she’d have to take it up with the principal. Over the next few weeks it became clear that the words “fag” and “gay” were a lot more acceptable than a lesbian mom and her spawn, and we needed to find a new school if my kids were going to feel remotely safe in class.
Finding a new school where we could be out as a queer family turned out to be quite the project in 1988, even in the liberal East Bay of the liberal San Francisco Bay Area. Initially I was hopeful: “diversity” was a big buzzword. So I went from school to school, asking directly if “diversity” included “lesbian parented children.” I was privileged to have the means to check out every school in town, and I was hustled out of most of their admissions offices like an unwanted peddler. [All those places now trumpet the fact that they love queer families, and all I can say is, hallelujah. I am not naming names, because the guilty parties have mended their ways.]
God bless St. Paul’s Episcopal School. When I asked the admissions director, Laroilyn Davis, if a lesbian family would be welcome at St. Paul’s, she said, “It’s time we included a family like yours.” In the years to come, the administration there always had our backs: individuals might find our presence distasteful, but there was never any question that we belonged.
But the damage was done. My children spent far too long in a situation where they knew we were a second-class family, where we were the objects of open disgust. I am well aware that my younger son is a social worker partly because he has a special affinity for children who don’t feel safe. His older brother will still offer to punch you out if you use the word “fag.”
And as for me, I am torn between gratitude for being the Queen of Dumb Luck, who came out in the most liberal area in the country, who had the means to seek out a safe place for her children, who had legal support and moral support and two courageous sons — and fury that any of that was necessary.
Things are much better for LGBTQ families in California now than they were in 1988. We are kidding ourselves, though, if we think that Marriage Equality fixes everything. There is still a long road ahead for employment rights, immigration rights, and for the simple safety of transgender persons. We are not done.
When we discriminate against any group of people, we are all the less for it. When are we going to figure that simple fact out?
A student asked me today, “What can I do, when both sets of grandparents go crazy with gift-giving in December? It’s as if it is a competition!”
The question set me to thinking about my grandmothers. Before I go any further, I want to be clear: I loved both my grandmothers and I know that they both loved me.
Due to circumstances, I didn’t get to see much of one grandmother. She traveled a lot, and sent me beautiful dolls from every place she visited. Those dolls enriched my life: I learned about other cultures, about climate and geography. I kept the dolls in a cabinet, and enjoyed looking at them and dreaming about all the places they represented.
I have only a few vivid memories of that grandmother. She hated waste (we’re alike that way) and she thought I should take French in high school (I took Spanish.) The conversations I remember best are from a train ride we took from Chicago to San Francisco. I remember that she taught me how to play canasta. She always kept ginger ale for children. Other than that, I don’t remember a great deal about her, which is really quite sad.
My other grandmother took me along on errands. I learned a lot of my values from her, just watching the way she treated people. I saw her give money to poor people when they asked for help. When there was an obituary in the paper about someone she vaguely knew, she’d say, “Get dressed up, we’re going to the funeral home!” She taught me the power of simply showing up.
She loved to drive a little (maybe a lot) too fast, but she taught me to drive after my father had given up in despair. I still hear her voice when I have to wait a long time for a left turn: “Just wait, Punkin, the right opening will come. There’s no rush. You’re doing fine.”
She always told me what I was doing right; her silences told me what I was doing wrong. When I became an adolescent, she had a lot to be silent about, but she persisted in telling me when she was proud of me. The only painful memory I have of her was my own failure: when she was dying she tried to talk to me about death, but to my eternal regret, I changed the subject.
So this is what I told my student: If the grandparents want to compete, you can’t stop them. But remind them that the way to “win” the competition is with relationship: get to know your grandchildren. Let them get to know you. Share your values by example: don’t tell, show. Expensive gifts are not memories. Tell stories. Take them along.
My grandmothers died two months apart, in the spring and summer of 1974. One I remember faintly with fondness and gratitude; the other is key to the person I grew up to be, and I mourn her still.
The photos above are the only ones I have of either grandmother. Neither conveys their true beauty.
Sometimes the search terms on Google that bring people to this blog break my heart. “Will God be mad at me if I don’t have kids?” – that question came from an anguished heart. It deserves a reply.
The very first commandment in Genesis has to do with offspring. God says to Adam and Eve:
And God blessed them; and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.’ (Genesis 1:28)
In traditional Jewish law this has been interpreted to mean that every Jewish male has a duty to father children, if he is able.
First: note that the obligation is on the male, not the female. I could speculate about the reasons for that, but I’ll just leave it there. Old-time Judaism was very patriarchal.
As a rabbi in the Reform tradition, I am inclined to look at the qualifier: “if he is able.” Ability, in a modern context, includes the ability to provide financially and emotionally for a child’s healthy development. If a person has serious doubts about their ability to do either of those things, then it seems legitimate for that person to question if parenthood is for them.
At the same time, I feel compelled to note that Jews are a tiny minority in the world. We comprise only 2% of the US population. Out of the world’s population, we are only 0.02% – a tiny, tiny fraction. Every Jewish child is an investment in the Jewish future, a continuation of thousands of years of tradition.
However, your original question, “Will God be mad?” is a little different. God knows what is in your heart, what your true situation is. If you are not able to have children, or to raise them properly, God knows that.
I believe there are many ways to meet the obligation to “be fruitful and multiply.” One is to be part of that famous village that it takes to raise a child:
Support the synagogues where those children will be educated.
Volunteer to teach, or to raise funds to support religious school.
Befriend families. Many are far from grandparents and other family support.
Nurture other “children” in the community: be welcoming to converts to Judaism.
Smile and welcome families in services. The noise a child might bring is the sound of the Jewish future.
I believe that this is a mitzvah that can best be addressed as a community. Supporting young parents and growing children is something all of us can do, no matter what our situation.