Why I Choose to be a Lesbian Rabbi

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April 14, 2010

When my daughter, Yeshi, was born over 26 years ago, we welcomed her into our family with a Jewish naming ritual. As part of our traditional naming rituals, we pray, among other things, that our children get married.

I remember struggling with this blessing because at that time, my partner and I were not married—and could not be married. The Jewish wedding was not intended for, nor had yet been reclaimed by lesbians or gay men. The rabbis who created that blessing many hundreds of years ago, did not imagine that their great grandchildren would be gay or lesbian and would yearn for inclusion in Jewish tradition by being married Jewishly. I wanted to make sure, from the beginning of Yeshi’s life, that she knew that she could be whoever she was and love whoever she loved. We changed the blessing formula. We hoped that she found love in her life.

Our world has changed since Yeshi was born. After many years of progressive congregations working towards an inclusive Judaism, many of us now find the sanctity of marriage under the protection of the Jewish wedding canopy, the chuppah. Large progressive congregations in big cities have LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) havurot. Just four years ago, I became one of the first open lesbians ordained in my very progressive rabbinical program, joining a growing number of gay and lesbian (and now transgender) rabbis.

However, I wonder even today how comfortable we really are with gender and sexual difference. I don’t identify as a “lesbian rabbi” at my congregation because I feel there is so much more of me and my rabbinate. I don’t want to have a label attached, like “she’s the lesbian rabbi.” I want to be thought of as the “wise, thoughtful, genuine, funny, authentic rabbi.”

And yet, I bring to my rabbinate the experience of having been in lesbian relationships since I was 17 and becoming a mother at 27. I have experienced the joys and challenges that experience has given me. Because of my background and experience, I am sensitive to issues of inclusion and exclusion in programs, liturgy, language, and theology. I care about gender equality. I care that all children know that they are totally supported for who they are and have the freedom to know who they are. Similarly, living in India when I was five has influenced my understanding of class and racism. Having survived the suicide of my sister as a young teenager has affected my relationship to grief and mental health. None of these experiences define who I am, but they inform who I am and what I have to offer as a spiritual leader.

Even though I have been in a committed lesbian relationship for 16 years, a lesbian mother for 26 years, and am now an out lesbian rabbi, my full coming out story is still unfolding. I have realized, recently, that there is a way in which I continue to hide my true self because I am afraid of being too gay or too feminist. I worry that my refusal to think of myself or be thought of by others as the LESBIAN RABBI actually puts me back into a kind of closet.

I fear that if I embrace the identity of Lesbian Rabbi that people will make assumptions about my agenda that are not true. But truthfully, I do have a large vision of what I hope to accomplish as a rabbi in my lifetime. I am a rabbi because I believe that Judaism offers a healing place for all of us through spirituality, study of our wisdom traditions (Torah), community involvement, and Jewish practice. I care about teaching our children about our traditions and how to be a good member of the human family and a responsible caring member of this planet. I care that every child and every adult feel supported for who they are. I care that our communities value the involvement of those traditionally on the fringes. But most of all, I care about bringing the presence of God, as we each experience God, into our lives.

I wonder how my rabbinate would be different if I wasn’t spending so much energy being careful not to offend parents or others in my congregation by being too lesbian? I might be able to be a role model or a safe place for a young gay or questioning teen. I would engage in the conversation of gender equality in my synagogue with more comfort. I would integrate my family with the life of the community to the level that most rabbis do. More than three people in my community would know my partner’s name, work, or skills. I might put her photo on my desk next to my daughter’s. A parent might reach out to me concerned about a child or relative who is coming out. I might speak out against homophobia in the schools. I might work on outreach efforts so that all families know they are welcome.

I know that we welcome and affirm each other most when we welcome and affirm ourselves. I am proud to find ways to continue to affirm all parts of my humanity, and to be known as a “wise, thoughtful, genuine, funny, authentic, and lesbian rabbi.”

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