From time to time I find myself remembering Rochelle Millar. The world needs more Rochelles. The world also needs more Jonathans. They’re decent people. The world needs more decent people.
Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black and Rochelle Millar
Gays are people too. Jonathan Keren-Black. LBC 04/11/06
At the end of the Noah story, Noah plants vines, makes wine, and gets drunk. After all that he’d been through, you can hardly blame him! But in his drunken state, his usual sense of modesty and decency seems to have been set aside – something inappropriate happened. It is not at all clear what it was. It involved his son Ham, who may only have seen his father naked – whatever it was though, Ham was damned as a slave for all time.
In our own portion this week, Avram palms off his wife Sarai as his sister. She goes off to be one of Pharaoh’s wives. Clearly this is again an inappropriate, at least potentially sexual, relationship. And the bible abounds with such stories, such as Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar, who he thought was a prostitute, or Potiphar’s wife trying to entice Joseph.
The bible returns time and again to the theme of appropriate and inappropriate sexual relationships. You probably heard the story of Moses returning to the Israelites – I’ve got good news and bad news, he says. The good news is I’ve got it down to ten – the bad news is number seven is still in! So we are reminded that the prohibition against adultery even made it into the ten commandments.
Just because something may have been considered inappropriate to our ancestors of three thousand and more years ago does not mean it is necessarily the same for us today. For example, they decreed that if a woman was raped in a town, she and the rapist should both be put to death. The rationale is that if she wanted to, she could have called for help. Never mind that the rapist could be threatening her with a sharp flint or knife, or that no-one else dared go out to help. The kind of argument that rightly causes a furore in the western media even today if someone suggests it.
Bear in mind that the goal of our ancestors was to build a big, strong nation – to produce as many children as possible, to successfully conquer the land of Canaan. The first commandment, given to the animals and then repeated to humans, was P’ru U’rvu – be fruitful and multiply.
If anyone felt attracted to their own sex, that was not considered normal or permissible. It would not produce new children, more soldiers. And so, right in the heart of Leviticus, we seem to have two strong prohibitions on homosexuality – one who lies with a man as with a woman should be put to death. When, at a later stage, the ancient rabbis considered the matter again, they decreed that, even if you did have homosexual feelings, you should still marry and have children. It was not in the feelings that one was sinning against God, but in the action.
Let us wind forward to 1885. In Pittsburgh, the Reform movement of America held a conference and launched the so called Pittsburgh Platform, one of the formative documents of progressive Judaism. In part it read ‘we hold that the modern discoveries of scientific researches in the domain of nature and history are not antagonistic to the doctrines of Judaism, the Bible reflecting the primitive ideas of its own age…’. In other words, we do not consider the Torah to be binding on us, when it seems to conflict with our modern understanding and insight. Now in 1885 it is likely that many of those wise rabbis of the Pittsburgh platform may well have been strongly homophobic. Hopefully today we are not. When we say that all are created in the image of God, we must truly mean it. All are different, and in sexual identity, some are heterosexual, some are homosexual, and some are in between, or move over time in their sexual identity. Today we understand that some people have a mismatch between their physical and emotional sexual identity. None of this makes people better or worse, right or wrong. Progressive Judaism, progressive religions in general, should not be prejudiced against any sexual identity. We must address and check our own prejudice, and consider and treat each person as an equal creation of the one, all-loving God.
This is why I spoke last year and again last month at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Multicultural conference. So far as we are concerned, people can be Jewish and Gay, and indeed for years we have been ordaining outwardly gay rabbis within our movement. Rabbi Zylberman kindly directed me to a website and centre at Hebrew Union College for the study of human sexuality and Judaism. There I found a prayer for coming out, and even one to use whilst taking medication for changing gender.
I am reminded of what an orthodox rabbi said at the end of the Jewish Christian Muslim conference last year: What I have to go back and explain to my congregation is that I didn’t meet Christians and Muslims, I met PEOPLE. It is the same with the Queer conference. I didn’t meet Homosexuals and Gays and Queers and Lesbians and Trans-sexuals – I met people, with cares and concerns about their lives and our world, just like everybody else. Sometimes, people like to meet in interest groups, where they share something significant and feel safe and comfortable – like AFL, or an Italian, or an Israeli, background. So we shouldn’t be surprised when gays sometimes also prefer to meet together – indeed they probably face far more prejudice from wider society than Italians or even Israelis!
I am delighted, therefore, to say that we at LBC are able to offer the Aleph group for gay Jews a home for some of their Shabbat, Pesach and New Year Havurot. And gathering together is also empowering. The more numbers, the more so. This is why the Gay Pride rallies have become so important. You might be aware of the huge battle being waged, so far through the courts, but sadly perhaps this week also on the streets, in Jerusalem.
This week the High Court finally ruled that is could go ahead, but Yaacov Ederi, the minister responsible for Jerusalem, called on police commander Ilan Franco to reconsider and to transfer it to another city given the confrontations expected. MK Nissim Zeev of Shas also called for the march to be stopped, saying that the participants should be sent for treatment. According to him 90% of the residents of the capital are against this demonstration.
On Tuesday the police arrested 14 orthodox protestors at an anti-Gay Pride demonstration. On Thursday they released 8 of them. They are not allowed to be in Jerusalem during the next two weeks.
On Thursday evening it was reported that the parade may be cancelled. If the police manpower necessary to safeguard it will interfere with general police operations, they may cancel it, says. Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter. Sounds like he’s been got at!
I don’t have the latest update – but no doubt Israel will be back in the news again this week! And of course, I hope it goes ahead safely and spectacularly. Jerusalem is the capital for all Israelis, not just the ultra-orthodox – within which also, I understand, and as you would expect, there are more than a few gay Jews to be found.
The bible, as we saw, was preoccupied with what it considered to be inappropriate sexual relationships, and, though we would no longer accept its definitions, we would concur that there are appropriate and inappropriate sorts of relationships, and times and places. Sex is ultimately a personal and private matter, as long as it is not exploitative or harmful. Perhaps it is really not the realm of religion?
Finally, I mentioned Aleph a few moments ago, but Melbourne also has a Jewish lesbian group, and one of its key members over many years was a lovely woman named Rochelle Millar who I got to meet just a few times over the past few years. Rochelle was also involved in running the Australian Gay Multicultural council that organises the conferences. Like me, she hailed from the United Kingdom, though her accent revealed that she came from across the Scottish border. She arrived here when she was 14. Michael Barnett knew her for longer than I did so I thank him for this information. He tells me that Rochelle was very proud of being a gay woman, and also of being Jewish. Through both communities she made many lifelong friends and was loyal to them all.
Rochelle had an infectious laugh and smile and a sense of humour and outlook on life that made people want to be around her.
Sadly, the pneumonia with which she was first diagnosed turned out to be aggressive lung cancer, and her health deteriorated fairly rapidly over the past few months. Yet up to the very end Rochelle had a smile on her face and a laugh in her voice. She was an amazing woman that everybody loved and who loved everybody. I believe that this was the closest to a Jewish ceremony that she had, and I am proud to be able to share it with you and with Michael and her other friends who are here this morning. I think Rochelle would be smiling, and would be proud. And I hope that we, as individuals and as a community, will all be a little more open to those who are a bit different, in some way or other, from ourselves. After all, are we not all people, and all made in the image of the one, loving God?