For parents of grade school children, it is Back to School Night season. This week, as my husband and I squeezed into the little 4th-grader chairs, we learned from our child’s teacher about a class-bonding activity they experienced. The children created pictures to represent themselves as they are known to others. Then they created pictures to represent themselves in a way that is unknown to others. With great bravery, students presented their hidden selves to the class. One shared her cerebral palsy, another, his parents’ divorce. Students felt the support of teachers and classmates as they shared what might be hidden.
Even in the most supportive environment, authentic expression to others — and even just to ourselves — can be a challenge. It is natural for human beings to create labels to understand one another. Yet, all too often these categories limit possibility, even humanity. This is not new.
This Shabbat, we study the story of creation in Bereshit, so beautifully chanted tonight by Ruth Schacter. In the story, when human beings are created, and then split into male and female — binary, I know — when human is split into male and female, who is the first woman?
Eve, says the Torah. Yet, in the midrash the rabbis imagine the story of an alternative first woman: Lilith.
Lilith is Adam’s original wife until she is banished from his world. In a cautionary tale, Lilith is described as a woman with strength, power, voice… even opinions. In her rebelliousness, Lilith strays outside of tradition’s expectations for women. Lilith likes to be on top. Scary situation for the sages of old– so uncomfortable, they imagine she was a demon. And so, as a warning to us all, the rabbis replace Lilith with Eve.
Lilith refuses to confine herself to gender roles — or what I would call, gender restrictions. Although, as the rabbis tell the tale, Lilith is exiled from the garden, I wonder if it is really the reverse. Perhaps, she understands: the garden is not ready for her; she is living in a place where she is not accepted for who she is, or seen as her true self. So she leaves. Because what’s the point of living in Gan Eiden — the Garden of Eden — if you cannot be yourself and fully experience your life? One can only really exist in the garden, if she is authentic.
At last week’s congregational Board Meeting, Philadelphia’s LGBTQ synagogue Beth Ahavah merged into Rodeph Shalom. Several years ago, when Congregation Beth Ahavah first made its home at Rodeph Shalom, we partnered to create an event to celebrate National Coming Out Day. Four panelists shared their personal stories, about their experiences coming out as gay or lesbian to friends, family and co-workers.
Each story was powerful and unique. One point in particular has stuck with me all of these years. A woman who was telling her story of coming out as a lesbian described the impact of coming out of the closet. She said the difference went far beyond relating her sexuality to her community. Her entire world changed. She brought a new authenticity to relationships and could see others more clearly, as well. And, here’s the symbol that really stuck with me: She said that once she came out of the closet, she could experience the world so much more fully, that even food tasted better. (That’s how you know it was a Jewish coming out story.) Because even at a feast, in Gan Eiden — the Garden of Eden — if you cannot be yourself you cannot fully experience your life.
The closet, can confine any of us, queer or not. Coming Out Day honors the LGBT community’s struggle to come out of the closet. But you don’t have to be in an oppressed sexual minority to know the challenge of wrestling with identity and authenticity. Whatever your sexual orientation or gender identity might be, you know what it means to search for ways to break through restrictions, and express your truth– you know because you are human.
This summer, while I served on faculty at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Harlam, I led one of the units in an activity about telling our own truth.
(By the way, I had proposed to the camp that I could lead these teen-agers in a program about sensitivity around transgender issues. They said the just did such a program two years ago, and transgender was old news.)
So, I led a program about telling our truth. We explored the reasons why we are afraid to show who we really are. We discovered that, so often, we are afraid to show our true selves, for real reasons–we have something to lose. But we also studied Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov, who teaches: “Our greatest spiritual stumbling block is pachad–phantom fear–the fears that are not even real.”
Now, I don’t know what it is to come out to friends, family or co-workers as gay. I don’t know what it is to have to come out again and again in every new encounter. Or to have multiple wedding anniversaries as each state or religion has opened to same sex marriage at different times. I don’t know what it is to be so rejected by society that I am thrown out of my family, or pushed into a high-risk lifestyle that can make one prone to violence. And I don’t know what it is to hold a true fear that I could be evicted or fired because of who I am. Still, I know the LGBTQ community welcomes my A– my being an ally. I can, and each of us can, honor the struggle and the journey.
This week, and especially at our Coming Out Day Panel that Prism, our new Connection Group supporting LGBT life at RS, will offer Wednesday night, our congregation honors all who have found ways to push aside or chip away at the spiritual stumbling blocks. All who have found the courage to determine their pachad, their fear, is not real. And we also honor all of those who struggle in pachad, in fear, who still search for ways to release themselves from the confinement of the closet. Our congregation ever seeks to be a safe place, where we can be our true selves.
Perhaps, Lilith understands: the garden is not ready for her; she is living in a place where she is not accepted for who she is or seen as her true self. So she leaves. Because what’s the point of living in Gan Eiden — the Garden of Eden — if you cannot be yourself and fully experience your life? One can only really exist in the garden, if she is authentic.
Perhaps, we understand when we are living in a place where we are not seen as our true self. So we leave. Because what’s the point of living in Gan Eiden — the Garden of Eden — if we cannot be ourselves and fully experience our lives? We can only really exist in the garden, if we are authentic.
May we come closer to that kind of Garden of Eden.