“Vayeira” Coming Out

By Rabbi Kuhn

Last Sunday, Cantor Frankel and I were honored to co-officiate at the wedding of our dear friends Michael Carr and Henry Seigel. Now, I have been to a lot of weddings in my day, but I’ve gotta tell you, this one was off the charts in terms of being exciting, thrilling, emotional and special.

This was the first same-gender wedding Cantor Frankel and I have done since Pennsylvania made it “LEGAL.” Rabbi Freedman officiated at Rich & Rick’s wedding Saturday night and Rabbi Maderer officiated at Steve Mirman and Kenneth Galipeau’s wedding a couple of weeks ago, so we are trying to make up for lost time!

Standing under the chuppah with Michael & Henry was an experience that I will never forget. This was not like the usual couple we marry. Henry & Michael have been together 32 years! They have been living in a monogamous, committed, loving relationship for 32 years! So, why would they feel that they needed to sign a marriage license and have a Jewish ceremony anyway? What possible difference would that little piece of paper make?

First of all, think what it must feel like to live in a relationship like they have for all these years, but it was not recognized as legal by the state. By the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, no less! The place where our nation of liberty and equal rights for all was founded.

The rest of us took these rights for granted – as given. Couples of one man, one woman have had the right to marry since the beginning of time.

But God created human beings in God’s image , “bzelem Elohim,” and that image includes all of us, not just some of us, including human beings with varying orientations. And in the very center of the Torah, in the spiritual heart of our Torah, God commanded us to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

To love means to respect, accept and to treat the other with dignity. To recognize the humanity in all people.

So, what must it have felt like for couples like Michael & Henry to finally be granted the right to marry by the state? Under the chuppah, when I said the words “I therefore pronounce you, Michael & Henry, legally wedded spouses, married in keeping with the laws of, yes the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” I could barely get the words out – I was so moved. And the wedding guests all cheered!

It took courage on the part of the Michael’s and Henry’s of the world – courage to persevere, courage to believe that one day they would be able to do this.

This is why they felt it was so important to sign that little piece of paper known as the Pennsylvania Marriage License , and to stand under a chuppah in this sacred space to pledge their lives to each other, even though they have pledged their lives to each other for 32 years.

Because this ceremony and this “license” was a confirmation of their lives, a validation of their relationship. A realization that our society is finally opening its heart to accepting all people as God’s creation.

Yes, much of our society is changing in our attitudes toward and acceptance Of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer human beings. At this time of year, we celebrate “coming out” even though October is “National Coming Out Month,” we at Beth Ahavah and Rodeph Shalom celebrate it all year. Think of the courage it took and still takes to come out. It is hard for most of us to imagine. Just in my lifetime, I have witnessed such a huge change in people’s attitudes about LBGTQ issues. Not that long ago, people did not want to talk about this. Some of Emily’s and my friends and family were gay, but they did not feel comfortable making it known , they chose to remain “in the closet” , hidden away in the dark.

In those days, they were afraid it would ruin their career or their relationship with their own family members, if they had come out.

It took a huge leap of faith to come out, for most. It meant being honest with yourself and with all those in your life. And today, our culture is changing, and most people are comfortable being open about their own humanity. But not all people and not in all places. There is still much work to be done until we have “shalom bayit” peace in all our households.

There is a beautiful scene in this week’s Torah portion “Va-yeira” (Gen.) which talks about “shalom bayit” “peace in the household.” Three visitors come to pay a call on Abraham & Sarah in their tent. Our tradition believes one of these visitors is the angel Gabriel, who comes to deliver a message to Abraham & Sarah that Sarah would have a baby (Isaac).   Abraham & Sarah were old. Upon hearing this news, Sarah laughs and says “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” In other words. Sarah knows that Abraham is too old to get her pregnant (a wife would know if her husband is not “up” for the task).

Abraham asks God why Sarah laughed, and God said that Sarah did not believe she could have a baby, because she was too old.

So God slightly changes the story in order not to hurt Abraham’s feelings. Our sages said “So great is shalom bayit that even God lied to Abraham.” Whether you think this was a lie or not, the point is that this story sends a message that we must be sensitive to others’ feelings.

The great sage, Hillel, commenting on this story says that you must never insult anyone; never bring a tear to another’s eye.

In Jewish tradition, there is a concept called “derech eretz,” which means “common courtesy” , “manners” , to be polite to others. Never insult and never hurt another’s feelings.

But “deruch eretz” can also mean “work.” We know that it takes very hard work to have empathy and understanding for the other.

And this, after all, is at the heart of the issue of accepting all people for who they are.

It is no mistake that there is a commandment in our Torah which is repeated 37 times “Accept the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The word for “stranger” is “ger” which means “the other”, those who are different from us, the minority. We, as Jews should understand this since we have been strangers, gerim, for most of our 3800 year history.

Today, we expand this understanding to include all people, to reach across the racial divide and to try to understand those of other religious beliefs and those who share different political views. If we are to lead the way in bringing “shalom bayit” in our own households, and in our world, let us see the humanity in all people, and let us open our hearts to each other and truly love our neighbor as ourselves.