Bruhim Habaim. Good Evening & Welcome! It is an honor to speak here tonight.
I want to thank Linda and Rabbi Anson. Over Rosh Hashanah, they both shared beautiful and compelling stories of life passages in this year that were made bearable by the blessings of community, and they asked you to contribute to keep this congregation strong.
Tonight, on Kol Nidre, I do not have a story of a life passage to share.
I do feel blessed by this community, though. Jake and I first came to Kol HaNeshamah in late October 2003, just after High Holidays and only weeks after Jake had given birth to our eldest son, Henson. We came to Kol HaNeshamah seeking a Jewish congregation where we could study and build community in our full, complex, some might even say interesting, humanity.
Many people have described KHN as an “inclusive” community over the years. But that is not how I would describe this congregation. When I think of being a queer person, a lesbian and the partner of an out trans man, I do not believe I am “included” here. I bristle when Kol HaNeshamah is described in that manner. I don’t need to be included here. The trouble with “inclusion” is that it presumes that someone else is in the center, that this person in the center is a fully legitimate, fully enfranchised Jewish person, and that this someone is obviously NOT gay. It posits a Judaism where someone, who could not be me, is in the position to choose to “include” me.
But that is not my experience here. I am not included, because this is already mine. I don’t have to be included, because this community assumes a Judaism that already belongs to me. As a woman, a lesbian, a social change advocate, an opposer of occupations, a feminist, a mother. As all these things, I was blessed as one who came. Here, I was never cast as “other” by the double-edged sword of inclusion.
This community is an odd sort of space. A place where straight people and queer people hang out together, integrated, neither a guest in the other’s world. You may not know this, but this is still truly a rare occurrence. Yes, there are now many, many straight places where folks are happy to have me show up, and so many queer places where straight folks are welcome too. But a place where the material conditions of queer Jewish people’s lives shape everything about how all of us build community together, a mixed multitude of LGBTS’s. Imagine that.
It doesn’t mean that the legacy of exclusion has been wiped away, or that there is no need for tshuvah, for reparation, for repair. It doesn’t mean that I will never make incorrect assumptions about someone’s gender or that I will never roll my eyes when someone says “bride and groom” instead of “brides and grooms”. But, it does mean that all of this is fully mine. And fully all Jews’ and their families’ who want to strengthen Am Israel.
It’s true, Queer Jewish people have historically and are still excluded from Jewish congregations.
It’s so sad… that Jewish congregations over time and over space have had to suffer existing without our fabulousness. It grieves me to think of so many straight Jews denied the chance to be in community with their LGBT brothers and sisters, diminished by the exclusion of us. Judaism hobbled, unable to move forward with all its strength. Just as it grieves me to think of how long Jewish men had to suffer in synagogue without hearing the voices of their sisters, and mothers and daughters and partners and friends chanting Torah and praising Adonai. Or how long congregations suffered for the loss of their loved-ones who created families with partners who were not Jewish. And many many other exclusions that diminished Am Israel and prevented us from being all that our people was meant to be.
This is one of the core reasons KHN has a no-ticket policy and an open invitation to the Jewish community at High Holy Days. It is part of our on-going work to repair the on-going harm of such exclusions and is part of our commitment to ensure that Jews can find a path back to a community. Not to be included in spite of their difference, but to be blessed as one who comes.
This community is precious to me. A rare thing of great value.
So, I am here tonight, on Kol Nidre, the most fraught night of the year, not to share about a life passage when your ingenuity and your presence changed mine, but to ask you for your money.
As you may know, I am not just a lesbian, I am also your Treasurer.
And, because it is Kol Nidre, and time is short and this is no night to beat around the bush or speak in riddles, I will tell you that we do not really have enough money to have services here. Each year, for several years, our budget has fallen short, tiny bit by tiny bit and it is adding up.
And, as Treasurer, I spend a lot of time thinking about the consequences. Worrying that, perhaps this year, we don’t honestly have enough money to hold the space of welcome that others held for us, held for me. I pass the donation box at the entrance, and see the donation envelopes on the seats. And I know that many of you, guests and members, have donated and still more will donate, and yet I worry.
You may find this next bit comforting, as I do, but it turns out, this is an ancient worry. Our people have been trying to sort this out for millennium.
Nearly a thousand years ago, Maimonides, worrying over this same problem, created a “Ladder of Tzadakah”, a model of justice, charity, giving.
The Rambam said that each of the eight rungs on the Ladder of Tzadakah were blessed. But, just as the rungs of the ladder take you higher, these levels of Tzadakah can take one “higher” as well.
The highest level of Tzadakah is to give such that there is no more need. To help someone find a living wage job, or give a loan to start a business or to, say, set up a small endowment to fund our annual open High Holy Day services. (This would be amazing, and if you think it is possible for your family. Please let me know and we will figure it out.)
The next levels involve giving in a manner that preserves the dignity of the receiver and the righteous humility of the giver. There is an interesting theme of these levels, these levels demonstrate that effectiveness matters, but that any misgivings that I might have that my donation will not be put to good use do not exempt me from the mitzvah of giving. I am simply charged with becoming more involved to ensure a meaningful outcome of my Tzadakah.
The final rungs, are these: Giving before you have been asked. Giving after you have been asked. Giving joyfully, but less than you are rightfully obligated to give. And finally, giving begrudgingly.
Again, the Rambam esteems each of these levels. Each is blessed and is a step of Tzedakah.
I think the ladder is brilliant. (Not that the Rambam needs me to vouch to you for his wisdom.)
The metaphor of a ladder gives us so much to work with. A ladder is a tool that can’t be used with just a top rung, or two top rungs, or three. A ladder needs all of its rungs in order to work.
The Rambam says that all of these ways are blessed. And I agree, we need all of these rungs in order to meet our obligations of maintaining a Jewish congregational home for all Jews who need it. Of making tsuvah for past exclusions. Of preserving our people, our culture and our approach to the world. Of giving money as a means to justice.
We need some who can offer a transformational gift, and some who can give anonymously to be used as its needed best, and some who direct their contribution, and some who seek to give before they are asked, and some who give joyfully after, and some who give happily but not quite as much as they should, and some who will still give even when they feel let down or frustrated or are otherwise NOT into it.
Indeed, I think that, at some point, each of us will be called upon to make Tzadakah from each rung. To write out the check, to fill out the donation envelope, to approach the donation box…with a grin or a grimace.
So, tonight, I want to ask you. No matter which blessed rung of Tzadakah you may be standing on at this moment. Whether you feel inspired or irritated, I am asking you to contribute to Kol HaNeshamah, so that, together, we may continue these community celebrations of High Holy Days, that we may indeed continue the work of our entire congregation, so that we may continue to transform inclusion…into homecoming…into home.
May you be inscribed for a sweet and prosperous year.