Mardi Gras – and a special sermon

March 8, 2016 by J-Wire Staff
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As over 70 members of Sydney’s GLBTI community prepared for last weekend’s Mardi Gras, the Great Synagogue’s Rabbi Dr Ben Elton had a special message of support.

70 marchers participated in Dayenu’s  gold and silver presenting the message ‘Let Your Light Shine’.

The float consisted of a Star of David that included a menorah and was gold and shiny. As part of the float was a mannequin also wearing gold and with a rainbow cape. The marchers also demonstrated prepared choreography to the massive crowds who lined up to watch the parade.

The Great Synagogue’s Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton delivered the following sermon on the morning of Mardi Gras:

“It is fairly common, in this Synagogue and others, for the Rabbi to give a sermon relevant to a public occasion or recent event: ANZAC Day, UIA Shabbat, the opening of the Law Term.

I wonder if this is the first time a Sydney Rabbi has given a Mardi Gras sermon.

This evening, while we are enjoying the Oneg Shabbat, 10,000 members of the gay community will march through Sydney. This is not an event that is easy to ignore. The presence of a large, self-confident and prosperous gay community is a fact of life in Sydney. More than that, the city and its institutions have embraced Mardi Gras, and it is celebrated and promoted by the large parts of the wider community. And, we should not forget that the gay men and women are not just part of ‘them’, they are also part of ‘us’. One float in the parade is sponsored by Dayenu, the Jewish gay group.


Photo: Toby Evans

As the gay community has become more public, and gay individuals have insisted on their place in the Jewish community, we have to formulate a response which is true to our principles, to all of our principles, and which is both authentic and persuasive. Jewish leaders have not had much time to work on the issue. Thirty years ago gay marriage was an extreme position or a joke, and now it is the law of the United States of America, and may come to Australia. Three decades is not a long time for traditional Judaism to work out how to respond, we tend to work over a longer timeframe. But the question is urgent and leaders have to find answers. 

This is a special Shabbat for several reasons. We welcome Bnai Akiva for their Shabbaton, we celebrate the Shabbat Kallah of Rebecca Solomons prior to her marriage to Daniel Gregor, and for all shules all over the world, it is Shabbat Shekalim. Every year at the start of Adar the Beth Din would announce that the annual tax for the upkeep of the Temple was due, and each adult male was obliged to give a half shekel. We recall this yearly event by reading about the origin of this contribution, the instruction issued when the Tabernacle was originally constructed  that in addition to any other donations they might make, each man over twenty was required to give a half shekel. 

זֶה יִתְּנוּכָּלהָעֹבֵר עַלהַפְּקֻדִיםמַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶלבְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ:

This they shall give, every one that passes among them that are numbered, half a shekel of the shekel of the sanctuary

These silver coins were melted down to make the sockets which attached to the bottom of the boards which formed the Mishkan. They were a very practical part of the construction, and gave the Tabernacle weight and stability, and stopped it from falling over.


Photo: Toby Evans

The half shekel was also the means for taking a census; the coins were collected, counted and the number was known. This is rather different to a modern census, when the officials record name, age, address and occupation. Simply collecting and counting up coins to find a number removes all the individuality, it seems to dehumanise, and reduce a person to a statistic.

I believe the half shekel contribution was teaching something different. There is a famous rabbinic parable, which explores the difference between God and Man. It explains that when a human strikes a series of coins, they all look the same, but when God strikes coins, when He creates people, they all look different. Human beings are not coins, they are not identical and interchangeable, they are each unique and special. In which case, why does the Midrash use the imagery of coins? Because there is something in common among all people. Every one of us is created in the image of God, we are each precious and beloved. When the people gave their half shekel the differences between them disappeared, there was no rich and poor, righteous and sinful, clever or simple. The half shekel sends a message that while those distinctions are important, they are not all that is important. The half shekel reminds us of what we have in common. We are all part of the same people and the same community.

The halfness of the half shekel has often been noted. The contribution was not complete, not whole. There is no one without lacking or deficiency. The only difference is what that incompleteness is. I recently saw a line on Facebook which really struck me: ‘Don’t judge someone just because they sin differently than you.’ We do that all the time. We know about ourselves that we haven’t got everything right, but we look down on people who are essentially in the same position as ourselves, if their shortcomings happen to be different to our own. We love and respect our family and friends, even though we know they are not perfect, because their imperfections are familiar and recognisable, but if someone is acting in ways we find strange, we find it easy to reject and condemn. But is the reason for our rejection the sin or the strangeness? And if it is the second, is our reaction legitimate or rather an expression of our own shortcomings?

The Rabbis tell us that when God told Moses to gather the half shekels, He showed him a coin of fire and told him: ‘this is what you are to collect’. God only rarely communicated to Moses using fire. He revealed Himself in fire in the burning bush. He showed Moses a Menorah of fire because he could not grasp the design from a verbal description, and He showed him the half shekel of fire. This third vision is the odd one out. What is so mysterious or complicated about a half shekel that it needs a fiery vision? The enigma was not the coin, but what it represented, the human being. Every person has to be respected as an unfathomable mystery, and to even think about coming to a judgement is a massive act of arrogance.

If we refuse to make these divisive, destructive and conceited distinctions about the worth and the welcome of another person, then we are able to do wonderful and holy things. We can build a dwelling place for God. We can cast the silver sockets which establish and support the sacred structure, we can bring heaven down to earth. The alternative is truly terrible. This week a young woman published her story. She is from an Orthodox rabbinic family, and she was teaching Talmud at an Orthodox high school. She decided it was time to reveal to the world that she was a Lesbian. This is some of what she wrote in her article:

I still loved Orthodoxy and deeply wanted to remain part of that community. I spoke to the administration and members of the board at my school. I was informed that if I came out as gay while at the school, the administration would not support me. If parents asked to have their children removed from my classes, the school would do so, and I would be at risk of losing my position. Such a hostile and unsafe work environment was not tenable for me, and in June 2013 I left my job.

The following year was the most difficult one in my coming-out process. I was devastated. I suffered from depression. I did not know what to do with the broken pieces that had once comprised the framework of my life.

With the support of many true friends, I slowly began to rebuild my life. I no longer identify as Orthodox. I understand the power and beauty of belonging to the Orthodox community and the power and beauty of my life as I have chosen to make it now. Although I do not want to change my current life, I do not wish on anyone else the suffering that I experienced to get to this point.

This is not an acceptable way to continue. Unless we are more inclusive and welcoming we will turn away many, many Jews from the synagogue, from the community, from Judaism and from God. We will increase pain and diminish faith, and that is not the way of the Torah. 

Rabbi Ben Elton

Rabbi Ben Elton

All this is very easy to say. What about all the real and difficult issues that will arise when an Orthodox synagogue tries to acknowledge and incorporate gay members? What happens when it is time to make the hard decisions? Should a shule hold a Kiddush to celebrate a same sex union, or when a couple adopts a child? Should an Orthodox rabbi convert that child? Should both fathers be given an aliyah when their son in bar mitzvah? Should both mothers stand under the chuppah at their daughter’s wedding? Should we arrange prayers in the home of a bereaved gay partner? I do not know the answers to these questions, but I know they are questions. I do not have the solution but at least I recognise the problem, and that is an essential first step. We have to do the hard work to figure out how we address these issues, within our tradition but with compassion and a view to inclusion. We have done it before. We have found ways to maintain a place for those who do not keep kosher or keep Shabbat, or who have intermarried. The next frontier is the gay section of our community, and if we care about the Jewish community it is incumbent upon us to ask gay Jews to bear with us while we look for the answers.

Above all we have to keep the image of fiery half shekel always before us. We have to remember that any distinctions have to come second to what we have in common, we have to look to the sameness and not dwell on the difference. We have to recognise that imperfection is not restricted to other people, and we have to ask whether the distinction we sometimes try to make between saints and sinners is genuine, or whether is a smokescreen for prejudice. Finally, we have to remember that everyone is a mystery, that we have no idea about the internal life of another person, and all we can do is try to be loving.

This is not just a message for how we deal with gay Jews, it applies to us all, in all relationships, especially marriage. Rebecca, as we celebrate your Shabbat Kallah ahead of your marriage to Daniel we welcome you and your family, especially your parents Sandra and David, cherished members of our congregation. As I have got to know you, as we prepared together for the wedding, as you joined Hinda and me at our Shabbat table, I saw in you both deep chein, a word which is difficult to translate but which all who know you recognise as your grace, goodness and sweetness. It is already clear to me, that your life together will be marked by your understanding, your acceptance, your compassion for each other in all your complexity and even in your shortcomings, in the words of the song ‘all your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections’. You are bringing together your two half shekels, you are about to create something wonderful, may God bless you both. Amen.”

Rabbi Elton wrote to his congregants: ” I gave this sermon because I believe that is essential for the Jewish community to grapple with the question of how we include our LGBTQI members. I want to assure you all that The Great Synagogue is open and welcome to all, and if anyone would like to talk to me confidentially about challenges they are facing, I am always available.”

Mardi Gras participant Molly Fields told J-Wire: “Marching for Dayenu during Mardi Gras was both a thrill and an honor. Marching for Dayenu not only supports the LGBTQI people in Jewish community but shows the world that we can make a difference even if it’s in one person’s life. Mardi gras is about showing pride in one’s true identity, supporting equal rights for all and showing there is a future for those who are struggling to come to terms with who they are. The parade shows that there is help out there for anyone who needs it no matter what background.  We are all equal and I’m proud to Support this beautiful community.”


4 Responses to “Mardi Gras – and a special sermon”
  1. Michael Barnett says:

    A powerful statement. Hopefully the first of many more from Rabbi Elton.

  2. Roy Freeman says:

    “Should a shule hold a Kiddush to celebrate a same sex union, or when a couple adopts a child? Should an Orthodox rabbi convert that child? Should both fathers be given an aliyah when their son in bar mitzvah? Should both mothers stand under the chuppah at their daughter’s wedding? Should we arrange prayers in the home of a bereaved gay partner? I do not know the answers to these questions, but I know they are questions. I do not have the solution but at least I recognise the problem.”

    It seems we still have a long way to go. One day soon, I hope the good Rabbi Dr realises that the answers to these questions is “yes” and he’ll stop seeing them as a problem. Then we will have made REAL progress.

    • Michael Barnett says:

      100% agree Roy. We are all people. We all deserve respect and dignity in our life and in our death. At the same time our significant relationships and families deserve equal treatment.

  3. ben gershon says:

    better late then never the the progressive rabbis hae been there years ago


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