Today we honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and the epic struggle for civil rights he led, and for which he paid the ultimate sacrifice. In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King said: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”
We cannot allow our own comfort and security to satiate us and callous us to the suffering of others. We cannot ignore the injustice rendered to some because we ourselves are not victims of injustice. It was Dr. King who taught us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And for men and women who are gay, bisexual, or transgendered, there is profound injustice in the State of Florida, in the United States of America, and around the world.
Just an hour ago, I had the privilege of standing beneath the Chuppah, the wedding canopy with David Hanowitz and Eric Gottlieb, surrounded by close friends and family, as we celebrated the first legally sanctioned wedding between two men on the bima of Temple Beth El. It was magical, it was holy, and it was legal. And it was redundant. It was redundant because two years ago, in that very space, we consecrated their wedding and their love in a celebration that was also magical, and holy, but not legal.
But more than the celebration of that wedding, why are we here tonight? Why has this congregation joined hands with the Anti Defamation League, Equality Florida and Northern Trust Bank to bring you all here?
The fact is I believe securing civil rights for the LGBT community is a Jewish imperative. In the Talmud, the rabbis try to find the once verse in the Bible that sums up the totality of Judaism. First they turn to the prophet Micah, who qualified Judaism into three ideas. He said:
“What is it that God demands of you? Only this: to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly in God’s presence.” – (Micah 6:8)
Isaiah based all the mitzvot on two ideas: “Keep Justice and Righteousness” – (Isaiah 56:1)
Amos reduced it to one: “Seek me and live.” – (Amos 7:5-6)
Rabbi Akiva said: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) This is the most important precept of the Torah.
But Ben Azzai said: “This is the book of the Generations … Humanity was created in God’s image.” This is an even greater principle.
Ultimately, the entirety of Judaism rests on these two ideas. The fact is, as Jews, we are obligated to love. We are obligated to reach beyond the confines of our own immediate selves and seek to build bonds of love and intimacy with each other.
The Holy One clearly had a problem with sex for its own sake. Pages of proscriptions in the book of Leviticus describe sexual encounters that are not founded in real intimacy and love as abominations. But what Ben Azzai tells us is that humanity is created in God’s own image. And that image is not gendered. The essential nature of our humanity is not male or female. The essential nature of our humanity is the spiritual energy that comes from love. All we are is love.
But too often we focus on the vessel that carries that love. We focus on the color of that vessel, or its gender, and assume that the vessel is really the self.
The fact is, God does not care whom we love, but that we love. And Ben Azzai taught us that the core of Torah is that we treasure the sanctity of each and every individual life, created in God’s holy image.
As we look back on our nation’s history, we see too many examples of where we as a society allowed for horrible injustices to be perpetrated because we were blinded by bigotry and ignorance, and unable and unwilling to treasure that sacred human sanctity embedded within us all. We look back with horror on the idea that we once considered a person 3/5 of a human being simply because of their African origin. We look back in disgrace that we once believed it appropriate for there to be separate water-fountains or restroom facilities for Caucasian and those of color. We look back with shame that we interred thousands of Japanese Americans and challenged their loyalty and their patriotism.
And we look back equally with disgust at the idea that there were once laws that banned sexual intimacy between two men, that our country devoted millions of dollars to root out men and women who sought to serve in their nation’s armed forces if they were found to be manifesting their love for someone of the same gender.
And someday, someday soon, God willing, we will look back on our society today with the same sense of disgust and embarrassment. God willing, soon and in our day, we will look back and ask ourselves how could we deny gay men and women the right to marry whomever they chose to love, how could we not think it criminal to deny someone housing, or employment, or service in a restaurant or hotel on the basis of someone’s sexual orientation.
It’s amazing to me that just ten years ago, a significant majority of the citizens of our state thought it right and just to enshrine in our state’s constitution the unjust banishment of the right for a person to marry another of his/her own gender. But, as Dr. King said, “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself …”
And it is manifesting itself here tonight. We who come together this evening are heeding the call from Moses across the centuries: “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice shall you pursue.”
On March 12, 1930, Mohandas Gandhi set out from his Ashram with a few dozen followers on a 240 mile march to the sea to make salt and establish justice for the oppressed people of India. By the time he arrived at the seashore almost a month later, there were tens of thousands of people walking with him.
The struggle for civil rights begins with a few dozen and culminates when a whole society says, no. We will no longer tolerate injustice. We will Move Forward Together until we achieve our dream of justice and peace.
We are on our way. Together let us move forward into a world that is healed of bigotry, injustice, and fear, into a new world where we raise the chuppah to celebrate the creation of a society where justice is championed for all, and God’s love and ours will spread a shelter of peace over everyone.