Remembering Matthew Shepard as We Confront Homophobia Today

My 50th college reunion approaches, and it makes me aware of how much things have changed.

When I graduated from Hamilton College in 1968, it was an all men’s school, and none of my classmates was openly gay. By the time we celebrated our 25th reunion a good number had come out.

For much of my career, I was silent on the issue. I regret that silence because there are events, which force us to confront who we are and how we think. There are events, which motivate us to change.

For me such an event was the tragic death of Matthew Wayne Shepard. Murderous thugs savagely beat Matthew Shepard, and then hung him on a fence post like a scarecrow to die for only one reason in Laramie, Wyoming on October 6, 1998. He was a homosexual.

His horrible death taught me I could no long stand idly by the issues of rights for gay and transgender individuals. His death taught me that we are all either part of the problem or part of the solution.

Matthew Shepard could have been anyone’s brother, son cousin or friend. His horrible death evoked appropriate outrage across the country.

But his death also unleashed acts of homophobia and hatred too despicable for adequate description. A TIME Magazine article by Steve Lopez noted, “While his family prepared for his burial and spoke of Shepard’s gentleness and tolerant ways, a Kansas minister with a website called godhatesfags.com made plans, “to do a grave dance at the funeral.”

In Fort Collins, Colorado, some members of Colorado State University fraternities and sororities rode atop a homecoming float with a scarecrow figure, which resembled the body of Matthew Shepard, tied to a fence post.   The float makers attached a sign to the Shepard like figure, which read, “I’m gay.”

Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network noted, “People would like to think that what happened to Matthew was an exception to the rule, but it was an extreme version of what happens in our schools on a daily basis.”

For too long religious teaching has been part of the problem. To my sadness homosexual hatred finds its greatest support in the words of our Hebrew Scriptures

“Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.” (Leviticus 18:22) And, “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death — their bloodguilt is upon them” (Leviticus 20:13).

I have no cute exegetical tricks to re-interpret these passages.   Like many other biblical verses to which I could point they have no validity and make no sense in our times.

As Rabbi, Jerome Davidson, of Great Neck, NY, noted in reference to homosexual acts, “The Bible (only) knew of these acts in the context of war, coercion and idolatry– not in the context of loving, caring relationships.”

For me here is a prior, more enduring passage that supersedes those I quoted earlier: It is the Torah’s first story that teaches that God created human beings in God’s image, in the very image of God.

I believe homosexual men and women are the way they are because God made them that way. If God made people a certain way, how dare we judge them inferior to the way God made others?

When it comes to our LGBT neighbors, every day each of us must choose: Are we part of the problem or part of the solution?

 

 

 

Peacemaking on Periwinkle Way

Steve Fuchs & John Danner

Guest Blog by Rev. Dr. John H. Danner

This past weekend my congregation shared a pulpit exchange with our sisters and brothers who are part of Bat Yam–Temple of the Islands.

I preached at the Friday night service held by Bat Yam, and their rabbi, my friend Stephen Fuchs, preached at our nine and eleven o’clock services on Sunday morning. Such an exchange between Jewish and Christian rabbis and pastors is not unusual, but what makes this exchange somewhat unique is the simple fact that we don’t actually exchange pulpits, at least not pieces of furniture.

For you see, Bat Yam shares our building, shares our sanctuary, shares much of our life. We engage in joint outreach efforts, joint educational programs and joint fellowship activities.

I began my tenure here on Sanibel exactly eight years ago, and frankly, one of the key reasons I accepted this call was knowing of the unusual partnership that our two congregations had formed over the years. Twenty-seven years ago, Bat Yam was formed, and then took up residence here–and they’ve never left! We have lived together without benefit of marriage, so to speak.

And over that time we have grown evermore close in our work and our ministries, while still retaining our distinctly different ways of approaching the Divine.

Indeed, we celebrate the reality that we have serious differences, for that reminds us again and again that the Holy is beyond mere human capability to explain or define. And our individual understandings are enriched by sharing those of others. Indeed, being together as we are, helps us move past seeing one another as “the other” so that we might embrace one another as sisters and brothers, as children of the one same God.

These days I feel even more strongly that what we are doing, simply by sharing life together, is bearing witness in a world that needs to know people of faith, people of different faiths, can get along, can work together, can help repair the world, tikkun olom.

For while we are of different faiths, we share a common faith, a common trust, in the Maker of the Universe. And while we who are in the United Church of Christ, do not routinely begin any of our prayers with the words baruch atah Adonai eloheinu . . . we too join in praising the Lord, the Eternal One.

A wise Jewish teacher with whom I have more than a passing familiarity, once said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons and daughters of God.” It is my constant prayer that we are empowered to continue in our efforts at peacemaking right here on Periwinkle Way.

Dr. Danner is our “Landlord Pastor” at Sanibel Congregational UCC Church that is also home to Bat Yam Temple of the Islands.
For me Dr. Danner embodies everything a spiritual leader should be.  
SF

 

Spiritual Darkness Has Descended

Martin Luther King Day should be a celebration of freedom, equality, and advances in Civil Rights. It should be a day of light and hope.

Last year it was

On MLK Day, 2017, I had the great privilege of addressing the community-wide celebration of MLK in Albuquerque. I aimed my remarks at the predominantly Hispanic students, seniors of area high schools who were recipients of MLK College scholarships. I saw the light in their eyes as they spoke of their hopes and dreams.

But this year, MLK Day was a day of spiritual darkness.

It was a day when Cindy Garcia watched her husband, Jorge, of 15 years, who had lived in the USA for 30 years, escorted through the security gate of Detroit Int’l Airport and deported to Mexico. Cindy and their two adolescent children stood weeping at the gate.

Is this really America?

Is this the land built by immigrants? Is this the land where the Statue of Liberty stands sentry at New York Harbor, proclaiming Emma Lazarus’ immortal words, “Give Me your tired your poor your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?”

In last week’s Torah portion, God sends the penultimate plague upon the land of Egypt: Darkness! It was darkness so thick you could feel it. It was a spiritual darkness — the same darkness that threatens to extinguish the light in the Statue of Liberty in the United States today.

Darkness envelops us when children born in this country see their parents deported. Darkness envelops us when we see hard-working laborers treated like slaves.

Last week a number of us from Bat Yam Temple of the Islands stood up for dignity and respect at the Wendy’s on Highway 41 in Fort Myers.

Thousands of people passing by on the highway saw the demonstration, and hopefully our plea will reach the hearts of those who can bring about change.

The Chairman of the Board of Wendy’s, Nelson Peltz, is Jewish. I have tweeted and written him on Face Book to request a meeting asking him to subscribe to the Fair Food Practices program that would insure a living wage and safe working conditions for the Farm Workers of Immokalee, Florida, where 90% of the tomatoes consumed in the United States are grown. I want to tell him that it would cost Wendy’s one penny more per pound to buy Fair Food Program tomatoes harvested by the hard workers of Immokalee than it does to buy them from sweatshop farms in Mexico. That would come to $4,000,000 a year, not insignificant but as manageable for Wendy’s as it is for McDonald’s, Burger King, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Taco Bell and all the other food outlets that have subscribed to Fair Food Practices. Four million dollars should not be a daunting amount to Mr. Peltz, whose net worth exceeds 1.6 billion.

Until such time as Wendy’s complies, the demonstrators will take our business elsewhere, and urge everyone to do the same.

Although, the Torah teaches, darkness enveloped the land of Egypt; there was light in the habitations of the Hebrews (Exodus 10:23). Today as darkness descends on our country, let us continue to shine the light of unflagging pursuit of justice and righteousness!

And if it seems like our efforts amount to little and that we are spitting into the wind, let us remember the words of the second century Sage, Rabbi Tarfon, a very rich man who was a champion of the poor and disenfranchised. In response to the frustration we all feel in struggling against injustice, Rabbi Tarfon gave us a motto that sings out across the millennia:

“It is not incumbent on you to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot 2:16)

That is why the Torah tells us no less than 36 times, more than any other commandment, to stand up for the dignity of the stranger, the poor, the widow, and the orphan.

They cry out to us today with a sense of desperation more intense than any I have heard in my lifetime. We may not complete the sacred work of their redemption, but we must never stop trying.

 

 

 

Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

“For I have hardened his (Pharaoh’s) heart and the hearts of his servants … “ (Exodus 10:1)

On my list of most frequently asked questions is: Why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Why did God not simply “soften” Pharaoh’s heart, show him the error of his ways, and bring about the emancipation of the Hebrews in a peaceful and loving way?

Without question, Pharaoh’s arteriosclerosis is a complex subject. Traditional Jewish commentators point out that early in the encounters between Moses and Pharaoh, the text states: “Pharaoh’s heart stiffened,” (Exodus 7:22; 8:15) or “Pharaoh became stubborn” (Exodus 8:10; 8:28). Later, (beginning with Exodus 9:12) the text begins to say, “The Eternal One stiffened Pharaoh’s heart.”

This shift, according to the commentators, reflects the view that inertia—the unchecked hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (his stubbornness)—took the matter out of Pharaoh’s hands, and evil took on a life of its own.

In Studies…

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Etched Into My Heart

IMG_0754Cantor Simon and Rabbi Fuchs

Cantor Murray Simon, pictured with me in the photo above, composed a beautiful arrangement of one of my favorite prayers for our joint installation this past Shabbat Eve as clergy of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands, Sanibel, Florida. It is a great honor to work with him.

The joint installation ceremony for Cantor Murray Simon and me as clergy of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands on Shabbat Eve, January 5, 2018, is an evening I shall never forget.

Rabbi Paul Citrin, career-long friend of both Murray and me delivered a stirring keynote sermon.

Sanibel City Manager, Judy Zimomra, Jeanne Tobin, with whom I have shared so many significant life moments for more than 40 years, and Pastor John Danner of Sanibel Congregational UCC, which hosts our congregation, all added unique eloquence and flavor to the occasion in their remarks.

And then Cantor Simon touched my heart in a very special way.

He introduced the musical setting he composed to one of my favorite prayers. Its English translation is:

We praise You, Eternal One, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctifies us with Commandments and commands us to engage in the study of Torah.

To have the privilege to teach is why I became a rabbi, and before each lesson I lead, I offer this prayer.

In those few words we find a major reasons we Jews have survived and continue to thrive after all that we have endued these past 2000 years.

For Jews study is not just a desirable thing to do; it is a commandment for everyone.

Without question every religion has its scholars, and Jewish sages are by no means superior to them, but to my knowledge, Judaism is the only religion that looks upon study as a form of worship.

This commandment is the reason that in Dark Ages–when overall human literacy was less than ten per cent–literacy among Jews was nearly universal.

In Jewish Communal life the scholar was the most revered figure, and Jewish legends about the primacy of learning abound.

Hillel, our tradition teaches, was too poor to afford the minimal admission fee to the academy, so he climbed up on the roof in the dead of winter to listen to the lesson through the chimney. Snow fell, but he was so engrossed in the lesson that he paid it no heed. The next morning people found him half frozen on the roof. He became on of our greatest Sages (B. Yoma 35b).

Another great scholar, Akiba, was an illiterate shepherd until age 40. His wealthy employer’s daughter, Rachel, fell in love with him and saw his potential. She married him on condition that he go away to study.

Her father disowned her and she lived in poverty. Meanwhile Akiba studied for years and became a great Sage. When he returned to his village a famous man, his disciples tried to shoo the poor woman away amidst the throng that greeted the great scholar. But Akiba embraced his long-suffering wife and declared, “She is responsible for all my learning“ (Ketubot 62b-63a).

In times of persecution Jews have risked their life to study. When authorities outlawed Jewish learning. Akiba himself suffered unspeakable torture and a martyr’s death for continuing to teach his disciples in defiance of the Roman decree proscribing such activity (B. Berachot 61b).

Because of the courage of those who risked everything to study our people are alive today and contribute to the benefit of society in measure that belies the fact that Jews comprise less than 1/2 of one per cent of the world’s population.

I thank God that we live in a time and place where I can study and teach Torah and all it represents freely. That is why the prayer commanding us to study is always on my mind. Now I am for very grateful that through his beautiful composition, Cantor Murray Simon has etched that prayer into my heart.

 

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An Installation at My Age? Oy!

Cantor Simon and Rabbi FuchsCantor Murray Simon and I in front of the ark at Bat Yam Temple of the Islands

 

I never thought it would happen.

When I retired from Congregation Beth Israel in 2011, I thought my installations and new professional beginnings were in the past.

I retired then because I felt that at age 65 I had done all that I could as a Congregational Rabbi. I realized that my points of reference are very different than those of the people congregations must attract now and in the future. I simply do not listen to the same music, watch the same TV shows or see the same movies and plays that are popular with young people today.

I thought I would read more, write more, enjoy my family more and travel (which, thankfully, I have).

When I retired I did not anticipate becoming President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

The opportunity to represent Reform Jewish values and practice in 65 communities on five continents, which that position gave me, was priceless. Even though I did not come close to meeting the expectation the lay leaders of the organization had in terms of fund raising, I would not trade the experiences I had during those 18 months for anything.

The WUPJ contacts I made led to the offer to serve as guest Rabbi in Milan in 2013 and then to spend ten weeks in each of the past three years teaching and speaking in German schools (with Vickie), synagogues, at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin and in some two-dozen churches.

I will not hide it.

When the WUPJ asked me to step down just weeks before my second open-heart surgery. I was devastated. Looking back over my subsequent opportunities in Milan and in Germany, I can say it was a blessing in disguise.

And then along came Sanibel! (I have told the story of how I got here in my blog essay, “Sanibel Sunrise.”)

For sure I never expected to serve as Rabbi of a congregation again, but this opportunity seems tailor-made for me.

It is a congregation largely of retirees interested in deepening their Jewish knowledge, enjoying worship and still making a difference in the world around us. There is a minimum of administrative duties, which I was never good at anyway, and there is no youth education program to oversee. It is a position that leaves some time for writing and other interests.

The community has embraced Vickie warmly, and there is so much she enjoys doing on Sanibel. Yes, this opportunity seems just right for both of us at this stage in our lives.

The privilege of working with a Cantor like Murray Simon is an added bonus. I have learned much from him already, and I treasure the friendship developing among Toby, Vickie, Murray and me.

Our joint installation will be even more special because of the presence of our mutual friend, Rabbi Paul Citrin.

I met Rabbi Citrin as a first year rabbinical student in Los Angeles in 1968. He was the most advanced Hebrew student in our class, and I was the least. He took me under his wing then and has had my back ever since.

He and Cantor Simon met and became best friends right after Paul’s ordination when he came to serve Temple Israel in Boston, where Murray was the Cantor.

Twenty years ago, I thought my installation ceremony in West Hartford would be the last one of my career. Now I look forward to one more. With Rabbi Citrin officiating I know it will be special for Cantor Simon and me. If you can join us, we would love to have you!

 

The installation will take place at 7:30 PM, January 5 (where Bat Yam Temple of the Islands meets) at Sanibel Congregational UCC, 2050 Periwinkle Way.

 

 

www.rabbifuchs.com

 

Secular It Is, But …

“Secular it is, but …” were the words that my Rabbi, Charles Akiva Annes, of blessed memory, began his January message in the Temple Sharey Tefilo (East Orange, NJ) Bulletin.

His point was that for Jews the real New Year, Rosh Hashanah, occurred sometime in September but that the beginning of a new secular year could also have significance.

Rosh Hashanah begins a period of intense self-scrutiny culminating ten days later on Yom Kippur. During that time our tradition implores us to engage in serious soul searching with an eye toward improving ourselves in the New Year.

For me, Rabbi Annes’ message and the arrival of the new secular year spark a question: “That Rosh Hashanah stuff, how are you doing with that?”

In our weekly Torah reading we transition from the Book of Genesis to the beginning of Exodus. In the first weekly portion God encounters Moses in a Burning Bush, and in that vision, Moses charts the course for the remainder of his life. He is no longer content to be a shepherd in Midian. He accepts God’s commission to return to Egypt and lead our people from slavery to freedom.

Our Sages comment that a burning bush is not such an unusual site in the desert. Only a person of great sensitivity and insight would take time to notice that although the bush was burning, the flames did not consume it. Only one such as Moses could have seen a life-changing message in that bush.

I think “burning bushes” cross all of our paths from time to time. Will we see the potential in them for us to add purpose and significance to our lives as Moses did or will we, like most people, just pass them by?

January 1, then, is like a booster shot for me. It reminds me of the goals I set for myself on Rosh Hashanah, and hopefully it will spur me to greater efforts to make my life a blessing to others.

Depending on the exigencies of the Hebrew Calendar, January 1 arrives when the Jewish year is ¼ to 1/3 complete. It is a good time to ask myself, have I become any kinder, more understanding, less judgmental as I vowed I would try to be on Yom Kippur? Have I done anything to make someone’s life richer and more fulfilling?

Perhaps, but I can do better.

“Secular it is,” but the arrival of a new calendar year invites us to revisit our hopes and ideals. Will we sleepwalk through our lives or will we look each day for the unconsumed burning bush that ignites in our soul the resolve to make a positive difference in our world?