On June 24th, 2022, shortly before the final Shabbat of Pride Month, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. In a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas plainly stated his desire to “revisit” Obergefell v. Hodges, the decision which legalized gay marriage in America. To those who would roll back years of progress, we say: “We Will Not Go Back.”
This sermon is a lightly edited version of the message delivered by Rabbi Steven Philp at the Friday Night Shabbat on June 24th, 2022. You can listen to all of Rabbi Steven’s remarks — along with the full service — on the Contact Chai Podcast. Our next Friday service is on July 7th at Second Unitarian and will feature our new Musician-In-Residence, Rabbi Micah Shapiro.
I recently sat down with Jewish professionals from various institutions from across the Midwest. We were discussing what we each felt that the North American Jewish community needed most at this very moment. One rabbi immediately shouted: “Torah!” This rabbi explained that in our age of social media, we have forgotten how to hold complexity. Instead, we prefer quick takes that can be distilled into 280 characters. We prefer to shout past each other rather than speaking to each other. But Torah, the rabbi said, encourages weighing each side of an issue to understand where the truth lies.
I was still bristling from an antisemitic, transphobic, and deeply misleading article that had been published in Tablet Magazine just the day before (you can read our response here). So I said to this rabbi that in cases like this, there isn’t actually truth on all sides of the debate. Sometimes, we have to stand up for what we know is right! Right?
Our exchange reminded me of one of my favorite parables from the Talmud, the compendium of rabbinic conversations on which our tradition is founded. The story goes like this:
For three years, the students of Hillel and Shammai — two great scholars of our tradition — engage in rigorous debate around one the finer points of ritual law. Having exhausted their capacity for persuasion, the students’ curiosity and intellect had given away to stubborn antagonism. “We’re right!” argued one side, to which the other very unhelpfully responded, “No, we’re right!” Sensing that the students have come to some kind of impasse, God intervenes. This voice comes out of the sky and says, “Both speak the words of the Living God, but the Law is in accordance with Beit Hillel.” In other words, God agrees with one side in this debate — time to pack it in.
But wait a second…
If one side is right, and the other is wrong, how can both groups of students be speaking words of the Living God? This doesn’t make sense! The arguments between the students of Hillel and Shammai were about belief and practice, the fundamental building blocks of our tradition. For example, here’s another debate elsewhere in the Talmud: what’s the best way to light Hanukkah candles? One side says that you start with eight and you subtract one each day. But the other side says you start with one and you add one each day until you get to eight. Try doing that at the same exact time on the same hanukiah! It’s impossible — you have to choose a side. So how can both perspectives be words of the Living God?
One of my favorite things about being a Jew is that we are a “yes and” people. When we get married, we smash a glass to hold the brokenness of this world alongside our joy. And when we mourn the dead, we express our sadness through words of gratitude and praise. Our tradition believes that holiness is found in the messiness of life, and that sacred truths can be uncovered through disagreement. We are after all, a people who wrestles with God.
Yet are all arguments created equal? Puzzled by the idea that Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai both spoke the words of the Living God, the rabbis qualify that the debates of Hillel and Shammai were l’shem shamayim, or “for the sake of heaven.” Now, what does this mean? It’s not that the content of what they’re talking about was particularly holy. In fact, most of their arguments are about really banal and mundane things! And debating for the sake of debating is not sacred in and of itself, either. Rather, their debates were divine because they were seeking truth.
To seek out truth requires both humility and courage, the ability to admit when one is wrong and the strength to stand up for what is right. The recognition that our inherited aversion to dogma is not an excuse for moral relativism. Our tradition says that it is precisely because being human is so messy, that when we hit on a fundamental truth, it is a moment of profound holiness that demands our attention, and calls us to action. So yes, the Torah encourages us to hold complexity, and see all sides of the debate. Get standing for what we know to be right, standing for what we know to be true. This too, is also Torah.
I want to tell you another story. This one is from our Torah portion this week — which you can learn all about from Rabbi Deena on the latest The Morning Scroll Podcast. In short, just as our ancestors draw near the land of Israel, they send out 12 scouts. After scoping out the land, 10 of the scouts return with a demoralizing and extremely misleading report:
“You should have seen it! Yeah, yeah, the land is fine, but there’s these people there and they have fortresses, and they look really scary. If we go, they’re definitely going to kill us! We need to turn back.”
— The Ten Spies, direct quote
Now the other two scouts, Caleb and Joshua are like:
“Wait a minute, that is not at all what we experienced. The land is everything God said it would be. We’ve come so far, are we really going to give up now? This isn’t a moment for debate! We heard the truth quite literally from God’s lips out at Mount Sinai. And now we’ve seen it with our own eyes.”
— Caleb and Joshua, verbatim
But it doesn’t matter. The people are so scared by the 10 scouts’ biased report that they refuse to enter the land.
This pisses God off:
“What the hell people? Fine. If you don’t believe me, then you don’t get to enter the land. Instead, you’re going to wander about for 40 years. Your entire generation has to die out before you can finish your journey.”
— The Living God, word for word
There is a lesson here: Accommodating falsehood for the sake of debate has consequences — sometimes devastating ones.
One of the things I love most about living in Boystown is how I am constantly surrounded by rainbows. Even the crosswalk at the end of my street is a rainbow! During Pride Month, the effect is heightened as the entire neighborhood gets ready to celebrate. While I walked to services today, appreciating all of these rainbows around me, I reflected on how much Pride has changed in the 20 years since I came out, let alone how different Pride is today from its inception as the Christopher Street Liberation Day in the 1970s. Pride began as a riot in a time when LGBTQ+ folks were pushed to the margins of society. Today, it is nearly impossible to escape Pride Month. Politicians have recognized it. Corporations have commodified it, and people of all identities and backgrounds celebrate it. But at its core, Pride is still an act of protest. It’s standing up within the din of debate and disagreement for what we know to be true:
We are created in the Divine Image. Lesbian and gay and bisexual and asexual people, transgender and queer and gender queer and non-binary and intersex folks, those who are questioning or not sure yet, people who are out and people who are in the closet — all of us. Our dignity is not up for debate.
We can have compassion for those whose ignorance has prevented them from recognizing our humanity. And we can and should educate them with the hope of opening their hearts. But we cannot, we will not tolerate the consequences of their bigotry and hatred. Caleb and Joshua’s message should move us now just as much as it did those who rioted outside of the Stonewall Inn on June 28 1969. We know what is true. Even when we’re not in the majority, even when we’re only two voices out of 12, or perhaps 3 voices out of 9, we must speak this truth.
Today, the highest court in this country, under the guise of debate and discourse, under the guise of finding truth and value on all sides, has bent to falsehoods that threaten the rights of some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Like the 10 scouts in this week’s parsha, 6 Justices of the Supreme Court have threatened to set us back an entire generation.
This is not the time to equivocate. This is not the time for more relativism. This is the time to be just like Caleb and Joshua and Marsha P. Johnson and Stormé DeLarverie and Sylvia Rivera and Harvey Milk and Larry Kramer and Edie Windsor, and all of our Jewish and queer ancestors. This is the time to speak the truth we know:
When the equality of human beings is the subject of debate, not all arguments are created equal.