A modern rabbinic scholar once defined the religious term redemption as a move from the periphery of history to its center. The messianic version, he explained, entails a transformation from a people on the shunned sidelines of history, to a place as the central, driving, foundational source of progress. This, like so much else in the wisdom of Judaism, has remained abstract to me because we live in a period of comfortable apathy, of ahistorical judaism. Yet Friday night at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, amidst a group of over 600 people, with over 10 standing ovations, listening to the historic speeches of Edith Windsor and Roberta Kaplan, embracing people I didn't know, at a synagogue in a Protestant church, all in celebration of a historic victory of justice over discrimination, I felt inside of history.
CBST, a prominent synagogue with a flourishing LGBTQ community would have been the place to celebrate this historic Pride weekend regardless of honorable speakers, but to hear Kaplan and Windsor speak, to see their faces glow with the light of redemption, engendered a line for a prayer service, let me say that again, a two hour line for a prayer service, on a friday night, leaving some stranded outside listening in through speakers.
The synagogue created a full-fledged holiday service, pulling out all the ritualistic stops, to show the magnitude of celebration and though a bit long, the service came alive in a way I couldn't understand till this moment, or perhaps, since Yom Kippur at Occupy Wall Street. Today, much of the religious rhetoric feels sterilized, robbed of its immediacy. Aloof from the considerations of history, the words we invoke of redemption, of justice, of the glory of god, lie fallow, falling flat focused only our personal needs. Yet, here, as a true historical victory, the words of praise and gratitude, the words of inspiration resound with the sounds of momentousness. They no longer felt like hollow shells, spoken to some being out there, outside of our world looking in, but words spoken to a partner in peace and justice and sacrifice for the progress of civil rights.
By no means will you find God inherent in any conversation about LGBTQ equality. In fact, you could contend the opposite seeing how certain religious traditions trample upon civil rights based their understanding of religious law. That so many Jewish people, and religions all around the world, still choose to infuse God into their life and public struggles despite feeling hate and intolerance from religious people, again, feels like the truest sense of the word redemption. Judaism survives, not through zealousness, but through moral advancement. Judaism takes a step forward in the equal treatment of women, when Abraham Joshua Heschel walked with Martin Luther King Jr, when it accepts and embraces other religions, and now with Edie Windsor celebrating in her synagogue. This is the future of Judaism, this felt like the vibrancy and courage of the rabbis of old seeing what the future needed in this moment, understanding that to save Judaism from the clutches of those obsessed with the rigid past, you must forge ahead regardless.
Indeed, Kaplan and Windsor, in their speech compared their efforts to the heroic daughters of Zelophehad, who appear in this week's Torah portion. The daughters, not content to be pushed aside by Jewish inheritance laws that discriminate against women, pushed ahead and came out victorious. How fitting.
The synagogue, brilliantly so, takes its slogan from Psalms 118:22 in which the author famously writes, "The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone," which echoes the sentiment of a movement from the outlines to the center. Traditionally, the line refers to the feelings of King David, chased by his enemies, despondent, in hiding, neglected by all of his family and friends, in his despair crying out to God and finding solace in the Lord of Justice and Peace. I cannot think of a more apt way to signify the reclamation of Jewish tradition than this metaphor.
The climax of the night came in a moment of unprecedented beauty. Stuffy, sweaty, packed into an increasingly humid room, the service was set to begin and in walked Edie Windsor. Small in stature, her presence permeated the whole room; elegantly dressed, her face radiated with the shine of saintliness, even if for just that moment. At first, no one saw her, but then congregant spied this hero and burst out in cheers and clapping, which created a chain that ended in a long standing ovation. Edie smiled at her loving fans (some came to synagogue in Edie t-shirts) and congregation, and everyone cried and hugged strangers and lovers in a moment of communal catharsis that comes a few times a life, if lucky.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum gave a speech that was both earnest, stirring, sober and celebratory, fitting for the complex emotions engendered by this victory, a lifetime in the making. She acknowledged the bittersweetness of the day, a day that so many who fought for will not see, she accepted that perhaps marriage is a flawed institute, and accepted the flaws in a system of heteronormativity, but citing the aphorism that Thea Speyer and Edie Windsor lived by, she enjoined us to "never postpone joy."