Words from the Rabbi – Pride 5783

I’m delighted to be celebrating our 4th Pride Shabbat here in New Stoke Newington Shul. A huge thank you to Jack Gilbert, who suggested it back in 2020 and who helped bring it to life in our community. I’m so glad it’s become part of our calendar!
Before I begin, a disclaimer – I’m discussing sensitive issues, and I may not get it right here. I apologise if my words cause you any pain, but I’m trying and I hope you will give me the benefit of the doubt. Help me learn how to do better for the future – after all, as you’ll see, that’s what I’m talking about.

Why do we celebrate Pride in our community? The emphasis here really is on the idea of ‘Celebration’.
Because we think diversity is a good thing, that we are stronger when we can celebrate our differences together.
Because we want everyone to feel seen in our community, to be able to bring their whole selves.
Because the Torah teaches us that we are all in God’s image and God doesn’t make mistakes – we are made how we are meant to be made.

Sometimes people think that to be in community you need to agree about everything. As society becomes more polarised, people may feel they can’t be part of a group that doesn’t meet their own high standards on every issue. That doesn’t sit well with me.
Masorti has always been a place of pluralism, where people can believe differently, act differently but nevertheless build community together. In fact we believe this to be a strength and not a weakness, that we grow stronger when we are exposed to beliefs and values that are different from our own, that we can build coalitions across divides.
To be in community is necessarily to be in relationship with people you disagree with, perhaps quite profoundly. It won’t be on everything, but communities have different people, and different people will necessarily see the world in different ways.
Our community is no different. There are plenty of issues on which people disagree. Even if you think that 90% would agree with you on any particular topic, I reckon I could find someone who would disagree. They are still part of our Shul.
The LGBTQ community is no different. There are real tensions and disagreements that can make it hard to work together, to celebrate together. These tensions can cause great hurt and pain to all involved, as people may feel silenced, unseen or unwelcome.

It can be easy to try to brush these disagreements under the rug, to say we should just focus on everything we agree on. And honestly there is so much common ground that we all share, so much more that unites us than divides us.
But sometimes it isn’t enough to focus on the positives and the similarities. Ignoring the differences can also be a source of pain and struggle. So how can we move forward? How can we speak to those with whom we may deeply and profoundly disagree on the shape of the world?

I take inspiration from our parasha of Beha’alotecha, where we meet the unnamed impure people who can’t celebrate Pesach. They are unable to take part in probably the most important festival of the ancient calendar, the formative celebration when we became a people due to having contracted ritual impurity. They feel hurt and excluded.
Moses responds by listening carefully to their perspective, going to look for solutions (in his case from God, sadly not an option available to most of us), and finding ways to broaden inclusion.
I want to focus on that first step – to really hear their point of view. It isn’t always easy to listen, but it can be incredibly painful when you aren’t being heard.

An example in a different sphere from my own life: For the last year or so I’ve been increasing the amount of interfaith work I do, and recently met with a local Muslim colleague for coffee to get to know one another better. As we discussed the problems our communities are facing, and after I heard about the awful Islamophobia they have to deal with, it became apparent that my colleague simply didn’t believe that antisemitism was a real, pressing issue in the world today.
It reminded me sharply how painful it can be to not be heard, to not be seen.
I brought the truth of my experience to my colleague, was open to hearing their own struggles, and left feeling that my suffering and worry had been denied.

When someone with whom we are in community tells us that they are suffering, we should believe them.
Being in community means trusting that others are acting in good faith, even if we don’t understand it. My colleague doesn’t experience antisemitism, doesn’t understand it, but if we are in community he should hear me when I tell him how it feels.
So too with other kinds of suffering, and certainly all kinds of LGBTQ+ people experience struggles that I never do. It’s not my job to know it all, though I can try to learn as much as possible, but I have a duty to believe people when they tell me.
Moses probably didn’t see the problem. He needed the people to say – “we have a need that isn’t being met, we are suffering. By missing out on Pesach we feel alienated from our community, there is no space for us.” He might have dismissed them out of hand but he doesn’t. He listens, he believes that they are suffering.

The solution that God offers is called Pesach Sheni, Second Passover, the opportunity to celebrate the paschal sacrifice a month later if you were impure or on a long journey for the normal Pesach.
Yet the sudden call for a Pesach Sheni is quite surprising. Why wasn’t it baked into the system from the outset? Why didn’t God make that rule back in Exodus? God could have baked it into the system, but the fact that God didn’t reveals that God wants us to push, to listen, to change. This process is part of how community should work, how Torah should work. Torah is, and always has, been in constant flux, responding to the needs of the people. We should be the same way, listening and moving.

The crucial first step is to listen, to hear the needs that a person has that isn’t being met. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we have to respect each other, trust that the other person is expressing real pain, that they are acting in good faith. It can be very difficult when it feels like the other person is denying your suffering, your experience, but they may be expressing real pain themselves that we can uncover.
There are lots of bad faith actors out there, people who use arguments to divide, to score political points. Twitter and social media encourages this behaviour, because its anonymous and outrage drives engagement. But in community we have to try to do better, and trust that others are acting in good faith until proven otherwise.

The wonderful David Baker shared with me a model for how we can engage in such good faith conversations with those whom we may profoundly disagree. Article by Julia Minson, ‘To Have Better Disagreements’ on keeping the conversation going. First she tells us to make sure you start by listening. You can’t switch straight into ‘persuasion mode’. Then she describes the simple acronym H.E.A.R.:

H = Hedge your claims, even when you feel very certain about your beliefs. It signals a recognition that there are some cases or some people who might support your opponent’s perspective.

E = Emphasize agreement. Find some common ground even when you disagree on a particular topic. This does not mean compromising or changing your mind, but rather recognizing that most people in the world can find some broad ideas or values to agree on.

A = Acknowledge the opposing perspective. Rather than jumping in to your own argument, devote a few seconds to restating the other person’s position to demonstrate that you did indeed hear and understand it.

R = Reframing to the positive. Avoid negative and contradictory words, such as “no,” “won’t” or “do not.” At the same time, increase your use of positive words to change the tone of the conversation.

Some examples:
Hedge your claims – “To me, it seems like…” “In my experience, I’ve found…” “Generally, it seems…” I might add that first-person ‘I’ statements are better than universal statements.
Emphasise agreement – “We’re both trying to reduce harm…”, “we’re both suffering from prejudice…”, “we all want to live at peace…”
Acknowledge the opposing perspective – “I hear you saying that…” “I understand you feel…”
Reframing to the Positive – “I would feel safer if…” “I prefer language like…”

This technique reminded me of the disagreements of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, two classical rabbinic schools of thought that argued for many years. Their arguments ran to the heart of what it meant to be Jewish, and indeed, the Talmud suggests that they sometimes came to physical violence!
But in the end the Talmud tells us (Eruvin 13b):
Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The law is like us, and these said: The law is like us. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the law is like Beit Hillel.

Disagreement is a really important part of being Jewish, and two holy perspectives can sometimes be preserved without the need for solution – both are the words of the living God! But sometimes they have to be resolved for the community to continue.
In the end, Beit Hillel wins. But why? According to the next part of the Talmud it’s not because their arguments were more true, but because they always taught their opponent’s perspective before their own. They always taught both, and they always taught Beit Shammai first.
This shows Hedging of claims (by showing that other perspectives are possible), Emphasising agreement (that they’re both still in the same rabbinic system), Acknowledging the perspective of the other (by teaching it clearly before their own), and framing both positions in the positive (by not denying their opponent and instead just teaching their own).

We live in a society where people crave community. It can feel so isolating in the world at large, and there is a pandemic of loneliness, a process I think Covid greatly accelerated. We are blessed to live in community with one another, but it’s a blessing that takes work like all good relationships.
You can be in community with people who think exactly like you, but you’ll be in a community of 1.
Community isn’t about all thinking the same, it’s about getting on with people who are different than you are.
On this Pride Shabbat, may we all learn the blessing of diversity, and the strength to stay in difficult conversations.