July 3, 2013 | 8:00 am
Posted by Susan Esther Barnes
Last weekend was the hottest weekend we’ve had so far this year. It was hotter than normal for this time of the year. And our synagogue has no air conditioning.
There was both a bar mitzvah and a bat mitzvah ceremony in the sanctuary on Saturday morning. It was crowded. We opened the doors and turned on the fans in an attempt to create some air circulation, but within a half hour of the start of services, the temperature was clearly rising.
While the cantor led a prayer, the rabbi sat next to me for a moment. “It’s pretty hot,” she said, gesturing to the other side of the sanctuary, “and those people are sitting in the sun. Do you think we should pass out water to everyone?”
Clearly, she was concerned that passing out water in the middle of a religious service might be disruptive. Normally, we don’t allow food or drink in the sanctuary. On the other hand, there was a real concern for the people’s health. We have had people faint in the sanctuary on cooler days than this. Anyone, of course, is welcome at any time to get up during the service to get a sip from the drinking fountain, but visitors might not know it’s there.
Some have criticized Judaism, saying it is all about following rules. One of the most important rule, however, is that just about any commandment may be broken if breaking it will save a person’s life. The rabbis have interpreted this to mean we must break a commandment if doing so will be for the benefit of a person’s health. For instance, if a person’s doctor says that, for their health, they must not participate in a fast, not only are they allowed not to fast, but they are commanded not to fast. When it comes to a person’s health, they have no choice. They are commanded to choose life.
So another congregant and I went into the kitchen, and with the help of the caterer who was preparing lunch for after the service, we passed out cups of water to everyone in the sanctuary.
What does any of this have to do with Pride Shabbat? On Friday night, several members of the congregation spoke. They are all members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) community, either due to their own sexuality or identity, or others in their family.
One of the things some of them spoke about is the discrimination and pain suffered by many of the people in the LGBTQ community. One of the great tragedies about how some of the people in this community are treated is that so many of them contemplate, or even attempt, suicide.
So, as we were passing out the water to the people in the sanctuary who might feel uncomfortable or even faint, but who were quite unlikely to die, it occurred to me: Why are so many Jews ready and willing to make accommodations for people who are thirsty for water, yet so many are unready or unwilling to accept and embrace people who are thirsty for something just as important: for love and acceptance? As the suicides clearly show us, without these things, many in the LGBTQ community will surely die.
Whatever a Jew may believe about the meaning of the prohibition in Leviticus about a “man lying with a man as with a woman,” just about any commandment may be broken if doing so will save a life. If denying a person the right to love who they love, if claiming that their committed relationship is somehow less than anyone else’s, if denying them the ability to stand up and declare who God has made them to be results in their being harmed, then we must not do these things.
We are commanded not to do these things. We are commanded to do the opposite: to embrace them, to welcome their relationships, to recognize them as b’tzelem elohim, created in God’s image, just like everyone else. We must not stand idly by while the blood of our neighbor is shed. We must do our part to prevent the conditions leading to their suicide.
It is far past time that we all provide water for the thirsty and embrace our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community. To not do so is nothing less than to be in defiance of Jewish law regarding the sanctity of human life.
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