B-and-SL-webD’var Torah by Barbie Levine, followed by response by Rabbi Allen

Nov. 22, 2014                         Erev Rosh Chodesh Kislev 5775

As a congregation and community we just recited birkat hachodesh the prayer that announces the new month and to expresses our hopes and desires for what it might hold.

We say – She t’chadesh a-ley-nu et ha-chodesh ha-zeh l-tovah v-liv-racha, that this month be renewed for us for good and for blessing.

Traditionally, the moon is seen as a symbol of renewal and by extension, of optimism.

Rav Soloveitchik teaches that while Shabbat and Yom Tov receive their sanctity and significance from specific historical-reli­gious events and eras, such as Creation, Revelation or the Exodus from Egypt, the significance of Rosh Chodesh emanates directly from the Jewish embrace of renewal and change.  The Jew identifies personally and dynamically with the moon; with revival from an almost non-ex­istent state, with illumination returning from a state of darkness. Rosh Chodesh speaks to [an] eternal faith in redemption yet to come, in the coming light though it is yet dark.

The Talmud Tractate Menachot says, in the name of Rabbi Yishmael, God told Moshe, “Observe the moon and recognize that from darkness shall emanate light. The moon will teach you and all future Jewish generations that Israel will be renewed and revitalized, just as the moon. I promise you, Moshe, kazeh re’eh vekadesh, precisely when the moon is so tiny, hidden, and insignificant, sanctify it and renew your hopes in its capacity to shine.”

It is fitting I believe that Sara Lynn and I will become legally married on Sunday which is Rosh Chodesh. Rosh Chodesh marks the day when the moon will be barely visible but at its greatest potential. It reminds us of the hope and the need to believe in change that we had to have to get us to this day.

19 years ago, Sara Lynn and I decided that we wanted to get “married” that we had found our life partners and that we wanted to build a life together.

But we couldn’t, marriage between two women was not legal in MN or in the US. It was, in this realm, a time of darkness.

We knew that some Conservative rabbis had performed commitment ceremonies for same sex couples and we hoped that Rabbi Allen would as well.

It was important to us for several reasons to have a Jewish ritual to mark our relationship. We wanted our relationship to have formal recognition, communal support and have the external symbols that would say that our relationship counted.

So we made an appointment to meet with Rabbi Allen in Nov. 1995.

During our first conversation where much was said, Rabbi Allen said yes to a ceremony and no to a wedding. We would not use wedding symbols and not have the ceremony in the synagogue. I think you will hear later from Rabbi Allen what went in to his thoughtful and authentic response.

We made a commitment to work with Rabbi Allen within these parameters.

We spent months, and I mean months, working together on creating a ceremony that would accomplish what a wedding accomplishes – sanctification, connection, and blessings; but we needed to do this without the traditional Jewish wedding symbols or actions: no chuppah, no rings, no glass, no sheva brachot, no aufruf.

Some discussions went better than other-we spent much time figuring out what to call what we were doing and we spent months looking for a location for our ceremony where we could have a kosher meal that was not in not in a hotel and not in OUR shul.

At times we were frustrated, angry, hurt and very sad. Our inclusive, egalitarian, modern, innovative community could not accommodate us.

When friends were married during that year, in the shul, it was painful. While we were happy for them, participating in their smachot brought up our pain and deep sense of loss of not being included, and of feeling that our relationship was “less than.”

All through the challenges and moments of great joy we continued to work with Rabbi Allen and stay connected to Beth Jacob. Many people asked, and I mean many, why? Our answer was always this was and is our community, this was and is our home, Rabbi Allen was and is our rabbi.  We wanted to work for change from within.

Rabbi Allen often said that we were living “betwixt and between” – far enough along in the Conservative Movement for a ceremony, not far enough along for a wedding.

Like the moon, we needed to imagine light where it did not appear to be shining; we had to have faith that there would be a change, that the light would come. Rabbi Allen was hopeful and predicted that within a generation there would be change. With Rabbi Allen’s guidance we believed we were becoming part of the change that would help move the process along.

On Nov. 10, 1996, in the presence of friends and family, at the Metropolitan Club, Rabbi Allen performed a wonderful, Jewish, deeply moving ceremony acknowledging our commitment to each other. It was a joyous event that truly “worked.” We were officially connected to each other and to the tradition, and it still did not take the place of a wedding.

Fast forward to 2006 – the Rabbinical Assembly allows for same sex marriage ceremonies and the Beth Jacob shul Board voted that these could take place in the shul.

Fast forward again to 2012 and the defeat of the marriage amendment and to 2013 when the Minnesota legislature approved same sex marriage and the governor signed it into law.

Sara Lynn and I decided that it was important to us to once again formalize our relationship-this time, making it legal in our community and our state. We would complete what we began 18 years ago.

So today and tomorrow we will celebrate with traditional Jewish rituals and symbols and legally binding documents from the state and the Conservative Movement: we will stand under the chuppah; we will be blessed with sheva brachot; and we were showered with sweet candy earlier this morning.

As the prayer for the new moon states: “May God who performed miracles for our ancestors, redeeming them from slavery to freedom, redeem us soon…”

We feel that we are at a point of redemption; of reflecting on where we have been and where we are now. For this we are deeply grateful.

Much has been done and there is still much to do.

May we use the example of the moon and its renewal to remind us that when we are tired and defeated, feeling that the world is broken, that with hope, optimism, a community of support, a lot of hard work and time, change can come.

Sara Lynn and I wish you all a month full of renewal and blessings.


Thank You Barbie. We didn’t work together on these pieces, but they fit together like two women about to be married.  I really have very little to add to the beautiful framing and words which you have just shared. But I promised I would say a few things.

Let me put 1996 in perspective for you.

  1. We had just re-elected a United States Senator who won in part because he had joined some 85 other US Senators in early fall 1986 voting for DOMA-the Defense of Marriage Act. While he would later give voice to the regret he felt over this voice, Paul Wellstone campaigned hard in 1986 as progressive alternative to Rudy Boschwitz–but progressive did not include standing up for gay marriage.
  2. I had a colleague in town who threatened to contact the Va’ad Hakavod if I did a marriage or a commitment ceremony. There was not one colleague of mine in the local Conservative congregational rabbinate who said they would do what I was doing for Barbie and Sara Lynn
  3. Stuart Kelman, a leading voice on making our movement more inclusive, contacted me about the ceremony which we had crafted-because he felt it captures the opportunities that were then afforded to us
  4. Beyla Ginzberg-and every other skeptical member of our shul

I believed then, and I believe now, that real change in culture and in ethos demands patience, wisdom and seichal. My personal commitments had to be understood and through the lens of a Jewish community that was emerging as a most dynamic and engaged Jewish community in St. Paul and the Twin cities. We were committed to serious religious development, we were not interested in becoming the religious wing of the local DFL—but in becoming a beacon of Conservative Judaism and its embrace of both ritual and ethical laws, of both tradition and change.

When Barbie and Sara Lynn came into my office and said “we want to be married,” I said the following: “You will be, but not now.” For what their statement said to me was that yirat shamayim—the awe and fear of heaven with which we are to live and which we just spoke about in birkat hahodesh, was well and alive in my life. I had come to understand the meaning of yirat shamayim as follows: the point of intersection between doing what is right for an individual Jew and what is right for Judaism. That point of intersection for many Jews never exists, for they believe that what is right for individual Jews will always be the presumptive right course of action. And for many other Jews, doing right for Judaism will always be the presumptive right course of action. For us, we live in the tension between these two pillars. And so I told Barbie and Sara Lynn that were they willing to let go of all they desired and deserved–that one generation later we would be celebrating. Were they willing to be pioneers and create new facts on the ground which were not all of the facts they desired, that one day a day like today would be a reality. And yes, our celebration today and tomorrow and our ability to push the State of Minnesota forward on this issue came about in part because of the courage and devotion of people like Barbie and Sara Lynn. They were correct in demanding affirmation of their love and commitment—and we were correct in stating the limits and boundaries of what we could do then—so we would reach a date like today to do what we will do tomorrow. We will be witness to two women being legally wed in the eyes of law, in the eyes of the Jewish community and in the eyes of God. The work that has been done in the last 18 years has long passed those days in 1996. Our ritual and ceremony which was meaningful and effective back then will sadly long be forgotten in the geniza of Jewish history—but I would suggest that this ceremony and that this SHUL and our approach allowed for three significant things to happen.
1) There was and is dignity for each and every individual in our community;
2) we provided an opportunity for skeptics inside the community to shed their skepticism as they came to understand that committed partners lived their lives no differently than did they—with the same joys and challenges that marked their own lives; and
3) provide a bridge to the future that demonstrated that real communal change and cultural change is not accomplished by top-down decrees—but rather emerges through the hard work of cross communal communication and work.
While all three of these points are important, it is the last one that has pertinence for this and every community.

Finally, I want to say one last thing and that is perhaps, for me, has been the most personally meaningful truth about all of this—over and beyond my joy for Barbie and Sara Lynn. I learned how to be a much better parent that Sunday afternoon some 18 years ago. I learned from Lois who stood alone at one part of the celebration that day at the back of the Metropolitan Club about what being a parent was all about. It is about standing tall in loving and seeing your children with pride even when you realize that their dreams are not at all your dreams. Eighteen years ago in the Orthodox community of West Rogers Park, such ceremonies were not something to talk about or comment about. Yet Lois with her pride and her love and her joy and her pain all meshed together—taught us all what being a parent is all about. Lois demonstrated that truth when many others were not able to do so—and in the process became a living model for us all. And in truth, I am just glad that Barbie and Sara Lynn Listened to me at least once in my life.