Pride Drasha by Student Rabbi James Feder

As hard as it is to believe, this is my last Shabbat with you — for now, at least. And it’s more difficult than I would have expected, to say goodbye. I fell for you fast, for your warmth and your curiosity and your passion. It has been such a privilege to spend these past five weeks
working with you and learning from you, and from your incredible rabbi. That’s why I came to London, to learn — after spending time with Leo Baeck students and both Liberal and Reform rabbis and cantors in January, I realized just how much I stood to learn from British Jewry. Being American, a New York Jew, I grew up thinking of my progressive community as synonymous with diasporic Judaism, a modern-day Bavel.

But my teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, has a vision of strengthening the bonds between us in the diaspora. In planning that winter retreat in the English countryside, he invited us to broaden our gaze, to see ourselves as being in relationship with, in conversation with, progressive Jews throughout the world — not only in the United States and Israel. And I’m so grateful for that push, because it’s not easy to break free of the provincial mindset that characterizes so much of the American experience, Jewish or otherwise. And I’m so grateful, because without that push, I would have found you, And I wouldn’t have found myself.

Let me explain.

This Shabbat is Pride Shabbat, an opportunity to celebrate and center the stories of LGBTQ Jews, of our friends and loved ones, of our teachers, of our ancestors — and of ourselves.

As modern Jews, we are the most recent links in a chain of tradition that stretches back millennia. We are the product of our inheritance —
a rich tapestry, made up of the individual lives of all those who came before. And as modern Jews, we recognize that those individuals who exert the greatest influence on our lives, on the ways in which we understand ourselves through the lens of our religious tradition, are almost exclusively straight men. As a gay person, I have this deep need, this hunger, to find myself in my tradition. That’s why I am so taken by the story of David and Jonathan. I don’t claim that they were gay — We cannot know what people of the past thought or felt, And we cannot project modern understandings of gay identity back that far, but I don’t need them to be gay. There is something in their relationship that I recognize, an intimacy, a love, a need. When I read their story, or the homoromantic poetry of celebrated medieval writers and philosophers
Yehuda HaLevi and Shlomo ibn Gabirol, I feel less alone — because I see that woven throughout our collective tapestry are threads that look like mine, with longings and love like mine. And that is such a profound realization. Representation matters. Representation is life-affirming.
Representation can be lifesaving, whether it’s in literature or cinema or religion. So just imagine what it was like for me, in January, as a gay rabbinical student, to come across Rabbi Lionel Blue, z”l.

I was stunned. A beloved gay rabbi with a national profile — how had I never heard of him? I, who look to iron age kings and 12th century Andalusian poets in order to find glimpses, glimmers of myself — why didn’t I know about this prominent rabbi who was writing and teaching during my own lifetime? At that retreat in January, his name was invoked time and again. I knew that I had to learn more about him, about his teachings and his theology and his legacy. And in the months that stretched between that visit and my return to spend time here at FPS, I did. I’m still in the early stages of that journey, but already, I’ve found myself quoting Rabbi Lionel Blue in conversations

with classmates and congregants in the United States. Here are a few of my favorite teachings of his:

“[If religion] makes you kinder, more generous, and more honest about yourself to yourself… then go for it. If it makes you manipulative, judgmental, and puffed up, forget it and try again later.”

“Love your country and your culture, but don’t try to love your own by loving others less.”

And, a teaching from his own teacher, Dr. Baeck: “Please remember that your Judaism is your religious home, it is not your religious prison.”

If anyone in here or at home has some quotes of Rabbi Blue’s that they’d like to pass my way, please do! But don’t stop there. Because during this stay in the UK, I discovered something else — someone else, multiple someones else:

Rabbi Sheila Shulman z”l and Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah. More LGBT giants of progressive British Jewry, whose teachings I cannot wait to explore. And so tonight, on Pride Shabbat, my last Shabbat with you all, I want to express my gratitude. You opened your arms to welcome me so warmly, and in the embrace of progressive British Jewry, I found myself — I saw familiar lives, longings, loves, reflected back to me in the figures of some of your LGBT luminaries. And I promise that I will spread their light back in the United States, and wherever else life takes me.

Shabbat Shalom