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The Heart of Pride: Be Who You Are

I believe that the heart of Pride has to do with love. In the midst of the book of Leviticus we find the three words: “v’ahavtah l’re’akha camokha”—You shall love your fellow as yourself.

In July 2002, my partner and I signed our ketubah and before our huppah, offered each other the blessing: “Be who you are, and be blessed in all that you are.” Now, on Shabbat evenings, we bless our daughters with this variation of the parental Shabbat blessings, written by Marcia Falk. Rather than bless them to be like biblical matriarchs, we pray that they simply be who they are. Last week, at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), the LGBTQ synagogue where I am privileged to be the Associate Rabbi, we taught the same words to our Hebrew school students in preparation for LGBTQ Pride month.

For the CBST community, 43 years and thousands of queer Jews strong, Pride is our second set of High Holy Days. We celebrate Pride Shabbat and Pride Shabbat for Kids, chanting shehecheyanu. We sing Hallel and Al Hanisim. We wish each other Chag Sameach and dance the hora down 5th Avenue in the NYC Pride March.

For our kids, though, Pride is an abstract concept. As parents we are proud of our children, proud of our work, proud of what we do, but this is different. “Pride” has a specific cultural context that is rooted back in time and space to an era of liberation and revolution in the face of oppression, violence, and risk. In our time of relative privilege, how do we explain exactly what we’re proud of to our urban, liberal, mostly white Jewish kids who don’t think having gay parents is so radical or special (it’s just their family)? How do we explain why we are proud, and what does it have to do with Judaism?

I believe that the heart of Pride has to do with love. In the midst of the book of Leviticus we find the three words: “v’ahavtah l’re’akha camokha”—You shall love your fellow as yourself. This holiness code is the basis for ethical treatment of others and the moral litmus test of our behavior. In order for us to be divinely sacred we must treat others as such. Implied in this commandment to love another person is that, first, we must indeed love ourselves. And this isn’t always so easy.

As a rabbi and as a lesbian I witness my community’s pain, shame, and doubt around coming out. Coming out is a continuous, uniquely individual process. Each story is different; some are celebratory moments of self-fulfillment, others isolated and tormented in loneliness. For many, this journey, which is really about authentic love, is clouded in hatred and fear. Sometimes that comes from the outside world, and more often than not, comes from within the self.

The story of our liturgy is one of love devoid of that fear and loneliness. The Shema—our reflection of the Oneness of the Source of All—is surrounded by mutual love: once the word “One/Ehad” rolls off our tongues, we pray v’ahavtah—the commandment to love is a response to our statement of unity. We declare our love in the context of Ahavat Olam/An Unending Love in the evenings and Ahavah Rabbah/A Great Love in the mornings. We are strengthened to love the other because first we acknowledge that we are loved without strings, without expectations, without a mold to fit or break. An enduring, enormous love, big enough to contain all of us, in all of the ways we are created in the Image of the Divine.

Pride isn’t merely about same-sex love, queer love, forbidden love. Pride is about self-love—the power, risk, and courage it takes to love yourself for who you are, not for who you aren’t or who you’re supposed to be. Queer Pride is about taking the parts of ourselves that feel marginalized, self-conscious, uncertain, or outside, and claiming power in that identity, in the context of unity, as our liturgy does. Pride is about arriving in a time and place to name the parts of ourselves that are exactly how they are supposed to be, and singing Halleluyah. Shehecheyanu. We made it.

Be who you are, and be blessed in all that you are. Chag Sameach—Happy Pride!

Rabbi Rachel Weiss has been the associate rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, New York, NY, since 2010. Starting August 1, 2016, she will be the rabbi of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL. She is a 2009 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

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