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Wrestling and Blessing

11/18/2021 06:32:45 PM


Why does God send an angel to wrestle with Jacob the night before he meets Esau? Of all days to not get a good night's sleep, and indeed, to start the morning limping, the date of the reunion with his hostile brother is certainly less than ideal!  Our sages suggest many reasons, including that idea the angel is meant to warn Esau- "If an angel can't defeat Jacob, you certainly can't!" Another explanation particularly resonates for me this week as I contemplate our upcoming scholar in residence program. Sometimes, an unexpected encounter or episode of wrestling may challenge us, but also leaves us strengthened and blessed. Jacob is better prepared to face the meeting with Esau the next morning because he has been challenged.

As you may have read, on December 3-4 we are bringing a student scholar-in-residence from the Jewish Theological Seminary to join us for Shabbat. We have often had teachers and students from JTS, a flagship school for training Conservative rabbis, as our guest scholars. This particular scholar, Sass Brown, is a rabbinical student and a published poet with an expertise in Biblical interpretation and the unique halachic approaches of  Iraqi Jewish scholars. However, Sass’s visit has motivated some discussion, because they use “they/them” pronouns and don’t conform to how some of us might stereotypically picture a rabbi or future rabbi. When my colleagues at the rabbinical school suggested Sass as a scholar, I felt that the encounter would be valuable to our congregation, despite the fact that some might find Sass’s identity as a distraction from their teaching about Hanukkah and the story of Joseph.

Views about the LGBTQ experience have evolved over the last decades. When I talk to Jews who grew up gay or lesbian in our congregation a generation ago, and are now starting their own families, their experiences of congregational life in their youth are very different from those of teens growing up in our congregation today, many of whom are far more open about their gender or orientation. The members of our community, by and large, experience a world where interactions with people of different orientations is the norm, and are much more open. However, while all in our congregation would state on a rational level that want our community to be welcoming to any Jew, some might still wrestle with how to integrate this understanding with their visceral approach to tradition, or long-standing preconceptions of what people in synagogue look like.

Jacob encountered an visitor, wrestled, and came away blessed. We have the same opportunity. Some may well wrestle with how Sass’s expression conflicts with preconceived notions of what a rabbi is or could be. All of us may choose which aspects of Sass's Torah we agree or disagree with. Like our other scholars in residence in the past, Sass is just a visitor to our community, but will hopefully launch learning conversations that will continue after their departure.

To continue the conversation, the USCJ has invited us to be a part of a “Leadership Cohort” of 12 synagogues exploring how to help LGBTQ Jews feel more at home in a congregation like our own. The upcoming weekend, while primarily intended as an opportunity for study, provides a felicitous opportunity for me to host some of our families with LGBTQ members to gather for a private meal with our scholar. Our congregation has a journey ahead to figure out how to make every Jew feel truly welcome, even as we retain our identity as a congregation that values tradition and halakhah. The story of Jacob teaches that a single encounter, even if it provokes wrestling, can bring us deeper understandings and blessing for the journey ahead.

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784