Sermon for LGBTQ service

From Curse to Blessing

Rabbi Katalin Kelemen’s sermon at the LGBTQ-friendly service

On Shabbat Balak, June 7, 2012 at the LGBTQ-friendly service in Balint Haz, Budapest

“Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me” (Numbers 22:6) – so starts our Sidra this week. Balak, the king of Moab, fears the people of Israel and hires Balaam, the prophet and magician, to curse the enemy. Three times does Balaam try to curse Israel, but each of his attempts fails, and the curse turns into blessing, as the prophet may only utter the words of God.

Here is a story about the destructive and redeeming power of words. “Language is the master of life and death”, we read in the Mishnah. A story about verbal abuse, hatred, and turning a curse into blessing.

From curse to blessing… Throughout history, it has been a mistake of humankind to react to “The Other”, “The One Who Is Different” with hatred, fear and curses. We have been suffering from the curses of homophobia, anti-Semitism, countless forms of racism, and discrimination for thousands of years. Balak’s choice of words tells us a lot about the psyche of the one who curses: “put a curse (…) for me” – he is in the centre: his fear, anxiety, envy, and jealousy; we know nothing about the Other.

Judaism, however, gives us specific teachings about how we should relate to the Other. “Do not judge your fellow man until you have come into his situation” says the collection of rabbinical wisdom, the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirke Avot 2:5). In the Torah we are repeatedly commanded to stand by minorities that are vulnerable or being persecuted: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9). The keyword is empathy.

But what is one to do when, turning to the Torah for guidance, it says that if a man lies with a male the two of them have done an abhorrent thing and they shall be put to death (Leviticus 20:13)? R. Steven Greenberg, a gay orthodox rabbi from America, who was the first to come out in orthodox Jewish circles, tackles these questions in his book Wrestling with God and Men. He argues that religions must accept the unchangeable realities and facts of life. “Religions have often been stymied and corrupted by their claim to the possession of a Truth above life. The world is desperately in need of religious traditions that work their truths through life, rather than above it, inside its complexities, and not blindly mouthing simplicities on the sides. ‘How does one know what the truth is when there are so many varied and contradictory experiences and interpretations?’ asks Rabbi Eleazar. His answer: Acquire for yourself an ear like a funnel and a perceptive heart to understand all the contradictory voices” (Greenberg, 31).

I know one person with such “funnel-like” ears and a perceptive heart – her name is Sheila Shulman. It was just a few days ago that I got a chance to see her again in West London Reform synagogue, at the rabbinical ordination service. At 76 she looked fragile in the huge temple, leaning on her stick, passing on the teachings of the Torah to the next generation, l’dor vador. It was the second time she ordained a Sim Shalom rabbi. The first time it had been me who stood in that same place, receiving the scroll from her. Sheila’s life had begun in Brooklyn, where she came from a Jewish, atheist, leftist family. As a child, her favourite hero had been Robin Hood, the protector of outcasts. Later, on moving to London, she became one of the leaders of the lesbian and feminist civil rights movements. By profession a teacher, a printer and a poet, at the age of 48, upon meeting the most Significant Other: God, she began training as a rabbi in Leo Baeck College. As a rabbi she founded Beit Klal Yisrael (‘The house of all Israel’), a community where all marginalised Jews of London may find their home, regardless of their sexual orientation. Since its founding, this congregation has given London five new rabbis. Their legendary Simchat Torah celebrations are famous for the blissful klezmer dancing, where everybody can experience the curse of social rejection turning into blessing and joy.

What is the secret of people like Sheila? The secret is to live and practice the following Aggadic teaching.

“Only one single person was created in the world, to teach that, if we (any one) cause a single soul to perish, it is as if we have caused a whole world to perish, and if we save alive a single soul, it is as if we had saved a whole world… Again, only one single person was created to proclaim the greatness of God, for an emperor will stamp many coins with one die, and it will always show his own face, but God has stamped every person with the die of the first person (who was made in God’s image), yet each one of us is unique. Therefore, everyone must say, ‘For my sake the world was created.’” (Shulman, 50).

Let us now return to the story of Balak and Balaam and see what else this text teaches us about curse and blessing. This is the start of Balaam’s first parable: “From Aram Balak has brought me, / Moab’s king from the hills of the East: / Come, curse me Jacob, / Come, tell Israel’s doom! / How can I damn whom God has not damned, / How doom when the Lord has not doomed? / As I see them from the mountain tops, / Gaze on them from the heights…” (Numbers 23: 7-9).

The keyword is “as”, suggesting a causal relation: the prophet cannot curse Israel because he sees them from above, seeing the whole nation and its entire truth.

The second attempt supports this idea. Balak takes Balaam to “another place from which you can see them – you will see only a portion of them; you will not see all of them – and damn them for me from there.” (Numbers, 23:19)

It is true – hatred and curse are always partial, they mean that one is incapable of seeing the whole and his view is thus distorted. Balak’s perception is false but “No harm is in sight for Jacob, / (…) The Lord their God is with them” (Numbers 23:21).

And finally, the third vision: “As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him. Taking up his theme, he said: / Word of Balaam son of Beor, / Word of the man whose eye is true, / Word of him who hears God’s speech, / Who beholds vision from the Almighty, / Prostrate, but with eyes unveiled: / How fair are your tents, O Jacob, / Your dwellings, O Israel! / Like palm groves that stretch out, / Like gardens beside a river, / Like aloes planted by the Lord, / Like cedars beside the water; / Their boughs drip with moisture, / Their roots have abundant water. / Their king shall rise above Agag, / Their kingdom shall be exalted.” (Numbers 24: 2-7).

This beautiful vision of completeness, of homeliness, fertility and peacefulness, is born on the lips of the prophet, “prostrate, but with eyes unveiled”. Humility and clairvoyance can transform the curse into blessing.

The first words of the blessing, “Ma tovu ohalecha Yakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael” have become a part of our liturgy. We sing it when entering the synagogue in the morning, in order to remind us that Jacob’s tents and the dwellings of Israel are a home for us all, where we must live in mutual respect and with open eyes. In our diversity, with our individual faces created in the image of God, we become blessed and bless others, passing on the blessing of Israel.


Works cited

Greenberg, Steven: Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004

Shulman, Sheila: Watching for the Morning: Selected Sermons. Peter Daniels Publisher Services, 2007


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