For ten days last month, we accompanied two of our British colleagues from Keshet UK to five US states as they shared a rather unusual story. Dalia Fleming and Benjamin Ellis won the trust of the Chief Rabbi of England, and he theirs, in opening up dialogue in the Orthodox community about LGBTQ+ members.
They worked behind closed doors for more than six months, committing to finding ways to achieve what everyone had deemed impossible. Dr. Benjamin Ellis wryly corrects this impression with an impish smile by sharing that, when they got the call to meet with the Chief Rabbi, the task of collaboration was better described as “improbable.” The slow building of mutual trust, the humility necessary for co-production, and the willingness to explore questions together not knowing the outcome made the improbable possible.
The Wellbeing Tour, as we dubbed it, began in Boston and traveled to Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and New York. The trek across the country meeting with rabbis and educators, community organizations, and schools was named in light of the title of the 33-page Guide co-created by the office of the Chief Rabbi and our guests: The Wellbeing of LGBT+ Pupils in Orthodox Schools.
The Guide is in some ways quite tame and in others remarkably bold. It is a testimony to what two very different subjective realities can produce if what is motivating them is the discovery of a specific overlap of intention which becomes a space of shared purpose. In this case, both groups felt deeply responsible for the vulnerability of LGBT+ teens in Orthodox schools. That was enough.
There is more to share about the process of this endeavor, the difficulties it faced and lessons learned which we will address in the week following Shavuot. But what is most important to grasp as we head into the holiday is something that became clear to us during these ten days of the Wellbeing Tour.
The freedom to be authentic is a matter of human dignity. The liberty to be oneself is precious and its thwarting, a form of abuse. But autonomy without a way to belong, a means of discerning a shared purpose without the wisdom and duties of committed relationships, is not the ideal.
For this very reason, Shavuot not only follows Pesach but completes it. Every other biblical holiday has a date on the calendar. Shavuot is always fifty days after Pesach because it isn’t an independent holiday. The plan of the Exodus is made with Sinai in mind.
At the burning bush, as Moses is charged with the task of freeing the Israelites from bondage, Sinai is already marked as a destination. “And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain” (Exodus 3:12-14). God promises not only that Moses will not be alone when he confronts Pharoah but that liberation will culminate with revelation. Freedom is not an end in itself, but a condition from which the hard work of character development, moral discernment, and society building can start.
This is the shared space where LGBT+ people and religious leadership can begin a real conversation. We are all committed to the liberty to be oneself, and so, to make it possible for teenagers to express themselves respectfully but honestly. We also are all eager to provide for her a familial and social world where she can build relationships, develop character, sink roots, find belonging, purpose, and meaning.
While questions can and do remain that are not so easily solved, this first step into liberty about the self that is bound to purposes beyond the self is what makes many of our improbable hopes for human life possible.
Rabbi Steve Greenberg