Lesbian rabbi asks: Can mainstream Jews embrace us

The source of the image, which symbolizes the quest of Jewish lesbians for acceptance within a tradition that has historically rejected them, was a 1979 incident at the U.C. Berkeley Hillel, said Alpert, co-director of the women's studies program at Temple University.

That Pesach, women in the Berkeley group chose to place a crust of bread on their seder plate "in solidarity with lesbians who were trying to find a place in Jewish life," Alpert writes.

As the story was told and retold, it changed into a myth about a male rabbi who was said to have declared, "There is as much place for lesbians in Judaism as for leavened bread at the seder table."

"And so, a contemporary legend was born," Alpert writes. "The complex variations of this story resonate with the complicated ways in which Jewish lesbians have been dealt with by the Jewish community."

Soon, the legend became midrash among Jewish lesbians throughout the country. Some who were uncomfortable with the crust of bread left an open space, a makom, on their seder plates.

Jewish feminists substituted an orange and made the midrash their own.

"I don't want the Jewish community to forget the lesson that comes through that story," Alpert said during a recent interview. The author was also at Afikomen in Berkeley on Sunday.

"The Jewish community and Jewish texts have made lesbians feel like bread on a seder plate. I don't think you can forget that."

Four years in the writing, the book is Alpert's attempt to resolve that cultural dissonance by looking at Jewish texts and traditions through a lesbian lens.

"The ultimate goal of this book," she writes, "is to further the dialogue between lesbian Jews and other segments of the Jewish community who, working together, will bring a new kind of learning about Jewish lesbians into the fabric of Jewish communal life."

The book confronts what some see as the troubling text in Leviticus 18:22 that refers to homosexuality as an "abomination." It also reads the Book of Ruth from a lesbian perspective, seeks to recover the hidden histories of prominent Jewish lesbians of the past, and explores ancient and modern texts that shed light on the lives of Jewish lesbians.

Alpert employs a passage from the prophet Micah — "to do justice, love well, and walk modestly with God" — as a framework for exploring such topics as coming out, lesbian relationships, same-sex commitment ceremonies and Jewish lesbian families.

As a gay woman and a rabbi, Alpert felt a responsibility to break the silence around such issues.

"Judaism rejects part of who I am," she said. "But you don't throw the baby out with the bath water. All of my Judaism is about making careful selections. Many parts I reject. Many parts I embrace."

A problematic Torah passage, such as Leviticus 18:22, is part of the historical record, she said, as are other passages, including one calling for the stoning of people who pick up sticks on the Sabbath.

"Nothing in liberal Judaism requires you to believe every word of the Bible," she observed. "I find it disturbing that Jews and Christians have used that [Leviticus] text to persecute gay people. But I don't blame the text for that."

The gay and lesbian liberation movement that began in the early 1970s with the Stonewall riots in New York has taken a while to seep into Jewish life, according to Alpert.

"The Jewish community is very much on record against anti-gay discrimination in housing and employment," she said. "But when it comes to inside the community, the community is willing to discriminate."

For example, she said, the organized Jewish community has failed to put itself on the line for a domestic-partnership law in Philadelphia.

"Very few rabbis are willing to perform commitment ceremonies," she noted. "Only the Reconstructionist movement has gone on record as supporting religious same-sex marriages. And there are congregations which won't hire gay teachers.

"It's just a very mixed picture. It's not all awful, or there couldn't be gay rabbis or the possibility of publishing a book like this or an openness to doing commitment ceremonies on the part of some rabbis.

"But in many instances, we are still like bread on the seder plate."

The message of her book is meant for the mainstream Jewish community, the author said.

"A lot of it really is focused on the Jewish community, to make the Jewish community think about why it is that they haven't been able to embrace gay and lesbian and bisexual people," she said.

"There's an enormous role for people who are sympathetic to gay and lesbian issues to play as a bridge."

Despite the mixed picture, said Alpert, change is starting to happen.

"As more and more parents of gay and lesbian people are involved in the Jewish community, as they discover they have children who are gay, that's how change takes place," she said.

"I want to be able to think a lesbian could go and teach in a Hebrew school and say, `This is who I am, and it has Jewish roots. It's not an anathema,'" she said.

"I'd like there to be room in Jewish singles clubs for an understanding that people will make same-sex partner choices," she added.

"I'd like there to be Jewish agencies which are willing to allow lesbian couples to adopt. We have a bookshelf now. It should be in synagogue libraries."