The Symbolic Statement for Equality by Richmond City Council
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
November 1st, 2013
This past Monday night I listened to language that was laced with hatred, venom and vituperation. It could have been used at many early junctures in American history. It was fortified with theological certitude over what God wants. And it was spiked with threats of eternal damnation. If I was somewhere else other than the chambers of the City Council of Richmond I might have feared for my life. Personally, I have not heard such language in a very long time. The issue that attracted such diatribes was the proposed ordinance that, at such time that the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia permits, partners in same-sex marriages of employees of the City of Richmond would receive equal benefits as all others. The ordinance had three sponsors on the City Council. It needed two more votes to pass.
Sometimes it is hard to imagine that we live in the year 2013 or even better, 5774.
I wonder whether fellow citizens have paid attention to the development of society.
The arguments voiced harkened back to the denial of civil rights for African-Americans.
The positions espoused could be used to subjugate any segment of society that was
different than the speaker's.
I was stunned but not really surprised. I did want to shout “Oy veys meir!” But I didn’t.
The vote of five to four by which it ultimately passed was partial vindication for the experience of the evening.
I am proud that a colleague in the ministry, when his turn to speak came, publicly noticed me in the audience in support of the ordinance. There were too many speakers to fit into the thirty minute allotment. But with my appearance and the whitest kipah I own on my head, I was easily identified. It was important personally and for our religious community to be present so that my position could be acknowledged.
If I had the podium and more than three minutes to speak, these are the points I would have made to the City Council.
1. God has not spoken to me recently, so I don’t know what God wants. It is vital to come with humility and not with certitude. We have a holy text that has historical narrative, specific laws that surely reflect an earlier time and place, and a theology about humanity. One speaker cited the Book of Leviticus and would have been very pleased if, based on that text, LBGTQ population would all be put to death. I would have asked the gentleman: What about unruly children? What about Sabbath desecrators – regardless of Saturday or Sunday? What about adulterers? If you are going to cite the Bible for killing one group, then at least be consistent and kill them all!? I wish the absurdity of that statement to be apparent. I don’t deny the verse in Leviticus. I just don’t apply it, and I certainly can’t imagine that this is God’s absolute last word on the matter and that He - or She – [that would have caused the speaker an apoplexy] wants me to commit murder. I have to work very hard to believe that I know what God wants.
2. I would have asked the Council members: what are the two most important verses in the Five Books of Moses? And I would have referred them to the same Book of Leviticus where it states that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. On a previous Shabbat I have explained that the Hebrew word usually translated as neighbor really means ‘the other.’ And The Torah doesn’t restrict this verse just to men and not women, young and not old, Israelite and not foreigner. The second most important verse comes from Genesis where it says that “these are the generations of Adam.” It refers to all humanity, implying that the Divine design is to have a varieted humanity that looks different, sounds different, talks different, is different and yet are all related to each other. Those who are LBGTQ are just as much related. And if Leviticus commands us to love each other, meaning to take care of each other, be considerate of each other, see to the welfare of each other, then it means that we should love them too.
3. Judaism expounds the view that our understanding of anything and everything evolves, even as a core bedrock values are eternal. So I would have asked the Council: What is the most important value of all? Is it democracy? Capitalism? Conservativism? I would recommend to the Council that the most important value of all is that of holiness, the holiness of each and every person, of the air, of the land, of life itself. Holiness is the reflection of the Divine in all of creation. It adheres to all that is with no distinction. There are no restrictions to holiness. It can be found in all. It can be found in everyone that stands in relationship to something other than themselves, and even in the relationship of one to one’s own self. It can be found in all segments of society, the straight and the LGBTQ alike.
From all of this it is preeminently clear to me that the granting of spousal benefits to gay employees of the City of Richmond, at such time as we change the constitution of the Commonwealth, was and is the just and righteous thing to do. This is what I believe God wants of us. I commend my Council member, Mr. John Baliles for voting in the affirmative. I wish the other members had made it unanimous.
Yet I have one further comment. Several Council members said that this was “only” symbolic, and as such, was inappropriate for the Council to do. I would suggest that they consider the inherent power of symbolic statements. What is the difference between a sign and a symbol? The answer is that a sign points only to itself or a limited action or moment. A stop sign does nothing more than indicate that a car at that place stops before proceeding. It has no greater message. A flag is a symbol for it indicates history, evokes devotion, galvanizes action, stirs emotions, and points to the past and to the future. Symbols, symbolic actions, symbolic statements have great power and meaning. It was and is worthy of the City of Richmond to make symbolic statements for they reveal what we think of ourselves and what we dream for the future.
With its particular history, it is right and dutiful that the City of Richmond to have stepped forward in the extension of rights and benefits for the partners of all of its employees. Now all we have to do is change the Constitution.