She is also the North American co-chair of World Pride 2006, an interfaith LGBT festival and conference scheduled for August 6th-12th in Jerusalem
(www.worldpride.net). World Pride has been attacked by the religious
right. “We manage to unite all these right-wing religious figures who
usually don’t even talk to each other,” Kleinbaum observes. It has also
been criticized by some anti-Zionist leftists for being sited in
CBST was founded in 1973 and has been “philosophically unaffiliated,” she notes, for its thirty-three years. “No denomination would have had us
years ago,” she explains, and while “both the Reform and
Reconstructionist movements today would love to have us affiliate, we’re
very committed to a pandenominational approach to Judaism. We have about
eight hundred members, from all the movements, including graduates from
the Yiddish shules.” Her own background embodies much of that diversity:
She was a yeshiva student in high school, a radical,
secular undergraduate at Columbia, and received her rabbinical ordination
in 1990 from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Her career
includes stints at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in
Washington, D.C. and as Assistant Director of the National Yiddish Book
Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. In her office, a bust of the classic
Yiddish writer, I. L. Peretz, has pride of place on the cabinet behind
In 2005, to celebrate her leadership at CBST, the congregation published
Listening for the Oboe, a collection of Rabbi Kleinbaum’s sermons and
Torah commentaries over the course of a dozen years. The title piece, a
1997 Rosh Hashanah sermon, draws an analogy between trying to become
literate about classical music —specifically, learning to hear the oboe
in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—and striving to become Jewishly literate.
Other pieces in the book deal with such diverse issues as reparations for
African-American slavery, diversity within the LGBT community, the
September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, and Martin Buber’s “I-Thou”
With her life partner, Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, Rabbi Kleinbaum is the
mother oftwo daughters and lives in Brooklyn. JEWISH CURRENTS caught up
with her in her office at CBST’s rented headquarters in Greenwich
JEWISH CURRENTS: Listening for the Oboe opens with a sermon about living in
exile, in which you describe how each of three patriarchs of the Bible
takes a journey from the familiar to the unknown, each under radically
different circumstances. Abraham is called forth into exile by revelation;
Jacob has to flee into exile after stealing his brother’s birthright;
Joseph is sold into exile as a slave.
SHARON KLEINBAUM: That was my keynote drash (Torah commentary) at the
Twelfth International Conference of Gay and Lesbian Jewish
Organizations, in San Francisco in 1991. I was speaking about coming out
-— to oneself, one’s family, and the world — as a process of risk-taking
JC: The paradigms of exile have shifted a great deal in the LGBT
community. Even the advent of that acronym, LGBT, which includes bisexual
and transgender people, is pretty new. [“Trangender” comprises
transvestite, transsexual, and other identities that diverge from typical
gender roles that are usually assigned at birth —Ed.] There have
been changing family dynamics, civil unions, the struggle with AIDS, and
the attacks of the religious right. How have all these changes affected
the “culture of exile” in your community and the LGBT community as a
SK: One of the greatest contributions Jews have made is to provide an
outsider perspective on society. The gay community is another community
for whom life on the margins has provided a rich awareness of how society
functions — an awareness that “insiders,” who breathe the air of the
culture, with all of its assumptions, only rarely have.
But within the LGBT community itself there are also those who are more
“insider”and those who are more “outsider.” There are ways in which we
get settled and a bit comfortable: economic ways, Jewish identity ways,
sexual ways. Our congregation is committed to the exploration of that
Socioeconomically, the heterogeneity in CBST is like nothing you’ll see
in any suburban synagogue. We have people who own multimillion-dollar
Manhattan townhouses, and people who are homeless and struggling every
day. We also have diversity issues apart from the economic. I recently
asked the congregation to go see the movie Transamerica, and then I gave
my Friday night sermon about transgender identity. Most of the people who
came to our discussion are gay, but some of them are extremely
uncomfortable about transgender issues. We were pushing the envelope for
members of our own community, people who are already “fringe” but have to
think about others who may even be more so.
JC:Perhaps we all have a desire to be left alone and cozy within whatever
level of privilege we’ve got.
SK: Yes, there are people in this community who legitimately feel that
they’ve paid their dues, they’ve opened the world enough that they have
found a comfortable place to sit, and that’s enough. But we challenge
that, both internally and through our social action work in the larger
JC: In the sermon from your fifth anniversary as CBST rabbi, you observe
that many of the congregation’s founding generation were men, while the
1990s brought an influx of women, especially young women.
SK: We lost about twenty-five percent of our male members to AIDS during
my first few years here. Our yizkor services were unbelievably painful.
Even today, the straight community does not understand what AIDS has done
to us. The mainstream Jewish community does not know the leadership, the
wisdom, the humor, the outrageousness, and the vision, which have been
lost to AIDS.
So yes, our community has had to respond to many changes. In my
installation sermon in 1992, I used the haftarah [supplementaryBible
reading] from the Book of Isaiah: “Enlarge the site of your tents;
extend the size of your dwelling. Do not stint! Lengthen the ropes and
drive the pegs firm.” I was trying to tell the community not to become
like today’s America, which has declared, “This is how big we are, and
this is the language we speak; now we close the doors.”
We prefer to open our doors. We get about four thousand people to High
Holiday services, which we hold at the Javits Convention Center. We have
a no-ticket, open-door policy.
Building a home of our own at New York City real estate prices is a real
challenge. Until then, we’re kind of the wandering Jews of New York.
JC: You’ve done some wandering yourself. How did you come to work at the
National Yiddish Book Center?
SK: I was there from 1981 to1985, when I left for rabbinical school.
My father had grown up in the Sholem Aleichem Houses, but he didn’t speak
Yiddish to us, so I didn’t learn the language until I went to Columbia
and studied it as my foreign-language requirement.
I met Aaron Lansky [founder of the Center] when I was hitchhiking in
Northampton. He picked me up in a van full of Yiddish books. I opened the
box I was sitting on and I said, “What are you doing shlepping around
cartons of the collected works of Peretz?” He slammed on the brakes,
looked around at me and said, “Whatare you doing, being able to read
We became good friends, and he invited me to come and work with him when
I finished college. I made my living teaching Hebrew school at the
Northampton Jewish Center, and Aaron and I started teaching classes about
Yiddish literature. Then the Center moved into its first home, the
elementary school building in Amherst.
JC: What caused you to move on to rabbinical school?
SK: The Yiddish Book Center quickly became a kind of home for many young,
disaffected, rural Jews, and I started to realize that I was able to
answer a lot of their questions because of my religious education. I
had gone to an Orthodox high school and got quite a Jewish education, but
it wasi mpossible for me to reconcile being Orthodox with being a
lesbian. During my college years, I was very secular and very radical.
But in Northampton, I realized that knowing Yiddish literature wasn’t
enough — in fact, you can’t really understand Yiddish literature without
some understanding of Judaism. It began to feel false to me to have a
love affair with Yiddish and reject Judaism. In Eastern Europe, you could
do that: You could be a renegade and not have any religious practice, and
Yiddish might be enough, because there was a Judaism to be in
conversation with, even if you weren’t observant. In America, the
situation is very different. The religious and Yiddish worlds aren’t much
JC: Gender identity and sexual orientation have been the subject of quite
a bit of biological research and speculation over the past couple of
decades. What used to be classified as a mental disorder or character
failing or “sin” is now often thought of as biologically predetermined.
What used to be called “sexual preference” is now called “sexual
orientation.” What do you think of this shift?
SK: I put it in the category of “Who knows?” Obviously there’s biology
involved in all aspects of being human, but how do we really know the
depth of that involvement? Clearly there’s a role for biology. For
example, something like one in four thousand babies are born intersex,
with uncertainty about their gender identity. That’s a spectacularly high
number, which our society has pretty much made invisible by saying, “No,
they must be assigned, either male or female identity.” Now biologists
are saying it’s not so simple: male and female are not so binary.
JC: Doesn’t the emphasis on biology dampen down some of the liberationist
ideology of the gay movement? It’s one thing to say, “Let’s be tolerant,
they can’t help themselves,” and another to say, “We all should have the
opportunity to define ourselves, to make our choices, and still deserve
SK: So I resist the ways that biological determinism can be used to
define us and confine us. But that doesn’t mean I want to resist
There is obviously no one gay experience, or straight experience, or
transgender experience. Some people, from the moment they are two years
old and have any inkling of the universe around them, identify a certain
way; others go through shifts, and phases, and feel very fluid in their
identifications. Whatever the etiology of gender and sexual orientation,
what matters is that discrimination is still preventing people from
feeling free to express those essential pieces of themselves.
Emma Goldman was once asked how she could possibly believe that people
could behave in responsible ways without the imposition of laws and a
government. She observed that people are now acting like animals in a
zoo; you can’t predict what they would be like in their natural
environment based on how they behave when they’re behind bars.
I think the best contribution of the gay community has been to talk about
getting rid of those bars, particularly when it comes to gender
identities and relationships. We have brought to the fore issues like:
What does it mean to be a man? A woman? A man in relationship to a woman?
A woman in relationship to a woman? In gay relationships, there are no
predetermined answers to these questions. The social constructs don’t
necessarily apply. Hopefully, by asking these questions, we bring to
heterosexual relationships a certain freedom, too —a freedom for people
to define themselves.
We’ve also had a real impact on Judaism by confronting its heterosexual
biases: the God who is male, in the upper realm, while Israel is female,
in the lower realm. Their relationship is heterosexual, classically so:
the male in the dominant role, the female in the subordinate. If we’re
going to reject the heterosexual bias in Judaism, just as many have begun
to reject the male bias, Judaism is going to look very different.
JC: A secularist might wonder about the vocabulary you’re using: the same
religious vocabulary —with a vastly different interpretation — as the
fundamentalist world. Aren’t you therefore contributing, in some way, to
the “hold” of religion on human beings, a hold that yields, after all, a
lot more conservatism thanl iberalism?
SK: Just the opposite. By saying clearly and with absolute
self-confidence that Pat Robertson does not own the language of religious
discourse, we’re challenging the religious right and their hijacking of
religion. They would love it if we were all secular activists. And it
would kill me to give it over to them so easily!
JC: You think the religious LGBT community in the U.S. has a particular
leadership role to play?
SK: The freedoms we have in the U.S. are extraordinary. In many other
parts of the world, being gay is criminal. It is punishable by death in
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Mauritania, Sudan, Pakistan, United Arab
Emirates, Yemen and the northern provinces of Nigeria. Egypt has
sentenced gay men to five years at hard labor. Uganda’s government has a
record of torture and abuse of LGBT people. China has persecuted them as
“mentally ill.” On the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority actually
expends resources entrapping and arresting people for being gay — while
Israel refuses to give asylum to gay Palestinians who have been persecuted.
What we contend with in America, however, is a radical religious
right-wing movement — which doesn’t exist in Europe, not even in Eastern
Europe. Their presence makes the work we’re doing very important. Our
insistence on belonging in the universe of religious morality challenges
them and their ideology in a very direct way.
JC: LGBT issues have actually provided their greatest fundraising cause —
especially the gay marriage issue.
SK: The religious right is very deliberately using gay marriage as a
wedge issue, just as they’ve used the “partial-birth abortion” issue to
make inroads on abortion rights. They haven’t yet been able to succeed at
abolishing abortion rights head on, but a lot of people are uncertain
about partial-birth abortions, a lot of people are confused about
parental notification, so the right is going after those wedge issues.
Similarly, most Americans would not deny employment to their gay bank
teller or hairdresser or neighbor! But they’re confused about the
marriage issue. It’s been a brilliant, political choice on the part of
the religious right. I recommend a book by Mel White, who was a
fundamentalist, a speechwriter for Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. He
then came out as a gay man and wrote a book called Stranger at the Gate.
He writes about how, until the fall of communism, every one of the
Christian right’s fundraising letters said, “Protect your children from
the spectre of communism — send money now!” Now they all say, “Save your
children from the spectre of homosexuality —send money now!” The anti-gay
stuff kicked in big time as soon as communism collapsed.
Their attack on gay marriage is very strategic: They looked very
carefully to find out which issue on the gay agenda, so to speak, is the
most controversial. What they’re after, however, is the elimination of
the open participation of gay people as equals in American society.
JC: Has this given you pause about taking on the marriage issue?
SK: Not at all! I’m very much in the lead in New York State for fighting
for gay marriage. If they’ve thrown down this gauntlet, we have to pick
it up. This is about equality for human beings. If people want to refuse
to perform gay marriages in their churches and ostracize any clergy who
performs them, fine! This is America, where we have separation of church
and state. But they don’t have the right to codify their religious
practice into state laws. It would be like the Catholic church insisting
that the government refuse to give marriage licenses to anyone who has
ever had a divorce.
JC: In Listening for the Oboe, you also included a piece about reparations
SK: That was a sermon I gave to honor Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and
the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose anniversaries — King’s birth
and Heschel’s death — fall close together in January.
I think it is morally incumbent upon us as Jews to be in the leadership
calling for reparations for African Americans, for several reasons.
First, our moral obligation from Torah. We were “slaves in Egypt,” and we
are never to forget that, which means that we must never enslave or
participate in the enslavement of another. The fact Jews were not here in
large numbers during slavery — though we did participate in the slave
system, both in the trade and in ownership — means that we don’t have
quite as much guilt as the rest of white America and can therefore see
the issue more clearly.
Second, the Jewish community has accumulated a great deal of wisdom since
the Holocaust about the complex issues involved in reparations. We have
very real advice to offer.
I’ve actively advocated for passage of HR-40, John Conyers’ bill that
seeks simply to set up a commission to study the issue of reparations.
Among the nearly entirely African-American sponsors of the bill are two
Jews, Eliot Engel and Jerrold Nadler. There are more Jews in Congress who
should sign on.
What makes people anxious about the issue is the lack of clarity about
the form reparations would take.
JC: Randall Robinson, whose book, The Debt, you referenced in that sermon,
makes clear that he’s talking primarily about institution-building.
SK: Once people understand that we’re not talking about a cash handout
but about meaningful restitution, opinions do start to change.
Representative Conyers once observed to me that it took him fifteen years
to get Martin Luther King Jr. Day recognized as a national holiday. On
such issues, patience and persistence will win because justice is on our