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Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum serves as spiritual leader of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. She was installed as CBST’s first rabbi in 1992, arriving at the height of the AIDS crisis when[…]

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum discusses her work with Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, one of the first LGBTQ synagogues. She goes on to describe how she raised $14,000 from an unexpected donor – Westboro Baptist Church.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum: I see my life’s work to have one goal. And that goal of my life’s work is to change the world for the better. It’s kind of a big goal and I see it as happening on many different levels all the time. The reason I was drawn to become a rabbi and what I ask myself most days when I’m most in sync with my life’s work which is how do I create a world in which it’s possible that every single human being can live their life fully and can have the impact we’re all destined to have which I deeply believe. As a political activist, as a student of text and of ancient studies and as a spiritual person I believe that we start by making sure that we can create communities in which the individual soul is nourished and that we create a rich and vibrant internal spiritual life.

However, if that’s where it ended it wouldn’t be enough for me personally. The reason to be so spiritually connected and to be constantly at a level of deep spiritual work is to be about changing and improving the world in which we find ourselves. And that’s how being a spiritual person and a political activist, for me, are completely interwoven. I don’t see them as two different parts of myself. I see being a political activist and a spiritual person and a spiritual leader, being completely interwoven into one unified spirit.

As an LGBTQ activist and leader I feel that identity, that knowledge, that being part of this community as a lesbian rabbi has helped me to reimagine what Judaism could be. First of all the radical religious right wing, not just in this country but internationally, has become a force of tremendous oppression focusing very explicitly on women’s bodies and on sexuality which embraces, of course, LGBTQ. So I believe that if the radical religious right wing using the language of religion can be used to oppress us I want to be about creating a religious movement that’s about liberation and not just in reaction to but because I believe that religion can be a force of liberation for LGBTQ people as much as, if not more so than the way it’s been an oppressive force. So that’s the first thing that I think that the fact that the radical religious right wing uses religion to oppress us as queer people says to me I need to take them on. And I don’t want to just take them on as a civil rights leader arguing law and civil rights which is absolutely essential. I want to take them on on issues of morality and God. They don’t have the last word on religion and morality and God.

They have their opinion and I believe in their right to have that opinion and will defend their right to that opinion. However, I can as authentically talk about what God wants from us, what living a moral life looks like, what it means to believe in our sacred ancient texts informing our modern lives and come out with a very different perspective on how God feels about LGBTQ people or what the Bible says about that. So that’s at the first level. But I think politically and spiritually it’s important for me to say and to be out there saying God loves queer people. This isn’t a mistake that God’s embarrassed by and is tolerant of but this is essentially part of God’s plan. So that’s the first thing. The second thing I would say that I believe what LGBTQ perspective brings to Judaism and to world religions as well is the liberation of all of us straight and gay. And by that I mean I think that straight people are oppressed by religion and how religion has been used to oppress sexuality and gender roles and gender relationships and has hurt men and women who are living extremely on the surface traditional heterosexual lives. So I believe that it’s about bringing liberation to all of us and rethinking the way we live in the world as men and women, intersex, transgender, asexual or queer people. It embraces ultimately all of us.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton