Parashat Kedoshim: RuPaul Was Right!

This Dvar Torah was condensed from one written by CAJE’s incoming chair, Mark Kravitz, and delivered at CAJE’s recent board meeting.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

I graduated from Columbia University in 1995. I was president of the oldest fraternity on campus founded in 1836, a member of the Jewish Student Union, and I was active socially and politically supporting all campus organizations that strived to make the world a better place.


On October 12, 2023, just days after the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust, I received a photo of my fraternity house covered in red and green lights, Palestinian flags flying, and a large poster stating “Free Palestine.”


I expressed concern about this to the fraternity board to no avail.


In an instant, much of my college experience was erased as the vast majority of my friends chose to look the other way, ignoring the vilification of a building I was once very connected to and a heritage I embodied.


All of the groups I had supported over the years disappeared, and I felt totally abandoned by the university I had always been so proud to be part of.


So this week’s Parsha Kedoshim, which focuses on moral and ethical behavior, came exactly at the right time as we embark into this post-October 7th world.


Kedoshim, often referred to as the “Holiness Code,” highlights the central importance of holiness and ethical living in Jewish tradition.


It emphasizes that holiness is not confined to ritual observance but extends to all aspects of life, including interpersonal relationships, business dealings, and moral conduct.


Its laws and commandments serve as a blueprint for creating a just and compassionate society, promoting social justice, equality, and care for the vulnerable members of society, reflecting the values of mercy and compassion that are central to Jewish ethics.


And while the parsha doesn’t specifically refer to what we know today as tikun olam, it certainly is a primary source of tikun olam principles, which do not advocate for sacrificing the safety and security of the Jewish people.


Instead, tikun olam encourages actions that promote justice, compassion, and peace while also ensuring our own well-being and protection.


Ultimately, it’s about finding a balance between helping others and safeguarding our community’s interests and security.


In thinking about tikun olam in a post-October 7th world, I wonder, how do we, as Jews, “repair the world” when the world today is very much against us?


Does a compassionate Jewish society require us to care for the rest of the world when our own health and security are at risk?


Does repairing and preparing our Jewish community trump our traditional notion of tikun olam?


In her thought-provoking piece for The Atlantic, “Is Holocaust Education Making Antisemitism Worse,” acclaimed author Dara Horn delves into the intricate dynamics of Jewish identity and the challenges posed by assimilation.


Through a nuanced examination of history, culture, and personal reflection, Horn highlights the pitfalls of pursuing sameness and emphasizes the importance of embracing Jewish identity as a means of resilience, continuity, and cultural vitality


She challenges Jews to reclaim their heritage, resist the pressures of assimilation, and proudly affirm their identity in the face of adversity as the ultimate form of redemption from this vicious cycle of assimilation and antisemitism.


By doing so, Horn contends, Jews can cultivate a sense of unity and solidarity within their community, foster cultural continuity for future generations, and make meaningful contributions to society at large.


When Horn discusses the need for us to “proudly affirm our own identity in the face of adversity,” I couldn’t help but think of my own journey being gay in a society that holds a lot of contempt towards the LGBTQ community.


Many people within the LGBTQ community choose to stay in the closet and do their best to maintain an identity of sameness with the rest of the world, preferring to believe that by assimilating and hiding their true identities, they will be more easily accepted by society.


But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.


Hiding in the closet only leads to isolation, depression, and shame. And I would know. When I came out at Columbia University in 1995, those oppressive feelings disappeared as I was finally able to be my true self.


And it was only when the LGBTQ community started coming out and openly expressing who they were that progress and acceptance started to happen.


The tragic events of October 7th serve as a stark reminder of the dangers of remaining silent and invisible in the face of discrimination and prejudice and the striking parallels between the Jewish and LGBTQ experiences.


Both communities have faced centuries of oppression, persecution, and marginalization yet have also demonstrated resilience, solidarity, and pride in their identities.


Just as coming out as LGBTQ is an assertion of one’s right to love and be loved, proudly coming out as Jewish is an affirmation of the richness, vibrancy, and resilience of Jewish culture and heritage.


In both cases, the coming out experience becomes a powerful act of defiance and affirmation, signaling a rejection of shame and secrecy and a celebration of authenticity and self-acceptance.


In a world that often seeks to erase or diminish differences, the imperative for Jewish pride becomes even more urgent. The pursuit of sameness has failed to protect us from hatred and violence, as is evidenced on October 7th.


By coming out of the closet as proud supporters of Israel and defenders of Jewish rights and sovereignty, we assert our right to self-determination and self-expression, paving the way for acceptance and recognition, not only within our own communities but also in the broader world.


When we embrace our identity and heritage with pride and confidence, we invite others to do the same, fostering understanding, empathy, and solidarity across cultural and religious divides.


Instead of striving for sameness, let us celebrate what makes us special and unique and share our gifts with the world.


The parsha famouly states – v’ahavta l’re’akha kamoha – you shall love your neighbor as yourself.


And as drag superstar RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”


In other words, to love our neighbors as intended by the parsha, we have to love ourselves first.


Ultimately, the coming out experience in a post-October 7th world is a powerful testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the enduring quest for freedom, dignity, and equality.


By embracing our identities with pride and courage, we not only honor the memory of those who have been lost but also affirm our commitment to building a world where everyone is accepted and valued for who they are.


Regrettably, we are all facing a new reality that has the potential to overwhelm us if we allow it.


However, we cannot afford to let this happen - not on our watch.


Instead of allowing the cherished memories of my time at Columbia University to fade along with my Jewish pride, I opt to maintain a dignified stance, promoting peace and proudly affirming my commitment to my Jewish heritage.


Contributing to the repair of our world and the preservation of our culture, I stand firm in my resolve.


As we navigate this next chapter of our Jewish history – with Israel in its fourth quarter heading towards its centennial (a milestone it has failed to reach twice in our history), the loss of our last remaining Holocaust survivors, and a concerning rise in antisemitism – let us unite to reclaim our narrative and showcase to the world that our best days are yet to come.

Shabbat Shalom