“Love your neighbor as yourself” is such a beautiful verse. Concise and sweet. It sounds like something Mr. Rogers would say.
That is, until the rubber hits the road.
A few years ago, in the midst of the HB-2 fiasco, in my beloved adopted state of North Carolina, a member of my congregation invited me out for a cup of coffee. I knew this congregant well since I had officiated at both of his children’s bar mitzvah ceremonies and the funeral of his father.
From our prior interactions, I knew that he was God-fearing, patriotic, intelligent, and, to my great sadness, homophobic.
At the Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) prayer services prior to our meeting, I offered a sermon focused on, “Love Your Neighbor: Why Is It So Hard?” As I brought the teaching home, I honed in on the venality of the “Bathroom Bill”– the law that nefariously targeted transgender youth in the disguise of “protecting children.”
He was disappointed, to put it mildly, and said, “Rabbi, your sermon was fine, even inspiring, until you gave that example of the family with the transgender child. Why did you have to get so political on a major holiday like that?”
I admit that this is not the first time that I had been criticized for getting “political” on the pulpit. During one sermon a few years prior, an upset congregant rose from his seat as loudly as he could, huffed towards the exit but just inside the sanctuary, and stood with his back towards me for the duration of my teaching. His body language was his protest.
But, since we were sharing a civilized cup of coffee, I decided to engage him a bit further than I might under other circumstances. I explained to him, once again, how I viewed LGBTQ individuals as being made in the image of God, worthy of honor just like every other person. While I admitted that there were Torah verses and quotes from rabbinic literature which may appear to contradict my view, those texts were not the “be all, end all” of my thinking. God gave us the ability to grow, evolve, and learn from modern science.
The Torah was the beginning of a religious conversation, not the end.
To no one’s surprise, my congregant wasn’t convinced. His argument: People can do whatever they want in our free society but they can’t insist that it be accepted by others.
“Like African-Americans wanting the right to vote?” I retorted.
He gave a million reasons why this was different. I held back from shaking my head too vigorously. I really tried to listen.
But the point came when I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Joe, I just want to let you know something. The family with the transgender child who is devastatingly afraid of using the bathroom in their school, that family lives in your part of town.”
He made a pensive face, appearing to try to discern who it was.
I continued, “In fact, the family has a child who is in the same religious school class as your son.”
His eyebrows furrowed, surprised.
“That family was sitting in the row behind you on Rosh HaShanah and saw you get up and leave. Just so you understand, they knew what you were doing. And they were deeply hurt. I saw one of the parents wipe away a tear.”
Our conversation ended shortly after, neither of us convinced.
If I had more time, I would have tried to bring our conversation home. Love your neighbor sounds so wonderful in theory, but it’s enormously difficult to put into practice. When your neighbor is just like you, it’s easy to love them. But what happens when your neighbor is different?
If you surveyed 100 Americans, I bet 99 of them would say that “Love your neighbor” is sacrosanct. But if you ask those same Americans to love their *actual* neighbor—-the one who practices another religion, speaks another language, comes from another country, has a different skin color, identifies with a more fluid gender identity—-the responses will be much different.
Why? Because the rubber has hit the road.
If I could wave a magic staff, my wish would be that every person would fully accept every LGBTQ individual. But since God hasn’t blessed me with that power, all I’m asking is that we follow, in both theory and practice, the Torah’s central command: “Love your neighbor.”
Just like Mr. Rogers taught millions of children for years.