Last night, October 11, 2018, Rabbi Jesse Olitzky hosted an interfaith panel discussion for National Coming Day at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey. I was one of three panelists along with Rabbi Abby Stein and Dr. Chris Adamo. It was titled, “Made in the Image and Likeness of God: An Interfaith Discussion Celebrating Gender and Scripture.” My friends Glen Hoffs and Amelia Martins of St. George’s Episcopal Church (which co-sponsored the event) of Maplewood helped organized the evening.
My fellow panelists were wonderful. Rabbi Stein, struck me with her energy and the sheer brilliance of her intellect. If you look her up you might be as impressed with her qualifications and accomplishments as I am. I had the pleasure of serving on a panel with Dr. Adamo in the past. They spoke from a depth of vulnerability about their journey. I do not feel that I can do justice to either of their presentations.
I spoke a little about what I was aware of in my childhood and teenage years, and how I managed to bifurcate my soul into an interior and protected genuine female self and an exterior mask of the masculine role that was expected of me. This earlier exterior mask was withdrawn and socially awkward (shy), and I avoided a more masculine facade by devoting myself to spirituality and taking refuge in the study of religion and philosophy.
I gave an example from August 1972 of when I (I was fifteen at the time) went on a bicycle trip from the south shore of Long Island to Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard with a group of teenagers, mostly other Jesus Freaks. We crashed at a house with other young Jesus Freaks for a week. During that time, during one of our circle fellowships in the evening, a young black man from Paterson, New Jersey, gave a running commentary on the first chapter and a half of the Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim), interpreting it as a love song between the soul and the Divine in which the soul was the female partner. Immediately I grasped on to this notion, that my soul, in the presence of the Divine, is female. I have had a special relationship with this book of the Bible ever since.
I also shared about my experience during the last year of my pastorate in Ridgefield Park that led up to my coming out–when I was preaching from the Gospel of Matthew every Sunday and personally reflecting on particular sayings of Francis of Assisi and episodes in his life. The words of Francis, that “You are what you are in the sight of God,” no more and no less, and the message of Jesus, to not live your life in the sight of others, to not identify with a mask, but to be who and what you are in the sight of God, bore into me until what I knew came to the fore and my walls of denial came crashing down. (The rest was unavoidable, if I were to retain my sanity.) Suffice it to say, this was a pretty intense time of my life.
This is the spiritual journey, this pursuit of our authentic self, not just for me but for everyone, as someone in our gathering astutely pointed out.
Of course I said more, and hopefully it was engaging and beneficial to the audience. As the moderator, Rabbi Olitzky posed questions to us and welcomed questions from the floor. I appreciate his intelligence concerning the issue, and the incisiveness and sensitivity he brought to the role. Glen and Amy who initiated and organized the event have been very supportive of me in the past and continue to be. I am happily surprised by the love and friendship they have extended to myself and Karen. May the Divine One bless us.