Hachnassat Orchim: Celebrating diversity in pandemic times

In early November of this year, we read Parasha Vayera, which tells the story of Avraham, who shortly after his self-circumcision received a visit from God. Contrary to the ordinary interpretation in which Avraham would have received the divine presence through three angels who would introduce themselves in the form of travelers, rabbinic literature brings another interpretation of this moment. In the Talmudic view, the travelers who would later turn out to be angels did not represent God, but God Themself, individually who visited Avraham because of his surgical procedure. Then, during the divine visit, Avraham spotted three hungry travelers. When he saw them, without knowing that they were angels, seeing them only as ordinary people, he got down on his knees before God and asked to wait for him to continue the visit, after assisting those travelers.

It was part of Avraham’s habit to welcome travelers to his home. However, as the Talmudic interpretation shows, it is surprising that in one of his first revealing moments of having a visual contact with God, he realized the presence of strangers who were in need and decided to help them at the very moment of one of the most important events of his life. Based on this interpretation, the rabbis stressed the value of Hachnassat Orchim in the phrase “Gdolah hachnassat orchim mecabalat pnei haShechinah” – “It is more important to receive the stranger than the divine presence.” (BT Shabbat 127a)

That is, other people’s needs are more important than my spiritual desires. These must come in the background when I also talk about caring for others. When a single person is not welcome in a Jewish environment, the divine presence there becomes invalid. In addition, it is when people end up feeling strange and apart from their own people, that we should be most concerned.

In the midst of a year so turbulent that it has been 2020 so far, several solidarity initiatives have emerged that work for equity and the recognition of diversity within the Jewish community worldwide. We were able to observe the resilience of transforming such a complex and intimidating period into a moment to work on what is one of the values that best highlight inclusion as a Jewish value.

In July, UJR-AmLat joined several Jewish Reform congregations and communities around the world by celebrating for the first time the Chodesh haGa’avah (pride month) that took place in honor of the LGBTQIA + population on July 28, 1969; it had the milestone of the Stonewall revolt in New York. At that time around the world, several progressive institutions continue to remember and celebrate this date in the hope of an inclusive and just society.

The monthly celebrations included lectures, special Shabbat and other ways to bring the theme to the spot. Due to the spatial limitations caused by social distancing protocols, technology was responsible for a spring of new ways of practicing Judaism, from lectures with guests spread around the world gathered in a single virtual space, to religious celebrations by video conferences in which each family has been participating safely at home.  The same happens for the celebration of the month of pride.

With a series of online lectures given in partnership with the Brazil Israel Institute and ARZENU, guests from Brazil and Israel were able to teach, learn and share their experiences and realities, often marginalized in the Jewish community. It was not only a space for knowledge, but also for identification.

People who have been away from Judaism for a long time or who find it difficult to fit into a space that they always wanted to be present, but without something or someone to represent them, had the opportunity to discover that there are people with realities and desires like theirs, as well showing that every Jewish person has a place in Judaism that does not depend on his/her sexual orientation, gender, color or any identity factor. We are building blocks of who we are and we consider each person, within their identity, a blessing.

The series of webinars was one of several actions that emerged with this theme. In Congregação Israelita Paulista, young adults created a Jewish study group within an LGBTQIA + vision with participants from all over Brazil, embracing a literary tradition that for a long time was an impediment for diverse LGBTQIA + Jews and Jews to feel part of their religion. Thus, initiatives with other themes also appeared, such as the “Judaism and Gender” course at the Centro Cultural Mordechai Anilevitch in Rio de Janeiro, which provides conversations that very much address the participation of women in Jewish life and a course aimed at the participation of youth within the reformist movement through Tamar-AmLat.

The success and continuous growth of actions involving these guidelines comes from an old need within the Jewish community to talk about identity and what forms each individual as well as the individual characteristics that cannot be left out of their Jewish experiences, but integrated.

 It is about recognizing and bringing diversity into our practices. And when we encounter texts, rites or cultural habits with which they do not represent us and often make us feel apart from our tradition, it is important to remember that there are no erroneous interpretations in Judaism, but we are often taught an interpretation that don’t include everyone. In addition, as a Jewish person, you can bring a new one, when the one you have learned does not represent you. Thus, you open not only a door to practice Judaism with meaning for you, but also for anyone who has the same desires and needs.

Diversity is a contemporary reality in society as a whole. For a long time, the idea that our communities would be a type of environment separate from society, where personal and individual issues would be kept apart, was perpetuated. This division between what is personal and what is Jewish has long been used to silence other perspectives. Therefore, bringing diversity to Judaism is to enable these personal perspectives to also happen in our environments, both community and individual.

When we think of our synagogues, schools, community centers, youth movements and diverse environments as an extension of society and a reflection of how it is structured, each member being a representative of each part that builds it and brings with it a whole experience that while it is individual, it also shares identical characteristics within the experience of others, we can recognize this diversity and thus exercise inclusion and hospitality for all. To embrace the value of Hachnassat Orchim, mirroring us in values that go through the history of our patriarchs and matriarchs until today.

May this resilience opportunity that we managed to embrace and build in such a troubled period, be perpetuated and continue to grow in our experiences as an example for the next generation. Every individuality matters and each one can always be a source for a new path for the practice an ancient tradition that each of us carries and thus receive and contemplate everyone, just as Avraham received the stranger and gave us this so Jewish and universal value of celebrating what makes us different in the same intensity that equates us as humans.

André Liberman is a member of Keshet Ga’avah (International Congress of LGBTQ Jews), Collaborator of the LGBTQ Department of the Instituto Brasil-Israel, member of the Young Leadership of ARZENU, and member of the Youth of UJR-AmLat.