Of Sports and Social Justice: An Interview with Rebecca Alpert

For many years, it has seemed that religion, as it appears in the public square, is a conservative or even a right-wing affair. And yet, that only happens when one forgets: forgets the many rabbis and ministers who were core to the Civil Rights movement, forgets the role of ministers and rabbis (again) in the early LGBT movement, forgets that religion is more than the right.

Among the first generation of women rabbis as well as the first generation of lesbian rabbis is Rebecca Alpert. Shaped by her own teachers, including Mordecai Kaplan, who founded Reconstructionist Judaism, Alpert is currently a faculty member in religious studies at Temple University. She is also the author of books on Reconstructionist and progressive Judaism, on the place of lesbians within Judaism, and, most recently, on Jews in black baseball. 

Susan Henking: If I say Judaism, baseball, lesbians—to lots of people, these seem like very disparate topics. And yet, they are all topics about which you have written. Is there a thread of connection between them for you?

Rebecca Alpert: The question of the common themes of my work has always bedeviled me. It’s not easy, even for me, to figure out how my disparate interests are united.

I have finally concluded that they all come together in my desire to understand how twentieth-century American religion incorporated elements that were surprising or even troubling. Baseball and lesbians fit well into that rubric for Jewish tradition because ancient Jewish texts and traditions are not interested in either baseball or lesbians at all.

I first knew your work through your second book, Like Bread on a Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition. What led you to write that? Was there an inspiration? An absence?

That book was a culmination of a variety of experiences, personal and intellectual. My early works were on the topics of Jewish feminism and modern American Jewish culture, with an occasional foray into biblical reception criticism. All of that prepared me intellectually for the challenge of writing about lesbian perspectives in Judaism, something I felt personally committed to doing when I came out. I have often reflected that in doing that writing I found my voice. I started by contributing an essay to an anthology my partner was editing, Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian or Gay and Jewish. At the time, nothing had been written about Jewish lesbians from a religious perspective, so the writing filled a void indeed, and led me to realize I had more to say on the subject than could be expressed in one article.

Even though I self-identify as secular—not to mention post-Protestant—I love the Micah 6:8 passage (do justice, love right, and walk modestly with God) you cite in that book. Would you see that as a core passage for your work? And here I am tempted to ask: what would happen if that were cited as often as Leviticus in public discussions?

Micah 6:8 was the passage I wrote about when I was confirmed (a ceremony Reform Judaism invented to keep young people in Hebrew School past bar mitzvah age) and have been committed to it as a “watchword” ever since.

What I most appreciate is how the statement connects justice with compassion and the personal with the communal. That is what I strive to achieve in my teaching and writing, yes. And it is my hope that people care more about ideas like those expressed in Micah, which seem timeless to me, than the more time bound expressions like some of the laws in Leviticus, which may have been important in ancient times but no longer make sense to us today.

You have also co-edited a book on the first lesbian rabbis and written on your own experience as a rabbi, and I wonder what you see as the role of religious leaders generally, and within Judaism particularly, in social change. 

Religious leaders have so much untapped power! Like the passage from Micah implies, religion can (and should) provide both comfort and challenge. Most liberal religious leaders are comfortable with comforting people, but rarely want to challenge them on their values or make them question what religious communities are contributing to society. But those who are willing to do that can really be agents of change. The rabbis who speak out about justice for Palestinians and perform same-sex marriages have had a major impact within the Jewish community. Those who work with other clergy to protest Islamophobia, poor treatment of immigrants, who work for gun control and reproductive freedom, can have a major influence not only on the Jewish community, but also on making our society a better place. I am proud to belong to a synagogue, Mishkan Shalom, in Philadelphia that exemplifies those values.

In that book, there is an essay of yours that talks about the need for perspective, whether it’s from the margins or from the center. Is that still a useful way of thinking?

I no longer think in those terms. It’s counterproductive (and inaccurate) to imagine ourselves as marginal, or to imagine some mythic center we’d like to challenge. Our country has lots of centers. In the world of The Daily Show and the New York Times, a lesbian feminist like me will feel quite central. But when I wrote a blog about boycotting the baseball All-Star Game because it was played in Arizona, and that blog was picked up by sports writers who called me every name in the book, I felt quite marginal. Perspective is, indeed, everything.

What do you see as the biggest changes in the last decade, and how do they affect your view of your earlier work?

Since 1997 the Queer community has experienced a total sea change in the religious and secular worlds; a level of acceptance that was unimaginable then. I give the liberal Jewish community a lot of credit for responding openly and wholeheartedly to the first generation of lesbian rabbis and to all the LGBT Jews who have sought a place at the Jewish table.

We have been made to feel welcome; not only as “others” but as full members of the tribe. (As long as we kept other communal norms, like making monogamous family units, preferably with Jewish partners and children, but that’s another story.) I hope my work helped to bring about that change.

It seems often that voices of the religious right are more audible than those of the (various) religious lefts. Your edited book, Voices of the Religious Left, is one way to move the voice of the progressive religious forward, as is Whose Torah?  Any thoughts on the future place of progressive religion in the U.S. and beyond?

I have enjoyed watching the Democratic Party recognize the importance of progressive religious communities to their agenda and giving us the recognition and support we need. Faith-based is no longer exclusively a reference to the conservative agenda. Religious voices in the public square now include those who agitate for racial and economic justice, sexual and gender equality, and gun control, not only those who cry for the right to bear arms and curtail reproductive and sexual freedom.

Let me come back to your newest book. Beyond loving the title, with its complex nod to the historical idiom and to the many meanings of left in our culture, this seems to emerge from a passion for both sports and social justice. And yet the book is historical: ending, rather than beginning, with what those of us who are less well informed might think is the core of the relation of blacks and baseball, Jackie Robinson. Why does this history matter?

Much of my writing looks to the past in order to understand how we got to where we are. The question I asked in this book was why Jews are still so enamored of baseball (and that core Jackie Robinson story) while interest in the sport has continued to decline in the black community?

Doing this work helped me understand how involvement in black baseball benefited some Jews economically and helping to bring an end to segregated baseball benefited other Jews’ sense of our contribution to social justice. I also learned about a community of black Jews who had their own baseball team that was completely unknown to the white Jewish world I grew up in, even though they shared many religious values. Finding out more about those stories gave me a different angle from which to view the myth of “black-Jewish relations” and the damage that myth has done to the real differences between being black and Jewish in America, not to mention being both.

In some ways, your work reads as about traditions and their transformation. Given that, and since you end Like Bread on a Seder Plate by thinking about the future, let’s look to what’s coming.  If you were to imagine the future—or to imagine the most hopeful future—what would the impact of your work be? And how would our world be different?

My partner, Christie Balka, edited a book a number of years ago to which I had the honor of providing the title, Twice Blessed. Christie often reminds me that I told her the book would have no effect and I have spent much time eating my words both about her work and my own.

I have been three times blessed with the good fortune of seeing my work contribute to change: opening liberal Judaism to feminist perspectives and then to LGBT lives and seeing religiously-oriented social justice concerns gain respect in American public life. Those changes, while important, have hardly brought about the world I wish to see however. The gap between rich and poor grows wider every day, we don’t have the will to tax ourselves in order to maintain the social programs that have allowed a middle class to flourish and the poor to at least subsist, and we have failed miserably to plan for the future of our planet eroding the hopes and dreams of the next generation. I am not a total pessimist, and I believe this state of affairs will and must change. I only hope to see it in my lifetime, and to continue to feel blessed for the privilege that as an academic and rabbi I can do work that will contribute to those changes.

Thanks—and thanks for all the ways your work has made for a world more in accord with that Micah 6:8 passage!

See also Rebecca Alpert  s reflections here on her very personal relationship to baseball.

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