But then I got an email from a prospective convert with whom I've recently begun working, which gave me new insight into the meaning of cleanliness.
David (not his real name) was corresponding with a fellow student who is also enrolled in the Introduction to Judaism course being offered by our congregation. This fellow student (we'll call him Samuel--also not his real name) is not sure if his end goal will be conversion, since he's not certain where or how to find God, and whether or not his experience of what he believes to be God is sufficiently "authentic." Samuel thus asked David to share his experience of the divine.
David is a gay man and a survivor of sexual abuse. Those factors, he wrote to Samuel, have led him to have a complicated relationship with God, vacillating between a view of God as protector to a judgmental God. David wrote that at one point in his life,
David went on to write that he had come out of that dark moment and had found a way to embrace a God who loves him for who he is. I applaud him for this, and am moved by his story of his personal journey, and how he laid it bare in the hope that Samuel could derive some meaning from it.
I felt that I was bad... I hated myself and thought that somehow I should be different, better, good and not evil. The God of my childhood who had protected me and given me safety became a fierce and stern man who called me weak and broken. I was measured by the words of his followers in popular American culture and I was always found to be lacking. I judged myself and I hated what I saw.
But as much as I am touched by David's insight and strength, I am also sad and angry. God is being used as a pawn, a tool for the religious right who think that only they speak authentically with God's voice, that only they can parse God's intent for this world. In their worldview, anyone who doesn't abide by their narrow construct of what God expects of us is subject to God's scorn, is dirty.
How many are out there like David, struggling with the aftermath of abuse, gender identity, racial identity, disability, or distorted self-image, who swallow the bitter and disgusting bile that is fed to them in the name of God and believe that they are somehow lower in God's eyes? How many have been led to believe that the very qualities that make them unique are making them dirty and shameful?
I pray that we all may be blessed with insight and courage such as David has. May we recognize that cleanliness and God's approbation are not bestowed upon us by others. When we are pure of heart, cleanliness comes from within.