Lesbian Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum An All-Around Mensch

Of all the people we’ve interviewed over the years, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum’s one of the most inspirational. And awesome.

A spunky, socially aware New Jersey native, Kleinbaum currently presides over New York’s queer-inclusive synagogue, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah.

Aside from her Orthodox upbringing, Kleinbaum cites her background in Yiddish literature as one of the reasons why she chose to become a rabbi.

Said the jarringly young looking 49-year old:

I actually first seriously started considering Rabbinical school while I was teaching Yiddish literature. I thought I could teach Yiddish literature to a community without a religious background, but ultimately Yiddish is so infused with Judaism that it’s really hard to really deeply understand Yiddish just as a language, because it isn’t simply a language: it was embedded deeply in a culture, and that culture included Judaism, and you can’t parse them out without bleaching out from all of them really the power of what they are.

Now, years on, Kleinbaum uses her position and moral authority to fight injustice, like anti-gay legislation. In fact, the good Rabbi found herself behind bars last year for a Times Square protest against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which prohibits openly gay Americans from serving in the military.

Our editor recently headed over to CBST to chat with Kleinbaum on the nature of religion, how she reconciled her faith with her lesbianism, Sarah Silverman’s “Great Schlep” and why religious leaders must talk politics.

Read all about it, after the jump…

Andrew Belonsky: First, what is religion to you?

Sharon Kleinbaum: For me, there’s no difference between religion and spirituality. It’s creating a place to ask the biggest questions about who we are, the meaning of life, the purpose of our life here and how we understand ourselves in the larger universe.

AB: And of course that universe encompasses the nation in which one lives – and that includes politics.

SK: Oh, absolutely. It has as much to do with our internal lives and our sense of interior integrity as it has to do with the world around us and how we function in that world and our responsibility therein. I believe that religion can be a liberating force for transformational change for the individual on a personal, internal level and on a national and international level.

AB: I read a quote from you in which you talked about how all institutionalized religious gatherings should be used to discuss politics. Politics is essential for religion, you think?

SK: Absolutely. I don’t see them as separate things. If we define politics as how we organize our society – which, fundamentally, is what it’s about – then the principles of a deeply religious life – and, again, I don’t distinguish between religion and spirituality. Both religion and spirituality are about comforting us and giving us a sense of peace. Sometimes it’s about demanding of us to do more, to take action, and sometimes it’s about inspiring us to rise above our small universe of personal experience and make a statement or take action on a larger one. So, it’s about comforting us and giving us both hope and inspirational belief in a future.

AB: A few weeks ago, a group of socially conservative preachers had “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” in which they endorsed a candidate. First, what do you make of laws that prohibit religious figures from using the pulpit to endorse a candidate, and, also, what are your thoughts on that action?

SK: Well, right, I’m not prohibited personally from endorsing a candidate, and if you look at the site Rabbis for Obama, I’m on that list. I don’t lose my freedom of speech because I’m a Rabbi. I support the idea that from bima, from the pulpit, I can’t say, “Congregants, vote for [x],” but that’s hardly a limitation. We’re allowed to discuss fully and completely issues that are of concern to our congregations. I recognize that other people will disagree with me on certain issues, but that’s the beauty of diversity. I’m willing to take them on and debate them, but I’m not willing to say that a synagogue or a religious institution should be denuded of concerns for the political sphere. The limit is just on endorsing a candidate. I don’t think that’s such a big limitation. But I think the movement was kind of silly of them.

AB: Do you think it was just for press?

SK: I don’t know. I can’t speculate. But I do respect their right to have a position politically based on religion, I just don’t want to take their position on. I think there should be progressive religious voices like mine and many others who can debate them on their terms and say, “Okay, you have a right to your interpretation, but it’s an interpretation. You can’t say you have the last word on God’s word.”