Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible.
God said to Moses,
Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is hunchbacked or dwarfed, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the offerings made to God by fire. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. (Leviticus 21:16-21)
According to these rules imposed by Torah, any kind of difference renders one ineligible to serve God as a religious leader. Does this mean some of our spiritual giants recorded in Scripture would have been ineligible for priesthood roles if there had been a priesthood when they lived?
One Talmudic tradition (Yevamot 64a-b) states that Abraham and Sarah were tumtumim, meaning they were of uncertain sex. Since Leviticus clearly states priests, like the animals they sacrifice on behalf of their congregants, have to be completely male, Abraham couldn’t have served as a spiritual leader. He was responsible for instituting the Shacharit (morning) service according to a second Talmudic tradition (Berachot 26b) but due to his difference he is deemed unfit to serve according to the rules imposed by Leviticus 21. Obviously Sarah couldn’t have been eligible due to her sex, since men alone were eligible for jobs within the priesthood, but even if she had been a man instead she had exactly the same difference as her spouse, meaning she would have been ineligible even if she had been born as the opposite sex.
Isaac and Leah are both interpreted by many people as having low vision. Due to this difference, despite being recognized as being great (Isaac is recognized as instituting the Minchah (afternoon) service according to Berachot 26a-b and Leah is given credit for being the first human being to praise God according to Berachot 7b), they couldn’t have had any kind of leadership position within the Temple. Again, I’m aware that only men could serve within the priesthood but it seems biological sex hardly means anything; if you’re different you’re not eligible despite anything else that can make you seem like a perfect candidate.
Jacob, after wrestling with the angel, is left differently-abled. His struggle with God’s messenger leaves him with mobility issues. Does his limping prevent him from being a very spiritual person or mean he stops serving his Creator? No, of course it doesn’t. He is also held responsible for instituting Aravit (evening) worship (Berachot 26b) but according to rules imposed by Scripture he may have been ineligible to serve within a certain role.
Even Moses, according to the rules of our parashah, couldn’t serve as a member of the priesthood. He stuttered due to an incident during his childhood (Exodus Rabbah 1:26), which left him with a scarred tongue that made it hard for him to pronounce words and ask his brother to come with him whenever he had to relay any kind of message to the people. Moses may be recognized as our greatest prophet, as Deuteronomy states, but it appears, once again, that a great spiritual person is viewed as ineligible to serve because of a physical difference.
Looking at those treacherous verses in Leviticus also seems enough to give anyone an extremely distorted sense of body image or feel guilty if they have anything to help compensate for a difference they live every day (e.g. glasses). How many people have spent extended time periods at the gym, trying to shape their bodies to be “perfect”? How many people, predominantly women, have dealt with some kind of eating disorder trying to “perfect” their bodies? How many older people have spent money on botox or other cosmetic procedures to look younger in our youth-obsessed culture?
Invisible differences are no different. Parashat Emor clearly states that anybody with a “defect” is unable to serve God as a priest. According to this, anyone who has a learning difference is ineligible. Verse 22 might seem like an attempt to soften this harsh edict, since it states that “imperfect” people can eat of the holy and most holy sacrifices, but the next verse completely undoes it.
Verse 23 attempts to explain why only “perfect” people can serve as priests. It explains that God sanctifies the sanctuaries and people may not profane them.
Some differently-abled people might be happy to have some kind of explanation for their exclusion, since they can rationalize everything as being included in ritual purity rules, but as far as I’m concerned, lo dayeinu: it’s not enough.
Perhaps people have to have accommodations if they want to serve God and happen to be different, but that fact alone shouldn’t prevent anyone from being able to serve. As Vinny Prell wrote in her commentary “Some say that making an offering to God is such a dangerous business that sometimes, even the average people don’t survive.”
She also writes that such statements assume those who are different are supposed to be grateful they are ineligible for a job that has such drastic potential consequences. To me, that’s about as effective as the Orthodox reminding me I’m exempt from many mitzvot due to anatomy. Simply being a woman doesn’t mean I don’t want to be involved as much as men. Second, I’m willing to argue that if you’re “different” in any way and you choose to participate in something where you’re under no obligation to be involved your contributions should mean more because of their voluntary nature.
Looking at Parashat Emor it’s hard to avoid feeling Torah is contradicting itself. Genesis tells us all of humankind was created in God’s image (1:27), Exodus tells us we are to be a nation of priests, a holy nation (19:6) and Leviticus tells us we are all capable of being holy (19:1).
If Genesis is right in asserting that all of humankind was created in God’s image, why is God suddenly doing a 180 and proclaiming that some people are prevented from serving due to being impure? God created everyone, whether “perfect” or “imperfect”, so why should there be any kind of excuse?
Can we honestly be a nation of priests, let alone a holy nation, if we prevent people from serving? We are told we are all capable of being holy and we deserve to be able to fulfill that divine, God-given mission, even if we are different.
As someone living with a number of differences and working toward being an Educational Assistant, I’m very frustrated by Emor. It (half) helps to be able to put it in context due to its position in terms of ritual purity rules but it frustrates me that, according to the “straight” meaning, the children I love helping are viewed as unable to serve God at the highest level. They were created as they are and they can reach their holiness potential as much as average people even if that potential happens to be different.
Two weeks ago over 40 teens gathered for an LGBTQ & Ally Shabbaton organized by Keshet and Hazon. Upon returning home from the weekend, one of the participants shared her story under the pseudonym of Esther Sarah.
I chose the pseudonym of Esther Sarah very specifically. In both of their stories, these women are forced to hide something about them, even though it was something central to their identity. Esther had to hide the fact that she was Jewish when she was sent to marry Achashveros, and Sarah had to hide the fact that she was Avraham’s wife when she and Avraham went to Pharaoh during a famine. I too, am forced to hide something central to my identity: my sexuality. Ultimately, in both stories, both women eventually are able to stop hiding, and when they are open about their true selves, they save everyone around. That gives me a great deal of hope.
I always knew I was bisexual, before I even knew what that meant. For the longest time I just assumed that the way I felt about girls was the way all girls felt about each other. I also figured that since I liked boys too, that I was “normal” and didn’t need to worry about any of it. But, after a friend came out to me at summer camp the summer before eighth grade, I realized that my feelings were legitimate, and needed to be recognized. Thus began my journey of questioning, coming out, and, sadly, staying in the closet sometimes.
I’m out to my immediate family, but I’m not out to the rest of my family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins). I have heard extremely homophobic things come out of the mouths of my relatives, which makes me incredibly upset. This is my family! How can they say such cruel things? Would they still say them if I was out? Right now, this is a question that I’m scared to know the answer to.
I’ve heard many horror stories of people coming out to relatives and being kicked out subsequently, and not being allowed to be part of their own families anymore. In fact, I know a person who, upon coming out, had to hear their own uncle begin to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. The person was dead to their family. It’s horrifying.
Every now and again I toy with the idea of coming out. I tell myself that this Thanksgiving, this Pesach, this holiday will be when I finally tell everyone. And then I hear things like “Homosexuals should try to be straight and normal before they go off and choose their lifestyle,” and I remember why I’m still not out. I hate being closeted more than I can say, but I still love my family. And I don’t want to be hated or disrespected. Not that anyone does, but still.
The parallels between my story and the stories of Esther and Sarah are amazing. Like me right now, they hid who they were because it seemed like the safest course of action. But, eventually, the only way they could save themselves and their loved ones was to “come out”, and reveal their true identities. I know that, eventually, I will have to come out of the closet to my family and reveal my true identity. It’s scary, but I can look to Esther and Sarah to remind me that the bravery of revealing yourself will yield positive results.
“Why are you doing this?”
I hear this question frequently when people learn that I write to help parents understand how LGBTQ issues affect their teens’ lives. I am not a professor of gender studies or a lesbian celebrity. I am a middle-aged happily married heterosexual mom, who fits stereotypes appallingly well. (Yes, even the 10 years in a minivan!) My previous careers weren’t even focused around writing.
Usually, I sense that the questioners expect drama close to home: which one of my children has just come out, or which friend of theirs has been bullied or thrown out of his/her home? I almost hate to disappoint them, but my motivation is boringly common. I just want to be a more effective parent. Ok, maybe, a more successfully nosy parent? Maybe it’s the same thing: I want to understand my kids’ world a little better.
I grew up in the 70’s in Baltimore: I joke that John Waters wasn’t even out then. (He did the puppet show at my third birthday party, and some of my friends would say that explains A LOT, but that’s another story.)
Of course, I had lesbian teachers and camp counselors, and surely some of those theater kids I hung out with were queer. Also of course, none was out and orientation was almost never discussed. When whispers came up, the default defense was a denial. Not until college did I know out gay and lesbian people, and experience an even somewhat inclusive setting.
Happily for the world, today’s teens and tweens generally have a different experience. Every day seems to bring us another step closer to equal rights and equal inclusion: same-sex marriage progress is all over the news, entertainment and sports stars come out with less and less fanfare, and queer relationships are beginning to be “normal” in television and movie plotlines. This makes it easier for teens to recognize and be authentic about their gender identities and attractions, but it adds an extra layer of social issues to carefully navigated by people with, let’s face it, imperfect judgment and undeveloped social maturity. And heightened sensitivity! Tween and teen years are minefields of awkwardness, embarrassment and hurt feelings, and it’s often hard for parents to help as it is.
I had promised myself I would be as frank and unflinching as possible in any kind of relationship and/or sex talk with my kids. I thought I was doing a pretty good job. But, a few years ago, despite being comfortable with queer friends and colleagues in my adult life, I found myself stumbling in conversations with kids about LGBT sex and relationships. Yikes! Bias I thought I had left behind? I looked hard at what was making me squirm: it was the newness to me of the idea of same-sex crushes and gender identity crisis at that age.
The idea of one or more of my kids and any of their friends not being heterosexual was fine in principle, but wait, did this mean I should rethink slumber parties? The values I wanted to communicate about intimacy shouldn’t depend on the gender of the partner… but how do you translate “virginity” if the situation isn’t heterosexual and cis-gendered?
When your kids ask you questions it’s a privilege (although I certainly didn’t see that in the moment on that bus). So, determined to have good, current-world answers I went looking for a book of advice. I looked in the Parenting section, but found that most anything related to these topics is shelved in LGBT Interest. But this is just the point, I thought, even straight people with straight kids could use a few more clues and cues. Maybe they’d need a cliché straight soccer mom to write such a book. Of course, I don’t write so much as collect and curate advice from current and former teens and parents, and review the science. After scores of interviews and hours in scientific journals, you can find my work in a blog (ummaboutthat.com) and a book (coming).
One big realization is that “perfect” parenting can happen even when conversations stumble. Saying, “gee, that’s so different from my sixth grade experience” is already the beginning of a great answer. Small things in our actions and reactions can make a huge difference in what we learn from our kids, in what they take away from us, and in how that feels – and that will be the topic of my next post.
I’ve always said that Passover felt like the most relevant Jewish holiday to me. As a teenager I insisted on placing an orange on the seder plate as a way of reminding my family and me that there are still folks who are left out of their Jewish and broader communities.
I attended sedarim two of the four years I lived in London, thousands of miles from my family. One seder was at the home of a Jewish couple friend of mine and one was in my own kitchen, attended only by three non-Jewish friends. I was proud to be able to celebrate my favorite Jewish holiday so far away from my family, when I’d never really worked to develop a Jewish practice of my own. My relationship with Judaism in recent years has waxed and waned, but consistently centered around ritual and community rather than observance or devotion to Torah. With this in mind I was nervous about attending the seder in my own home, hosted by my roommate Joanna and our friend Becky, both of whom could talk Jewish circles around my knowledge of practice and theory. Joanna reassured me that although there were rabbinical students attending, everyone was open and excited to be sharing the seder with a group of radical, progressive, queer or queer friendly people, regardless of religious affiliation or practice.
My Pesach 2013 (5773) was one of the most meaningful days of my Jewish life. We were asked by the hosts to bring two items: one that represented mitzrayim—a dark place—for us, and one that had some symbolism related to what we wanted in the coming year. We talked about oppression and slavery, both literal and metaphorical. The food and wine were amazing, but the company and conversation were what the Passovers of the rest of my life will have to live up to.
The thing that I had to keep reminding myself of while I was sitting there, surrounded by people who were so intelligent and deeply passionate about creating a just world, was that this was everyday life in my new queer, Jewish community. This seder that rejuvenated me and encouraged me to be a better person was simply a collection of people who would become my community for the following year (and for forever, I hope). Although we were instructed to think about the objects we brought in advance, no one was expected to share if they didn’t want to. Unlike any seder I’ve ever been to, I wanted to keep talking Pesach far beyond the time when the meal was served.
This year I will be in Melbourne, Australia for Pesach, where I’ve just moved with my partner. I’ve been invited to a seder at the home of a woman whom I met on an airplane; a woman who minutes prior had invited me to join her book club. This is the part of Jewish community that I cherish, and why I’m so excited to attend. I will attempt to carry the warmth last year’s seder in Boston to the Melbourne table of a family that I don’t yet know, comforted by the fact that holidays away from relatives and with different combinations of family can be a crucial part of making a home wherever I am.
After the fun we had with Rainbow Hamantaschen, it seemed like the gauntlet had been thrown. At the Keshet office we began to wonder: would it be possible to find some way to make a rainbow food for each major holiday? The challenge was on. The brainstorming began. Would it be matzah ball soup, with each matzah ball a different color? A rainbow of gefilte fish? A mix of dips and spreads in ever color imaginable?
Even though Passover is a holiday already pretty full of traditions and ritual, I thought it would be okay to try something new. So, I turned to my friend Stephanie, and together we came up with Rainbow Chocolate Covered Matzah.
The goal was simple: take a plain ol’ piece of matzah and jazz it up, rainbow style. With that in mind, we created our recipe, one that was well within the dietary restrictions of Passover, while still allowing for a little rainbow fun.
So, here’s what you’ll need:
- Six 1/2 cups of white chocolate chips (a 1/2 cup for each color created),
- A box of matzah,
- A small splash of milk (as needed for drizzle consistency) per color,
- A box of food coloring,
- A spoon for the drizzling and/or a basting brush for painting,
- & a small sauce pan to melt the chocolate.
Your first step is to place the first 1/2 cup of white chocolate in a small sauce pan over a low heat. You’ll want to stir pretty constantly, because you don’t want the chocolate to burn. While you’re stirring splash in a little milk- just enough to help give the chocolate that proper drizzle feel.
Once you’re feeling good and melted, add food coloring to the chocolate for your first batch of color. The amount of food coloring is up to you, just be sure to make it bright!
To transfer the colored chocolate to the matzah, we went with two different rainbow-ing techniques: the Jackson Pollock drizzle and the more solid stripe technique. For the drizzle, you’ll simply use a spoon to start covering the matzah in your own crazy pattern.
For stripes, use a basting brush to slowly paint on a solid strip of color. Once you’ve got your red color on (whether it be stripes, drizzled, or both) repeat the process with each color of the rainbow.
We weren’t honestly sure which technique would prove successful—or if we’d end up with a big ol’ mess on our hands. However, they both turned out pretty fantastic.
So go ahead and give our Rainbow Matzah a try! It’s as delicious as it is fun to make. Send us photos of your process and finished product!
As Passover approaches, our friends at Kveller asked their readers and writers: “What do you need an exodus from?” Check out these testimonies from four Kveller readers as part of their “What’s Your Exodus?” series.
The first is by a woman who wants to “own” her same-sex relationship in front of her coworkers. Can you relate? Read her story here.
When Adina wanted to come out to her family four years ago, Passover seder was the obvious opportunity. Adina grew up in a vibrant Jewish family with a rabbi and Jewish educator for parents, and so it wasn’t simply that everyone would be gathered together, but more so that seder presented an invitation to teach words of Torah to frame her coming out. For Adina, Passover represented some of Judaism’s most important principles, and the call to retell the story of our own liberation resonated with her experiences as a queer person. As she reflected, “it is our hope as queers that our voices will be heard by those we love; those we need to help us usher in a more just world. It is easy to make this plea and hope some divine being will hear us and solve it. It is easy to be part of a movement or campaign or political tag line. It is harder to look around our table and hold the hand of the one sitting next to us and cry out with that person. God only took us out of Egypt upon hearing our voice.”
We’ve asked Adina to share her Torah with all of us this year. We hope this family haggadah supplement will offer everyone gathered around your Seder table the opportunity to consider how you may pursue justice and liberation for LGBTQ people.
And you will answer and say before Adonai your God, “My father was a wandering Aramean. He descended to Egypt and resided there in small numbers. He became a nation–great, powerful and numerous. The Egyptians treated us badly. They persecuted us and put us under hard labor. We cried out to Adonai, the God of our ancestors. God heard our voice. God saw our persecution, our toil and our oppression. God took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, signs and wonders. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land of milk and honey. Now I have brought the first fruits of this soil, which you, God, gave me.” (Deut. 26:5-10)
When we return to the story of Peasch (or Passover) year after year, our maggid (story), we return to a reminder of from where we have come. Our parent wandered. Our ancestor searched for a place to call home; out of which we emerged as a nation and a community. As Jews, we are blessed with a tradition that teaches us to stretch what it means to be family and on all days of the year to welcome the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. The lesson is especially salient on Pesach, as we open our doors and invite all who are hungry to come and eat. Food, however, may not be the only nourishment our bodies and souls are craving.
When we recall our slavery in Egypt, so too are we called to notice the oppression in our midst, the Egyptians of our day treat those who are LGBTQ harshly. Those in our LGBTQ community suffer from higher than average rates of abuse, homelessness, harassment, and violence. For some of us, just walking down the street poses a threat to safety that others never need consider. None of us are exempt from being in the role of Egyptian. We may believe we have just cause for persecuting those who are different, we may do so without intent to harm, and we may do so with our silence. Yet our story teaches that it is our responsibility to recognize oppression and cry out for justice. The Torah teaches us that as human beings we are created b’tzelem elohim–in the image of God. The divine spark is in each one of us, and we each have the power to hear those who cry out and witness their pain, to extend our hands and stretch out our arms to those who are still in a narrow place. Some years it might be us, or the people we love, who need those open arms and a strong hand.
Jewish people living in the United States today are in many ways living in a time of milk and honey. While we have our individual and collective struggles and hardships, as a people we are not under the threat our ancestors once lived with. We have a responsibility to use this land, this time and space that we are in, to make fruit from this soil. We honor our tradition and history by standing on the side of justice and fighting for space at the table for the LGBTQ people in our lives and in our communities. For all who are hungry will come and eat on this night with us: the stranger, the friend, and those whose hunger will be sated not by food, but by love, acceptance, justice, and equality in our homes, synagogues, and the world at large.
*Hebrew translates to “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.”
Growing up, Passover was always my favorite holiday. Not only did Passover provide me with an eight day vacation from my Jewish day school, it also was an opportunity for my family to get together and celebrate the holiday. It probably didn’t hurt that we were also most likely the only family on Long Island that actually enjoyed eating matzah.
My first Passover in college and away from home was horrible. Although I was able to go home for the two seders, it became clear to me that what I truly loved about Passover was the opportunity for my entire family to be home together and take a break from our normal day-to-day schedule for eight days, yet I was spending the majority of the holiday at school. By Passover of my sophomore year, this issue was exacerbated by my new vegetarian diet, which left me hating Passover even more.
However, by my junior year, Passover started having a different meaning to me. That year, I began identifying as a humanistic Jew and started thinking about each Jewish holiday’s significance to me, as a queer humanistic Jew. Before, Passover had been important to me because it was an opportunity for me to spend time with my family for eight days. However, I had never really engaged in what Passover, the holiday and story, actually mean to me. Now when I think of Passover, I think about overcoming oppression. Because that’s ultimately what the Passover story comes down to: an oppressed and enslaved people overcoming obstacles and being led to freedom.
As a queer individual, this narrative especially resonated with me. We live in a world where queer people are oppressed: by a heteronormative society that erases our existence, by laws that dictate that we are lesser than our heterosexual peers, and—at times—even by ourselves and our own internalized homophobia. However, unlike the People of Israel in biblical times, we cannot wait for plagues or a super natural being to free us from our oppression; we must be our own saviors.
Since Passover of last year, we have made significant gains for LGBTQ Equality. In June of last year, the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act and Prop 8 was finally put to rest. In addition, nine states welcomed marriage equality in 2013. While there are reasons to celebrate, there is still a lot more that needs to be done.
The People of Israel’s departure from Israel did not signify equality and freedom for all. Women were still less equal then men and slavery was still condoned by the Torah. Not everyone who was granted freedom when they left Israel received the same amount of freedom. As we gather to celebrate the story of Passover, it is important that we celebrate the successes of the last year. At the same time, however, it is important that we recognize who is benefiting the most from these successes and who still has the farthest to go. The transgender rights movement is still lagging significantly behind the LGB equality movement. The same summer that parts of DOMA were struck down, key parts of the Voting Rights Act were also struck down. And women, on top of many other obstacles, continue to earn significantly less than their male counterparts.
The fact of the matter is, all issues are queer issues. We cannot fight for queer equality without fighting for trans equality and racial equality. As long as females and people with disabilities are oppressed, so too will segments of the queer population be oppressed. As Passover comes and goes, let us pledge to not just fight for the issues that the mainstream LGBTQ movement has prioritized but for equality for all. In just the past year, we have managed to overcome and break down several oppressive institutions, but we cannot stop until all people, regardless of identity, are truly equal in this country.
When she was only in sixth grade, Caroline came to Keshet with an idea: organizing an official Day of Silence at her middle school as her Bat Mitzvah project. She spoke at the Keshet Cabaret this month about her involvement with GLSEN, her passion for Day of Silence, and her own coming out.