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. This week, Melissa B. Simon examines Parashat Pinchas and the question of who counts.This D’var Torah is dedicated to the Memory of Wendy Kanter, a true Woman of Valor.
In the summer of 2007, I worked in a large New York City hospital as a chaplain.
Each day we were given, from the central computing office, a long census listing each patient. They were reduced to a name, age, religion, sex and health insurance provider. In black and white on the pages of the list, the people disappear. Gone are their stories, their families and their histories.
To the computer, each patient becomes a number, but it is the chaplain’s job to turn the patient back into a person. We sit at their bedsides, listen as they cry and offer words of strength. “Baby Girl” becomes Maddie, a vivacious infant with deep and wise eyes. Number 24601 is Grace, enmeshed in pain, but thankful to participate in a deep theological discussion.
In Parashat Pinchas, the Israelites in the desert conduct a census of the people. A great plague has decimated the Israelites and thirty-nine years after a census was completed in Parashat Bamidbar, it is time to recalculate the people. All of the adults over age twenty who went forth from Egypt have died, except for Caleb, son of Jephunneh, and Joshua, son of Nun. A new generation, one that did not know slavery, will enter the promised land.
The Torah text calculates that there are 601,730 Israelites. More specifically, G-D tells Moses and Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, in Numbers 26:2 to “Take a census of the whole Israelite community from the age of twenty years up, by their ancestral houses, all Israelites able to bear arms.” Thus the census only counts those who are male, over twenty and able to fight.
There are two reasons for conducting the census this way: one is that the Israelites will soon wage war on the people in the land, specifically the Midianites, and they want to see how prepared they are to fight. Also, once the Israelites conquer the land, they will each be assigned different portions. G-D explains to Moses that the land will be given out by lot. “Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names: with larger groups increase the share, with smaller groups reduce the share. Each is to be assigned its share according to its enrollment” (Numbers 26:52-54).
What did this allotment look like? Rashi said that the land was divided into twelve sections according to size, reflecting the different populations of the tribes. When the lots were drawn, the sizes—miraculously—corresponded correctly so that each tribe ended up with a portion that met their needs. Nachmanides argued that the land was dived equally in size and then handed out. It was the tribes themselves that then divided up family portions according to size.
To both of these commentators, provisions were made to make sure there was a level of equity within the apportioning of the land.
Five brave women recognize an oversight and bring it to the attention of the leadership. When the land is doled out, a portion is given to each man for his family. However, Zelophachad, a descendant of Manasseh, a son of Joseph died in the wilderness and left no sons. He was not part of Korach’s rebellion and his daughters want to make sure that they receive his share in his name. They implore Moses, Eleazar, the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (27:4).
Moses brings the issue before G-D, the ultimate judge and G-D responds saying “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them” (27:7). The Talmud teaches us in Bava Batra 119b that the daughters of Zelophehad were wise women for they spoke at an opportune moment. The Torah lists the names of the women, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, marking them as significant. Often in history, and elsewhere in the Torah, women’s voices are silenced and their names erased. In the book of Genesis, for example, Lot’s wife is not given a name and is merely called “ishto” “his wife.” In Parashat Pinchas, not only are Zelophehad’s brave daughters named, but they are given a voice and empowered to speak their minds.
They create legal change, which will then affect future generations of women. Their self-advocacy is backed by G-D; one cannot think of a higher complement.
The changing of the law of inheritance to include daughters is the last legality that Moses oversees. After viewing the land of Israel from the top of Mount Abarim, Moses hands over the leadership to Joshua. In Numbers 27:16 Moses says “Let G-D, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Eternal’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” Rashi explains that Moses added “Master of the Universe! You know the soul of each and every individual, You know that no two are alike. Appoint for them a leader who can relate to each and every one of them in accordance with his [their] individual spirit.”
While Parashat Pinchas began with a census that broke down the people into groups and abstract numbers, Rashi’s understanding of the change of leadership suggests that ultimately each Israelite was seen as an individual. Different ideas were respected both by the leadership and by G-D. And on the precipice of entering the land, the Israelites were given a leader who would be both a guide and a source of support.
Too often Queer people are viewed as one monolithic group, without regard for the beauty of our diversity. May we be blessed with leaders who understand our variety and see us as individuals. May we grow closer to a loving G-D who accepts each of us as we are. May we have the courage to speak out for what we believe in and find listening ears. And may we each live to view the Promised Land of equality and freedom.
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The Fourth of July is one of those official summer milestones. No matter what part of the country you’re from, there’s some uniformity to the celebrations. There are picnics! Firework displays! Patriotism—waving flags and full on American flag outfits.
To be honest, it’s not my favorite holiday. There’s a sense of machismo to it that doesn’t resonate with me or my lifestyle. I like a good display of pride, but I react to the loud booms of fireworks by cowering, not standing taller. Truth be told, I was hard pressed to reflect on Independence Day in a light that made sense for the Keshet blog and community. But when I sat down to really think about it, I was struck by the parallels between the Fourth of July and the recent progress made in LGBTQ equality. Both are centered on two hard to miss themes: freedom and community.
Which makes me wonder, can a case actually be made for July Fourth as an LGBTQ Jewish holiday? Let’s break it down.
Just two months ago we celebrated the 10 year anniversary of legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. It makes sense that Massachusetts, home to Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the (original) tea party of the Boston Harbor, and the shot heard around the world, would be the place for same sex marriage to originate.
And, the fight for our freedom has taken root and spread. Currently, 19 States—plus the District of Columbia—protect the rights of their citizens with legal, same-sex marriage. And here’s what those numbers mean:
- Nearly 44% of the U.S. population lives in a state with the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.
- Over 46% of the U.S. population lives in a state with either marriage or a broad legal status such as civil union or domestic partnership.
- Over 48% of the U.S. population lives in a state that provides some form of protections for gay couples.
We’re fighting for freedom and for progress, and this is seen not just in our government, but in synagogues across the country as Jewish individuals lead the charge for equality. There is still a long way to go, but the Jewish community has truly begun taking concrete steps towards inclusion. And with that change comes an independence from outdated ways of looking at gender or sexual orientation.
From block parties, to family gatherings, to the idea of country, the Fourth of July is about community. And community isn’t just about where you live; it’s about a sense of belonging. Community is central to the identity of many LGBTQ Jews. Community often comes in the form of chosen families, or from synagogues and institutions that support LGBTQ Jews. Community isn’t something that’s taken for granted by most LGBTQ Jews. Over the month of June we heard stories about LGBTQ pride from countless individuals, and with those stories came mentions of communities—both supportive and otherwise. Communities play a huge role in being comfortable with our identities. And, just as we celebrate the entirety of our American community on the Fourth of July, it’s important to celebrate the way our communities push us to be better people and comfort us when we struggle.
So, there you have it. My argument that July 4th isn’t just about blind patriotism—it’s also about appreciating our many varieties of freedom and the communities that make us strong.
On June 20th, 2014, Rabbi Ellen Lippmann offered the following words of prayer at the UJA-Federation’s “Community Conversation on LGBTQ Engagement,” a conference convened to discuss ideas of LGBT inclusion in Jewish institutions.
I am here because I am a lesbian, a Jew, a rabbi who sees Jews as my people and LGBTQ people as my people. So my partner gets to say, often, that she thinks a man and a woman together are intermarried. I am here because my partner and I celebrated our 30th anniversary this winter and could only get married 3 years ago.
I am here because there are a whole lot of issues other than marriage on the LGBTQ plate. And, I am here because I want as a Jew to say never again and know that I mean never will anyone obliterate any entire population AND I want as a queer person to say never again and know I mean there are so many things that should never happen again.
Never again a rabbinic student going through school in hiding.
Never again to be cast away by those who use the Bible to dismiss us.
Never again a college student jumping off a bridge to his death because his roommate mocked his sexual connection.
Never again a parent unable to be with a child because of misguided lawyers and enacted prejudice.
Never again a trans person attacked on the street just for being transgender.
Never again LGBTQ deaths due to neglect and abandonment.
Never again state-approved killing of LGBTQ people anywhere in the world.
Never again a gay man beaten by Jews on the street.
Yes to the wisdom, clarity, heart God places in human beings and yes to the times they are used for good.
Yes to marriage rights expanding across the country and across state lines, yes to love and yes to great sex.
Yes to the “It Gets Better” videos and to all the ways people encourage those who are losing hope.
Yes to LGBT centers across the country.
Yes to gay churches and synagogues that paved the way and yes to the amazing efforts of gay Muslims that will create a gay mosque and yes to every religious group that opens rather than closing doors.
Yes to activists and advocates of every generation who pushed hard and keep pushing.
Yes to the memory of Stonewall and yes to resistance.
Yes to UJA-Federation opening its doors even if it seems a little scary
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This past month, we shared stories of LGBT and Jewish Pride.
We heard from Jordan, who reflected on how his LGBT identity influences his Jewish identity.
We heard from Val and Alexandra, two students who are proud of being exactly who they are.
We heard from Ailsa, who showed how finding a community gave her the strength to find herself.
We heard from parents who support their children and raise them with Jewish values.
We heard how as we celebrate, we must also keep fighting.
And as we heard these stories—and many more—we saw the community watching, listening, and learning. What happens when Pride ends? How can we keep the idea of full LGBT inclusion on the mind and in the hearts of the Jewish community now that June is over?
What will you do to keep Pride alive for 11 more months?
Shaily Hakiman attended Tel Aviv’s Pride celebration earlier this summer. Today on our blog, she reflects on the experience. To see more from Tel Aviv Pride, check out Shaily’s video on YouTube!
When I say Tel Aviv Pride, I don’t just mean the gay street gets wild, I mean the whole place.
The entire city takes a breather to celebrate. People from all over the world fly in, just to be in town for it. At the start of the festivities, many service agencies and groups came together in Gan Meir to share resources with the community.
It was powerful seeing a group that serve people who are LGBT and Orthodox. I also got to meet with the group for the ever increasing population of LGBT English speaking olim (people who immigrate to Israel).
After we started marching I saw a group of older Australian gentleman smiling as they waved their flag, a bear pride flag, a woman from Russia holding the flag for the Straight Alliance for LGBT Equality St. Petersburg, Trans* alliance, Israeli flags, rainbow kippahs, and flags for peace. These groups all chose to come and coordinate themselves to be here on this day. If you want to be at the table to celebrate, you can. Whatever your cause, Pride was a place that welcomed all of it.
At Tel Aviv Pride, there is a stage performance before the crowd starts marching. Prior to the show, a few strangers and I decided to dance, progressively building a crowd around us. Two of us even started to coordinate moves. My dance partner later told me that he was from Russia… I can’t even imagine what his experience is like in Russia. Could he wear his short shorts that he donned that day? Could he wild dance to Spice Girls performing in drag? I don’t know. But what I do know, regardless of his experiences, Tel Aviv Pride was a day for fun and a day to be one’s self in all our glory.
This was an experience for everyone. The day ended with a massive concert and party with infinite food trucks, “shoppertunities,” and activities for all ages. Families even had a designated play area. I really enjoyed that it wasn’t one main event like a parade, but a series of opportunities for people of all interests to enjoy themselves. I have gone twice to Tel Aviv Pride, and hope to find opportunities to go again in the future. I invite you to join me.
As Pride month comes to a close, we asked a few rabbis to share their thoughts on their own LGBTQ communities. Let us know in the comments, what about inclusion work makes you proud?
DO YOU OFFICIATE AT SAME-SEX MARRIAGES?: Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz
In 2001, Temple Israel of Greater Miami, a prestigious center-city congregation, had fallen on hard times. In three decades membership had fallen from 1,800 households to 300 something. The pulpit was vacant. Career wise, it was a stepping stone to nowhere.
I had been in Miami 25 years, five as associate rabbi at a conventional suburban Reform congregation, 20 as director of the Havurah of South Florida, a progressive outreach program.
I was on sabbatical from the Havurah, considering my next direction, when friends brought me to Temple Israel. I saw a physical plant capable of becoming the great Jewish center South Florida lacked. Within the congregation was a nascent havurah, Ruach, formed by and for the LGBT community.
I began a series of interviews to see if there might be a match between me and the congregation.
One question surprised me, because it was asked by an old-time member. “Rabbi, do you officiate at same-sex marriages?”
I didn’t know what answer he expected. Perhaps he was from the old institution, resentful of the gay intrusion. Perhaps he was a member of Ruach itself. Either way, my answer surprised him and the others around the table.
“It’s easy to do a same-sex marriage,” I said. “The difficulty is same-sex divorce.”
More than a decade before, two women from the Havurah of South Florida had told me they would like to be married. We gathered the Havurah and presented the issue. Ultimately, we realized we couldn’t do a marriage unless we could also do a divorce. It took weeks to prepare durable parties of attorney and other legal documents to protect the union. We also prepared one additional document, an agreement, should there be a separation, to come back to a rabbi for a bill of divorce, to allow the individuals to marry another person, should they choose.
With this work done, we celebrated that marriage.
I described that incident to the interviewing committee.
“With that work done,” I said, “I will surely officiate at a same-sex marriage.”
I got the job.
WHY I’M PROUD: Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin
I am proud of my synagogue, Israel Center of Conservative Judaism, because our members don’t care about whether or not someone is gay or straight, or where they fall on spectrum. It is irrelevant and a non issue when someone walks in our doors. ICCJ is a place where people can flourish in a Jewish community, no matter their sexual orientation.
Looking back ten years ago, before we had any out LGBT members, we created membership forms with spaces for “Adult One” and “Adult Two.” This way if someone who identified as LGBT wanted to join our community, they would feel welcome from the first Shalom.
When I teach, I bring in Jewish LGBT writers, because they are part of the larger Jewish conversation. This way, the shul is a microcosm of the larger Jewish world.
Pride is not automatic.
It is not thrust upon us
like responsibility on a new parent,
nor handed to us
on a silver platter.
Rather, it is found.
Bubbling in the depths of our soul.
It grows like the first buds of spring
hindered by the weather
but strong none the less
until it blooms into a full flower.
Why am I proud?
I was proud to be queer
when I first came out
and finally felt myself telling the truth
after a lifetime of lies
as if I had finally brought freedom to myself
instead of shying away
from the life I could live.
I was proud to be queer
when my younger brother came into my room
and said, “Alex, when did you know you weren’t straight”
and after a discussion on my bed
left by saying
“Well, it doesn’t matter”
“I don’t know yet if I’m straight or not.”
I was proud to be queer
when a friend messaged me on Facebook
and trusted me with their biggest secret
“I think I’m bi”
and gave me insight into their life
that no one else knew.
I was proud to be queer
when DOMA and Prop 8 were repealed
and I sat with my friends
and cheered for a victory
that was finally mine
A victory that mattered in my life
A victory not only for me
but for everyone.
But more than just queer
I’m proud to be Jewish
I’m proud to have a community
that welcome me in my entirety
that doesn’t care who I love as long as I love my culture.
I was proud to be a queer Jew
when we discussed homosexuality in a Torah studies class
and the entire class agreed
that the Torah is not an excuse to discriminate.
And I am proud to be a queer Jew.
I am proud of the life I live
I am proud of the voice I’ve been given
I am proud of the fear I have destroyed
And I am proud to be me
in the purest, truest form
I am proud to be me.
Pride and community go hand in hand. For a good part of my life, I didn’t have much of either.
I grew up in a small suburb in Western Pennsylvania. I was shy, anxious, and uncomfortably Asian-American—not enough of one, too much of the other as far as some members of the Taiwanese émigré community were concerned. While my own parents didn’t give me too much of a hard time about being assimilated, I always worried about measuring up to expectations. And though I had a small group of friends, I never felt at ease with most of my classmates, who all seemed to know more than I did about pop music, shopping, and the opposite sex.
Keep in mind that this was in the ‘80s: before Ellen, before Will & Grace, before Michael Sam and Melissa Etheridge and others who were visibly out and proud. There were no role models where I lived, and no discussion of homosexuality. Looking back, I can tell I had crushes on girls. But had I been aware of it at the time, I probably would have burrowed far, far back into the closet—a closet I didn’t even realize I was in.
Breaking free of all that didn’t happen immediately, but moving to Boston definitely helped. I quickly met a slew of warm, nonjudgmental people who took me just as I was. Naturally, when I finally admitted to myself that I was gay and started telling my closest friends, none of them were shocked (or even surprised). Their love and acceptance gave me the confidence to keep coming out of the closet and to venture out to LGBT events, including the swing dancing class where I met my future wife.
Fast forward to 2008 … by then, my wife Kate and I had been legally married for four years. During that time I had experienced her family’s lovely traditions and learned some very basic information about Judaism. Since we both wanted more, we decided to look into joining Temple Emunah in Lexington, Mass., where Kate had previously been a member. I was more secure with my lesbian identity by then, but was still a little anxious about how the temple community would react to a same-sex interracial couple.
I needn’t have worried. As it turned out, Temple Emunah, through the efforts of its Keruv committee, had already been working hard on welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews as well as interfaith families. This, paired with the natural friendliness of the Emunah members we met, made us feel right at home. And when later on I decided to convert, our rabbi, Rabbi David Lerner, didn’t lecture me on how hard it would be and how much I would have to learn in order to qualify as a Jew. He instead expressed total enthusiasm for the idea and added, “And then you could get married under the chuppah!”
And that’s exactly what we did! In 2009, a few weeks after my conversion, Kate and I stood under the chuppah, and Rabbi Lerner married us in a special ceremony in front of our family and Temple Emunah friends. And five years later, we stood again on the bimah and received an aliyah in honor of our 5th and 10th wedding anniversaries: a public statement of love and acceptance that I, in my wildest dreams, would never have predicted.
When I reflect on that happy moment and on all the congratulations and warm wishes we received that day, I’m incredibly thankful for the embrace and support of our temple. I’m also grateful to all the organizations working toward inclusion, whether it’s Keshet’s efforts with the Jewish community or the many civil rights groups advocating for marriage equality and equal protection under the law. And I’m proud to belong to a faith that declares that we are all made in the image of God, and commands us to treat each other accordingly.
Earlier this month we heard from Jordan Dashow about how having pride in his queer identity meant having pride in his Jewish queer identity. Now Jordan reflects on being a survivor of sexual assault—and how that experience further defines his identity as a proud LGBTQ Jew.
(Trigger warning: This post discusses issues related to sexual violence.)
It is April 2, 2014, over three-and-a-half years after I publicly came out as gay on Facebook. I am in a classroom at Tufts University, not paying as much attention to the professor as I should be, as I contemplate what I had drafted moments before I left for class. My heart is racing. I am staring at my computer screen, full of white and blue pixels, as my hand hovers over my laptop’s touchpad. It feels like the last few years have all been leading up to this moment. I know people will notice. I know they will talk about it. I question whether I should restrict my post so no one on my limited profile—most of the adults I’m friends with—can see it. I hesitate, yet I make my decision. I click the blue button that says “post.” My status, a call for people to attend “It Happens Here” at Tufts, begins: “3.5 years ago I was sexually assaulted at Tufts University.”
Coming out as a survivor of sexual violence has been a difficult process, and in some ways it has been even more difficult than coming out as queer. Whereas our heteronormative society teaches queer people that there is something wrong with us, our society which is steeped in rape culture—a culture that excuses, normalizes, and at times even condones rape—teaches survivors that not only is the sexual assault partially our fault but that we should hide our identities. For me, knowing who I could confide in about my experiences as a survivor was even more difficult than figuring out who I could confide in about my sexuality.
So do I take pride in my identity as a survivor? It seems like an odd question to ask, especially considering the physically, emotionally and psychologically violent experience that comes with that identity. Yet, it is an important question. Too often survivors, like queer individuals, are expected to remain silent about this part of their identity. And I refuse to be silent.
So yes, I am proud. I am not proud of what was done to me, but I am proud of who I am. I am proud of how I have turned my experience into a tool for advocacy. I am proud that in a society that tells me I should shun this identity, I have found a way to embrace it. To own it. To not be ashamed by it. Because, ultimately, even our negative experiences inform who we are.
As I said in my last post, taking pride in your identity is when you no longer only reveal that identity when it is unavoidable but freely offer up that information because you have nothing to be ashamed of. And when it comes to being a survivor, we shouldn’t be the ones who are ashamed. Our assailants should be.
But why even talk about this? It may seem odd to be discussing my identity as a survivor in a post about Jewish queer pride but for me, it could not be any more appropriate. I am writing this post in May, a month after Sexual Assault Awareness Month, although it will be posted during LGBT month. For me, those two months are inextricably linked.
At the end of the day, our identities do not exist in a vacuum. My queer identity is shaped by my identity as a Jewish survivor. My Jewish identity is shaped by my identity as a queer survivor. And my identity as a survivor is shaped by my identity as a queer Jew. I cannot separate these identities from each other nor can I separate them from any of my other identities. The fact of the matter is, I cannot truly have pride in my Jewish queer identity if I do not take pride in my identity as a survivor as well.
So let this LGBTQ Pride month not just be an opportunity for us to take pride in our LGBTQ identities; let it be an opportunity to take pride in all of our oppressed identities. You do not need to love the experiences that gave you those identities or resulted from those identities; however, I do strongly believe that we need to have pride in ourselves, and that is only possible once we reject the stigmas society has put on our oppressed identities and have taken ownership of them for ourselves. So let this LGBTQ Pride month be an opportunity to recognize that all of our identities inform our queer identity, and let’s take pride in that. Because that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Sexual Assault Resources:
The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Organization Members are LGBT anti-violence organizations across the country. This list includes organizations listed by state, alphabetically, with support for survivors of sexual assault, partner abuse, and hate violence.
The Network/La Red hotline provides emotional support, information and safety planning for lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and/or transgender (LGBQ/T) folks, as well as folks in SM/kink and polyamorous communities who are being abused or have been abused by a partner. They also offer information and support to friends, family or co-workers on the issue of domestic violence in LGBQ/T communities. You don’t have to leave or want to leave your relationship to get support. The hotline is available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to midnight, Saturday from 1-6 p.m., and Sunday from 1 p.m. to midnight. Call 617-742-4911 (voice) or 617-227-4911 (TTY).
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: Find “live help for sexual assault victims and their friends and families” at the RAINN national sexual assault online helpline. It is free, confidential, and secure.
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There’s a great post on Kveller that many of us can probably relate to.
Jon Raj shares his fear that as the son of a respected rabbi, he felt, “…I had to be better than most in order to uphold what a rabbi’s family “should be.” And that meant hiding the fact he was gay for many, many years.
You can read the full post here.