As students return to college campuses, now is a great time to be thinking about how LGBTQ inclusive your Hillel can be. Here are several suggestions to make your Hillel more inclusive, welcoming, and a safe environment for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning individuals and families. Even if your campus doesn’t have a Hillel, you can adopt these practices for any student group. A special thanks to Keshet educator Suzie Schwartz Jacobson for helping to compile the original version of this guide—which can be found on the Keshet website.
Create Inclusive Policies:
Both current and potential LGBTQ students, as well as LGBTQ staff and faculty members, need to know that your Hillel values equality, and is committed to protecting against discrimination and harassment.
By mentioning this commitment in your existing policy documents or creating new language, you will communicate a commitment to equal treatment for all. For example, you should have a comprehensive anti-bullying statement for students and also inclusive anti-harassment Human Resources policies for staff. Click here for sample language for different anti-harassment policies and inclusivity statements. The statement should be easily available on your website, printed marketing materials, or other communications where fit.
Let the Campus (and the World) Know About Your Commitment to LGBTQ Inclusion:
Even if you think it is obvious, explicitly state in marketing materials, on your website, and other communications that your Hillel welcomes LGBTQ students. This will go a long way in letting potential students know that Hillel is a safe space for them, and letting all other constituents know the values of your institution.
Educate Yourself and Others on LGBTQ Terms:
Oftentimes one of the greatest challenges for non-LGBTQ people in talking about LGBTQ issues is uncertainty regarding language and vocabulary. As many terms are new, or are used differently by different people and in different contexts, people are sometimes uncertain and embarrassed to enter the conversation for fear of being wrong or of inadvertently hurting someone’s feelings. Click here for a list of LGBTQ terms and definitions.
When Planning Icebreakers or Small Groups, Do Not Automatically Group Students by Binary Gender (male or female):
It is sometimes an impulse of staff and students alike to group students based on binary gender (male or female). However, this is problematic for several reasons:
- It renders gender non-conforming or transgender students invisible, by assuming binary gender and categorizing students without consent;
- It encourages students to view gender as an either/or category, which reinforces stereotypes; and
- It discourages students from branching out and exploring friendships and experiences beyond their assigned or assumed gender.
Consider asking students to count off, or divide them alphabetically or by birthdays instead.
Create Programming that Addresses Jewish LGBTQ Issues:
Our commitment to the inclusion of LGBTQ Jews is not just a secular value, but a Jewish value. When appropriate, integrate LGBTQ issues and topics into your programming in order to demonstrate how inclusivity is essential to our Judaism. Going beyond the prohibitions in Leviticus, Judaism says much about positive sexuality, gender, and how to treat all people with respect.
- When discussing Jewish ethics around love and sex, do not just refer to heterosexual dating and marriage, but include a full spectrum of relationships and ways to experience human love.
- When studying Torah, understand the text using an LGBTQ lens. One way to do this is to use our book Torah Queeries, which provides an LGBTQ reading of each parasha or our Torah Queeries online database. You can also introduce or bring in LGBTQ scholars who interpret Torah from an LGBTQ perspective (Here is an example from Dr. Joy Ladin, and one from Rabbi Steven Greenberg.)
- When studying Jewish history, include the history of LGBTQ Jews.
Another tangible and easy way to start a conversation about LGBTQ inclusion at your Hillel is to share Keshet’s Seven Jewish Values for Inclusive Community poster or handout with your students. Hillel and Keshet partnered to create this special, co-branded version in the hopes that every Hillel will display these posters on their walls and use them in student programming. This resource can be printed and included in materials for new staff and student leadership, encouraging the issue of LGBTQ inclusion–and what it means to be a welcoming and inclusive community more broadly–will be emphasized on your campus right from the start.
These are just a few examples of the many possible ways to teach about LGBTQ and Jewish topics. What steps are you taking to make your campus a safe and inclusive one?
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Last week our Boston community sat down for a conversation with Ayala Katz, mother of one of the victims of the 2009 Tel Aviv LGBT youth center shooting. Jayne Guberman, a founding member and mentor for the Keshet Parent & Family Connection, moderated the conversation with Ayala about their shared experience parenting LGBTQ children, Ayala’s fierce LGBTQ rights activism in response to her son Nir’s tragic death, and the strength she and her family draw from one another.
I’m not one to think that spaces are inherently holy… as people who have davvened (prayed) in bars with me know full well. Synagogues are only as holy as their actions and impact prove them to be.
I’m a rabbi at this congregation, but I’m also an individual who was raised as a little brother to someone who grew up in a Jewish community in which he couldn’t share his identity until he left.
If only he could have found a time machine and flown back to future to the present, because of Keshet, he wouldn’t have had to play “catch up” on all the love that he lost from the Jewish community.
A teacher of mine (the great Jewish liturgist Dr. Larry Hoffman) taught me to think of Judaism not just as a “religion” or a tribe, not even just as a people, or a people – but as a conversation. Judaism is a Conversation.
I wanted to just open this Conversation with a word of Torah, from our Scripture – because I think it has everything to do with why we’re here. The word of Torah from this week’s portion pertains to memory.
It’s in this week’s parasha, parashat Ki Teitzei, we encounter a famous and disturbing mitzvah. Deuteronomy 25:17 reads: “Zachor eit asher asah l’cha Amaleik baderech b’tzeitchem mitzrayim…” “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt. How, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.”
Our parasha is saying to us: remember what happened to your people, at the very point at which you were most vulnerable! And when are we supposed to remember this horror?
Our text continues: “V’hayah b’haniach Adonai Elohecha l’cha mikol oy’vecha misaviv…” “When the Eternal your God grants you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal is giving you as a hereditary portion you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
When are we to remember? When we are… home. Safe.
This space, Temple Israel, is as safe a space as any. And still it’s mandated that when you’re feeling safe, when you’re protected, THAT’S precisely when you are to remind yourself about your vulnerable past. Perhaps that’s because we know that if just “sit back and relax” and let the story of today happen without our voice and our past, then ignorance and hatred will start growing like weeds.
In Judaism, we don’t have a word for history. Today the Hebrew word for history: HISTORIA. (The first phrase I learned in my year of study in Jerusalem was “zeh lo big deal!”). History is what happened in the past and it remains in the past. It’s passive. In Judaism we have ZIKARON, memory. Memory is something entirely different. Memory is ACTIVE. What distinguishes memory from history is that it’s wedded to responsibility.
Memory is how we carry our story into the future. Memory enables us to hold and preserve a tragic past in our heart and then with our hands build a future that changes the story, that adds healing and wholeness to the narrative that will be read about us in ages to come.
Simply put, we are at our best when we are champions of memory.
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that we – Temple Israel and Keshet – are currently in a state of mourning. Just yesterday we observed here a funeral of a beautiful human being named David Passer. A champion of Keshet, a leader at Temple Israel, and the Executive Director of Shir Tikvah in Weyland. David and his husband Marc made history – and memory – when they courageously became the first same-sex couple in our Commonwealth to join a Temple community as a family.
Many of us sat Shiva yesterday or today at Shir Tikveh. I lift this up because if it weren’t for David’s memory, the Conversation that is Judaism here in Boston and the Commonwealth might still be years behind where it is now. That’s because David was a champion of memory. Keshet is a big open tent filled with champions of memory; folks embracing memory to transform the world as it is into the world as it should be.
We are blessed to be having this Conversation – a conversation about equality and inclusion, about what love really looks like, a conversation about hope.
A special thanks to Temple Israel Boston for partnering with Keshet for the event and to our cosponsors: ADL New England, CJP – Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation, Congregation Kehillath Israel, Eshel, Family Equality Council, Gann Academy, GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders), Greater Boston PFLAG, JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Boston, Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston, New Israel Fund, Prozdor & Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston.
Visit www.keshetonline.org/supportfamilies for more info about our program for parents and family of LGBTQ Jews.
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Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we 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, our reflection comes from Maggid Jhos Singer, who shows that standing up as a Jew takes guts and deep self-knowing.
It is the original ‘Hellfire and Brimstone’ rant to which all others pale in comparison. Its images of damnation know no bounds; It is one of those bits o’ Bible that has fueled the hateful lust of bigots and fundamentalists for centuries. I would go so far as to call it scriptural porn. It’s the stuff that
usually makes folks like me, a genderqueer Berkeley liberal Jew, run screaming from Judaism,
so it’s kind of odd to admit that I love this portion. It’s scary and exciting and makes me feel like
I’m watching a really weird piece of performance art.
The trick with this portion is staying cool, not reacting to the surface level ugliness and instead tuning into the God in it. When I read it I try to imagine that I’m hearing a song on a static-ravaged transistor radio, I’m standing amidst a huge noisy crowd, I’m getting jostled around, nearby some wild-eyed preacher is raving into a microphone, “Cursed are you sinner, you will burn for Eternity, you are a perversion,” people are yelling back, I hold the radio up to my ear straining to hear and little by little the song cuts through the din and a big smile spreads across my face… Welcome to this week’s parasha.
In brief, this portion tells us that if we are obedient we will be blessed, with the blessings described in one short paragraph. However, if we are not obedient we will be cursed. The Torah then unloads pages of orgiastic curses that we will endure for our transgressions, laid out in graphic, gory detail. It is grating and provocative, and I don’t mean in a nice way. Everything about it is repulsive on the surface. One has to wonder why the Torah would include such ugliness.
But read it carefully, and you will first note that the Torah tells us explicitly that the orators here are not God, but Moses and the Elders: “Moses and the Elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, ‘Observe the entire commandment that I command you this day.’ ” (D’varim 27:1)
Perhaps it is simply that Moses, and his cohorts, are on a proto-Pentecostal roll, taking the law
into their own hands, so to speak. To his credit, even in the midst of this diatribe, Moses manages to sputter out a key spiritual concept. He says that it is God’s voice that we should be listening to (28:15), that we must hear the commands that God is giving us (in spite of Moses’ interpretation).
Might Moses have been trying to tell us that we have to fine tune our spiritual hearing so that we can know what it is that God wants from us, rather than what other people want from us? Similarly Moses seems to be implying that God speaks to us as individually and if we let someone else do our channeling for us the price we pay will be high. Additionally, in the midst of describing the litany of ills that will befall us if we don’t follow Moses’s commandments, there is a sweet dose of wisdom slipped in. Moses says, “You will be mocked and starved, diseased and blighted. You will be so bereft and so debased that you will become the supreme example of human depravity to all other peoples, Because you did not serve your Source of Being with gladness and with a full heart when
everything was abundant.” (Deuteronomy 28:47)
I experience this line as God getting in a word edgewise.
There is much to learn from this raw scripture. Coming out as homo-, bi-, or trans-sexual takes steel and faith. It takes tuning out the hate mongers and spiritual terrorists, and overriding the din of ignorance and fear to find God’s message and lock on. Standing up as a Jew, whose faith and ways have been seen as “queer” since we began, takes guts and deep self-knowing. Queer folk, of every stripe, cannot afford to loose our balance. Is it any wonder then, that the Torah includes an opportunity for us to practice listening to the ugliness of degrading threats while training our ears to hear the personal word that God whispers to each of us? After all, didn’t our communal revelation on Sinai begin just like this, in the sound and the fury? So we stay calm, focus our hearts and minds and – “Shema” – we listen.
And there, in the bang-clanking cawing of curses, we hear some of the most loving words of
Torah: “Yea, verily I saith unto you: That you will be destitute, crazed and destroyed if you don’t
give your self to gladness when times are good.” I hear this line being spoken with love and
compassion, I imagine God cradling my head in Its big soft hands and whispering, “Aww now
pun’kin, why so angry? Look around, you are healthy, loved, smart, blessed and cute as a bug’s
ear. Lighten’ up and enjoy it baby.”
Indeed, the LGBT community has survived, and even thrived, in some part because we know
how to party and be glad. We know how to show up with bells on and bring color and music
into the world. Every community that has instituted a Pride Parade was initially met with
resistance. The megaphoning morality meisters have shown up again and again, bellowing out
their messages of loathing and disgust — but they have never been able to drown out Sylvester z’‘l, or Sister Sledge or Barbra or Judy z’‘l, who have told us in whispers in the dark: Come on get up and dance because somewhere over the rainbow we are a family of the luckiest people in the world. We have listened to them and we have danced and we have been glad and we have known that we are not cursed, but so very blessed.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav said, “Mitzvah g’dolah l’hiyot b’simcha tamid.” (It’s a great mitzvah to insist on gladness.) As this week’s teaching reminds us, we must practice being glad when there is something to be glad about. We cannot take a single blessing for granted, peh peh peh, lest the challenges and difficulties of being our true Self become overwhelming. We must be astute enough to know who God created us to be, no matter what the imperfect human authorities in our lives would say about it. Even great human leaders sometimes try to scare us into submitting to their ideas of who we should be. But remember: God relies on each one of us to manifest in this world our own unique aspect of It. Be brave, choose life, choose blessing. Tune out the static, listen hard and I’m sure you will hear a still small voice boldly singing “Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh”— “I am what I am” (Exodus 3:14/Jerry Herman by way of Gloria Gaynor).
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Q: What do I do if my rabbi is against my involvement in the LGBT community?
Asher: You do whatever you want. Your rabbi doesn’t own you, and he or she certainly does not have the final word regarding your Judaism and how you express it. Try exposing your rabbi to some great literature on the subject. If your efforts are failing and you feel that the situation has stagnated or even deteriorated, you can find a new rabbi who is LGBT friendly. Good luck!
Q: In my Jewish community, I’m always known as the “gay kid.” In my LGBT communities, I’m always known as the “Jewish kid.” How can I own both identities at the same time?
Asher: People tend to differentiate between others by the qualities that most stand out; the things that make others unique, so it’s only natural that when you are the only “gay kid” or “Jewish kid” in a group, you will be associated thusly. You should also be aware that by asking this question, you are doing the exact same thing in reverse – you are generalizing these groups (which is not a bad thing). This question reminds me of a friend of mine from college; she was the only girl in her town who shaved her head, and that was her identity. When she arrived for freshman orientation, there were five other girls in her class with shaved heads, and she experienced an identity crisis. She learned eventually, like most people, that what makes you unique is ALL of who you are, not one particular piece. So, just be yourself, and stop being so hung up on how you are being perceived or the labels with which you are being associated, because in the long run, it doesn’t really matter as long as you’re being treated with respect. In time, you may stop caring so much, which is ultimately what your question is about.
Q: How do I navigate the Hebrew language – where everything has a strict gender – when I’m not willing to identify as one gender or the other?
Asher: Ah, the strict gender binary of the Hebrew language… Unfortunately, even as a Hebrew speaker living in Israel, I don’t have any answers that will satisfy you, as there is no real solution to your question. I know some people who choose to interchange masculine and feminine pronouns, but I’m afraid the Israeli population is not so forgiving. They will correct you. Every. Single. Time. Spend your energy raising awareness about these issues of gender, since the current Hebrew pronouns are rather fixed. Be’hatzlacha – good luck!
Q: I keep hearing “it gets better.” I’m not so sure. Does it?
Asher: For me it did. For my husband it did. For all of my LGBT friends it did. That said, there is really only one way to know for sure if it will happen for you, and I strongly suggest sticking around to find out. Good luck!
Q. I read your last column, thank you! Now I’m wondering… who is Asher of Ask Asher?
Glad to introduce myself. My name is Asher Gelman and I am the Artistic Director for The Stage, Tel Aviv’s premier English-language performing arts organization. I hold a masters degree in Fine Arts from The George Washington University in Dance, and two bachelors degrees from Bard College in Dance and Theater. I made Aliyah to Israel in 2006, where I live with my husband, Mati.
I have been doling out advice for years, both solicited and unsolicited, so this column provides the perfect outlet for my talent for telling other people what to do; especially people I have never met.
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- And, don’t forget to send your questions to AskAsher@keshetonline.org!
With Labor Day in our rear-view window, summer is officially over. Now that school is back in session, here are a few LGBTQ inclusive lesson plans for your Jewish classroom.
Check out our suggestions for inclusive lesson planning with our easy-to-use collection of educational resources. You can find LGBTQ-inclusive lesson plans, resource guides and best practices for creating LGBTQ-inclusive camps, youth groups, and classrooms, as well as samples of educational programs created by other educators, youth professionals, and Jewish youth leaders.
If this is the first time you’re introducing LGBTQ inclusive material to your classroom, start by taking a look at how to include LGBTQ experiences and perspectives in your curriculum for all age levels.
Here are a few of our picks for each age group:
- Family Portraits and Bible Stories for pre-K through 1st grade will help students explore and affirm different family structures as they appear in the Bible and in students’ own experience.
- Take a look at What Does It Mean to be an Ally for middle school and high school students. This activity begins withashort text study of Talmudic teachings about communal responsibility. Students then explore together the role of an “ally” in creating change.
- For high school students, check out the First Adam. This lesson plan will guide participants towards being able to identify ways that they push traditional gender norms as they explore how how ancient and contemporary Jewish texts understand the first Adam to have had an ambiguous gender identity.
- If you’re looking for a lesson plan for college and adult students check out Exploring the Rabbinic Sodom. This lesson plan was developed for Keshet by Rabbi Steve Greenberg, author of Wrestling with God and Men. This lesson takes a look at the “sin” of Sodom in the rabbinic tradition, using Sanhedrin 109b, Middat Sedom, and Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman) on the verse Genesis 19:5 as a way to engage participants in this exploration.
Let us know how you bring LGBTQ inclusion to your classroom!
Check out our resource library for additional lesson plans and resources.
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You’ll love this mother-daughter team who have joined the inclusion efforts at Sha’aray Shalom! Jodi Tolman and her daughter Chloe participated in Keshet’s Boston Leadership Summit, putting their commitment to LGBTQ inclusion work within the Jewish community into action. See what happens when Jodi (known as “mom”) and Chloe sat down to interview each other about the importance of LGBTQ equality. Read part 1 of their interview here!
Mom: Do you think it’s important for cisgender and straight people to get involved in LGBTQ justice work?
Chloe: It’s critically important. In order for there to be real change, we need everyone’s involvement, in some way or other. If it’s simply talking with family, friends, colleges, etc, about the issue – lasting, cultural change will require the vast majority of folks in our society to be part of the solution. Not everyone has to be warriors on the front lines. People can just be having conversations with their neighbors over their back fence.
Chloe: Do you think the work we’re doing, in our small and limited way, will have an impact?
Mom: I’m sure you’ve heard the Margaret Mead quote, but it’s the best way to answer your question. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Mom: Why did you want to get involved in LGBTQ inclusion work at Sha’aray Shalom?
Chloe: As VP of our GSA at school, I realized that the best way to foster social change is to penetrate every aspect of culture and society and work to bring bout enlightenment and awareness. Religion is a popular place for people to hide behind conservative ideology, but they shouldn’t. Most especially in the religious realm. I believe that mercy, justice, kindness, and freedom and dignity for all people are among the basic tenets, or should be, of a religious life.
Our shul can be much more demonstrably open and inclusive and I want it to be a place where everyone, including LGBTQIA+ people and their families can feel welcome and, most importantly, a sense of belonging. I would be proud to have helped that come about.
Chloe: What got you interested in working at the temple as a front for change?
Mom: For the reasons you just stated, but also because, as the center of our family’s spiritual life, it’s a logical place for me to want to focus my efforts in this cause. Also, I’m so excited about the work we’re doing with Keshet, and that at the end of the coming year, we will have implemented the Action Plan that we formulated at the Keshet Leadership Summit. At that time, CSS will have a place in Keshet’s fabulous Equality Guide which will enable LGBTQ folks on the South Shore who are searching for an open and inclusive shul to find us.
I’m also extremely excited about helping other religious institutions in the area who might want to open their organizations and create warm, welcoming and inclusive cultures, to follow our lead. Our work with Keshet will empower us to serve as a mentor congregation to others in our community, and it would be an enormous honor to support other groups and help them to do what we will have done.
Mom: Do you plan to carry on with the work you’ve been doing with the GSA at school and the task force at CSS when you get to college? What are your goals for your efforts at Sarah Lawrence?
Chloe: One of the reasons that Sarah Lawrence was my top choice of colleges, and that I am so thrilled to be going, is because they are ranked amongst the most LGBTQ-friendly campuses in the country. I think that much social change and progress is made on college campuses and that progress can be a springboard for change in society-at-large.
I will work with existing groups on campus and perhaps, if I see a need, form a new one. And just as importantly, I will lead by example by making certain, as I do now, that my actions, speech, opinions, deeds, etc, all demonstrate my belief that an equal and fair society for all people is the best kind to live in. It’s my way of working toward tikkun olam.
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You’ll love this mother-daughter team who have joined the inclusion efforts at Sha’aray Shalom! Jodi Tolman and her daughter Chloe participated in Keshet’s Boston Leadership Summit, putting their commitment to LGBTQ inclusion work within the Jewish community into action. See what happens when Jodi (known as “mom”) and Chloe sat down to interview each other about the importance of LGBTQ equality.
Mom: Chloe, what was the genesis of your interest in LGBTQ equality?
Chloe: I have always had a strong sense of fairness and have felt very keenly that people in this world should be treated equally and fairly. Unfair treatment of any individual or group has always raised my hackles, and I think that’s been due, in great part, to you and Dad teaching us about the profound importance of equality in our society and equal rights for all people. You taught us that it is our moral and human obligation to work for justice in our world.
As for my particular interest in LGBTQ rights, soon after we moved up here from New Jersey, my friend, Bridget (who has since legally changed their name to Quinn) came out in high school as trans and pansexual. I was not particularly well-versed in the issue at that time, and Quinn taught our friends and me a lot about LGBTQIA+ life, which very much sparked my interest in learning more and working for justice in the LGBTQIA+ community.
Chloe: How did you become interested in LGBTQ rights, Mom?
Jodi: I have had a passion for civil rights and social justice since I was a kid. In fact, when I was 11, I asked Meema if Jewish girls could become nuns! Without laughing (which I always appreciated her for!) she asked why I would want to become a nun. I answered that it seemed that they devoted their entire lives to helping others and that’s what I wanted to do with mine. She explained that I could live as selfless a life as I chose without becoming a nun and that was the beginning of my realization that I wanted to work in the world to help people. As I grew and matured, my interests were honed and my passion for social justice developed.
I had a very close gay friend in high school, who ended up dying of AIDS some years later, and nobody ever spoke about his being gay and what it must have been like for him. It was not talked about or even acknowledged back then, but I knew it had to be a painful and very difficult life for him. As I have watched LGBTQ rights come more and more into the fore throughout my life, it has become more and more important to me to fight for social justice in this community.
Mom: What are your thoughts about the current state in our country of LGBTQ equality and how things are progressing?
Chloe: I’m very happy to see that things are changing for the better, at least in our part of the country and world, but there is still a long, long way to go before we have true equality. We have to work hard to educate people and help “normalize” the LBGTQ community in the minds and experience of cisgender and straight people. I think if we keep pushing, we’ll get there.
Chloe: What do you think of the progress we’ve made?
Jodi: I was young in the 60’s but I know from my parents and family, and learning all about the civil rights movement, that it was an incredibly exciting time in the arena of social justice. I know that to watch real change be born back then, as prolonged and painful as the labor was, was extraordinary. LGBTQ rights and equality is the civil rights issue of our time, and to see the changes that are happening, and the speed with which they’re coming about, is one of the most exciting things I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. I absolutely agree, however, that there is still so much work to do and ground to cover, but we are making real, tangible progress. It’s thrilling.
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Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we 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, our reflection comes from Rabbi Rick Brody. Rabbi Brody first wrote this piece in 2006, so the time-line might feel a little off. We still think this is a relevant look at Parashat Shoftim and the idea of a just society.
It is amazing how procrastination affects one’s work. I began drafting this d’var Torah several days ago, but with the whirlwind of summer classes and make-up-work (Rabbinical school is not as glamorous as it seems) I hadn’t finished it by my “goal” date.
I had begun to write about the work of Citizens to Restore Fairness (CRF), a group in Cincinnati, Ohio, dedicated to protecting the rights of GLBTQ people in their city. In 2004, CRF successfully led a campaign to repeal a 12-year-old ordinance that outright denied gay people protections from discrimination. In March 2006, the Cincinnati City Council approved an anti-discrimination law, which would protect GLBT individuals from losing their jobs or being denied housing just for being queer. However, an anti-gay group, disguised as one committed to values, blocked the ordinance by petitioning to have the issue on the ballot. This summer, equality activists from across the country descended on Cincinnati to prepare for the November 7th election and to fight this anti-gay ballot measure. Uniting people across lines of race, class, gender and religion, this diverse group of people was working to bring justice to their community.
Then, this morning, the phone call came. “We won!” my girlfriend yelled, as she came running into the room. “What???” I replied, confused. Was this the Hebrew Union College softball team with its two-win record? No. “Citizens to Restore Fairness won!” she exclaimed.
As it turned out, the people so devoted to “community values” felt that signing the petition with fraudulent names, such as that of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, was an honest way of achieving their goals. With the petition proven corrupt the organization proposing the ballot measure withdrew and accepted defeat. We had achieved our goal: justice for the residents of Cincinnati; fairness for GLBTQ people in the city.
How does this relate to the d’var Torah I was writing? This week’s portion, Parashat Shoftim, or “magistrates,” is about creating a just society. It is part of Moses’ closing speech to the Children of Israel. The Israelites are standing and waiting to go into the Land, but Moses is unable to go with them. Because of Moses’ bad behavior in the desert, he will be left behind as the Israelites go on to the promised land.
In Moses’ speech, he provides ethical and administrative norms to be followed by the community. A dominant word within this parasha is tzedek, “righteous” or “justice.” The word occurs six times in the Torah and 68 times in the entirety of the Tanakh.
What is justice? Many modern Jews, myself included, take pride in our faith’s commitment to social change. “Social justice” has become a sort of buzzword for young Jewish activists working in a variety of fields. As a Reform rabbinical student, I take particular pride in my denomination’s leadership role in certain areas of social justice. The idea of a just society is rooted in our most holy text, the Torah. According to W. Gunther Plaut, a leading commentator on the Torah, “no people gave as much loving attention to the overriding importance of law equitably administered and enforced as did Israel.”
What, then, does a just society look like for LGBTQ people? This week’s Torah portion says “they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18). Plaut suggests that this roots the ultimate administrative power in the people, rather than the king. This leads us to ask questions of our own lives. How can our leaders lead justly? How can we be leaders in our own community? How can the people create their own just society?
In Parashat Shoftim we are commanded “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice, you shall pursue,” Deuteronomy 16:20). The verb tirdof is in the imperative, commanding us to engage in the work at hand. Why does the word tzedek, “justice,” repeat twice? There is a Chassidic teaching that the word justice is repeated because “in matters of justice one may never stand still. The pursuit of justice is the pursuit of peace. Do justly so that justice may be engendered.”
We all must take a stand for justice wherever we see injustice taking place, not only for our own communities, but also for those in need of our support. The work of Citizens to Restore Fairness was accomplished through the work of people of all races, of many religions and across the entire spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is through embracing our diversity that we have the power to create change.
The words of Moses, whom the sages call Moshe Rabbeinu, or “Moses our teacher,” are instructive to all of us. Our Torah is our guidebook. Each year we read the text again, and each year it appears in a new light. Even though we have heard the stories before, they meet us where we are this year. Just as a parent lovingly guides a child towards the correct path, so too does our Holy text teach us. May we all be able to glean from its words the messages that will help us live our lives as better people and build a more just society: Ken yehi ratzon, may it be your will.
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I spend my workdays gathering and leveraging financial resources for grassroots community organizers and artists working at the intersection of sexual orientation, gender identity, and racial and economic justice. As a fundraiser at Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, I am a professional queer.
One of the biggest perks of my job is that I get to sit with people who have been supporting lesbian feminist organizing in the U.S. for twenty or thirty years and hear the stories they tell. The people I meet have often gone on incredible journeys of lost or compromised employment, complicated family relationships, losing and finding faith communities, geographic relocation, all while navigating feelings of being simultaneously privileged in some ways and oppressed in others.
Hearing stories from these community members has made me reflect a lot on mine. And, the donors often wrap up their tales with a request to know how I ended up sitting across from them. I don’t have just one story, or course, but every version I have ever found myself telling comes down to this: I am a queer activist because I am a Jew.
I was raised in an affluent community with a big Jewish population, high levels of education, and almost no Republicans. My synagogue prided itself–and still does–on providing shelter every night for eight homeless men, five nights a week, for most of the year. My Jewish community emphasized a set of social justice values: standing up for and standing with your neighbor who is oppressed, questioning authority, and supporting impoverished people in and around your community.
We were taught that we could not allow our current and unprecedented level of acceptance by wider American society to trump our understanding of what it means for a community to be powerless in the face of systemic oppression. We were taught that as Jews it was our job to fight for a more just and whole world.
That is the context into which I came out: not a community without homophobia, but one in which I knew that I would have access to a higher set of principles if and when incidents of homophobia happened.
A year after telling my family and friends that I “liked girls,” I went to a weekend advocacy training for teens in Washington, D.C., at the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. The training included optional issue briefings on sexuality-based employment discrimination, hate crimes, and funding for AIDS research. That weekend, which ended with a trip to Capitol Hill to lobby for the issues we cared about at our legislators’ offices, was my first experience publicly arguing for LGBT rights. It happened not only in a Jewish context but because my Jewish community was committed to teaching its young people how to fight for the causes we cared about.
After I came out of the closet, I had gone looking for other LGBTQ people my age besides the ones at school, and when I found them, it turned my world upside-down.
The teens I met at the LGBT Community Center’s drop-in program had life experiences totally different from mine, and those differences broke over and over again along racial and economic lines. I met people who had been kicked out of their homes because they were gay, threatened with violence over their gender presentation, suspended from school when they defended themselves against homophobic violence, and harassed regularly by police. I became intensely aware of how my white privilege and wealthy background had not only shielded me from experiencing similar things, but from even knowing those things were possible.
Getting involved in a multiracial, cross-class, queer community had attuned me to types of injustice I had never before noticed, and growing up in a justice-minded Jewish community meant I could not just stand by and watch.
Six months after my trip to Washington D.C., I marched in the streets of Manhattan in memory of Matthew Shepard, Amadou Diallo, and Abner Louima, calling for an end to anti-gay hate crimes and to racist police violence–and the people I walked with were Jews I had met in D.C. and queer people I had met at the Center.
I was raised by a community less than two generations removed from violence at the hands of the state in the old country. My community still remembered facing discrimination at the hands of landlords, employers, and colleagues here in what was supposed to be the Goldene Medine (or golden county). Despite this history, my community remained committed to a notion that a more whole world was possible with enough human effort and determination.
My Jewish community taught me that we all have important work to do to bring justice, and that while the work might be difficult, it was neither impossible nor negotiable. I am deeply fortunate to have the cushions of economic security, a high-quality education, and an incredibly supportive family that are unavailable to many LGBTQ people. My Judaism teaches me that my access to those buffers is precisely what must compel me to fight for those who don’t have them.
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Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we 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, Rabbi Seth Goren examines Parshat Re’eh and takes a look at the meaning behind the word “abomination.”
I have to confess that this week’s portion, almost through no fault of its own, kind of annoys me. It’s not the command to put false prophets to death or the requirement to tithe crops to the benefit of the priestly caste, both of which strike me as problematic, to say the least. My thoughts and frustrations are triggered by Parashat Re’eh’s mention of an abomination of significant proportions. No, not that abomination. That’s back in Leviticus 18:22. But it’s something that’s presumably just as bad. Yep, you guessed it: the camel, which, along with a whole host of other “unclean” animals, is dubbed an “abomination” smack dab at the start of Deuteronomy’s Chapter 14.
Go figure, right? Who’d have thought that the camel, even with its bad breath, rank odor and penchant for expectorating, is sufficiently revolting as to be classified as abhorrent? It certainly isn’t something that I remember being taught in Hebrew school. But lest the camel feel singled out, the list of biblical abominations is a lengthy one. The word often slogged through translation and dragged into English as “abomination” appears biblically no fewer than 105 times in one form or another, denoting anything from a deceitful merchant to intermarriage, from a “haughty bearing” to a person who incites siblings to argue with each other. Biblical “abominations” like these are merely one thread in a broader tapestry of ancient purity laws, and the actions, events and objects that potentially run afoul of these laws are many and varied.
To be clear, I have nothing against camels specifically. Rather, my frustration stems largely from our present-day “abomination” amnesia and how all talk of biblical “abominations” has been condensed in modern religio-political discourse to one specific act alone: gay sex (which apparently also encompasses lesbic intimacy even though the Bible overlooks lesbian sex completely). Many anti-gay crusaders essentially take a censor’s pen to the Bible and black out portions they’d prefer to ignore, leaving a document that looks more like a Guantanamo hearing transcript than a holy book and hoping the rest of us don’t notice the difference. As an upshot, we find the Religious Right and other religious conservatives enjoying a perceived monopoly when it comes to interpreting a foundational text of American society, while those who have non-dogmatic perspectives have largely been silenced.
The irony, of course, is that those who would blind us to all but specific verses in the Bible, are precisely those who so often cry out as being the victims of “political correctness,” hate speech codes and the “thought police.” The rallying cry that “I can say whatever I want, whenever I want” is all too commonly heard from individuals who have little regard for the liberty of others.
Let’s set aside the proverbial “fire-in-a-crowded-theater” hypothetical and address this more practically and directly: to some degree, bristling at being told what types of language are unacceptable is understandable. As much as we can appreciate the importance of living in relationship with others, the thought of abdicating our chosen mode of expression is a latter-day abomination in and of itself, at odds with so much of what we treasure. The chilling effect from limiting certain types of speech has the potential to make us all come down with a case of the censorship flu. That said, comments about political correctness frequently aren’t, at their core, about free speech, free thought and free expression. For the sake of argument, I’ll concede that yes, a non-specific “you” generally may be entitled to call me an “abomination,” if “you” so choose. You can say that I’m a “fag,” a “sodomite,” a “faygele” or even the tamer, more clinical “homosexual.” You can say that I’m partially responsible for the 9/11 attacks, as the late Rev. Jerry Falwell did, or that I’m a causal factor in the death of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, as the late Rev. Fred Phelps rants. You can say that I shouldn’t have the right to get married or that it should be OK to fire me because I’m gay. As a rule, you may have the right to say all of those things.
At the same time, I have the right to think that you’re a big jerk for doing so, to articulate that opinion and to react with some choice words of my own.
I feel pretty comfortable in holding this way. Having the freedom to say something doesn’t bring with it the right to control how others hear it. It doesn’t mean that we make pronouncements in an echo chamber or that there are no consequences for what we verbalize. It means that each of us has a far-reaching right to say and think and feel autonomously, independently and individually; it applies as much to those who hear and respond as to the initial commenter.
This thinking is no less applicable in the context of our biblical examples. The voices of religious homophobia and deceptive reasoning may be deafening at times, but we have it within our power, to a greater or lesser extent, to manage our own reactions to them. Some may elect to engage in intellectual debate, consistently jumping to highlight the camel and other biblical “abominations” or leaping at every chance to demonstrate the hypocrisy inherent in a Leviticus 18:22-centric world view. Others are simply exhausted from having the same conversation over and over and over, feeling nothing but apathy for this discussion. Most of us live somewhere in the middle, periodically challenging misconceptions, at other times hitting the debater’s equivalent of a snooze button. Regardless of where we end up on the spectrum of possible responses, those who’ve imparted their biblical tunnel vision to the rest of us can’t restrict how we choose to express ourselves.
So maybe this week’s mention of the camel and other “abominations” can serve a more positive purpose. True, the passage can trigger the realization that certain verses of the Torah have been wiped from public consciousness. At the same time, it can also remind us that we can elect not to be silenced and that we have some choice in how we respond to others’ attempts to pull the (camel) wool over our eyes.
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