In honor of the upcoming annual observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance we are devoting space in our blog to posts about gender. Be sure to check out other stories of gender in our Jewish community including: “Transgender 101,” the personal reflections of two parents faced with the reality of gender roles at day care, and a Tachlis of inclusion post entitled “How to Hire a Transgender Rabbi.”
When we first meet the Biblical figures Sarah and Abraham, they are not yet called Sarah and Abraham. When we first meet Abraham and Isaac, their bodies have not yet undergone a surgical alteration. We know our first Jewish family in the Torah both before and after these transitions. And the ways in which we know them can help us to be better allies to transgender folk within our current communities.
Abraham and Sarah were not always called “Abraham” and “Sarah.” Born as Avram and Sarai, their names are changed by an encounter with the divine, and they each receive an extra letter (the Hebrew letter “Hey”). From then on, they are known as Abraham and Sarah.
We call the first Jewish couple “Abraham and Sarah” because those are their names. We do not reject these names because they were not given at birth. We do not refer to their birth names their “real” names. We understand that to insist on only referring to our Jewish foremother and forefather as “Sarai” and “Avram” would seem confused as best, and insulting at worst.
In short, we get it.
We understand the fundamental concept that names are important, and can represent significant identities. We get that names may be altered or changed during the course of a lifetime, and that names assigned at birth do not trump names taken on later in life. And, we can know it with those in our world today. Just as we know this with Abraham and Sarah, we should know how to relate to transgender folk whose name is not that which was assigned to them at birth.
We read that Abraham performs the act of circumcision on himself. He also performs it on Isaac. This surgical action declares them both members of the tribe. From this, we see that alteration to a body given at birth can be a method of enhancing holiness. It can represent connection to an identity—a physical manifestation of a metaphysical plane. We understand that this act is not represented as an act of mutilation, but of holiness. We further understand that not all Jews must undergo this change in order to be Jews. For some it makes sense, and for some, it does not.
Some transgender individuals choose to surgically (and/or hormonally) alter the body they were born in. We know that a physical alteration can interact with and support identity in significant ways. And today, we are seeing the many ways in which gender-affirming healthcare (which includes hormones and/or surgery) can lead to positive health outcomes overall. If we are to believe (as I was taught in Hebrew school) that our bodies are a gift from G-d, then hormonal and/or surgical alterations may indeed be a tool for some to use in order to be a proper caretaker, and thereby sanctify the body they were given at birth.
Our first Jewish family can show us how to be a better support to transgender folk in our communities.
The ways in which we know with Sarah and Abraham and Isaac show us a path towards love, support, respect, and affirmation for transgender folk in our lives. We know and love Sarah, Abraham, and Isaac through their transitions. We can do the same for those in our communities today.
Like this post?
- Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
- Get breaking LGBTQ Jewish news, resources, and inspiration from Keshet in your inbox!
- Transgender Day of Remembrance is November 20th. How will your Jewish community observe the day?
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).
Like this post?
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.
Like this post?
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, Chaim Moshe haLevi examines Parashat Vaetchanan, questioning how we prove our love for God.
Last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Devarim, is perfectly placed in the liturgical calendar just prior to Tisha B’Av, the annual day of mourning that marks the destruction of the first and second Temples, along with several other calamities suffered by the Jewish people. In Devarim, the Israelites are reminded of the episode of the 12 spies, when Moses sent representatives of each of the 12 tribes to scope out the land “flowing with milk and honey.” They bring back a very mixed report, with all but one of the spies, Caleb, fixating on the dangers ahead of them. The Israelites are chastised by God for trusting in the spies who “cried wolf,” and as a result of this transgression, they are left with a promise that this shall be a day of mourning for all generations. “See, if you wanna cry. . .I’ll give you something to cry about!” says a frustrated and indignant God. The Mishnah teaches us that the episode of the spies is the first of the calamities to fall on Tisha B’Av, this historical day of sorrow and suffering.
Continuing this theme, in the haftarah reading for Shabbat Hazon (the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av), the prophet Isaiah offers a vision of the destruction of the Temple: This is what you get for following your own selfish interests rather than living according to the word of God! In both of these readings, we see the prototypical Deuteronomic God exacting punishment and retribution. What happened to the loving deity of the Book of Exodus?
Parashat Va’etchanan and the accompanying haftarah reading for this Shabbat Nachamu offer us consolation from Tisha B’Av and from divine censure and haunting prophecy. Yet, they also tender so much more. In the parasha, we are presented with the statements of the very tenets of our faith: the Shema, the VeAhavta, and the Aseret HaDibrot (the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments). In the haftarah reading, we are reminded that God cannot be compared to any image or any idol. “The grass withers; the flower fades; The word of God shall stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8) It is as if, in anticipation of Tu B’Av, we are gifted with the covenantal relationship of love between God and the Jewish people.
As Parashat Va’etchanan opens, we find Moses pleading for forgiveness from any transgressions that may have upset God in order that he be permitted to enter into the promised land along with the rest of the Israelites. While Moses’s request is unconditionally denied, he is given a counter offer. Climb to the top of Mount Pisgah and survey the land. Needless to say, Moses is frustrated and probably overwrought. After all of his hard work in leading this kvetching motley crew throughout 40 years of wandering, how is he repaid? With a bird’s eye view of a land he will never set foot upon.
Despite his personal disappointment, Moses the leader reminds the people that it is imperative that they keep God’s mitzvoth (commandments) and uphold all of the details laid out in the Torah. Why? Because God is a jealous, punishing deity who never forgets the sins of His enemies, repaying them by devouring them or ultimately destroying them. I can only wonder, is this really what Moses believes or is he broigus (disgruntled) because HaShem (God) has denied his request to enter the land? I don’t think it is either of these. Rather it is a scare tactic by one of the authors of Deuteronomy to get the people to toe the line, i.e. if one wishes to remain alive, s/he must fulfill God’s commandments. As intercessor between God and layperson, offering sacrifices on the behalf of the populace, the Deuteronomist Kohen (priest) would have a personal investment in instilling yirat HaShem (fear of God) into the people. Otherwise, who would come to make guilt offerings? How’s that for motivation?
The reader soon discovers another Deuteronomist voice, one that seems as discontented to portray God in this fire and brimstone manner as we are to hear it. Thus, we are made aware of the loving nature of God: a deity who is merciful, who remembers the covenant made with the biblical ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to provide the chosen people with a homeland of their own, who never fails them, who redeemed them from bondage in Egypt, who brought them to the holy mountain to reveal the divine law to them, and who has assisted them in preparing for their conquest of the land.
Moses reminds the people that God revealed Godself to each one individually at Mount Sinai NOT just to the ancestral forefathers. Each individual has a personal relationship with God, and thus, is personally responsible to uphold the promise of Naaseh v’Nishma (We will do and we will listen) made at that historical moment. To concretize that memory, Moses repeats the Aseret HaDibrot.
Tying together all of the lessons, the principles, and the statutes, the people are offered a summary statement of their relationship to God, in the form of the Shema. This is coupled with the instructive passage of how to demonstrate one’s love to God, the VeAhavta. The people who, not long after leaving Egypt, had once stood at Sinai and proclaimed Naaseh v’Nishma, have matured to the point that now they truly can Shema (listen) and Oseh (do), in the form of Ahavah (love). In phrasing the Shema in the plural, Moses has acknowledged and accepted God’s decision that he not enter into the land. Moses is now one of the people. He is no longer separated out as their leader, for even Moses must submit to the will of God, and to affirm God’s supremacy with love, even if a request of God was not granted him.
The children of Israel acknowledge God’s singularity and promise to show their love for God, with all of their core, essence, and power. They will do so by teaching future generations, demonstrating their love in every setting (at home or away, from arising in the morning to retiring at night) and through outward signs on their bodies and their homes. When their children ask why these things are done, they promise to recount their history as slaves in Egypt and explain how keeping the mitzvot has ensured their survival as a people.
So, if it all comes down to affirming God’s Oneness, and proving our love for God, did the first Deuteronomist have it all wrong? Well, for me as a queer Jew, the implacable parent in the sky is so passé. My personal theology does not include a God who is irate, spiteful, and unforgiving. I believe in a God of pure and endless benevolence, compassion, and truth. There is nothing in the Shema or the VeAhavta that speaks of yirat HaShem. I do not believe fear is the way to a healthy relationship with God. By contrast, I do believe one ought to have a mindful respect for God and God’s awesomeness.
Created in the image of God, we testify to God’s Oneness through acts of love, for loving is Godly. Whether it is teaching one’s children, wrapping oneself in tefillin, or affixing a mezuzah, these are all expressions of our connection to the Divine Spirit. Likewise, by living and loving openly as LGBTIQ people, each of us is an ayd (a witness) to the Ein Sof (the Infinite Divine Oneness).
This Shabbat find your personal connection to God. Reach out in love to the Divine. Celebrate this connection and share it with others, especially with your beloved this coming Sunday on Tu B’Av under the light of the full moon. And if you’re single and looking? You know the drill.
Like this post?
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, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser examines Parashat Matot and Parashat Masei, taking a careful look at vows and the role of women in a patriarchal society.
At the close of Bamidbar/Numbers, the fourth book of Torah and the last book of the Jewish journey to the Promised Land, Moses engages in a long colloquy with the leaders of the tribes (matot) on the nature of oaths and vows. Parashat Matot begins with Moses instructing the leaders of the people on when vows can and cannot be broken. Parashat Masei (“Marches/Travels”) closes with tribal leaders asking Moses to adjust the vow made by Moses to the daughters of Zelophehad that they would inherit their father’s portion.
Strikingly, both of these discussions center particularly on women and vows. In Matot, we learn that a man has no choice: if he makes a vow or oath, he must “carry out all that has crossed his lips.” Whether a woman must carry out her vow—or even whether she is permitted to carry out such a vow—depends very much on her social status. If she is divorced or widowed, i.e., outside the sphere of a man’s influence, then her vows cannot be broken; she has the same status as a man in this regard. However, the world of Torah is patriarchal: if a woman is married or if she is an unmarried woman living in her father’s house, then she is considered subservient to the male head of the household, and he has the right to dismiss her vow.
Before we shudder about the inequality of women’s roles in the Torah, we should take a second look. What is perhaps most surprising about this discussion of vows is how limited a man’s power is to circumscribe women’s obligations. The man only has 24 hours after learning that his wife or daughter has taken a vow to cancel it. If he does not act in that time, the vow is in full force. In fact, if the man forces the woman to annul her vow after that time, it is he, not she, who will suffer the divine consequence.
Moses faces precisely this kind of challenge at the end of parashat Masei. The leaders of the tribe of Manasseh come to Moses with a problem. Moses has just divvied-up the land of Israel, giving set acreage to each tribe. The problem for Manasseh is that back in Numbers 27, Moses vowed to give the daughters of Zelophehad, members of Manasseh, their father’s inheritance, as there were no male heirs. Yet, in tribal Israeli culture, if Zelopohehad’s daughters married, their heirs would be considered members of their husband’s tribe, and thus some tribe other than Manasseh would inherit their land.
Moses cannot break his vow, because it was not a simple legal agreement made with these daughters but a vow made in the name of God—God said, “The pleas 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.” Moses had to let that vow stand, yet he had to do something; tribal leaders would revolt if they thought that women could inherit land that would then pass out of the tribe’s control. Moses’s solution was that the daughters of Zelophehad had to marry within their own tribe, so that their heirs would be members of the tribe Manasseh.
The case of Zelophehad’s daughters illuminates the constraints around women’s vows in parashat Matot. Even though women in the biblical world have far fewer rights than men, parashat Matot insists that women have full rights before God—they have the same ability as men to forge a private relationship with God through vows. Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, calls this relationship the I-Thou relationship. God sees us for who we are; when we stand before God, we are naked, stripped of the social world that usually surrounds and binds us. We speak to God “face-to-face.”
In the world, however, we rarely are able to maintain an I-Thou relationship with God or even with each other, seeing each other as the person we really are. The social world intrudes, with its material requirements. Such is the situation for women in the biblical world. Their entire society was patriarchal, based on the rule of the householder over his house, the rule of the tribe over the householders, and eventually, the rule of the king over the tribes. These relationships are not I-Thou relationships, but I-It relationships; individuals are not known for who they are in themselves, but as objects, objects that dictate their role in the tribe.
Because the society was patriarchal, women had no agency at all in the social structure. Thus, allowing them to have an I-Thou relationship was dangerous, as an I-Thou relationship is predicated on the complete agency of the two who face each other. So, Torah allows the man who has most agency over a woman in the society, that is, who has the strongest I-It relationship to her, to prevent her I-Thou relationship with God. That the discussion of vows is really a discussion of the implementation of patriarchy is made clear by the fact that Moses only gives instructions about vows to the heads of the tribes (rashei ha matot). The instructions here are not about the value of women’s vows; the instructions are about how these leaders can preserve patriarchy.
We like to think we have moved far from the tribal society of Moses’ time, yet I see many comparisons. Reading this parasha brought to my mind the fight over same-sex marriage. In Judaism, the wedding ceremony itself does not entail a vow to God, yet marriage itself is understood as a sacred covenant, made by two people in the sight of God. Marriage is the ultimate I-Thou relationship between two people, a commitment to know each other as we really are, to see each other “face-to-face.” As we agree to meet the other as ourself, we bring ourselves closer to God as well. This is precisely the difference between marriage and a “domestic partnership.” A domestic partnership is a legal arrangement, in which we cede each other certain rights. A marriage is a sacred covenant, in which we agree to treat the other as a “Thou.”
Just as leaders of the matot were concerned that women’s vows would overturn their patriarchal society, so leaders of our civil society are concerned that gay and lesbian vows will overturn our hetero-normative society. They understand—we understand—that there is real power in the I-Thou relationship, a power that tends to overturn social mores and social structures. Seeing another as oneself is in some ways both the most sacred and most transgressive act, an act that defies social boundaries and cultural customs.
What I find most inspiring about Matot Masei is that Torah tells us that God welcomes this powerfully transgressive relationship. God welcomes the women of ancient Israel to make vows as well as men. God welcomes us to forge I-Thou relationships with God and with each other. It is not God who stands in the way of our deepest relationships. It is society that is not ready for God.
Many LGBT Jews and allies find Leviticus to be challenging. Here is one rabbi’s reading of the passage. More can be found here.
Among LGBT Jews and their allies, Leviticus is a dirty word. And not just because of its two famous homophobic verses. There are many challenging issues with Leviticus. For instance, while we support gender equality, Leviticus establishes an all-male system of ritual leadership. While we affirm the equal worth of people with physical disabilities, Leviticus excludes them from the priesthood. And of course, while we celebrate the blessing and beauty in loving same-sex relationships, Leviticus prescribes the death penalty for gay men who have intercourse.
So how do we work with a sacred text that is at odds with some of our deepest values–values that other parts of Torah affirm (like every person being created in God’s image)? For me, it starts with an approach to sacred texts that views them as human-created documents. Consistent with my Reconstructionist philosophy, I view the Torah as a record of our Israelite ancestors’ best efforts to describe their experiences of God and Truth.
The Torah contains tremendous spiritual wisdom as well as the spiritual errors of the people who created it. Seen this way, the Torah takes its place in Jewish religious life as the beginning of an ongoing process of spiritual discussion and discernment–but it does not have the final word on the subjects it addresses. When credible reinterpretations of harmful biblical laws are not possible, we dissent from those verses without abandoning our faith or our intimate relationship to Torah.
This is how I approach the anti-gay verses in Leviticus. I’m not persuaded by the attempts some have made to reinterpret Lev 18:22 and 20:13 to mean something other than what they appear to mean. Rather, I acknowledge my disappointment and anger at the suffering these texts have wrought, and I believe that our ancestors were mistaken on this issue. Similarly, I respond to other passages in the Torah that advocate things that modern liberal Jews openly condemn (such as the passages in Numbers 31 in which God and Moses commanded the genocide of all Midianite men, women, and children).
Yes, this makes me a religious Jew who “picks and chooses.” I believe that we have a moral responsibility to thoughtfully pick and choose, because as human beings we are all morally responsible for any harms we commit in the name of our religions. To quote a teacher of mine, “There is no ‘I was just following orders’ defense that excuses harms people inflict in the name of their religious beliefs.” Part of a thoughtful, liberal religious approach to Judaism is the process of studying our sacred texts, discussing them, and very thoughtfully picking and choosing our present day beliefs and practices in community with each other.
So, why am I writing about Leviticus for Keshet? Well, because, alongside the passages in the book that we are right to reject, Leviticus also contains spiritual riches that can help us in these times. For starters, Leviticus is the source of “love your neighbor (19:12).” Futhermore, Leviticus offers a model of economies and ecosystems operating in a way that ensures health for the land and fairness and compassion for the weakest members of society–quite a contrast to our self-inflicted plagues of greed and ecological degradation. Leviticus also understands that animals and human beings share a common life force, and that the act of taking an animal’s life for meat deserves awe and ritual–compare that with our inhumane and unhealthy factory farm system. And perhaps most remarkably of all: Leviticus calls on each of us to be holy because God is holy. How the ancient Israelite priesthood understood what creates holiness is different than how we understand it. But Leviticus reminds us of the importance of embracing the charge to try to figure out what it means to be holy in the here and now.
Studying Leviticus from a progressive religious Jewish perspective is frustrating and rewarding, alienating and inspiring. But it’s quite worth the workout!
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, Marisa James examines Parashat Vayakhel and Parashat Pekudei and how we can all appreciate the beauty of a complex world.
When I first read this week’s parashah, with their detailed lists of the sockets, pegs and posts that go into building the Mishkan, I could only imagine that the children of Israel had somehow ended up at the Sinai IKEA. I pictured Moses, in a burst of confidence after getting everyone across the sea, picking up the “A_rk oöf Tabêrnäkkle” kit and making everyone sit down to decipher wordless instructions on how to build the thing.
But really, there’s something lovely about the time and care that goes into all of these descriptions. Last week’s portion Vayakhel and and this week’s portion Pekudei continue our languorous journey through the design and creation of the tabernacle. During their 430 years in Egypt, laboring as slaves, building stark, massive pyramids for a succession of pharaohs, the children of Israel have been deprived of beauty. As we’ve seen, they have lacked imagination until now; they bitterly complain to Moses at every turn, until he produces yet another miracle, which they promptly forget again when they are hungry, or frightened, or want something tangible to worship.
But in the building of the Mishkan, the children of Israel become artists. Yes, there are specific instructions for how to build it, but each member of the community, we are told, gives what they can: their goods, their effort, and their talent. And we are privileged to read about the results in loving, careful, artistic detail. Beauty is a necessity, both for Moses and the Israelites then, and for us now.
Moses says, “If a person feels like giving an offering to God, bring any of the following: gold, silver, copper, sky-blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair, reddened ram’s skins, blue processed hides, acacia wood, oil for the lamp, fragrances for the anointing oil and perfume incense, as well as sardonyxes and other precious stones for the ephod and the breastplate.” (Exodus 35:5-9)
If they feel like giving an offering to God, says Moses. This is not like last week’s building of the golden calf, when Aaron, in his frustration with the Israelites, says, “Take the rings off the ears of your wives and children, [. . .] Bring them to me.” (Exodus 32:2) The creative impulse cannot be demanded. In the creation of the Mishkan there can be no room for those who might give reluctantly, or unwillingly, or all exactly the same. Every individual piece of silver and copper and wood and cloth must be given freely and with love in order to create the place where God can reside.
And the Mishkan is not being created from gold alone; Moses lists so many options for what each person could contribute that we’re left in amazement about where all the materials come from. Each of the Israelites apparently has unexpected and diverse resources that we haven’t seen until now. They bring items of every color and texture, metals and stones and fibers, along with talents which until now have remained hidden.
Why is it so important that we read several chapters of this description? A few p’sukim (verses), two or three verses, could have told us that God asked Moses to make a beautiful dwelling-place, the Mishkan, of gold and silver, with the priests in robes embroidered with “pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, twisted.” (39:24) A few p’sukim could have told us that the Israelites gave freely of their possessions and skills, and that the Mishkan was completed to God’s specifications.
After centuries of famine and slavery, backbreaking work followed by a perilous escape, the Israelites need time to dwell on beauty, and so do we. It’s easy to fall into the victimization of Israel in mitzrayim (Egypt/ the narrow place) and the alternating tedium and terror of wandering in the desert and have no hope for the future. Taking time to see the world around us in every inch of its detail is one way to restore our souls.
Similarly, in our own lives, it can be difficult to avoid feeling constantly victimized and oppressed, especially as members of the Jewish community, the queer community, and other minority communities. Our multiple marginalized identities frequently overlap to make us prime targets for the “hate-mongers” in our world. And in our work towards social justice and equal treatment, it can be hard to raise our heads from the struggle and appreciate the sheer beauty of the communities we have created. Just as the Isarelites found beauty in the creation of the Mishkan, it’s also necessary for us to move beyond our painful interactions with the world and take delight in the places where we are accepted and loved for all of our different aspects.
How do we do this in our daily lives? I live in New York City, where I’m constantly so inundated by my surroundings that it’s easy to block it all out. But sometimes, I need to stop and listen to a street performer with a beautiful voice. Watch my friends’ sleeping newborn children and imagine their dreams. Delight in the amazing diversity of the communities that have welcomed me, and in the beautiful visions we share of the world we’re trying to create. It isn’t enough to simply notice the beauty of the world—it’s necessary that we each bring our diverse talents and gifts to continue the work of making our world into a Mishkan where God can reside.
If it takes holy chutzpah to argue with God, Jonah has it in spades. God’s word steers him to Nineveh, the great Babylonian metropolis whose wickedness is driving the Divine to distraction, but instead of traveling to Nineveh to “proclaim judgment upon it” (Jonah 1:2) as God asks, Jonah books passage on a boat heading to Tarshish, in the opposite direction. Angered that Jonah would turn “away from the service of the Lord” (1:3), God sends a storm to shake up his ship. While the sailors pray and bail water, Jonah sleeps down below in the ship’s hold. After the sailors toss him overboard in the hope of calming the storm and deflecting God’s anger, Jonah spends three nights in the belly of a giant fish, and finally gets coughed up onto the beach of Babylonia. There, he makes a half-hearted pass through the city, proclaiming destruction in forty days.
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, Noach Dzmura examines a line promising inclusion for “queer doorways” that might open the verse, and its promises, up even wider.
A GenderQueer Doorway
In Parashat Nitzavim, Moses relates the covenant between God and the Hebrews, explaining the curses that will befall them if they do not follow God’s commandments, and the blessings they will experience if they return to the way of God.
Moses tells the Hebrews the covenant is even for “woodchoppers and water drawers,” (Deuteronomy 29:10) which is usually understood to mean “everyone” — but I’m not satisfied that in traditional interpretations “everyone” also includes queers. Continue reading
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, Gregg Drinkwater, former Colorado Regional Director of Keshet, considers the “prophesy” of LGBT Jews, and how it can powerfully change Judaism.
In the opening lines of Parashat Re’eh, Moses shares both a blessing and a curse with the Israelites. “The blessing: if you obey the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I command you today. And the curse: if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord, your God, and you stray from the path that I command you today.” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28) Fair enough. Moses seems to be offering a perfectly reasonable and clear proposition — one with which most Jews can feel comfortable, whatever variety of Judaism they follow. Continue reading