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.
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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 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
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 book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Amy Soule looks to Genesis — B’reishit — to truly understand how we are all created in God’s image.
So God created humankind in God’s own image; in the image of God humanity was created; male and female God created them. (Genesis 1:27)
Perhaps my friends laugh at me when they hear that B’reishit is one of my favorite Torah portions because so many times strict religious people look toward certain segments to judge me as gay, but it’s easy for me to explain myself.
Look hard at the holy, loving statement above. Genesis 1:27 states all of humankind was created in God’s image. Although it mentions sexual difference alone, it’s easy to extrapolate and thus explain that God created an array of sexual orientations, all of which are loved by God and holy. Continue reading
Each week Jews read sections of the Torah, known as parshiyot, inspiring endless examination year after year. Each week we we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Dr. David Shneer, one of the editors of Torah Queeries, examines Parashat Devarim, which deals with the retelling of the Exodus story.
“Ale ha-devarim asher diber moshe el col yisrael be-ever hayarden…” (These are the words that Moses said to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan).
In this week’s Torah portion the Israelites and the now very elderly Moses have reached the Jordan River, the physical and metaphorical boundary between before and after, between wandering in the desert and being a Jewish nation, between a generation marked by the scars of slavery, to one that only knows slavery as memory told through the stories of the community’s elders-what some people in the context of the Holocaust would call the “2nd generation.” “Devarim” or “words,” the portion that opens Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, has Moses recounting a history of the Jews’ experiences over the past 40 years, a history of miracles, no doubt, but also a history of struggle, failure, and disappointment.
Why dwell on such a depressing history? Moses tells “all of Israel” the story of their Exodus from Egypt, the gaining of the commandments and the many struggles of their sojourn in the desert. It is not a glorious history, but it is, nonetheless, the history of this people. In some ways this is Moses’ tsavuah, or “ethical will,” to his community. As the elder, he has the responsibility to tell the Israelites their own story.
The ability to recount a history shows that a community has reached maturity. It shows that a community has, in fact, become a community. It is the birth of a collective memory, often retold by elders as oral history, and these collective memories include the painful recollections of struggle and loss. But delineating the hardships of a nascent community is one of the key ways of defining a community. These words are spoken to “all of Israel” suggesting that as much as it might be a series of acts, rituals, places, and people that define the community, it is also a series of words, stories, and memories that unite the Jewish people. The word “devarim” also means “things” in modern Hebrew, reminding us that words can become tangible. In some ways, words can mark and define our world more concretely than inanimate objects.
Moses’ retelling of the relatively grim history of 40 years of wandering (get a GPS, Moses) is a way of showing that the Israelites have literally and metaphorically arrived. In his speech, Moses spends quite a bit of time on the geographic details of where “all of Israel” finds itself at the moment of telling and also where they have been. The portion opens, “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel, on the other side of the Jordan, concerning the Wilderness, concerning the Aravah, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazerot, and Di-zahab; eleven days from Horeb, by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea.” It’s a pretty long list of obscure places and landmarks of the history of this community. They have a history, a history of struggle, failure and disappointment, but nonetheless a 40-year history rooted in time and place.
National and communal histories almost always have mythic origins and battles to be overcome, and they are peppered with important names, dates and places that create time and space for the community. Moses, the elder, is not just passing on Israelite history. He is, like elders in other communities, creating that history. This opening portion of Deuteronomy shows the importance of both historical text (the first four books of the Torah) and oral history (the fifth book) to communal identity. Text alone is not enough.
This desire to have communal histories, defined by both a key set of texts and stories, in other words, by both history and memory, has reshaped the way history is taught in the United States today. Since the 1960s, new kinds of histories, particular histories, have been added to the curricula at universities, and sometimes in high schools, junior highs and even elementary schools. We now have African American history, women’s history, queer history, and others. At my university, I teach a class called “Queer in America, Now and Then,” a history and sociology course that takes Moses’ challenge seriously and blends history and memory to create a narrative of a particular community.
Each of these histories needs both the texts and the memories of their respective communities to carve out particular communal identities. Some historians have criticized this trend in history, calling it the splintering of history, the destruction of a history common to all Americans. Some of my colleagues claim that “queer history” is too much about identity and not enough about history. “Do you have to be queer to take your class, David?” I have been asked on more than one occasion. Such questions force us to reflect on the purpose of telling history. Some historians might say it is simply “to know the facts,” but as we’ve seen, it can also be about creating community.
So then we can go back to Moses and ask why Moses was telling “all of Israel” the story of the desert. He suggests that the primary purpose of history and memory is the making of community, and that one needs both history and memory, both text and voice, to create collective memories of events, places and people.
In lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, there are too few elders recounting our stories, too few elders creating those collective memories that help define a queer community. Perhaps it is because many of our elders are too quiet or too afraid to speak; more likely it is because “kol qvirim,” or “all of queerdom,” is not interested in hearing. Lucky for Moses that God didn’t give the Israelites a choice. They weren’t asked if they wanted to hear their own history or not. And so Deuteronomy, which comes from the Greek for “second telling” or “retelling,” reminds us that communities need oral history and memory before they can pass over the Jordan, even if those who pass on that history do not cross along with them.