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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Lekhah Dodi (‘Come my friend’) is the hymn sung on Friday night to welcome Shabbat. The prayer begins, “Come my friend, to meet the bride; let us welcome the presence of the Sabbath.” Samantha Kuperberg explores the disconnect she feels towards the prayer and the assumption held within the words of the hymn.
I turned toward the door and bowed and felt nothing.
I focused on the Shabbos bride. I focused on how beautiful she is, and how joyous I should be to greet her. I focused on her flowing hair, her warm smile, her pure white dress. It was then it occurred to me, and I wasn’t sure why it hadn’t occurred to me sooner.
She was not for me.
This Shabbos bride was not for me. She was for her husband: “ateret baʿalah” (crown of her husband). I was supposed to rejoice thinking of that lucky man greeting her: “kimsos chatan al kalah” (as the groom rejoices in his bride). In that moment, Lekhah Dodi was no longer a celebration of the Shabbos day. It became a heavy imposition of the male gaze. I found myself struggling. I imagined myself a mystic in Safed. My beautiful bride running down a hill to meet me. I still felt nothing. Then imagined she wasn’t for me. She was a friend. A friend who was walking down the aisle. I imagined I was the bride.
And then I felt anger.
In my moment of supposed connection and utter joy, I was reminded to conform myself to a universe where male desire reigns large. I was twisting my brain in order to respond and react to the male gaze. I was not to see the Shabbos bride through my own eyes, but through a husband’s eyes. I had to imagine my happiness and pleasure in that shadow. She was not for me.
Lekhah Dodi has always been one of my favorite prayers. In the temple where I grew up, our rabbi would grab his guitar and lead us children in a line throughout the sanctuary. We would sing and dance and be uplifted. For me, that was true joy, and I was giddy to welcome in Shabbat. I miss that natural, effortless feeling.
We need new ways of viewing this Shabbos person.
We need to acknowledge that the overarching masculinity of Judaism may contribute to disconnect.
And as we do that, I will continue to struggle with her.
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Last week on the blog, S. Bear Bergman of the Flamingo Rampant Book Club issued a call for children’s books that feature diverse LGBT families. He emphasized the need for books in which diversity itself isn’t the core issue of the plot. That is: “Let these people take trips! Let them have adventures, let them solve mysteries, let them celebrate things, let them worry about other things besides their identity–moving, new school, going to the dentist, any number of interesting childhood challenges that can be overcome.”
Well, Bear, you (and everyone else too!) are in luck: Your post comes just at the moment that author Dana Alison Levy introduces her debut novel for middle grade (ages 8-12) readers, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher.
The family at the heart of The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher is made up of two dads, four adopted boys, and various pets. They’re Jewish and Christian and Hindu, white and African American and of Indian descent. They’re interested in soccer and ice hockey and turtles and imaginary friends. They have seriously mixed feelings about homework. And they’re constantly getting into a variety of hilarious scrapes.
Jill Ratzan caught up with Dana Alison Levy to ask her some questions about her book’s inclusion of same-sex parents, religious diversity, and zany humor.
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher is being hailed as a contemporary take on the classic middle grade family story. What inspired you to modernize this familiar genre?
I grew up adoring novels that I now know are called “middle grade” but I thought of as just kids books. Books like Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet, Sydney Taylor’s All of a Kind Family series, and of course Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books were among my favorites. I also loved the ones that had a little magic thrown in, like Half Magic and Magic by the Lake by Edward Eager. (My sister and I called them “Cheerios books” because we’d reread them again and again, usually while eating Cheerios out of the box.)
When I thought about writing the Fletchers, I wanted that same kind of story, but set in the world we live in now. And the world we live in has many more diverse types of families than ever before. Still, the core of the story is the same as these books written dozens of years ago: a loving family and the shenanigans and trials they go through in a year.
The boys in The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher struggle with various “issues” like whether or not to try out for the school play, how to approach a grumpy neighbor, and how to repair a damaged friendship. The fact that they have two dads is never itself an issue, though. What made you decide to take this perspective?
That’s a good question, and a hard one to answer. I guess in part I believe that kids, if they’re lucky (and the Fletcher kids are really lucky), get to live in a bubble for a while. In the bubble, they don’t have to pay a lot of attention to the big issues of society, be it race, or socioeconomic inequality, or sexual orientation. Nobody gets to stay in the bubble for long, but for this book at least, I wanted the Fletcher kids to have the luxury of taking their life for granted.
I worry about this element of the story, honestly. I know that our world is not colorblind, nor blind to differences in sexual orientation. Most kids like the Fletchers will, at some point, experience some challenging and hurtful moments related to these issues. I would hate for kids or parents to feel that, just because the book doesn’t focus on those moments, it erases those challenges. But I wanted to avoid writing an “issue” book and instead let the more universal and mundane hurts and conflicts rise in importance.
One of my hopes in focusing the story on the everyday challenges in the Fletchers’ school year is to normalize and universalize the experiences of a family that might look different on the outside. Hopefully I was able to do that without ignoring what makes them unique.
One of the Fletcher dads was raised Jewish (“bar mitzvahed and everything!”), while the other is Episcopalian. They want to honor these traditions while making sure that their sons’ African American and Hindu birth backgrounds are also recognized. The family loves creating holiday celebrations that can “belong . . . to everyone,” like hosting elaborate Halloween parties and leaving a plate of latkes for Santa Claus. Again, why did you choose to bring this aspect of interfaith families to your story?
This part of the book came pretty close to my life. I was raised Jewish, though not religious, and my husband comes from a Catholic background. Both of us have strong ties to our traditions, but neither feel that the organized religion quite represents us. So the question becomes: how can we maintain traditions and a sense of spirituality without organized religion? Many of our friends also struggle to answer this question with their families, merging different religious traditions into something new.
Like the Fletchers, we believe in marrying rituals and traditions from all faiths, melding them and shaping them to become our own. When writing the book I wanted to include the Hindu festival of Holi, which takes place in early spring and involves a massive color fight, and I also wanted to include Sukkot, which I think the Fletchers would really get behind (An outdoor house for all meals? Of course!). But I just ran out of room!
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher is full of anecdotes of everyday family zaniness, including a series of Thanksgiving cooking mishaps, an ice rink surprise, and a memorable incident involving a sandwich, a dripping-wet cat, and a pair of underwear. Do you have a favorite Fletcher family moment?
I confess, the scene of Zeus the cat falling into the bathtub then racing around the house dripping wet while being chased by Frog [the youngest of the boys], wearing only his underwear and a cape, was one of my favorites to write. I will not speak to whether a version of this story happened in my household, but leave it up to the readers to wonder.
I hear that a sequel is in the works! What can you tell us about it?
Yes!! I’m so very delighted that I get to spend more time with the Fletchers! I am working on the sequel now, and it will come out in the spring of 2016 (In theory at least. Publishing works in mysterious ways). While I won’t say too much, I will say that we pick up pretty much where this book ends, with the Fletchers heading out to their beloved Rock Island for summer vacation. Rock Island is a place where time stands still, except this year, the boys must tackle some unexpected changes — on the island and even in themselves.
Dana Alison Levy was raised by pirates but escaped at a young age and went on to earn a degree in aeronautics and puppetry. Actually, that’s not true—she just likes to make things up. That’s why she always wanted to write books. She was born and raised in New England and studied English literature before going to graduate school for business. While there is value in all learning, had she known she would end up writing for a living, she might not have struggled through all those statistics and finance classes. You can find Dana online at www.danaalisonlevy.com or on Twitter and Facebook.
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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, we’re sharing a post from 2008 where Debora A. Larry Kearne examines Parashat Devarim. This reflection is particularly poignant when you consider just how far we have come since 2008. At the time of this d’var Torah was written only two states had ruled in favor of marriage equality.
In this week’s parasha, Devarim, Moses speaks to “all Israel on the other side of the Jordan” (JPS, Deuteronomy 1:1). Having completed its 38 years of desert wandering, kol Yisrael (all Israel) now stands, poised between the wilderness and the Promised Land, their past and their future. In 2008, as members of the Jewish and queer communities, we may feel that we too stand on the other side of the Jordan. After all, some Jewish congregations declare their openness to queer Jews, same-sex unions are now legal in Massachusetts and California, and “don’t ask, don’t tell,” though imperfect, does allow the LGBTQ community to serve in the United States military. If we are the new generation who is standing on the other side, then what purpose does Moses’ lengthy prologue, have, why the historical review of the covenant between God and God’s people?
Because stepping into the unknown—even if it is the Promised Land—takes faith, and in this parasha, Moses reminds us that losing faith separates kol Yisrael from the Eternal One.
First of all, it can be difficult to depart from a momentous mountaintop experience. Indeed, God had to order the people to leave Mount Horeb: “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. . . . Go, take possession of the land that the Eternal swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (JPS, Deuteronomy 1: 6-8). Queer Jews, as part of the larger queer community, may marry or declare civil unions—but only in two states. Furthermore, within days of the California Supreme Court decision, groups who oppose the right of gays to marry collected enough signatures to place California Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, on the November ballot. Taking possession in this instance means we must leave the victory in California and prepare to defend against those who wish to take away the right of queers to marry.
Moses recalls how the people behaved when they reached the edge of the Promised Land the first time: “Yet you refused to go up, and flouted the command of the Eternal your God. You sulked in your tents and said, ‘It is out of hatred for us that the Eternal brought us out of the land of Egypt. . . What kind of place are we going to?’” (JPS Deuteronomy 1:26-28). It is easy to dismiss the fear that the people felt at that time. It is easy to dismiss the fear felt today when, during a 23 July 2008 hearing held by the House Armed Services Committee, Military Personnel Subcommittee, Elaine Donnelly, President of the Center for Military Readiness, declares in all seriousness, “Inappropriate passive/aggressive actions common in the homosexual community, short of physical touching and assault, will be permitted in all military communities, to include Army and Marine infantry battalions, Special Operations Forces. Navy SEALS, and cramped submarines that patrol the seas for months at a time.” What kind of place are we going to?
Moses’ rebuke, “You have no faith in the Eternal your God,”(JPS, Deuteronomy 1:32) and God’s anger, “‘Not one of the men, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers”(JPS Deuteronomy 1:35), sting today as they did then. Strong words to deliver a strong message: Losing faith in God and ourselves separates us from God and the covenantal relationship of our people, Jewish and queer.
Like the people standing before Moses, we stand on the other side of the Jordan, on the threshold of change. Acknowledge the fear of leaving the past and the known. Grab hold of faith, in God’s power and in our ability to walk proudly into the Promised Land.
“These are the words” (JPS, Deuteronomy 1:1).
At Keshet we know how important it is to provide diverse resources for families. Last year we worked with author Elisabeth Kushner to create the first Jewish themed picture book featuring an LGBT family, The Purim Superhero. When we heard that S. Bear Bergman, Jewish educator, author, and storyteller, was creating an LGBTQ2S-themed book club, we knew we needed to learn more. Read on to get the scoop on the Flamingo Rampant Book Club, which features picture books for 4-8 year olds. Joining the book club means you’ll receive six books throughout the year. Bear is currently raising funding to support the project.
What was your inspiration for the Flamingo Rampant Book Club?
The truth is I was reading to Stanley, my four-year-old one night before bed. We had some new LGBTQ2S themed picture books, which my husband, who’s an expert on the topic, had ordered. These were out of print or from small publishers. Stanley asked if we could read the new books, and I said “sure, why not?” But every single one of them contained really difficult, extended descriptions of bullying. We read a couple, but eventually he looked at me and said, “I don’t want this anymore. I don’t like these bully stories.”
And all of a sudden I started thinking: “What are we sending our kids to bed with? What are the last images and stories that we’re offering them to carry into their dreams?”
The books we’d just read were fairly horrible–I mean, everything turned out all right in the end. But the descriptions of bullying we’re so substantial, they almost seemed like manuals for taunting, ostracization, and harassment. I’m a writer, and a lecturer; I do a lot of work around questions of gender and sexual orientation and I have for more than two decades. I am fortunate to be married to a guy who, among his many sterling personal qualities, is an expert on creating celebratory and inclusive classrooms for people of all genders and sexual orientations.
The books in the Flamingo Rampant Book Club include full stories of people of color written by people of color. Why was this important for you?
My family, which includes my chosen family, is fairly racially diverse and certainly diverse in terms of genders and sexual orientations. And my artistic community, ditto. We really wanted books that represented the world in which we actually live, and we also wanted to contribute positively to the experiences of families of color–especially LGBTQ2S families of color. At the moment, there are–as far as we know–only three or four books anywhere at all that feature lesbian or gay or bi or trans families that are anything other than white.
The industry average for representations of people of color in children’s books in 7%. To me, that’s a really shameful number. The prevailing wisdom within publishing directly mirrors the inequalities that already exist in our society–girls will read books about boys, but boys won’t read books about girls. Parents will buy books featuring white children or families for their Black, Indigenous, or Of-Color children, but white parents won’t buy books featuring Black, Indigenous, or Of-Color children or families for their white children. The result of all this is that the overwhelmingly majority of picture books center on white children; mostly boys.
So much of LGBTQ literature for kids focuses on stories of overcoming bullies and challenges centering on their (or their families) LGBTQ identity. The books in the Flamingo Rampant Book Club take a different approach–how has this shifted the narrative of the book club?
There are so many other things to talk about! That’s the thing that I find so bewildering. Let these people take trips! Let them have adventures, let them solve mysteries, let them celebrate things, let them worry about other things besides their identity–moving, new school, going to the dentist, any number of interesting childhood challenges that can be overcome. Flamingo Rampant Book Club’s mandate is positive representations. If people really feel that they urgently require a book that is about bullying in order to bring some realism, there are plenty of books for them already.
If a family isn’t LGBTQ, is this the right book club for them?
Absolutely. This book club is a good fit for any family regardless of sexual orientation, gender, family size or style, race, ethnicity that wants their children to grow up with positive messages about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, queerer, or gender-independent people. That’s all that’s required. Whether your family knows LGBTQ2S people or not, these books all center around a story. So there’s plenty to hold the attention of a young person, and plenty of opportunity to open up conversations about issues of gender or sexual orientation without it seeming abstract, or like it’s coming out of nowhere. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who does a lot of work and writing around parenting and spirituality and was an early supporter of Flamingo Rampant’s first project, told us that her favorite thing about those books was that they gave her a way to talk to her children about gender roles that was based on something they had just positively experienced together.
I also got the following email recently from a friend, who had just received it from their friend:
Do you remember the book you gave [our daughter]–The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy about Transgender children? We had a friend visit who is trans and we read the book to [our daughter] so she could better understand who [our friend] is. [Our daughter] got very excited after I read the book to her, saying ” so [our friend] used to be a girl and now he is a boy” I said yes and then she said very happily: “so that means Fairies are real” That’s life with a four-year-old.
What has surprised you during this process?
Honestly, I have been surprised at how many people have marginalized this series as something that would only be of interest to LGBTQ2S parents and families. Of course, it’s lovely to have affirming books to show our children that represent our family and family like ours. But my kid sees positive images of families like ours every day-he lives in one! Think about the child who doesn’t get any specifically positive images of LGBTQ2S families. That kid is left with whatever filters through from media, and whatever kids say on the playground. I hope progressive, feminist parents will also recognize this book series a powerful tool for positive change in their families, schools, libraries and so on.
What’s next for you and for the Flamingo Rampant Book Club?
Well, the next 20 days will be devoted to getting enough people to sign-up that we can make this project happen. If 450 families don’t sign up for subscriptions, or if we don’t get the equivalent in funding, then there will be no books for anyone. So right now, I’m hustling to make sure we get the most media exposure that we can manage to make sure that the message reaches as far as I can get it to reach. After that, a nice nap. And after that, I’ll be doing some dates with the Jewish Book Council this year to various Jewish Book Festivals across the United States, continuing to perform and lecture at universities and festivals, trying to figure out the kindergarten drop off and pick up schedule, and trying to make some progress on my novel.
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Last week I stood in a room full of Jewish leaders who made me hopeful about the future of the Jewish world. These leaders—from 16 Jewish day schools, synagogues, camps, Hillels, and community organizations—came to Keshet’s Boston Leadership Summit to study together, discuss LGBT inclusion practices, and create action plans for greater LGBT inclusion within their institutions in the coming year.
These leaders are ready to go beyond acceptance and move towards proactive inclusion, devoting their time and resources to intentionally working to create communities where inclusion is a central value.
I love what one religious school teacher from a Conservative synagogue said when asked what the most significant thing she gained from the day: “Being LGBT friendly is more than welcoming someone with your words—it takes systematic planning on the program and policy levels.”
I can’t wait to see what they accomplish in the coming year.
Below are some of our favorite photos from the day—take a look! And check out our full album of photos here.
Learn more about Keshet’s Leadership Project here!
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.
I can’t help but think about the words maternal and motherhood; and their ‘opposites,’ paternal and fatherhood. As a new parent of a beautiful baby, I’ve been thinking about these words a lot, especially as other people try to make sense of the connection between my child and me.
In my case, as a female born transgender person who lives in a middle space defined merely as Taan, I find the word maternal describes me. It’s odd to think that a word representing mother and mommy or mom is how I am aligning. Because, those titles of mother, mommy and mom are not ways I feel comfortable being called. Goodness, words sure do get confusing.
Looking closer at the word maternal, unpacking it so to say, brings a new understanding. When I think of the word maternal, nurturing, loving, kind, present, caring, gentle, sensitive, giving, generous, warm-hearted and tender all come to mind. All these adjectives of softness, we are told represent what is means to be a mom, mother or mommy. In fact, I feel all these adjectives for my baby without being a mommy.
Thus lies the assumption that softness can only be given from a woman. I associate with these adjectives and thus being maternal. And yet, I am not a woman; I am Taan.
My love and care for my baby reaches beyond English. It reaches far beyond gender.
Maternal I am, parent of my baby, I love you with all my heart. No words will get in the way of this truth.
Pride Month might be over, but celebrating one’s identity is a year long process. This post comes to us from London, as Abigail reflects coming out, making peace with her journey away from Orthodoxy, and one special Shabbat she spent celebrating her LGBT identity.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been going through a process of coming out.
It began with a few very private conversations with close friends, then talking to my family, then speaking openly about my “new” identity with some complete strangers who would never trace me back to those who actually knew me. Once my confidence began to increase, I was able to start posting a few subtle things on Facebook, and altering the way I behaved and dressed slightly.
It wasn’t until I went to Pride in London on a Shabbat, though, that I really made my debut on the ‘out’ stage, and I did it in style!
I’ve been openly bisexual for a little over a year now, and I can’t even begin to describe how liberating it has been to discover, explore, and accept my sexuality. When I first came out, my friends and family were incredibly supportive, and I was determined to make my bisexuality work alongside my Orthodoxy.
Over time, though, my identification with the former has grown and my commitment to the latter has shrunk. When I found myself embroiled in a discussion about non-heterosexuality in Modern Orthodoxy that descended into people directing at me the judgement that same-sex relationships were on a moral par with promiscuity, I found myself with the liminal moment I’d subconsciously been searching for.
My life was mine to choose, and I could choose the non-religious path.
It was a relief at last to be able to say to the world, “I’m not religious, and that’s OK.” It’s been a long time since I was sure I believed in God or saw the point in a lot of Orthodox practice, but when you live as part of a community, it can be very uncomfortable to admit that, and in many ways the experience was comparable to when I told people that I’m not straight. Having been brought up fairly religious and becoming more so as I got older, throughout my childhood, teenage years and university life I always felt a need to present a certain image to the world.
Judaism is and probably always will be my heritage, which is why I chose to march with the Jewish contingent at Pride in London on Saturday 28th June. Did it bother me that it was Shabbat and that a mere three months ago, I would never have done anything other than eat, sleep, read and perhaps pray if I was with others who were praying? Not particularly. I walked there, and went without money on my person, but otherwise I allowed myself to enjoy the atmosphere. I still celebrate Shabbat, but I do it in my own way. It’s my Day of Rest from the rest of the week–I set the day aside for doing what makes me relaxed and happy and relates in no way to the grind of the working week. Nothing could fit that description better for me than going to Pride and publicly celebrating my LBGT identity.
What a Shabbat! What a celebration! Being immediately surrounded by other LGBT* Jews, and beyond them 30,000 of my non-Jewish LGBT* family, the celebratory atmosphere wasn’t even dampened by the typical British rain. For a while I’ve wondered if Judaism means anything to me at all, but Pride showed me that it does. It felt so liberating to be able to march as an out-and-proud bisexual and an out-and-proud non-religious but committed Jew, and I was grinning from ear to ear as I responded to the Jewish volunteer who hailed us as we passed, heads held high: ‘A good Shabbos to you too! Happy Pride!’
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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, Noach Dzmura examines Parshat Matot, taking a careful look at vows and accountability.
I want to discuss three things regarding vows. Two of them originate in Torah, specifically in Parashat Matot, one originates with our Sages, in approximately 600 CE. The first point I want to make note of in our parasha is that vows count as a special kind of law between G-d and an individual. The second (also from the parasha), is that men could annul vows made by women. The third (from our Sages as ritualized in the prayer Kol Nidre) is that vows between an individual and G-d are annulled each year on Yom Kippur – annuled before they happen, thus rendering redundant any later annulment of women’s vows by men. I’ll conclude by showing how this chain of events took the teeth out of patriarchal oppression of women’s power to be held accountable for her own actions, and left authority and accountability in the hands of each one of us.
All vows between God and an individual are binding. We hear it in this week’s parasha: “If a man makes a vow to the Lord … he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” (Numbers 30:3) and later in Deuteronomy 23:22: “When you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not put off fulfilling it; for the LORD your God will require it of you; and you will have incurred guilt.”
I understand from these verses that vows are important and powerful speech acts in a tradition that reveres the generative and binding power of speech. If I vow that I will do a thing for G-d, my word is my bond.
Parashat Matot tells us that not only vows with special formulas (such as the Nazirite vow in Numbers 6), but any vow (nader) or oath (hishba) is granted the force of law. While most halacha is universally applied, vows and oaths are individual. Vows are halacha for one.
The second thing I want to talk about is that, also in this parasha, a father is granted the right to annul any vow made by his daughter, and a husband is granted the right to annul any vow made by his wife. A widowed woman is the only woman free to stand accountable to her own words. In a society where “father” and “husband” are roles that may only be played by men, and “daughter” and “wife” may only be played by women, this ability to control an act of speech sets up a gender hierarchy with men at a higher rung than women.
I find in this passage the birth of the blues. One of a woman’s literal powers of speech in this patriarchal environment is stripped away. This right granted to men who play certain roles in relationship to women reinforces the idea that a woman serves a man before she serves G-d. Orthodox apologists tend to paint the idea of woman as man’s “helpmeet” sympathetically (“ezer knegdo” in Genesis 2: 18 and Genesis 2:20); a helpmeet, in these apologetic terms, is a woman serving alongside her man; they function as a team, a well-oiled machine. But this parasha shows who really dominates this “partnership.” He controls even her speech; this is not “equal and opposite.”
The third thing I want to talk about is the contradictory but also true (since the ninth century CE) idea that all vows for the coming year are annulled before they are made. That is to say, all vows between a human and G-d are rendered invalid and without force every year at Yom Kippur during Kol Nidre (“All Vows”). The text of the prayer we say to render vows invalid goes like this:
All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. “Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our personal vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths.” (-High Holiday Prayer Book, Hebrew Publishing Company, NY, 1951)
The prayer refers only to vows made between an individual and G-d, and explicitly does NOT concern vows between between two people, or any other sort of human to human vow.
So now what we have is this: vows are hugely powerful—but essentially impotent—speech acts. So the right to annul a woman’s vows isn’t much of a “right” at all. Given the annulment of all vows at Kol Nidre, the right-to-annul granted to husbands and fathers in the Torah would sound something like this: “You know that vow you made that G-d annulled? I annul it too. So there!” It’s a sort of redundant veto power that renders an already impotent vow even more impotent.
But this is a facile reading of a complicated set of texts with a lot of history behind them. While I am glad to demonstrate a simple reading through which specific patriarchal texts are rendered impotent, I remain troubled by the power relationship outlined in this parasha. As I understand the human community, no one has the right, the obligation or the authority to interfere with a vow between an individual and G-d. I think the parasha, in combination with the Kol Nidre prayer, sets up a situation where a male authority is established in Torah and then revoked by the Sages. Read together, the two texts effectively cancel one another out. Through this move, the Sages effectively take the teeth out of this instance of patriarchal oppression and implicitly place the authority and the obligation to vow our individual relationship with G-d, upon the shoulders of each individual. I think the text, read in combination with the Kol Nidre ritual, generates a subversive message that says, “You are accountable to yourself, your God, and your community. Though someone might annul your vow, you must keep it anyway. It’s between you and me. Anyone may try to mediate our relationship, but none can succeed. You are free. Your words are powerful truths.”
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