Rabbi Lisa Edwards, of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), offered these words last week as leaders from day schools across Los Angeles came together to discuss concrete strategies and tools for creating more LGBTQ inclusive institutions at the Keshet Leadership summit in LA.
We come together in the midst of our annual study of the Book of Genesis, with its many examples of the presence of LGBTQ people—of alternative family structures and gender non-conformity. I thought to mention a few examples, in the hopes you’ll take opportunities to study these and others later on.
First, consider Sarai, matriarch of our people, who while unable to get pregnant, suggests that her husband Avram have a child with a surrogate (her handmaid Hagar). Our first alternative family structure—not only surrogacy, but one dad and two moms.
By the way, one of our Talmud sages, without a hint of irony or distress, amidst a discussion of the mitzvah of parenting, takes note of the long years of infertility of Sarah and Abraham, and suggests that our matriarch and patriarch appear to be tumtumim (people of indeterminate gender).
Later, and again without criticism, the Torah and our tradition show us there has always been gender non-conformity. Consider Rebekah when first we meet her in Chayei Sarah—how “butch” is Rebekah!—strong enough to hoist bucketful after bucketful of water to water many camels.
And then Rebekah and Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau, whom we meet in Toldot, remind us that there have always been boys who present more “macho” and boys who present more “sissy”—consider the rough and tumble hairy hunter Esau—“a man of the outdoors” (25:27)—twin but certainly not an identical one, to his smooth, mild brother Jacob, who prefers to stay at home and try vegetarian recipes (red lentil stew, for example, 25:29).
Or, in the Genesis stories still to come, consider the children of Jacob:
How Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, “went out to see the daughters of the land” [34:1]. Did she “go out” to see the “daughters” or did she “come out”? We know nothing of what Dinah thought or felt or intended or did on her visit. She never speaks a word in Torah, and we don’t know what eventually became of her. We do know that when she ventured forth, away from home, to visit other women, Shechem, the Hittite prince, “saw her, took her, lay her down and raped her.” [34:2]
How many women and LGBTQ people today find themselves unsafe to venture forth alone anywhere in the world? And how many lesbians have been rudely told or violently “shown” that their attraction to women is only because they need a man to show them “how it’s done”?
Why does Joseph’s coat of many colors make his brothers so angry? Were they simply jealous that Jacob favored their little brother? What if something else was going on? What if Joseph himself favored the coat because he was drawn to different colors? Because he liked its length or it felt like a dress to him?
What if his brothers bullied him for being too feminine and his father’s favor of the coat was a way of telling Joseph that, whoever he chose to be, Jacob would love him always?
It shouldn’t be surprising that in our tradition we find hints and even discussion that “queerness” existed, as well as a certain comfort level with it on the part of our ancestors, of our sages and of God.
What should be surprising is that so many of us are still taken by surprise at these suggestions.
Recently, I sat around a table with seven other gay men and lesbians between the ages of 55 and 71, and told them about Keshet’s Leadership Project. They all join me in thanking you for doing the work, for already understanding, already knowing, that a leadership summit like this one is necessary. We speculated a bit on what our younger years might have been like—how much better those years might have been (and later ones as well)—had our teachers and schools—especially religious schools—set LGBTQ inclusion as a priority.
“Do not oppress the stranger,” one of them said, we’re taught that over and over again but it doesn’t always register with people that a stranger could be your own child or your own parent or sibling.
“Do not hide yourself from your own kin,” we read in the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning, and when will everyone come to understand that hiding yourself isn’t only what a person who is “in the closet” does, it’s also what people do when they sense someone is in the closet but don’t open the door and invite that person to come out into open arms and open minds and open hearts.
We are told, said another of my friends, DO NOT harvest all the way to the corner of the fields, but leave some there so that the vulnerable ones among us might come and find sustenance, might share in the fields of plenty, might glean nourishment for themselves and not just “depend on the kindness of strangers.” This mitzvah is not only about physical sustenance, she said, though that’s vital; it’s also about spiritual sustenance—that’s why there are Jewish day schools; and it’s also about emotional sustenance—if you are asked (either subtly or outright) to deny or ignore a core part of yourself each time you enter your home or shul or school, how long before you’d stop trying to come in at all, much less stay in?
“Diversity is what we all have in common,” someone said last night. Diversity is what God created and delighted in from the first week of creation and ever since, saying gleefully over and over—ki tov—how good is this, and even tov ma’od —how very good indeed! So shouldn’t we, created in God’s image, also embrace diversity and delight in it just like God does?
Indeed we should.
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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, Michael Sarid sees echoes of Noah’s behavior after the flood among Holocaust survivors – and those who lived through the AIDS crisis.
Imagine that you are alone in the world. A monumental calamity has destroyed life as you knew it.
Your friends and community? Gone.
Your home and possessions? Gone.
Your frames of reference, your very identity? Gone or, at least, forever transformed.
How do you go on? How do you reconstruct a life for yourself? Is there no one to help or guide you? To comfort you when your nightmares of the devastation become unbearable? Why did you survive when so many others perished? Your sense of loss is so overwhelming that you feel paralyzed. You may even feel, perhaps subconsciously, responsible for the destruction. Continue reading
The Torah is strewn with transgendered hearts.
How can that be true? The Torah, as we know, is not written for or about transgender people, and in any case, “transgender” is supposed to be a noun or adjective, not a verb, an umbrella term for the millions of people whose gender identity or expression is more complicated than “male” or “female.” “Transgender” gathers gender-complicated people into a broad, simple category – the equivalent of “African American” or “Latino” – and implies that our identities, like those of other minorities, are a matter of fact that is not up for discussion. But though “transgender” has real advantages for describing ourselves to others, for many of us who identify as transgender, identity is an often-messy, ongoing process, not a simple, settled fact. For me, “transgender” isn’t just something I am – it is an active, terrifying, exalting process of unmaking and remaking a self that will never quite fit established categories of gender or identity. 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, Rabbi Jill Hammer takes comfort in the promise of eventual redemption in Joseph’s bones.
Joseph is a popular biblical character to “queer” — because rabbinic midrash claims he curls his hair, paints his eyes, and is as beautiful as his mother, Rachel (Genesis Rabbah 24), and also because he is one of the rare biblical men known for not sleeping with a woman (the lovely wife of Potiphar, who attempts to seduce him). But it’s not the living Joseph I want to queer — it’s the dead Joseph. Joseph’s bones, to be exact.
At the end of Parashat Vayechi, the very end of Genesis, Joseph lies dying. He has moved his entire family to Egypt to save them from famine, and he has rescued the whole land from hunger. Though his father, Jacob, was buried in Canaan, Joseph will be buried in Egypt. He is, after all, an Egyptian vizier. However, Joseph commands his family to take his bones with them when they eventually leave Egypt and return to the land of Israel: “When God has remembered you, you shall raise up my bones from this place.” (Gen. 50:25) 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, Mijael Vera considers what the Torah’s careful documentation of Joseph’s unusual wardrobe might reveal.
In this week’s portion, we return once again to the story of Joseph – a story in which the connecting thread shows that whatever is normally deemed absurd comes to happen and in which literal and symbolic boundaries are repeatedly crossed. The servant (Joseph) becomes master, and the master (Pharoah) bows down to the servant. But it is in the psychological realm that boundary-crossing is most significant, for it is through a deep psychological analysis of Joseph that we come to truly understand him. 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, Maggid Jhos Singer looks at Joseph’s reunification with his brothers as an example of the profound messiness of the Jewish concept of holiness.
While waiting on the schoolyard the other day for my kids to get out of their classrooms, I was chatting with a little clutch of fellow parents, none of them Jewish, when the issue of my working as a Jewish Spiritualist entered the conversation. One of the parents said something like, “It must be nice being so, well, you know, holy, you know, so spiritual and everything, you must feel really, uh, so peaceful.”
I could feel my face take on a look of confusion and was aware that my head had slowly tilted, dog-like, to one side. I wanted to say, “Are you on crack?!” But, being so spiritually evolved, I managed to just grunt a little and then, mercifully, the bell rang and all chaos erupted in the form of children streaming away from their day of state-imposed confinement, effectively ending the conversation. 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 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, Karen Erlichman connects Joseph’s prophetic dreams with his inner moral compass, and urges queer Jews to remain similarly true to their inner selves.
They saw him from afar, and before he came close to them they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes that dreamer [ba’al ha’chalomot]! Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘a savage beast [chaya ra’ah] devoured him.’ We shall see what comes of his dreams!” —Genesis 37:18-20
This week’s parasha, Vayeshev, focuses on the story of Joseph, a dreamer and a visionary who was reviled and exiled by his own siblings. He shared his spiritual gifts with those around him, risking his own life to speak Divine Truth. Guided by an inner spiritual compass, Joseph’s clarity of vision and purpose guided him in every moment, even when faced with an unrequited offer of seduction from a woman, or a near-death experience at the hands of his own brothers. 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, Miryam Kabakov examines Biblical examples of co-parenting, looking for lessons that LGBTQ families can learn from today.
Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last.
The passage from this week’s parsha (parshat Vayishlach) gives us a picture of a complicated family. If you think you have a complex living arrangement, look at Deena’s home. There are four mothers, one father, and twelve half- or full biological siblings. In this family, there was surely a lot of de facto co-parenting going on and today might be considered “alternative.” If it does take a village, this family has it made in the shade. But at the same time, it seems as if the matriarchs and patriarchs are in the dark about how to navigate family dynamics. Their lives are fraught with jealousy, deceit and one-upmanship. Rachel and Leah treat having children as a race to the finish. Yaakov’s hierarchical ranking of the mothers of his children doesn’t help: as the passage above makes clear, Yaakov is intentional in the placement of his family members as he readies himself to greet his long lost brother Esav. With vivid memories of Esav as a bloodthirsty hunter and fighter bent on revenge, Yaakov splits his camp. The reasoning is that if Esav does attack, at least half will survive. 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 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, Maggid Jhos Singer sees Jacob’s flight from his family in Genesis 28 as a unique coming out experience.
Do you remember the first moment you stumbled out of the closet? I don’t mean the first moment that you privately realized you were queer (and by ‘queer’ here I mean whatever differentness you might manifest that isn’t readily apparent to a casual observer), or even when you first acted on your queer tendencies. What I’m thinking of is the first moment that you actually stood in the light of day, as it were, being totally out—just you showing up fully, unhidden, true. You know, your first Meg Christian concert or the first time you marched in an LGBT Pride Parade, the first time you wore a yarmulke/kippah out in the general public, or the first time you corrected a stranger who assumed you were something that you’re not. Thrilling, wasn’t it? Scary, but really incredible, right? I remember feeling broken open and alive in a way that was totally new, awesome, and powerful. While it feels kind of corny to admit it, it really was a spiritual experience. 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, David Levy looks at Biblical twins Jacob and Esau through the lens of nature versus nurture.
Toldot, the name given to this week’s parasha, has many layers to its definition. Coming from the Hebrew root meaning “birth,” it literally means “generations.” Its use in the Torah introduces genealogical lists, and also marks the beginning of important stories related to the members of Abraham’s particular genealogical line – some translations even give the word as it appears at the beginning of this week’s parasha as “story.” Toldot is a particularly fitting name for this section of the Torah, because the story begins with the birth of Jacob and Esau, and hinges on both the relationship between the older and younger generations and the question of who shall lead the generations to follow.
To me, Parashat Toldot reads like a divine statement on the “nature versus nurture” debate: are our identities and destinies somehow inherent in us, or are we shaped by the environment in which we are brought up, formed by the generation before us? In queer culture, this debate at times looms large. Are we “born that way” or are there external factors that “make us gay”? And if we adopt children, will our nurturing homes be enough to bring up a next generation in our image, or will adopted children turn out like their birth parents…whoever they might be?
While these questions may at times feel like irrelevant cocktail conversation, they also have a sinister side. If it turns out that queerness can be genetically predicted, will narrow-minded potential parents terminate pregnancies rather than bear queer children? If research points toward environmental factors, will it only fuel “ex-gay ministries” that attempt to “rehabilitate” queer people from their lifestyle?
In attempting to study the question of “nature versus nurture,” researchers have often looked to families with twins, particularly identical twins. After all, if twins share DNA and are brought up together, that’s as reliable a control group as one might hope to find. Whereas if twins are brought up separately, the influence of “nurture” might become more evident.
Now the twins in this week’s parasha – Esau and Jacob – are not identical, in either looks or temperament. Esau is a ruddy, hairy hunter; his younger brother a mild-mannered, smooth-bodied man. Their differences manifest themselves almost at the moment of conception, struggling in their mother’s womb. They are born fighting – Esau coming first with Jacob clutching his heel – and their relationship remains stormy well into adulthood. Even God affirms their nature, telling their mother Rebecca during her pregnancy “the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)
The first story the Torah offers us of the boys’ later life involves Jacob bartering Esau’s birthright in exchange for stew. Jacob is cunning, seizing the opportunity with no sign of premeditation. Sounds like a case for nature, no?
When we meet up with the brothers again, a similar story of Jacob stealing the blessing of his father from Esau unfolds. Only in this story, Jacob doesn’t act with the same initiative and cunning. This time, Jacob’s mother Rebecca orchestrates the entire affair, telling Jacob exactly what to do in order to trick her husband into blessing her favorite son instead of his. Rebecca’s plan involves not only cooking, but also grooming and clothing, along with a solid command of the cultural issues at play…in short, she’s practically a one-woman ancient Near Eastern “Queer Eye.” When Jacob protests that Isaac might not be so susceptible to Rebecca’s plan, she shuts her son up with a quick “Just do as I say.” (Genesis 27:13)
The whole birthright-stew exchange suddenly comes into a sharper focus after witnessing the skill in Rebecca’s plan and the way she dominates her son. Perhaps Jacob was able to seize that opportunity so quickly because Rebecca raised him. Exposure to his mother’s example would surely have sharpened Jacob’s acuity in such situations. Perhaps he was nurtured to be as he is.
But when two stories that are so similar exist side by side in the Torah, we can’t help but ask why. Why tell what is essentially the same story twice, if there’s not something to be learned from the contrast? In this case, I think a core lesson speaks to the futility of the nature versus nurture debate. This parasha presents two alternate versions of Jacob and Esau’s relationship, one colored by birth and the other by environment. Both turn out the same. Whether Jacob had it in for Esau from the womb, or whether he learned his behavior from his mother, shouldn’t affect what lessons we take from their interactions.
This lesson itself could bear repeating once in a while these days. When I think about the amount of money, energy, and talent being devoted to research into “gay genes” (and not, say, to curing AIDS), I have to wonder why. Whether we are born queer, become queer, or choose to be queer shouldn’t affect how we’re judged, our rights under the law, our access to appropriate health care, or our positive self-images.