One of my family’s favorite Sarah Silverman routines plays on the Jewish habit of always claiming one of our own: “You know that self-hating, Jew for Jesus, Holocaust denier—Jewish!” So when I emailed an article about the recent Louisiana court decision against marriage equality to my son, a law student, I noted: “You know that anti-equality, out-of-step-with-the-times-judge?—Jewish!”
Why do we do this?
Why does it matter?
I think our instinct to do this is an expression of our emotional sense of connection, of family with other Jews. Our tradition names this in the value kol yisrael aravim zeh bazeh: all Israel is responsible for one another. This is often interpreted as meaning we should care for one another but of course it also means that we must not do harm to each other. This was one reason the Louisiana decision was so upsetting to me.
To be honest, I think another reason is because it can be easier to be angry and frustrated about the obvious injuries to LGBT Jews “out there” than to take the time, energy and risks to focus on the ones right here in my own community. I want to hold Judge Feldman accountable for his actions, not just as an American but as a Jew because what he did is contrary both to U.S. law (as evidenced in the other recent federal decisions) but basic Jewish values. I can and will write him a letter to express those opinons. But I don’t know Judge Feldman, I’m not Judge Feldman’s rabbi or part of his community, and that’s probably the most I can do.
On the other hand, there is a great deal to do in the Jewish places I do live—both physically and virtually—the people I know, the groups to which I belong, the organizations to which I give tzedakah. And this is the most painful reason I get so upset when LGBT Jews are injured and excluded by other Jews—that 5775 is approaching and we have so far to go. I feel heartbroken at the failure of Jewish communities that can raise and honor individuals with a great deal of Jewish information but apparently few Jewish values.
During this High Holy Day season we often discuss teshuvah, the process of returning through acknowledging and making amends for the harm we have done ourselves and others. Seldom do we hear about its counterpart, tochachah, “rebuke” or “reproof,” the obligation to tell someone who has harmed you about the damage they have done (for the origins of this practice see Lev. 19:17-18). The reason for this is twofold. First, the Torah, (as well as modern psychology) knows how bad it is for both the individual and the community if someone holds a grudge. Second, withholding the information denies the offender the opportunity to do teshuvah.
I know from personal experience that tochachah can be much harder than teshuvah. It can also place a difficult responsibility on the victim. I also know from personal experience that it can be like coming out. You can’t always predict the outcome but it does personalize the abstract—I am what LGBT looks like, I am the human being who was hurt by your actions.
So if, like me, you were upset by Judge Feldman’s decision as a Jew as well as an American, I hope you’ll think about tochachah on behalf of LGBTQ Jews this High Holy Day season, regardless of your orientation or identification.
It doesn’t have to be a federal court decision—as rabbinic Judaism so profoundly understands, the small, daily actions that make up our lives can have a world changing impact. Speak with your rabbi or other synagogue leaders about how homophobia and transphobia hurt you and the Jewish community and how you need to hear that message from the pulpit. Talk to educators about supplementary school and day school curricula and hiring policies. Check out whether the bathrooms and membership forms are non-gendered and, if not, do something to change them. And, of course, go to www.keshetonline.org for resources that can have a lasting and transformative impact throughout your community.
May the coming year be one of compassionate love and wholeness for all of us.
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This summer the UJA-Federation of New York hosted a Community Conversation on LGBTQ Engagement, a conference convened to discuss ideas of LGBTQ inclusion in Jewish institutions. Earlier, Keshet shared a prayer Rabbi Ellen Lippmann offered. We know you’ll appreciate the reflections of Jill Schreibman, a conference participant and long time LGBTQ advocate.
When my supervisor told me that UJA-Federation of New York was hosting a conference on LGBTQ engagement in the Jewish community, I was delighted that they were beginning a dialogue but couldn’t imagine how they would appeal to the vast range of experiences that would be represented in the room. Some participants had been working professionally in the LGBTQ community for decades while others were contemplating the topic for the first time. I came to the conference in the former category.
I was the founding director of Westchester County’s center for LGBTQ adolescents, a program of Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS) that opened in 1995. While I left that position many years ago, I stayed involved with the program as a member of the Advisory Board and was attending the conference in that capacity. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
When I arrived at the conference, which took place this summer, I was immediately struck by the number of participants. There must have been close to 200 people in the room. After casual conversations with several people, it was clear that UJA-Federation had convened a cross-section of Jewish New York, all with the common desire to begin the discussion of how to make the community more inclusive of its LGBTQ members.
The panels that opened up the conference spoke movingly from two different perspectives. The first group described their first-hand experiences within their Jewish communities, as LGBTQ individuals, and one parent of a gay son. The second panel was comprised of professionals, some of whom work at the cross-section of Jewish and LGBTQ circles. I appreciated the candor and courage of the first panel, but was truly riveted by the second.
I was fascinated when one of the panelists put the issue in a historical context and spoke about how New York’s Jewish and LGBTQ communities came together in the early years of the AIDS crisis and how LGBTQ inclusion is consistent with Jewish values. I was reminded that, while so much progress has been made in the past two years, we were at the conference on the shoulders of the courageous people who advocated and struggled for LGBTQ rights over many decades. It was a humbling, and I felt both the privilege to be living through these historic times and the responsibility to make a contribution.
Another panelist was the researcher whose team led the Jewish Community Study of New York. The data she presented was interesting but what was more thought-provoking to me was a point made by an audience member who identified as Orthodox. The study separated the data on the Orthodox community so that more accurate comparisons could be made between groups, and while the questioner said she understood this reasoning, she described her feelings around the risk of marginalizing the Orthodox community by segregating the data; certainly a feeling that many LGBTQ people can identify with. For me, that moment crystallized why such a conference was necessary: regardless of where one may fall on the political, spiritual or religious spectrum, the ability to truly understand what it feels like to be marginalized and the desire to be recognized and treated as equal is a profound place to begin a dialogue.
I was also moved by the discussions in the smaller breakout sessions around gender identity. I thought I was “sensitive” to many of the issues that a transgender person faces, until one of the presenters spoke of her experiences around her daughter’s bat mitzvah and how her family and community reacted to her new identity. Her courage and her willingness to be vulnerable about her experiences with a group of total strangers at the conference, was inspiring.
I look forward to continuing the work with an ever-expanding group of allies.
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As students return to college campuses, now is a great time to be thinking about how LGBTQ inclusive your Hillel can be. Here are several suggestions to make your Hillel more inclusive, welcoming, and a safe environment for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning individuals and families. Even if your campus doesn’t have a Hillel, you can adopt these practices for any student group. A special thanks to Keshet educator Suzie Schwartz Jacobson for helping to compile the original version of this guide—which can be found on the Keshet website.
Create Inclusive Policies:
Both current and potential LGBTQ students, as well as LGBTQ staff and faculty members, need to know that your Hillel values equality, and is committed to protecting against discrimination and harassment.
By mentioning this commitment in your existing policy documents or creating new language, you will communicate a commitment to equal treatment for all. For example, you should have a comprehensive anti-bullying statement for students and also inclusive anti-harassment Human Resources policies for staff. Click here for sample language for different anti-harassment policies and inclusivity statements. The statement should be easily available on your website, printed marketing materials, or other communications where fit.
Let the Campus (and the World) Know About Your Commitment to LGBTQ Inclusion:
Even if you think it is obvious, explicitly state in marketing materials, on your website, and other communications that your Hillel welcomes LGBTQ students. This will go a long way in letting potential students know that Hillel is a safe space for them, and letting all other constituents know the values of your institution.
Educate Yourself and Others on LGBTQ Terms:
Oftentimes one of the greatest challenges for non-LGBTQ people in talking about LGBTQ issues is uncertainty regarding language and vocabulary. As many terms are new, or are used differently by different people and in different contexts, people are sometimes uncertain and embarrassed to enter the conversation for fear of being wrong or of inadvertently hurting someone’s feelings. Click here for a list of LGBTQ terms and definitions.
When Planning Icebreakers or Small Groups, Do Not Automatically Group Students by Binary Gender (male or female):
It is sometimes an impulse of staff and students alike to group students based on binary gender (male or female). However, this is problematic for several reasons:
- It renders gender non-conforming or transgender students invisible, by assuming binary gender and categorizing students without consent;
- It encourages students to view gender as an either/or category, which reinforces stereotypes; and
- It discourages students from branching out and exploring friendships and experiences beyond their assigned or assumed gender.
Consider asking students to count off, or divide them alphabetically or by birthdays instead.
Create Programming that Addresses Jewish LGBTQ Issues:
Our commitment to the inclusion of LGBTQ Jews is not just a secular value, but a Jewish value. When appropriate, integrate LGBTQ issues and topics into your programming in order to demonstrate how inclusivity is essential to our Judaism. Going beyond the prohibitions in Leviticus, Judaism says much about positive sexuality, gender, and how to treat all people with respect.
- When discussing Jewish ethics around love and sex, do not just refer to heterosexual dating and marriage, but include a full spectrum of relationships and ways to experience human love.
- When studying Torah, understand the text using an LGBTQ lens. One way to do this is to use our book Torah Queeries, which provides an LGBTQ reading of each parasha or our Torah Queeries online database. You can also introduce or bring in LGBTQ scholars who interpret Torah from an LGBTQ perspective (Here is an example from Dr. Joy Ladin, and one from Rabbi Steven Greenberg.)
- When studying Jewish history, include the history of LGBTQ Jews.
Another tangible and easy way to start a conversation about LGBTQ inclusion at your Hillel is to share Keshet’s Seven Jewish Values for Inclusive Community poster or handout with your students. Hillel and Keshet partnered to create this special, co-branded version in the hopes that every Hillel will display these posters on their walls and use them in student programming. This resource can be printed and included in materials for new staff and student leadership, encouraging the issue of LGBTQ inclusion–and what it means to be a welcoming and inclusive community more broadly–will be emphasized on your campus right from the start.
These are just a few examples of the many possible ways to teach about LGBTQ and Jewish topics. What steps are you taking to make your campus a safe and inclusive one?
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Last week our Boston community sat down for a conversation with Ayala Katz, mother of one of the victims of the 2009 Tel Aviv LGBT youth center shooting. Jayne Guberman, a founding member and mentor for the Keshet Parent & Family Connection, moderated the conversation with Ayala about their shared experience parenting LGBTQ children, Ayala’s fierce LGBTQ rights activism in response to her son Nir’s tragic death, and the strength she and her family draw from one another.
I’m not one to think that spaces are inherently holy… as people who have davvened (prayed) in bars with me know full well. Synagogues are only as holy as their actions and impact prove them to be.
I’m a rabbi at this congregation, but I’m also an individual who was raised as a little brother to someone who grew up in a Jewish community in which he couldn’t share his identity until he left.
If only he could have found a time machine and flown back to future to the present, because of Keshet, he wouldn’t have had to play “catch up” on all the love that he lost from the Jewish community.
A teacher of mine (the great Jewish liturgist Dr. Larry Hoffman) taught me to think of Judaism not just as a “religion” or a tribe, not even just as a people, or a people – but as a conversation. Judaism is a Conversation.
I wanted to just open this Conversation with a word of Torah, from our Scripture – because I think it has everything to do with why we’re here. The word of Torah from this week’s portion pertains to memory.
It’s in this week’s parasha, parashat Ki Teitzei, we encounter a famous and disturbing mitzvah. Deuteronomy 25:17 reads: “Zachor eit asher asah l’cha Amaleik baderech b’tzeitchem mitzrayim…” “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt. How, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.”
Our parasha is saying to us: remember what happened to your people, at the very point at which you were most vulnerable! And when are we supposed to remember this horror?
Our text continues: “V’hayah b’haniach Adonai Elohecha l’cha mikol oy’vecha misaviv…” “When the Eternal your God grants you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal is giving you as a hereditary portion you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
When are we to remember? When we are… home. Safe.
This space, Temple Israel, is as safe a space as any. And still it’s mandated that when you’re feeling safe, when you’re protected, THAT’S precisely when you are to remind yourself about your vulnerable past. Perhaps that’s because we know that if just “sit back and relax” and let the story of today happen without our voice and our past, then ignorance and hatred will start growing like weeds.
In Judaism, we don’t have a word for history. Today the Hebrew word for history: HISTORIA. (The first phrase I learned in my year of study in Jerusalem was “zeh lo big deal!”). History is what happened in the past and it remains in the past. It’s passive. In Judaism we have ZIKARON, memory. Memory is something entirely different. Memory is ACTIVE. What distinguishes memory from history is that it’s wedded to responsibility.
Memory is how we carry our story into the future. Memory enables us to hold and preserve a tragic past in our heart and then with our hands build a future that changes the story, that adds healing and wholeness to the narrative that will be read about us in ages to come.
Simply put, we are at our best when we are champions of memory.
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that we – Temple Israel and Keshet – are currently in a state of mourning. Just yesterday we observed here a funeral of a beautiful human being named David Passer. A champion of Keshet, a leader at Temple Israel, and the Executive Director of Shir Tikvah in Weyland. David and his husband Marc made history – and memory – when they courageously became the first same-sex couple in our Commonwealth to join a Temple community as a family.
Many of us sat Shiva yesterday or today at Shir Tikveh. I lift this up because if it weren’t for David’s memory, the Conversation that is Judaism here in Boston and the Commonwealth might still be years behind where it is now. That’s because David was a champion of memory. Keshet is a big open tent filled with champions of memory; folks embracing memory to transform the world as it is into the world as it should be.
We are blessed to be having this Conversation – a conversation about equality and inclusion, about what love really looks like, a conversation about hope.
A special thanks to Temple Israel Boston for partnering with Keshet for the event and to our cosponsors: ADL New England, CJP – Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation, Congregation Kehillath Israel, Eshel, Family Equality Council, Gann Academy, GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders), Greater Boston PFLAG, JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Boston, Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston, New Israel Fund, Prozdor & Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston.
Visit www.keshetonline.org/supportfamilies for more info about our program for parents and family of LGBTQ Jews.
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Q: What do I do if my rabbi is against my involvement in the LGBT community?
Asher: You do whatever you want. Your rabbi doesn’t own you, and he or she certainly does not have the final word regarding your Judaism and how you express it. Try exposing your rabbi to some great literature on the subject. If your efforts are failing and you feel that the situation has stagnated or even deteriorated, you can find a new rabbi who is LGBT friendly. Good luck!
Q: In my Jewish community, I’m always known as the “gay kid.” In my LGBT communities, I’m always known as the “Jewish kid.” How can I own both identities at the same time?
Asher: People tend to differentiate between others by the qualities that most stand out; the things that make others unique, so it’s only natural that when you are the only “gay kid” or “Jewish kid” in a group, you will be associated thusly. You should also be aware that by asking this question, you are doing the exact same thing in reverse – you are generalizing these groups (which is not a bad thing). This question reminds me of a friend of mine from college; she was the only girl in her town who shaved her head, and that was her identity. When she arrived for freshman orientation, there were five other girls in her class with shaved heads, and she experienced an identity crisis. She learned eventually, like most people, that what makes you unique is ALL of who you are, not one particular piece. So, just be yourself, and stop being so hung up on how you are being perceived or the labels with which you are being associated, because in the long run, it doesn’t really matter as long as you’re being treated with respect. In time, you may stop caring so much, which is ultimately what your question is about.
Q: How do I navigate the Hebrew language – where everything has a strict gender – when I’m not willing to identify as one gender or the other?
Asher: Ah, the strict gender binary of the Hebrew language… Unfortunately, even as a Hebrew speaker living in Israel, I don’t have any answers that will satisfy you, as there is no real solution to your question. I know some people who choose to interchange masculine and feminine pronouns, but I’m afraid the Israeli population is not so forgiving. They will correct you. Every. Single. Time. Spend your energy raising awareness about these issues of gender, since the current Hebrew pronouns are rather fixed. Be’hatzlacha – good luck!
Q: I keep hearing “it gets better.” I’m not so sure. Does it?
Asher: For me it did. For my husband it did. For all of my LGBT friends it did. That said, there is really only one way to know for sure if it will happen for you, and I strongly suggest sticking around to find out. Good luck!
Q. I read your last column, thank you! Now I’m wondering… who is Asher of Ask Asher?
Glad to introduce myself. My name is Asher Gelman and I am the Artistic Director for The Stage, Tel Aviv’s premier English-language performing arts organization. I hold a masters degree in Fine Arts from The George Washington University in Dance, and two bachelors degrees from Bard College in Dance and Theater. I made Aliyah to Israel in 2006, where I live with my husband, Mati.
I have been doling out advice for years, both solicited and unsolicited, so this column provides the perfect outlet for my talent for telling other people what to do; especially people I have never met.
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- And, don’t forget to send your questions to AskAsher@keshetonline.org!
With Labor Day in our rear-view window, summer is officially over. Now that school is back in session, here are a few LGBTQ inclusive lesson plans for your Jewish classroom.
Check out our suggestions for inclusive lesson planning with our easy-to-use collection of educational resources. You can find LGBTQ-inclusive lesson plans, resource guides and best practices for creating LGBTQ-inclusive camps, youth groups, and classrooms, as well as samples of educational programs created by other educators, youth professionals, and Jewish youth leaders.
If this is the first time you’re introducing LGBTQ inclusive material to your classroom, start by taking a look at how to include LGBTQ experiences and perspectives in your curriculum for all age levels.
Here are a few of our picks for each age group:
- Family Portraits and Bible Stories for pre-K through 1st grade will help students explore and affirm different family structures as they appear in the Bible and in students’ own experience.
- Take a look at What Does It Mean to be an Ally for middle school and high school students. This activity begins withashort text study of Talmudic teachings about communal responsibility. Students then explore together the role of an “ally” in creating change.
- For high school students, check out the First Adam. This lesson plan will guide participants towards being able to identify ways that they push traditional gender norms as they explore how how ancient and contemporary Jewish texts understand the first Adam to have had an ambiguous gender identity.
- If you’re looking for a lesson plan for college and adult students check out Exploring the Rabbinic Sodom. This lesson plan was developed for Keshet by Rabbi Steve Greenberg, author of Wrestling with God and Men. This lesson takes a look at the “sin” of Sodom in the rabbinic tradition, using Sanhedrin 109b, Middat Sedom, and Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman) on the verse Genesis 19:5 as a way to engage participants in this exploration.
Let us know how you bring LGBTQ inclusion to your classroom!
Check out our resource library for additional lesson plans and resources.
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You’ll love this mother-daughter team who have joined the inclusion efforts at Sha’aray Shalom! Jodi Tolman and her daughter Chloe participated in Keshet’s Boston Leadership Summit, putting their commitment to LGBTQ inclusion work within the Jewish community into action. See what happens when Jodi (known as “mom”) and Chloe sat down to interview each other about the importance of LGBTQ equality. Read part 1 of their interview here!
Mom: Do you think it’s important for cisgender and straight people to get involved in LGBTQ justice work?
Chloe: It’s critically important. In order for there to be real change, we need everyone’s involvement, in some way or other. If it’s simply talking with family, friends, colleges, etc, about the issue – lasting, cultural change will require the vast majority of folks in our society to be part of the solution. Not everyone has to be warriors on the front lines. People can just be having conversations with their neighbors over their back fence.
Chloe: Do you think the work we’re doing, in our small and limited way, will have an impact?
Mom: I’m sure you’ve heard the Margaret Mead quote, but it’s the best way to answer your question. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Mom: Why did you want to get involved in LGBTQ inclusion work at Sha’aray Shalom?
Chloe: As VP of our GSA at school, I realized that the best way to foster social change is to penetrate every aspect of culture and society and work to bring bout enlightenment and awareness. Religion is a popular place for people to hide behind conservative ideology, but they shouldn’t. Most especially in the religious realm. I believe that mercy, justice, kindness, and freedom and dignity for all people are among the basic tenets, or should be, of a religious life.
Our shul can be much more demonstrably open and inclusive and I want it to be a place where everyone, including LGBTQIA+ people and their families can feel welcome and, most importantly, a sense of belonging. I would be proud to have helped that come about.
Chloe: What got you interested in working at the temple as a front for change?
Mom: For the reasons you just stated, but also because, as the center of our family’s spiritual life, it’s a logical place for me to want to focus my efforts in this cause. Also, I’m so excited about the work we’re doing with Keshet, and that at the end of the coming year, we will have implemented the Action Plan that we formulated at the Keshet Leadership Summit. At that time, CSS will have a place in Keshet’s fabulous Equality Guide which will enable LGBTQ folks on the South Shore who are searching for an open and inclusive shul to find us.
I’m also extremely excited about helping other religious institutions in the area who might want to open their organizations and create warm, welcoming and inclusive cultures, to follow our lead. Our work with Keshet will empower us to serve as a mentor congregation to others in our community, and it would be an enormous honor to support other groups and help them to do what we will have done.
Mom: Do you plan to carry on with the work you’ve been doing with the GSA at school and the task force at CSS when you get to college? What are your goals for your efforts at Sarah Lawrence?
Chloe: One of the reasons that Sarah Lawrence was my top choice of colleges, and that I am so thrilled to be going, is because they are ranked amongst the most LGBTQ-friendly campuses in the country. I think that much social change and progress is made on college campuses and that progress can be a springboard for change in society-at-large.
I will work with existing groups on campus and perhaps, if I see a need, form a new one. And just as importantly, I will lead by example by making certain, as I do now, that my actions, speech, opinions, deeds, etc, all demonstrate my belief that an equal and fair society for all people is the best kind to live in. It’s my way of working toward tikkun olam.
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You’ll love this mother-daughter team who have joined the inclusion efforts at Sha’aray Shalom! Jodi Tolman and her daughter Chloe participated in Keshet’s Boston Leadership Summit, putting their commitment to LGBTQ inclusion work within the Jewish community into action. See what happens when Jodi (known as “mom”) and Chloe sat down to interview each other about the importance of LGBTQ equality.
Mom: Chloe, what was the genesis of your interest in LGBTQ equality?
Chloe: I have always had a strong sense of fairness and have felt very keenly that people in this world should be treated equally and fairly. Unfair treatment of any individual or group has always raised my hackles, and I think that’s been due, in great part, to you and Dad teaching us about the profound importance of equality in our society and equal rights for all people. You taught us that it is our moral and human obligation to work for justice in our world.
As for my particular interest in LGBTQ rights, soon after we moved up here from New Jersey, my friend, Bridget (who has since legally changed their name to Quinn) came out in high school as trans and pansexual. I was not particularly well-versed in the issue at that time, and Quinn taught our friends and me a lot about LGBTQIA+ life, which very much sparked my interest in learning more and working for justice in the LGBTQIA+ community.
Chloe: How did you become interested in LGBTQ rights, Mom?
Jodi: I have had a passion for civil rights and social justice since I was a kid. In fact, when I was 11, I asked Meema if Jewish girls could become nuns! Without laughing (which I always appreciated her for!) she asked why I would want to become a nun. I answered that it seemed that they devoted their entire lives to helping others and that’s what I wanted to do with mine. She explained that I could live as selfless a life as I chose without becoming a nun and that was the beginning of my realization that I wanted to work in the world to help people. As I grew and matured, my interests were honed and my passion for social justice developed.
I had a very close gay friend in high school, who ended up dying of AIDS some years later, and nobody ever spoke about his being gay and what it must have been like for him. It was not talked about or even acknowledged back then, but I knew it had to be a painful and very difficult life for him. As I have watched LGBTQ rights come more and more into the fore throughout my life, it has become more and more important to me to fight for social justice in this community.
Mom: What are your thoughts about the current state in our country of LGBTQ equality and how things are progressing?
Chloe: I’m very happy to see that things are changing for the better, at least in our part of the country and world, but there is still a long, long way to go before we have true equality. We have to work hard to educate people and help “normalize” the LBGTQ community in the minds and experience of cisgender and straight people. I think if we keep pushing, we’ll get there.
Chloe: What do you think of the progress we’ve made?
Jodi: I was young in the 60’s but I know from my parents and family, and learning all about the civil rights movement, that it was an incredibly exciting time in the arena of social justice. I know that to watch real change be born back then, as prolonged and painful as the labor was, was extraordinary. LGBTQ rights and equality is the civil rights issue of our time, and to see the changes that are happening, and the speed with which they’re coming about, is one of the most exciting things I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. I absolutely agree, however, that there is still so much work to do and ground to cover, but we are making real, tangible progress. It’s thrilling.
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Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, our reflection comes from Rabbi Rick Brody. Rabbi Brody first wrote this piece in 2006, so the time-line might feel a little off. We still think this is a relevant look at Parashat Shoftim and the idea of a just society.
It is amazing how procrastination affects one’s work. I began drafting this d’var Torah several days ago, but with the whirlwind of summer classes and make-up-work (Rabbinical school is not as glamorous as it seems) I hadn’t finished it by my “goal” date.
I had begun to write about the work of Citizens to Restore Fairness (CRF), a group in Cincinnati, Ohio, dedicated to protecting the rights of GLBTQ people in their city. In 2004, CRF successfully led a campaign to repeal a 12-year-old ordinance that outright denied gay people protections from discrimination. In March 2006, the Cincinnati City Council approved an anti-discrimination law, which would protect GLBT individuals from losing their jobs or being denied housing just for being queer. However, an anti-gay group, disguised as one committed to values, blocked the ordinance by petitioning to have the issue on the ballot. This summer, equality activists from across the country descended on Cincinnati to prepare for the November 7th election and to fight this anti-gay ballot measure. Uniting people across lines of race, class, gender and religion, this diverse group of people was working to bring justice to their community.
Then, this morning, the phone call came. “We won!” my girlfriend yelled, as she came running into the room. “What???” I replied, confused. Was this the Hebrew Union College softball team with its two-win record? No. “Citizens to Restore Fairness won!” she exclaimed.
As it turned out, the people so devoted to “community values” felt that signing the petition with fraudulent names, such as that of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, was an honest way of achieving their goals. With the petition proven corrupt the organization proposing the ballot measure withdrew and accepted defeat. We had achieved our goal: justice for the residents of Cincinnati; fairness for GLBTQ people in the city.
How does this relate to the d’var Torah I was writing? This week’s portion, Parashat Shoftim, or “magistrates,” is about creating a just society. It is part of Moses’ closing speech to the Children of Israel. The Israelites are standing and waiting to go into the Land, but Moses is unable to go with them. Because of Moses’ bad behavior in the desert, he will be left behind as the Israelites go on to the promised land.
In Moses’ speech, he provides ethical and administrative norms to be followed by the community. A dominant word within this parasha is tzedek, “righteous” or “justice.” The word occurs six times in the Torah and 68 times in the entirety of the Tanakh.
What is justice? Many modern Jews, myself included, take pride in our faith’s commitment to social change. “Social justice” has become a sort of buzzword for young Jewish activists working in a variety of fields. As a Reform rabbinical student, I take particular pride in my denomination’s leadership role in certain areas of social justice. The idea of a just society is rooted in our most holy text, the Torah. According to W. Gunther Plaut, a leading commentator on the Torah, “no people gave as much loving attention to the overriding importance of law equitably administered and enforced as did Israel.”
What, then, does a just society look like for LGBTQ people? This week’s Torah portion says “they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18). Plaut suggests that this roots the ultimate administrative power in the people, rather than the king. This leads us to ask questions of our own lives. How can our leaders lead justly? How can we be leaders in our own community? How can the people create their own just society?
In Parashat Shoftim we are commanded “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice, you shall pursue,” Deuteronomy 16:20). The verb tirdof is in the imperative, commanding us to engage in the work at hand. Why does the word tzedek, “justice,” repeat twice? There is a Chassidic teaching that the word justice is repeated because “in matters of justice one may never stand still. The pursuit of justice is the pursuit of peace. Do justly so that justice may be engendered.”
We all must take a stand for justice wherever we see injustice taking place, not only for our own communities, but also for those in need of our support. The work of Citizens to Restore Fairness was accomplished through the work of people of all races, of many religions and across the entire spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is through embracing our diversity that we have the power to create change.
The words of Moses, whom the sages call Moshe Rabbeinu, or “Moses our teacher,” are instructive to all of us. Our Torah is our guidebook. Each year we read the text again, and each year it appears in a new light. Even though we have heard the stories before, they meet us where we are this year. Just as a parent lovingly guides a child towards the correct path, so too does our Holy text teach us. May we all be able to glean from its words the messages that will help us live our lives as better people and build a more just society: Ken yehi ratzon, may it be your will.
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We’re grateful to Ayin Weaver for sharing a behind the scenes look at the inspiration for her debut novel, Bleed Through. Bleed Through follows 4 families through 200 years of their history.
The title Bleed Through, is a painting term and metaphor for the layers of discovery experienced by the main character. Being an artist myself, I created Rita’s talent, perceptions and imagination using my own artistic gifts and skills.
I began writing this novel many years ago after a particularly difficult break-up. I had grown up listening to Jewish stories told by my parents, who themselves were first-generation Americans. They spoke Yiddish and English at home where I learned from intonation, the nuances of a culture that was at a crossroads. I also learned some of the cornerstones of Judaism, not that my parents were religious—they were more culturally Jewish. But they lived a Tikkun Olam sensibility—through their world view and progressive activism. While I greatly appreciated the outlook they inspired, it was not enough for me.
As I reached adulthood I had feelings of being in the wrong body—after coming out I dated women some butch, some fem—never quite being able to figure out a comfortable sexual identity. I was unaware in the 1960′s of any possibility of living as a different gender. I cut my hair, wore boys clothes, drove a cab, painted houses—did whatever possible to feel comfortable in my skin. Later, I began to search for a deeper spiritual understanding to find the root of the pain I felt.
What transpired was a spiritual journey that lay beneath the surface of my confusion. Slowly over the years I came to understand a broader soul connection with people I met and began to accept myself as having both a feminine and masculine side. I was able to integrate these feelings through my politics, art, parenthood, teaching and intuitive abilities. I began to write poetry, short stories, write down my dreams as well as sculpt and paint more. The more I gave myself permission to be creative, the more joyful and intuitive I became. I read books on history, religion, spirituality, quantum physics, mysticism and alternative medicine, the latter bringing me to the study of Reiki. In 2003, after training for many years I became a 6th generation Usui Ryoho Reiki Master.
I used my healing training, dreams, art, and many books and research on spirituality and history (including African -American, Native American, Irish and Jewish history) to write Bleed Through. My intent was to tell a tale that highlights the absurdity of prejudice. In someways, I feel it is a simple story of love and courage—a bit like my own. But it is also a way of looking at the issue of gender identity, sexual orientation, sexism, racism and anti-Semitism that may have a positive impact, that says we are one, and that for me comes full circle to what I learned a long time ago—Tikkun Olam.
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