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).
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.
This week on Kveller, Rita Collins told her story of falling in love, facing discrimination, growing her family, and getting married. She shared how “a wedding and its preparation can really connect you to Judaism,” and reflected on how her marriage helped her feel more at ease with both being gay and being Jewish.
So, a rabbi, a Hindu doctor, and two lesbians walk into a country club…
It’s not the start of a joke, but a few years ago people would have been laughing at the idea that this was the start of a wedding story.
My relationship began just a few days before Prop 8 passed in California (I had only been in heterosexual relationships up until that point). I remember driving on the freeway in Los Angeles and hearing the news that the proposition had unexpectedly passed and that gay marriage, which had been legal for four months in California, was now illegal. I wasn’t anywhere near ready to be married at that point, but I remember thinking to myself for the first time in my life: so, this is what bigotry feels like.
I had always supported gay rights and gay marriage, even before realizing my own attractions to the same sex, but I don’t think there is a way of truly understanding bigotry until you are the victim of it. I had been married to a man…I met him, we had a relationship, and one day we chose to get married, but now I wouldn’t have that right anymore, because I was falling in love with a woman. I am truly not a very emotional person, but I remember driving on the freeway that day and crying.
On June 20th, 2014, Rabbi Ellen Lippmann offered the following words of prayer at the UJA-Federation’s “Community Conversation on LGBTQ Engagement,” a conference convened to discuss ideas of LGBT inclusion in Jewish institutions.
I am here because I am a lesbian, a Jew, a rabbi who sees Jews as my people and LGBTQ people as my people. So my partner gets to say, often, that she thinks a man and a woman together are intermarried. I am here because my partner and I celebrated our 30th anniversary this winter and could only get married 3 years ago.
I am here because there are a whole lot of issues other than marriage on the LGBTQ plate. And, I am here because I want as a Jew to say never again and know that I mean never will anyone obliterate any entire population AND I want as a queer person to say never again and know I mean there are so many things that should never happen again.
Never again a rabbinic student going through school in hiding.
Never again to be cast away by those who use the Bible to dismiss us.
Never again a college student jumping off a bridge to his death because his roommate mocked his sexual connection.
Never again a parent unable to be with a child because of misguided lawyers and enacted prejudice.
Never again a trans person attacked on the street just for being transgender.
Never again LGBTQ deaths due to neglect and abandonment.
Never again state-approved killing of LGBTQ people anywhere in the world.
Never again a gay man beaten by Jews on the street.
Yes to the wisdom, clarity, heart God places in human beings and yes to the times they are used for good.
Yes to marriage rights expanding across the country and across state lines, yes to love and yes to great sex.
Yes to the “It Gets Better” videos and to all the ways people encourage those who are losing hope.
Yes to LGBT centers across the country.
Yes to gay churches and synagogues that paved the way and yes to the amazing efforts of gay Muslims that will create a gay mosque and yes to every religious group that opens rather than closing doors.
Yes to activists and advocates of every generation who pushed hard and keep pushing.
Yes to the memory of Stonewall and yes to resistance.
Yes to UJA-Federation opening its doors even if it seems a little scary
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This past month, we shared stories of LGBT and Jewish Pride.
We heard from Jordan, who reflected on how his LGBT identity influences his Jewish identity.
We heard from Val and Alexandra, two students who are proud of being exactly who they are.
We heard from Ailsa, who showed how finding a community gave her the strength to find herself.
We heard from parents who support their children and raise them with Jewish values.
We heard how as we celebrate, we must also keep fighting.
And as we heard these stories—and many more—we saw the community watching, listening, and learning. What happens when Pride ends? How can we keep the idea of full LGBT inclusion on the mind and in the hearts of the Jewish community now that June is over?
What will you do to keep Pride alive for 11 more months?
As Pride month comes to a close, we asked a few rabbis to share their thoughts on their own LGBTQ communities. Let us know in the comments, what about inclusion work makes you proud?
DO YOU OFFICIATE AT SAME-SEX MARRIAGES?: Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz
In 2001, Temple Israel of Greater Miami, a prestigious center-city congregation, had fallen on hard times. In three decades membership had fallen from 1,800 households to 300 something. The pulpit was vacant. Career wise, it was a stepping stone to nowhere.
I had been in Miami 25 years, five as associate rabbi at a conventional suburban Reform congregation, 20 as director of the Havurah of South Florida, a progressive outreach program.
I was on sabbatical from the Havurah, considering my next direction, when friends brought me to Temple Israel. I saw a physical plant capable of becoming the great Jewish center South Florida lacked. Within the congregation was a nascent havurah, Ruach, formed by and for the LGBT community.
I began a series of interviews to see if there might be a match between me and the congregation.
One question surprised me, because it was asked by an old-time member. “Rabbi, do you officiate at same-sex marriages?”
I didn’t know what answer he expected. Perhaps he was from the old institution, resentful of the gay intrusion. Perhaps he was a member of Ruach itself. Either way, my answer surprised him and the others around the table.
“It’s easy to do a same-sex marriage,” I said. “The difficulty is same-sex divorce.”
More than a decade before, two women from the Havurah of South Florida had told me they would like to be married. We gathered the Havurah and presented the issue. Ultimately, we realized we couldn’t do a marriage unless we could also do a divorce. It took weeks to prepare durable parties of attorney and other legal documents to protect the union. We also prepared one additional document, an agreement, should there be a separation, to come back to a rabbi for a bill of divorce, to allow the individuals to marry another person, should they choose.
With this work done, we celebrated that marriage.
I described that incident to the interviewing committee.
“With that work done,” I said, “I will surely officiate at a same-sex marriage.”
I got the job.
WHY I’M PROUD: Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin
I am proud of my synagogue, Israel Center of Conservative Judaism, because our members don’t care about whether or not someone is gay or straight, or where they fall on spectrum. It is irrelevant and a non issue when someone walks in our doors. ICCJ is a place where people can flourish in a Jewish community, no matter their sexual orientation.
Looking back ten years ago, before we had any out LGBT members, we created membership forms with spaces for “Adult One” and “Adult Two.” This way if someone who identified as LGBT wanted to join our community, they would feel welcome from the first Shalom.
When I teach, I bring in Jewish LGBT writers, because they are part of the larger Jewish conversation. This way, the shul is a microcosm of the larger Jewish world.
Pride is not automatic.
It is not thrust upon us
like responsibility on a new parent,
nor handed to us
on a silver platter.
Rather, it is found.
Bubbling in the depths of our soul.
It grows like the first buds of spring
hindered by the weather
but strong none the less
until it blooms into a full flower.
Why am I proud?
I was proud to be queer
when I first came out
and finally felt myself telling the truth
after a lifetime of lies
as if I had finally brought freedom to myself
instead of shying away
from the life I could live.
I was proud to be queer
when my younger brother came into my room
and said, “Alex, when did you know you weren’t straight”
and after a discussion on my bed
left by saying
“Well, it doesn’t matter”
“I don’t know yet if I’m straight or not.”
I was proud to be queer
when a friend messaged me on Facebook
and trusted me with their biggest secret
“I think I’m bi”
and gave me insight into their life
that no one else knew.
I was proud to be queer
when DOMA and Prop 8 were repealed
and I sat with my friends
and cheered for a victory
that was finally mine
A victory that mattered in my life
A victory not only for me
but for everyone.
But more than just queer
I’m proud to be Jewish
I’m proud to have a community
that welcome me in my entirety
that doesn’t care who I love as long as I love my culture.
I was proud to be a queer Jew
when we discussed homosexuality in a Torah studies class
and the entire class agreed
that the Torah is not an excuse to discriminate.
And I am proud to be a queer Jew.
I am proud of the life I live
I am proud of the voice I’ve been given
I am proud of the fear I have destroyed
And I am proud to be me
in the purest, truest form
I am proud to be me.
Pride and community go hand in hand. For a good part of my life, I didn’t have much of either.
I grew up in a small suburb in Western Pennsylvania. I was shy, anxious, and uncomfortably Asian-American—not enough of one, too much of the other as far as some members of the Taiwanese émigré community were concerned. While my own parents didn’t give me too much of a hard time about being assimilated, I always worried about measuring up to expectations. And though I had a small group of friends, I never felt at ease with most of my classmates, who all seemed to know more than I did about pop music, shopping, and the opposite sex.
Keep in mind that this was in the ‘80s: before Ellen, before Will & Grace, before Michael Sam and Melissa Etheridge and others who were visibly out and proud. There were no role models where I lived, and no discussion of homosexuality. Looking back, I can tell I had crushes on girls. But had I been aware of it at the time, I probably would have burrowed far, far back into the closet—a closet I didn’t even realize I was in.
Breaking free of all that didn’t happen immediately, but moving to Boston definitely helped. I quickly met a slew of warm, nonjudgmental people who took me just as I was. Naturally, when I finally admitted to myself that I was gay and started telling my closest friends, none of them were shocked (or even surprised). Their love and acceptance gave me the confidence to keep coming out of the closet and to venture out to LGBT events, including the swing dancing class where I met my future wife.
Fast forward to 2008 … by then, my wife Kate and I had been legally married for four years. During that time I had experienced her family’s lovely traditions and learned some very basic information about Judaism. Since we both wanted more, we decided to look into joining Temple Emunah in Lexington, Mass., where Kate had previously been a member. I was more secure with my lesbian identity by then, but was still a little anxious about how the temple community would react to a same-sex interracial couple.
I needn’t have worried. As it turned out, Temple Emunah, through the efforts of its Keruv committee, had already been working hard on welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews as well as interfaith families. This, paired with the natural friendliness of the Emunah members we met, made us feel right at home. And when later on I decided to convert, our rabbi, Rabbi David Lerner, didn’t lecture me on how hard it would be and how much I would have to learn in order to qualify as a Jew. He instead expressed total enthusiasm for the idea and added, “And then you could get married under the chuppah!”
And that’s exactly what we did! In 2009, a few weeks after my conversion, Kate and I stood under the chuppah, and Rabbi Lerner married us in a special ceremony in front of our family and Temple Emunah friends. And five years later, we stood again on the bimah and received an aliyah in honor of our 5th and 10th wedding anniversaries: a public statement of love and acceptance that I, in my wildest dreams, would never have predicted.
When I reflect on that happy moment and on all the congratulations and warm wishes we received that day, I’m incredibly thankful for the embrace and support of our temple. I’m also grateful to all the organizations working toward inclusion, whether it’s Keshet’s efforts with the Jewish community or the many civil rights groups advocating for marriage equality and equal protection under the law. And I’m proud to belong to a faith that declares that we are all made in the image of God, and commands us to treat each other accordingly.
Introducing “Ask Asher” – Keshet’s new advice column! Each month we’ll be answering your questions and doling out advice. Have a question about LGBTQ life? Jewish life? LGBTQ Jewish Life? Ask Asher! Send your questions to AskAsher@keshetonline.org and you might be featured in our next column.
Q. “How can I celebrate Pride if I’m only out to certain people?”
Asher: You don’t have to be completely out to go to Pride. People of all sexual orientations and identities attend (including straight people), so you don’t have to out yourself if you’re not ready. Bring some friends who know for support, and have fun!
Q. “I don’t want to march alone at Pride. Is marching with Keshet at Pride a good first date?”
Asher: Bringing a date to Pride is like bringing a boxed meal to an all-you-can-eat buffet. If you’re in a relationship already, by all means, bring that lucky guy or gal, but if you’re single, wouldn’t you rather take a look at the spread first?
Pride is an excellent opportunity to meet people; bringing someone on a first date to the parade will seriously hamper your ability to engage with others, regardless of whether or not they are romantic prospects. If you can, organize a group of friends to march with, so no one will get jealous when you start to talk to new people. Oh, and the people at Keshet are awesome and super friendly, so if you need someone to march with, you should contact them. Have fun!
Q: “I just came out, and it’s a big deal. I don’t want it to be a big deal. I don’t want to march in a parade just because I’m gay. How do I deal with the whole idea of Pride month?”
Asher: No one is forcing you to march in any parade. If you don’t want to “deal with the whole idea of Pride month,” just don’t participate in any Pride-related activities or events. There is no “right way” to be LGBT; you can be as much or as little of a part of the community as you’d like. That said, your strong resistance to Pride is just another way of making a big deal out of it (which is okay, by the way).
So, how do you deal with being out? You don’t, because you can’t change it; you do the things you love with the people you love, and eventually you won’t feel like being out is such a burden. Happy Pride!
Q: “How do I involve my Jewish community in celebrating Pride?”
Asher: Try contacting the leaders of your faith community and ask them if they’d like to participate in Pride.
I recommend already having a specific plan in place (such as marching under a banner or holding a Pride-related service), so that you can present a full-fledged idea (which will be easier to get behind than just saying “Let’s do something for Pride!”). Good luck and have fun!
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