Tag Archives: text study

Parashat Shoftim: Building a Just Society

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. 

Justice-shall-you-pursue-204x300It 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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Posted on August 25, 2014

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Silencing Abominable Language: Parashat Re’eh

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, Rabbi Seth Goren examines Parshat Re’eh and takes a look at the meaning behind the word “abomination.”

I have to confess that this week’s portion, almost through no fault of its own, kind of annoys me. It’s not the command to put false prophets to death or the requirement to tithe crops to the benefit of the priestly caste, both of which strike me as problematic, to say the least. My thoughts and frustrations are triggered by Parashat Re’eh’s mention of an abomination of significant proportions. No, not that abomination. That’s back in Leviticus 18:22. But it’s something that’s presumably just as bad. Yep, you guessed it: the camel, which, along with a whole host of other “unclean” animals, is dubbed an “abomination” smack dab at the start of Deuteronomy’s Chapter 14.

800px-07._Camel_Profile,_near_Silverton,_NSW,_07.07.2007Go figure, right? Who’d have thought that the camel, even with its bad breath, rank odor and penchant for expectorating, is sufficiently revolting as to be classified as abhorrent? It certainly isn’t something that I remember being taught in Hebrew school. But lest the camel feel singled out, the list of biblical abominations is a lengthy one. The word often slogged through translation and dragged into English as “abomination” appears biblically no fewer than 105 times in one form or another, denoting anything from a deceitful merchant to intermarriage, from a “haughty bearing” to a person who incites siblings to argue with each other. Biblical “abominations” like these are merely one thread in a broader tapestry of ancient purity laws, and the actions, events and objects that potentially run afoul of these laws are many and varied.

To be clear, I have nothing against camels specifically. Rather, my frustration stems largely from our present-day “abomination” amnesia and how all talk of biblical “abominations” has been condensed in modern religio-political discourse to one specific act alone: gay sex (which apparently also encompasses lesbic intimacy even though the Bible overlooks lesbian sex completely). Many anti-gay crusaders essentially take a censor’s pen to the Bible and black out portions they’d prefer to ignore, leaving a document that looks more like a Guantanamo hearing transcript than a holy book and hoping the rest of us don’t notice the difference. As an upshot, we find the Religious Right and other religious conservatives enjoying a perceived monopoly when it comes to interpreting a foundational text of American society, while those who have non-dogmatic perspectives have largely been silenced.

The irony, of course, is that those who would blind us to all but specific verses in the Bible, are precisely those who so often cry out as being the victims of “political correctness,” hate speech codes and the “thought police.” The rallying cry that “I can say whatever I want, whenever I want” is all too commonly heard from individuals who have little regard for the liberty of others.

Let’s set aside the proverbial “fire-in-a-crowded-theater” hypothetical and address this more practically and directly: to some degree, bristling at being told what types of language are unacceptable is understandable. As much as we can appreciate the importance of living in relationship with others, the thought of abdicating our chosen mode of expression is a latter-day abomination in and of itself, at odds with so much of what we treasure. The chilling effect from limiting certain types of speech has the potential to make us all come down with a case of the censorship flu. That said, comments about political correctness frequently aren’t, at their core, about free speech, free thought and free expression. For the sake of argument, I’ll concede that yes, a non-specific “you” generally may be entitled to call me an “abomination,” if “you” so choose. You can say that I’m a “fag,” a “sodomite,” a “faygele” or even the tamer, more clinical “homosexual.” You can say that I’m partially responsible for the 9/11 attacks, as the late Rev. Jerry Falwell did, or that I’m a causal factor in the death of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, as the  late Rev. Fred Phelps rants. You can say that I shouldn’t have the right to get married or that it should be OK to fire me because I’m gay. As a rule, you may have the right to say all of those things.

At the same time, I have the right to think that you’re a big jerk for doing so, to articulate that opinion and to react with some choice words of my own.

imagesI feel pretty comfortable in holding this way. Having the freedom to say something doesn’t bring with it the right to control how others hear it. It doesn’t mean that we make pronouncements in an echo chamber or that there are no consequences for what we verbalize. It means that each of us has a far-reaching right to say and think and feel autonomously, independently and individually; it applies as much to those who hear and respond as to the initial commenter.

This thinking is no less applicable in the context of our biblical examples. The voices of religious homophobia and deceptive reasoning may be deafening at times, but we have it within our power, to a greater or lesser extent, to manage our own reactions to them. Some may elect to engage in intellectual debate, consistently jumping to highlight the camel and other biblical “abominations” or leaping at every chance to demonstrate the hypocrisy inherent in a Leviticus 18:22-centric world view. Others are simply exhausted from having the same conversation over and over and over, feeling nothing but apathy for this discussion. Most of us live somewhere in the middle, periodically challenging misconceptions, at other times hitting the debater’s equivalent of a snooze button. Regardless of where we end up on the spectrum of possible responses, those who’ve imparted their biblical tunnel vision to the rest of us can’t restrict how we choose to express ourselves.

So maybe this week’s mention of the camel and other “abominations” can serve a more positive purpose. True, the passage can trigger the realization that certain verses of the Torah have been wiped from public consciousness. At the same time, it can also remind us that we can elect not to be silenced and that we have some choice in how we respond to others’ attempts to pull the (camel) wool over our eyes.

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Posted on August 18, 2014

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VeAhavta: And You Shall Love

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 weekChaim Moshe haLevi examines Parashat Vaetchanan, questioning how we prove our love for God. 

The Grapes of Canaan by James Tissot. Although the spies brought back a cluster of grapes so large that it took two men to carry it (Numbers 13:23), only two of the twelve brought back a good report of the land.

The Grapes of Canaan by James Tissot. Although the spies brought back a cluster of grapes so large that it took two men to carry it (Numbers 13:23), only two of the twelve brought back a good report of the land.

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.

__Tefillin Workshop2_Photo Jordyn Rozensky_Keshet (3)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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Posted on August 4, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Struggling with the Shabbos Bride

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.

472px-Marion_Davies_in_Bride's_PlayThis 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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Posted on July 31, 2014

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Parashat Devarim: Standing on the Other Side

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.  

Pride_2014_Rozensky (1 of 1)-14In 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).

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Posted on July 28, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Vows and Thou

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 weekJo 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.

The Daughters of Zelophehad (illustration from the 1908 Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons)

The Daughters of Zelophehad (illustration from the 1908 Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons)

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.

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Allegro Photography

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.

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Posted on July 21, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Soul of Each and Every Individual

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, Melissa B. Simon examines Parashat Pinchas and the question of who counts.This D’var Torah is dedicated to the Memory of Wendy Kanter, a true Woman of Valor.

In the summer of 2007, I worked in a large New York City hospital as a chaplain.

Each day we were given, from the central computing office, a long census listing each patient. They were reduced to a name, age, religion, sex and health insurance provider. In black and white on the pages of the list, the people disappear. Gone are their stories, their families and their histories.

To the computer, each patient becomes a number, but it is the chaplain’s job to turn the patient back into a person. We sit at their bedsides, listen as they cry and offer words of  strength. “Baby Girl” becomes Maddie, a vivacious infant with deep and wise eyes. Number 24601 is Grace, enmeshed in pain, but thankful to participate in a deep theological discussion.

In Parashat Pinchas, the Israelites in the desert conduct a census of the people. A great plague has decimated the Israelites and thirty-nine years after a census was completed in Parashat Bamidbar, it is time to recalculate the people. All of the adults over age twenty who went forth from Egypt have died, except for Caleb, son of Jephunneh, and Joshua, son of Nun. A new generation, one that did not know slavery, will enter the promised land.

torah_scroll2The Torah text calculates that there are 601,730 Israelites. More specifically, G-D tells Moses and Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, in Numbers 26:2 to “Take a census of the whole Israelite community from the age of twenty years up, by their ancestral houses, all Israelites able to bear arms.” Thus the census only counts those who are male, over twenty and able to fight.

There are two reasons for conducting the census this way: one is that the Israelites will soon wage war on the people in the land, specifically the Midianites, and they want to see how prepared they are to fight. Also, once the Israelites conquer the land, they will each be assigned different portions. G-D explains to Moses that the land will be given out by lot. “Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names: with larger groups increase the share, with smaller groups reduce the share. Each is to be assigned its share according to its enrollment” (Numbers 26:52-54).

What did this allotment look like? Rashi said that the land was divided into twelve sections according to size, reflecting the different populations of the tribes. When the lots were drawn, the sizes—miraculously—corresponded correctly so that each tribe ended up with a portion that met their needs. Nachmanides argued that the land was dived equally in size and then handed out. It was the tribes themselves that then divided up family portions according to size.

To both of these commentators, provisions were made to make sure there was a level of equity within the apportioning of the land.

Five brave women recognize an oversight and bring it to the attention of the leadership. When the land is doled out, a portion is given to each man for his family. However, Zelophachad, a descendant of Manasseh, a son of Joseph died in the wilderness and left no sons. He was not part of Korach’s rebellion and his daughters want to make sure that they receive his share in his name. They implore Moses, Eleazar, the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (27:4).

Moses brings the issue before G-D, the ultimate judge and G-D responds saying “The plea 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” (27:7). The Talmud teaches us in Bava Batra 119b that the daughters of Zelophehad were wise women for they spoke at an opportune moment. The Torah lists the names of the women, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, marking them as significant. Often in history, and elsewhere in the Torah, women’s voices are silenced and their names erased. In the book of Genesis, for example, Lot’s wife is not given a name and is merely called “ishto” “his wife.” In Parashat Pinchas, not only are Zelophehad’s brave daughters named, but they are given a voice and empowered to speak their minds.

The Daughters of Zelophehad (illustration from the 1908 Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons)

The Daughters of Zelophehad (illustration from the 1908 Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons)

They create legal change, which will then affect future generations of women. Their self-advocacy is backed by G-D; one cannot think of a higher complement.

The changing of the law of inheritance to include daughters is the last legality that Moses oversees. After viewing the land of Israel from the top of Mount Abarim, Moses hands over the leadership to Joshua. In Numbers 27:16 Moses says “Let G-D, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Eternal’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” Rashi explains that Moses added “Master of the Universe! You know the soul of each and every individual, You know that no two are alike. Appoint for them a leader who can relate to each and every one of them in accordance with his [their] individual spirit.”

While Parashat Pinchas began with a census that broke down the people into groups and abstract numbers, Rashi’s understanding of the change of leadership suggests that ultimately each Israelite was seen as an individual. Different ideas were respected both by the leadership and by G-D. And on the precipice of entering the land, the Israelites were given a leader who would be both a guide and a source of support.

Too often Queer people are viewed as one monolithic group, without regard for the beauty of our diversity. May we be blessed with leaders who understand our variety and see us as individuals. May we grow closer to a loving G-D who accepts each of us as we are. May we have the courage to speak out for what we believe in and find listening ears. And may we each live to view the Promised Land of equality and freedom.

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Posted on July 7, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Parashat Bamidbar: So Many Ways Not to be Counted

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, Abi Weissman examines Parashat Bamidbar and asks who is counted while reflecting on her own interfaith relationship.

torah_scroll2In Parashat Bamidbar, the different tribes take a census of their members. They counted the men who are over the age of 20. This portion also describes where Tribes should position themselves in relation to the Tabernacle. The idea of the first census resonates with me. I wonder what it feels like to be counted and to be left out.

Who is counted? And who is not? In the Parshah, all 603,550 men over the age of 20 who can fight are counted. In The Five Books of Miriam: A Women’s Commentary on the Torah, Ellen Frankel reminds her readers that the women and children are left out of this counting; the Levites are counted, but in a separate census. The “mixed multitude” that went with the Israelites out of Egypt are also not counted (Frankel 1996, p. 107). All told, Frankel counts about two million Israelites who left Egypt at the Exodus (1996, p. 107). Only a small portion of the total population counted in this census. This categorizing and organizing and numbering reminded me that I sometimes feel not counted because I am an integral part of a multifaith couple.

In the past and in the present in some synagogues, queer members are not fully accepted into their Jewish communities. We were or are invisible or linked with the what-not-to-do’s of the previous book, Leviticus. Currently, the Reform movement is comfortable naming the queer in our midst and granting us the rights once limited to heterosexuals. Queer Jews can be married to each other at most Reform and other shuls. We can be Rabbis. We can have liturgy that speaks to us. (For example, the new Siddur Sha’ar Zahav is an entirely LGBT-normative book). But as a Queer Jew in a multifaith relationship, I often do not feel the same respect or membership that other Queer Jews have been granted.

I fell in love with Melissa shortly after I met her, almost three years ago. I was drawn to her and yet, I felt that loving a non-Jew meant that I was, in a way, betraying my parents and the ways of my people. After all, as a child, I grew up knowing that I would “marry a nice Jewish boy,” and after I came out as a lesbian that I would surely “marry a nice Jewish girl.” Instead, I am troubled that I am engaged to marry a nice Shiksa, who is not only not Jewish but is a minister in a Christian faith and a Christian scholar.

I grew up with the idea that I will marry and that my partner and I will both be members of our synagogue. Instead, I am in love with a woman who cannot be a member of my synagogue as she is “actively practicing another religion.” She can attend services, and she does occasionally, but she can never be a true member. Whereas I can attend “for members only” events, she will never be invited. Melissa is listed as my partner in the membership directory. Melissa and I sit up late at night talking about religion and worship and the ins and outs of how religion plays a part in our lives. It is Melissa with whom I talk about my desire to have Jewish children and it is Melissa who daily encourages me to fully embrace my Jewish identity. Yet Melissa remains an outsider; and despite my active participation in synagogue life, I too have sometimes become an outsider in my own community.

I struggle with being counted. Being counted as a Jew can be reminiscent of the Holocaust where being recognized and numbered as Jewish was a prerequisite to being rounded up and slaughtered. To me, however, being counted has a different connotation. It is about being made visible – recognized. Melissa is a Christian and I am a Jew. Neither one of us wishes to convert, for we have each found a religion that speaks to us, in which we struggle to find our place, and with which we feel connected.

I long to stay connected to Judaism and to Congregation Sha’ar Zahav (San Francisco). When interfaith events happen, I often become excited and then, upon reading further into their text, realize that these events involve Jewish ritual and only Jewish ritual. I long for more multi-faith events where both Melissa and I can mingle our rituals and be around people who recognize the ways we are a stronger couple when both of our traditions are practiced and honored.

I am not perfect. After three years, I am still learning about how to be in a multi-faith relationship. While Melissa and I speak often about the future, I wish that there were a guide on how to be Jewish and connected to my community as a Queer Jew in a multi-faith relationship.

I wish that there were a place that I could go to talk about the situations I’ve encountered both at my shul and away from it. I would love to talk with others about how to respond to insensitive people who, when they learn that I’m dating a minister, ask when I am converting to Christianity or when she will convert to Judaism. I’ve also been berated for dating outside the Tribe. Fellow congregants invite me, in front of Melissa, to a “members only” event but they don’t invite her and they don’t explain why. At times like these, I feel pulled away from Judaism and from wanting to partake in congregational life. I feel a rush of sadness. I wonder what it will be like to have children with my beloved. I want them to feel like our family is welcomed into a Jewish congregation (and in addition, as a part of a Lutheran church).

And then, I’ve had some wonderful moments when I have felt dedicated to being a strong participant at my synagogue. I’ve felt known here and loved and supported by my community when I’ve had long meaningful conversations or experienced our religious rituals. I’ve felt challenged and encouraged and most of all, at times, I’ve felt seen and counted.

I am curious if you saw me at shul, how you would approach me? Would you welcome me to the bimah? Would you have my partner and I light the Shabbat candles like you do with other engaged couples? Would you welcome my future children? How would you treat my partner? And finally, I wonder (in a similar was as to how the tribes moved to where they stood in relation to the tabernacle) where I stand in relation to my Jewish faith and my community?

May there be a time when all those who identify as Jewish and ALL the ones who love them, feel welcomed and honored in Jewish communities near and far. Cain Yeherazon. May this be so.

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Posted on May 19, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Among LGBT Jews & Their Allies, Leviticus is a Dirty Word

Many LGBT Jews and allies find Leviticus to be challenging. Here is one rabbi’s reading of the passage. More can be found here.

Among LGBT Jews and their allies, Leviticus is a dirty word. And not just because of its two famous homophobic verses. There are many challenging issues with Leviticus. For instance, while we support gender equality, Leviticus establishes an all-male system of ritual leadership. While we affirm the equal worth of people with physical disabilities, Leviticus excludes them from the priesthood. And of course, while we celebrate the blessing and beauty in loving same-sex relationships, Leviticus prescribes the death penalty for gay men who have intercourse.

torah_scroll2So how do we work with a sacred text that is at odds with some of our deepest values–values that other parts of Torah affirm (like every person being created in God’s image)? For me, it starts with an approach to sacred texts that views them as human-created documents. Consistent with my Reconstructionist philosophy, I view the Torah as a record of our Israelite ancestors’ best efforts to describe their experiences of God and Truth.

The Torah contains tremendous spiritual wisdom as well as the spiritual errors of the people who created it. Seen this way, the Torah takes its place in Jewish religious life as the beginning of an ongoing process of spiritual discussion and discernment–but it does not have the final word on the subjects it addresses. When credible reinterpretations of harmful biblical laws are not possible, we dissent from those verses without abandoning our faith or our intimate relationship to Torah.

This is how I approach the anti-gay verses in Leviticus. I’m not persuaded by the attempts some have made to reinterpret Lev 18:22 and 20:13 to mean something other than what they appear to mean. Rather, I acknowledge my disappointment and anger at the suffering these texts have wrought, and I believe that our ancestors were mistaken on this issue. Similarly, I respond to other passages in the Torah that advocate things that modern liberal Jews openly condemn (such as the passages in Numbers 31 in which God and Moses commanded the genocide of all Midianite men, women, and children).

Yes, this makes me a religious Jew who “picks and chooses.” I believe that we have a moral responsibility to thoughtfully pick and choose, because as human beings we are all morally responsible for any harms we commit in the name of our religions. To quote a teacher of mine, “There is no ‘I was just following orders’ defense that excuses harms people inflict in the name of their religious beliefs.” Part of a thoughtful, liberal religious approach to Judaism is the process of studying our sacred texts, discussing them, and very thoughtfully picking and choosing our present day beliefs and practices in community with each other.

So, why am I writing about Leviticus for Keshet? Well, because, alongside the passages in the book that we are right to reject, Leviticus also contains spiritual riches that can help us in these times. For starters, Leviticus is the source of “love your neighbor (19:12).” Futhermore, Leviticus offers a model of economies and ecosystems operating in a way that ensures health for the land and fairness and compassion for the weakest members of society–quite a contrast to our self-inflicted plagues of greed and ecological degradation. Leviticus also understands that animals and human beings share a common life force, and that the act of taking an animal’s life for meat deserves awe and ritual–compare that with our inhumane and unhealthy factory farm system. And perhaps most remarkably of all: Leviticus calls on each of us to be holy because God is holy. How the ancient Israelite priesthood understood what creates holiness is different than how we understand it. But Leviticus reminds us of the importance of embracing the charge to try to figure out what it means to be holy in the here and now.

Studying Leviticus from a progressive religious Jewish perspective is frustrating and rewarding, alienating and inspiring. But it’s quite worth the workout!

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Posted on April 3, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Parashat Shemini: The Way of Strange Fire

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.

I love the Torah. I love it’s weird, dreamtime way of teaching. I love that one verse reveals something ugly and painful and the next verse is sweetness and light. I love this because it’s a true reflection of life as I know it – there are parts of life that are just plain horrible and others that are pure, stunning beauty, and sometimes they go hand in hand. The Torah gives this over without flinching, with no sense of contradiction, and with no apologies. The sweet and the bitter are marbled in the Torah, just as they are in real life. This week’s portion offers three such marbled verses: VaYikra 10:1-3. Here is the scene: After months of preparation, the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary the Israelites used after the Exodus from Egypt, has been built and we are about to conduct our first rite. Moses’ brother, Aaron, performs a couple of sacrifices, blesses the congregation, the sacrifices are consumed and then:

Aarons’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before HaShem an alien fire that had not been commanded of them. A fire came forth from before HaShem and consumed them, and they died before HaShem. Moses said to Aaron: Of this did HaShem speak, saying: “I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people;” and Aaron was silent.

Typically there are two reactions to this piece of text: 1) “They got what they deserved and so will you if you defy God,” or 2) “If this is the God you want me to worship, I’m outta here.”

Both of these positions seem dull and simplistic to me. The Torah is neither dull nor simplistic. Torah is complicated and challenging and invites us to think and feel deeply. It is trying to prod us into being partners with God, to bring about a time of repair and wholeness in our fractured world, by any means necessary. With that in mind I’ve tried to tease out some wisdom and guidance from this harsh and cryptic scene.

Reading this piece I think of the murders of Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena and Gwen Araujo. Year after year we have witnessed our queer children being consumed by fire. As a Jew, I’m familiar with this horror. And I’m also familiar with all the wrestling and grappling we have had to do to move past our tragedies. When we find ourselves witnessing incomprehensible destruction we have to ask, “What must we do to transform this banal act of violence into an affirmation of life?” Answering that question is the key to transcending human judgment so that we can enter into a full and deep relationship with God through each other.

As the text teaches us: “I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people.”

7556933_origMy friends, getting near God is rarely easy, safe or painless. When moments of random violence strike, some of us seek reasons to lay blame and some of us, like Aaron, are stunned and silent. It is in that silence that deep strength, wisdom and courage are born; courage to look at death head on and still stay on the path; wisdom to know that God works through both blessing and curse; and strength to choose blessing.

Death is inevitable, and sometimes it comes unexpectedly and roughly. In our grief we stand at a silent juncture. We can blame, we can run, or we can sort out the opportunities for more violence from the opportunities for more closeness. In that sorting we choose to frame our loss as a sacrifice which cuts through bigotry, oppression and ignorance. Both the Jewish and queer communities have performed social alchemy by transforming unspeakable acts of hatred and violence into art, legislation, ritual, education and beauty. We have squeezed wisdom out of ignorance, and sanctity out of depravity. We have written plays, and created foundations; we have sewn and sung and studied. We have not been diminished through death. Rather, we have blossomed. We have grieved and suffered to be sure, but as it is written, we have “turned our mourning into dancing” (Psalm 30).

Jews and queers have always been accused of being different, alien and inferior. Thankfully, we have generally resisted those judgments. Instead we have persevered in our unique way of being. We have mirrored exactly what this week’s raw piece of text teaches. We have offered strange fire. We have suffered death. We have witnessed these traumas as a community and we have found sanctity, closeness and honor. We are blessed to have a Torah that teaches us to not shy away from life’s bitter moments, but to take them with both hands and offer them up as sacrifices. May our capacity to learn, heal and grow always outweigh our tendency towards judgment and blame.  And may the memory of our loved ones be for a blessing for us, and for all the world.

Posted on March 17, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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