Tag Archives: text study

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.

Allegro Photography

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

Vayikra, And God Called Out: An Invitation to Gender Justice

This past Saturday, Keshet Staff Member Joanna Ware joined Temple Hillel B’nai Torah to deliver a d’var Torah on gender justice and gender variance in Jewish text, as well as the effects of transphobia today. We have shared the text of Joanna’s d’var Torah here.

Shabbat Shalom! Thank you to Rabbi Penzner for the invitation to bring some Torah to all of you today. Rabbi Penzner asked me to speak in honor of the other holiday we’re marking today, International Women’s Day, and how it reminds us to work toward gender equality and justice. First though, I want to start with the text we just read.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, is the first in the book of Leviticus, and it lays out for us a set of laws of ritual, sacrificial preparation. Sacrifices were the ancient Israelite’s way of honoring and nurturing their sacred relationship with the divine. We nurture relationships every day, with our loved ones and with what we understand to be holy and sacred, and while we no longer do so with ritual sacrifices, today prayer, study, mitzvot, acts of loving kindness, and tikkun olam serve as our stand-in for temple sacrifice; our means of nurturing our relationship with God, with Sacredness. What Vayikra reminds us, however, is that this relationship isn’t accidental or happenstance, and that God models for us an expectation of intentionally stepping in to relationship. The opening text of this Parsha, the opening text of the entire book of Leviticus, reads:

וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד
Vayikra al-Moshe, v’yedaber Adonai elav, meyohal mo’ed
And God called out to Moses, and Adonai spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting

We have a curious repetition here in the narrative, first God calls out to Moses, and then God speaks to him. Why both? Rashi teaches that God’s initial calling out to Moses is indicative of a loving relationship, of an invitation into an intentional, purposeful relationship; this text is read in juxtaposition to how God speaks to the prophet Balaam, where we are told that God “happens upon” Balaam; it is accidental rather than intentional. And then? We are taught that God’s relationship with Moses is loving, whereas God’s relationship with Balaam is “impure.” So we have one piece of a model for building loving relationships: act with intention, thoughtfulness, and care. Continue reading

Posted on March 12, 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 Vayikra Live and Let Leviticus: A Call to Gay Men

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, Rabbi Joshua Lesser tackles Parashat Vayikra and asks the gay men in his Jewish community to stand up.

P1060257I remember my first pair of rollerblades. More specifically, I remember the bloody mess I was the first time I gave them a try. I couldn’t figure out the brakes and there was a hill and a busy street—you can figure out where this is going. Never was I so grateful to hit a telephone pole. The second time I bladed I fared better, that is until a piece of rusty wire got caught in the wheels bringing them to a sharp halt. The rules of physics being what they are, I fell on my face. Slapstick being as reliable as physics, my fall brought me injury in the form of much laughter. The next time I was invited to go rollerblading, I stopped and stared at the skates. Were these skates nothing more than simple instruments of cruel pain? Could I give it another go? Or should I simply be done with them all together?

This week we begin the book of Leviticus with Parashat Vayikra, and although Leviticus begins innocently enough, with a listing of the various sacrifices performed in the Mishkan, as LGBT people, we all know where this book is heading. Much like my rollerblades just the title Leviticus inspires dread and fear in gay men that has caused us to disengage with the entire book, and for some, Judaism altogether. And so it is ironic that Leviticus begins with the word vayikra—”And God called.” Ramban cites a midrash that connects Leviticus with the end of the book of Exodus where we find a complete description of the Mishkan’s construction and that it was worthy of the Shechinah (God’s Presence). So magnificent and awesome was God’s glory within the Mishkan that Moses was terrified to enter. Thus, the call from God in this portion was an invitation to Moses and the Israelites to come inside—signaling to them that the Mishkan was built for their mutual relationship.

Similarly, Ramban also notes that the word for sacrifice is connected to the Hebrew word that means, “to draw close.” In this light the sacrificial system is one of the primary ways that the Mishkan was to be used to enhance the biblical human-Divine relationship, Ramban sees this sacrificial system as a ritualistic way to build a meaningful relationship with the Divine. In other words, when we discard Leviticus wholesale because of its foreign rituals or its later prohibitions, we risk missing the emphasis of how ritual can bring us closer to Judaism, community and God (or godliness).

For gay men in particular, this is a real danger in today’s Jewish world. In the rabbinic commentaries, much to do is made about the way the first word of this portion is written—the last letter of “vayikra” is an aleph, which in the Torah is written smaller than the other letters. While the rabbis speculate how this is connected to Moses’ humility, I wonder if the aleph might stand for the first call that God speaks to humanity, which begins with the aleph in question. In Genesis, God calls to his first human creations, “Ayeca?”/”Where are you?”

Indeed, I often find that I have the same question for gay Jewish men in Jewish communal life: Where are you? Having served in different LGBT communities, I have found that, while gay Jewish men aren’t exactly nonexistent, they participate in smaller numbers than lesbians, and additionally, it seems gay Jewish men wait until they are older to make affiliations within Jewish communal life. In one rabbinical school class, we were taught that, as rabbis, we could expect to attract members of our demographic most significantly. In other words, a married woman rabbi could expect to have substantial participation from other married women. However, at my particular synagogue, this has not occurred—instead, we have attracted large numbers of people from all demographics but my own (gay Jewish men in their 30s). While this may be too anecdotal to draw strong conclusions, I couple this particular piece of anecdotal evidence with the fact that I consistently meet gay Jewish men in social settings who seek me out to share their experiences of having been made to feel unwelcome in their synagogues, their families. Many express disdain for Judaism and God altogether mentioning the prohibitions in Leviticus. Intertwined in these discussions is often a sense of lingering shame.

Upon reading the list of sacrifices in Vayikra while considering Ramban’s theory that they served to draw people, within the context of their community, closer to a sense of the Divine, I conclude that somehow these sacrifices served to remove the barriers that kept people distant from a sense of the Divine. As a result of this reading, I have wrestled with the question of determining how the self-imposed barriers could be removed that prevents gay men from feeling more connected with their Jewish community and to God. In what ways could we engage ritually to enhance our Jewish spiritual lives? While I think this question is relevant for all people, I think for gay men the answers are different.

While it is critical that the larger Jewish community work to remake itself so that it is more accessible to gay Jewish men, it is our responsibility as gay Jews to undertake our own self examination. We have the ability to identify those things that have blocked our connection to God and to ritual. Unless the answer is utter rejection, we must do our inner work. Leviticus and its sacrificial systems are buttressed by a calling to take personal responsibility and cultivate vulnerability. Giving an offering, in particular the act of sacrificing the life of a sentient being, brings us face to face with the fragility of life moment to moment. Rabbi Kerry Olitsky points out that the sacrificial system demanded an entirely embodied process. One had to engage all of one’s senses to participate. Taken together this is incredibly vulnerable.

Moreover, even more intensely vulnerable is that the heart of the issue demands gay Jewish men to embrace their sexuality and acknowledge that not only are we holy as human beings, but our bodies are holy and our sexual connections can be holy. To wrestle with this is to also acknowledge when our sexual acts are not holy. As gay men can we make ourselves vulnerable enough to invite a sense God’s presence in our sexuality? To do so, is a sacrifice not in the sense of giving something up, but rather creating room for godliness to dwell.

Asking gay Jewish men to be vulnerable in order to read and engage with Leviticus, which is arguably the core of ritual Judaism and holiness, when it is the source of direct pain and alienation may be unreasonable. Certainly, there is some danger in this, and the possibility of re-wounding may even be likely. However, there is also much to be gained by making peace with this book that contains the infamous 18:22 and 20:13 verses because it also contains much more—Leviticus also includes some of Judaism’s most compassionate and beautiful teachings that can serve to awaken the desire to infuse our life with the awareness of the glory of God’s presence. As this portion reminds us, God’s perpetually call to us, despite fear and harm. The question that remains is, can we, as gay men make ourselves vulnerable enough to hear it? And if we do that, can we sacrifice the baggage that keeps us distant so that we may answer from the authentic place within us that longs for God in our lives.

 

 

Posted on March 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 Pekudei: Building God’s Beautiful Bayit; or, Queer Eye for the Desert Mishkan

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, Marisa James examines Parashat Vayakhel and Parashat Pekudei and how we can all appreciate the beauty of a complex world.

When I first read this week’s parashah, with their detailed lists of the sockets, pegs and posts that go into building the Mishkan, I could only imagine that the children of Israel had somehow ended up at the Sinai IKEA. I pictured Moses, in a burst of confidence after getting everyone across the sea, picking up the “A_rk oöf Tabêrnäkkle” kit and making everyone sit down to decipher wordless instructions on how to build the thing.

But really, there’s something lovely about the time and care that goes into all of these descriptions. Last week’s portion Vayakhel and and this week’s portion Pekudei continue our languorous journey through the design and creation of the tabernacle. During their 430 years in Egypt, laboring as slaves, building stark, massive pyramids for a succession of pharaohs, the children of Israel have been deprived of beauty. As we’ve seen, they have lacked imagination until now; they bitterly complain to Moses at every turn, until he produces yet another miracle, which they promptly forget again when they are hungry, or frightened, or want something tangible to worship.

But in the building of the Mishkan, the children of Israel become artists. Yes, there are specific instructions for how to build it, but each member of the community, we are told, gives what they can: their goods, their effort, and their talent. And we are privileged to read about the results in loving, careful, artistic detail. Beauty is a necessity, both for Moses and the Israelites then, and for us now.

Moses says, “If a person feels like giving an offering to God, bring any of the following: gold, silver, copper, sky-blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair, reddened ram’s skins, blue processed hides, acacia wood, oil for the lamp, fragrances for the anointing oil and perfume incense, as well as sardonyxes and other precious stones for the ephod and the breastplate.” (Exodus 35:5-9)

If they feel like giving an offering to God, says Moses. This is not like last week’s building of the golden calf, when Aaron, in his frustration with the Israelites, says, “Take the rings off the ears of your wives and children, [. . .] Bring them to me.” (Exodus 32:2) The creative impulse cannot be demanded. In the creation of the Mishkan there can be no room for those who might give reluctantly, or unwillingly, or all exactly the same. Every individual piece of silver and copper and wood and cloth must be given freely and with love in order to create the place where God can reside.

800px-Figures_The_erection_of_the_Tabernacle_and_the_Sacred_vesselsAnd the Mishkan is not being created from gold alone; Moses lists so many options for what each person could contribute that we’re left in amazement about where all the materials come from. Each of the Israelites apparently has unexpected and diverse resources that we haven’t seen until now. They bring items of every color and texture, metals and stones and fibers, along with talents which until now have remained hidden.

Why is it so important that we read several chapters of this description? A few p’sukim (verses), two or three verses, could have told us that God asked Moses to make a beautiful dwelling-place, the Mishkan, of gold and silver, with the priests in robes embroidered with “pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, twisted.” (39:24) A few p’sukim could have told us that the Israelites gave freely of their possessions and skills, and that the Mishkan was completed to God’s specifications.

After centuries of famine and slavery, backbreaking work followed by a perilous escape, the Israelites need time to dwell on beauty, and so do we. It’s easy to fall into the victimization of Israel in mitzrayim (Egypt/ the narrow place) and the alternating tedium and terror of wandering in the desert and have no hope for the future. Taking time to see the world around us in every inch of its detail is one way to restore our souls.

Similarly, in our own lives, it can be difficult to avoid feeling constantly victimized and oppressed, especially as members of the Jewish community, the queer community, and other minority communities. Our multiple marginalized identities frequently overlap to make us prime targets for the “hate-mongers” in our world. And in our work towards social justice and equal treatment, it can be hard to raise our heads from the struggle and appreciate the sheer beauty of the communities we have created. Just as the Isarelites found beauty in the creation of the Mishkan, it’s also necessary for us to move beyond our painful interactions with the world and take delight in the places where we are accepted and loved for all of our different aspects.

How do we do this in our daily lives? I live in New York City, where I’m constantly so inundated by my surroundings that it’s easy to block it all out. But sometimes, I need to stop and listen to a street performer with a beautiful voice. Watch my friends’ sleeping newborn children and imagine their dreams. Delight in the amazing diversity of the communities that have welcomed me, and in the beautiful visions we share of the world we’re trying to create. It isn’t enough to simply notice the beauty of the world—it’s necessary that we each bring our diverse talents and gifts to continue the work of making our world into a Mishkan where God can reside.

 

Posted on February 24, 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 Ki Tissa: Hashem and Equity

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, J Simone Posner examines Parashat Ki Tissa, and wonders if G-d cares about equality.

This week’s parsha covers a wide range of juicy topics (too many for one drash). There are the continued themes of items needed for the Ohel or “tent of meeting” that would eventually become our “temple”. There is a point of discussion about who shall do the work to construct the items. There are reminders about keeping Shabbat. There is the story of Hashems first version of the law whose tablets were smashed by Moses because the Israelites erected a golden calf. There is the story of the second set of tablets; and finally the story of Moses’ personal relationship with Hashem. All very interesting stuff but I’d like to write about something else.

Ki Tissa et-rosh B’nai Yisrael…” (Exodus 30:12) ‘When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel…’

Ki Tissa begins with Hashem’s command for Moses to take a census of the people…all of them, without reference to gender. Each man over the age of 20 is then required to pay a “ransom” for themselves. Each man, both rich and poor alike, had to pay no more and no less than a half-shekel as “atonement money” for their sins. The money went to the service of the Ohel.

For those of LGBTQI history and background, this might seem the least likely of things to talk about, since, while all may be counted, only able-bodied men are required to pay the ransom. Let me submit to you that the Torah is the law and particularly this parsha speaks in detail about the law. Finding that spiritual message and path all while trying to bring the Judaic life into harmony with the LGBTQI background had me considering the question of equity under Hashem’s law. Does G-d care about equality?

Ki Tissa speaks about the elevation of Levites and separation of Kohenim (priests) through the line of Aaron. I submit that in appropriating power in this way made this hierarchy a false higher-power and took the attention off of Hashem. Thus, a golden calf was built.

So, back to the census and the small collection. Israel’s numbers in those days were just over 600,000 gevarim or “able bodied”. What constituted a gevarim for this census? Who was counted? Who was NOT counted? Were there people who expressed gender differently back then? Were these persons counted? Were trans-women considered able-bodied men? Were trans-men counted among the women? Torah doesn’t speak with their voices, so I have to look at the collection G-d required to find traces of equity.

Previously in “Terumah” (Exodus 25) the Israelites were asked to make a contribution suggested by their hearts. It could be red yarn or lapis lazuli or precious metal or goats hair and not in any specified amounts or requirements by caste. This donation was used to build the Ohel and its contents.

half shekelIn verse 15, the commandment specifies that the half shekel should be paid by rich and poor alike. This “half-shekel” offering for atonement is more on a spiritual plane and not determined by one’s wealth. It is mentioned in this parsha that a shekel is 20 gerahs and the half would be 10 gerahs. According to ancient weights and measures 1 gerah = .41667 grams and therefore 10 gerahs (or a half-shekel).

If we use silver as a measure of monetary equivalence, (a whopping $14 USD for an ounce- or 28.35 grams) that would mean the price of salvation (even with the outrageous price of precious metals during our present economic crisis) is about $2.00 USD. This is a price that even the most financially strapped LGBTQI person could afford even if they couldn’t afford their rent, clothes, medicines, food or other basic necessities.

Many point to this book to proclaim the greatness of Moses, of the Levites (who by the way go on a killing spree in Exodus 32:26-29 if you are into blood and gore) the Kohenim who in spite of their wisdom and ceremonies and vestments still somehow preside over the forging of a golden calf and then fudge it when retelling the tale to Moses.

This parasha tells me in the most unequivocal way, that it is not Hashem that is ever in error, but humankind. Hashem asks for things from all people and usually the same things in the same way. This is true equity under the law. It is humankind who seeks to separate and make distinctions perhaps because of a most un-divine way of judging people, places, things and scenarios that most require Hashems implanted “divine spark”.

For many years the Trans community had a terrible problem with such a caste system where Drag Queens would fight MTF Transsexuals and everyone fought against Transvestites and there was no unanimity among even the Transsexuals who had no common-ground between the MTF and FTM factions. And lets not forget MTF’s who would argue ceaselessly among themselves about which surgical intervention/method/practitioner was the best. This all happened before the word “Transgender” was in common use. That was yet another story.

Still not sure about equity under Hashem’s law or how unity under Hashem’s law will deliver us? Lets take a look at Exodus 31. Verse 12. It begins with reminding the Israelites about their covenant and how it is important to keep Shabbat because Hashem rested on day seven. How can I work on Shabbat if Hashem didn’t? Do I think I’m better than Hashem? Humility before Hashem is the manifestation of equity under the law. For those who go to synagogue regularly verses 16 and 17 form the familiar V’shamru heard in many Shabbat services everywhere:

The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed. (Exodus 31:16-17)

About 20 years ago, there was a story I heard about a transwoman who tried to get religious permission from a rabbi to change gender, and live and function and a woman within the community. This rabbi told her that she was an abomination. She said it was a matter of pikuah nefesh (the rule that says a law can be broken to save a life) and the rabbi (A Cohen by the way) told her that even under the Noahide laws, it wouldn’t pass and that she would be better off killing herself. As she walked out of his office, she asked one final question: since this religion had now utterly rejected her, could she now disown and disavow herself of its barbarism? The Rabbi told her she was not excused; not excused from keeping kosher and not excused from keeping Shabbat. This seeming slap in the face put the focus back on Hashem and gave that woman just enough space to live and function as a Jew today.

If you feel someone out there is struggling with spirituality and religion tell them to try to keep Shabbat and point them to the text of the V’Shamru.

One final thing about the census. This is just another way of saying “stand up and be counted.” There is a spiritual message, too, I think. Earlier in the week we hear the reading of the Megillah. In Esther 4:12 Mordechai tells Esther that she must risk death and come out about her Jewishness to save the lives of many others. I think this resonates exactly with the census and “counting heads.” The LGBTQI community will grow and aspire closer to Hashem as we all stand up and be counted and put our ten cents USD towards a cause that will bring about our atonement and redemption.

 

Posted on February 6, 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 Tetzaveh: Finding the Good Side

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Noach Dzmura examines Parshat Tetzaveh, providing a portrait of the priestly class, and asks “Why is the making of egalitarianism a queer task?”

Summary of the Parasha: The unique verb that identifies this parasha is tetzaveh, “and you shall command.” The verb reinforces the nature of this Biblical hierarchy: God commands, Moses relays the command, and the people perform the commandment. In this parasha, Moses commands us to kindle an eternal flame (ner tamid, continuously burning light) in front of the Mishkan. In the main body of the parasha Moses commands us to fabricate some costly and complicated ritual garb for Aaron. Finally, God commands Moses to elevate the status of Aaron and his sons (and their sons, forever) over the rest of the people. This puts a little balloon in the arrow of Divine hierarchy, and, ostensibly, lightens Moshe’s load: God commands, then Moses (or the Priests) relay the command, and the people perform the commandment.

What’s Bothering Noach: The priests stick in my craw. God requires sacrifice? This is abhorrent. There is a priestly class of people whose relationship to God is closer or more intimate than the rank-and-file person? This is insupportable. Priests get – for free and without laboring to produce them—the best part of the produce and the meat? Who says they qualify for a free lunch! The sons of Aaron and their sons—forever—get this gig too? This is permanent inequality. How can we stand for this?

Reading the text from the perspective of an outsider to power, as I did in the above paragraph, results in a recipe for rebellion. Reading from the perspective of a fully enfranchised member of the community, who is yoked to God’s will by choice, because it is directly tied to the will of the people by the Covenant, yields a more peaceful outcome. I want to read in this more productive, less rebellious manner in the rest of the essay.

Economic Advisers to Moses: When I read about a class of priests and their troublesome (to me) sacrifices, it helps me to think of “sacrifices” as part of a tribal economy with the Covenant as its ethical center. It also helps me to think of Moses’ role as the leader of a people, and the practical duties of governing such a large number of people. Not an easy job to accomplish alone. So why might the formation of a class of people to manage the sacrifices have seemed like a good, practical idea? Lightens the load. Continue reading

Posted on February 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

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