This d’var Torah was given by Rabbi Becky Silverstein at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center on Friday, November 14th. We are privileged to share these words of wisdom in honor of the annual observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance.
This year Michelle Sherman, Jennifer Laude, Alejandra Leos, Mia Henderson, Tiffany Edwards, and Kandy Hall were all killed for being transgender. As was Aniya Parker, who was murdered only two miles away from my apartment in Los Angeles.
It is somewhat ironic that this week’s Torah portion is called Haye Sarah, the life or lifetimes of Sarah, as it mentions her only in death.
א וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים—שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה. ב וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹ—בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיָּבֹא, אַבְרָהָם, לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ. Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty seven years. Sarah died in Kiryat Arbah—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and bewail her.
The last we hear about Sarah’s life is in last week’s Torah portion, giving birth to Isaac and sending Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness—a mixed legacy indeed. Throughout the earlier chapter of Genesis, Sarah is more often the subject of objectification than a person with her own voice. Twice Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister without her consent. Her voice is heard only when she expels Hagar and Ishmael in chapter 16 and in last week’s parashah, laughing at the somewhat strange way G-d has constructed her life.
Even these moments of voice only serve to narrow our picture of this matriarch, a woman tied to her ability to conceive. The text presents us with a caricature of a person, a part of a life, used as a literary tool.
Like Sarah, transgender people are often reduced to being only partially human, used as a canvas on which we displace our own fears about gender and society. Questions about our personal history, our medical transitions, our desire for equal rights; confrontations about our chosen pronouns, our chosen names, and chosen families: these all serve to dehumanize the transgender community. It is this dehumanization that allows for the separation and fear to grow in other human beings, and creates a scenario in which one human can possibly think it is okay to kill another because of their identity. Even in the time of Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Orange is the New Black, and Transparent, the transgender experience is presented in limited ways that often serve to exploit or dehumanize. That both Janet Mock and Laverne Cox have had to explain on public television why questions about their medical transition are simply inappropriate is evidence of this trend.
As little as we know about Sarah’s life, we know even less about her death.
ב וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן–בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיָּבֹא, אַבְרָהָם, לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ. ג וַיָּקָם, אַבְרָהָם, מֵעַל, פְּנֵי מֵתוֹ; Sarah died in Kiryat Arbah—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and bewail her. Abraham rose from beside his dead…
Sarah’s death is told only through the lens of Abraham’s actions. Midrash Tanchuma helps a bit, typing Sarah’s death to the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. According to the midrash, upon hearing the news that Abraham had attempted to sacrifice Isaac, Sarah’s soul departs from her. The midrash teaches that in the moments before her death Sarah cried out with the broken cries of the shofar, those broken notes the only sounds her body could emit, the only sounds adequate for her anguish.
Though Sarah’s voice could not be heard, her cries continue to haunt us.
I wonder if this is how Sarah thought she would die. I wonder if being beaten and shot was how Michelle Sherman, Jennifer Laude, Alejandra Leos, Mia Henderson, Tiffany Edwards, Kandy Hall, and Aniya Parker thought they were going to die.
Let’s move from Sarah’s death to how she is treated in that death. The text does not tell us, but I imagine Abraham wanting to know why and how Sarah died, and that if Sarah died in the age of CSI that her death would be fully investigated. This is where Sarah’s story and death depart from that of those we remember today: transfolks, transwomen, transwomen of color, whose life experience is ignored even in death—whose deaths are not investigated and whose burials are not noteworthy.
Our Torah portion continues by retelling Abraham’s purchase of Ma’a’rat Ha’Machpelah, the cave of Machpelah from the Hittites. Abraham seeks to, and succeeds in, securing a burial place for his family, a place that will keep Sarah’s memory alive, a touchstone for her in death and for her family in the future. Who creates these sacred places of memory and connection for those who are brutally murdered on our streets? For LGBTQ homeless people living in the shadows? Sarah has a family and a future, even in her death. Even today, people flock to Hebron to visit the burial place of our matriarchs and patriarchs, a trip that is its own sermon. In my first visit I marvelled at the ornate decoration and wondered what was actually in the coffins. Even I, a cyncial post-modern rabbinical student, was moved by the religious devotion. Visiting the grave of a loved one can be a powerful experience—the grave itself making concrete the death the visitor remembers and helping them to make concrete the memories.
The knowledge that one will have a place to be buried and those to look after them is a privilege. Those who are killed on our streets or in their homes because they are transgender are often wandering, disconnected from their families of origin, and they continue to wander even in their deaths.
They float from protest to memory, to newspaper story to Transgender Day of Remembrance. Very few have someone whose responsibility it is to say Kaddish for them. The community is their connection. The transgender voices who live make real their lives and experiences and stories, we tell them to ourselves so that we never forget. I, and now all of you, are part of that connection. So that we never forget that the world is stacked against those who dare to transgress what society expects of us—with respect to gender or other identities.
Why bring this Torah today? Because kavod hamet, respecting the dead, is one of the greatest mitzvot our tradition teaches. Because justice is a Jewish value and Transgender Day of Remembrance represents the intersection of gender, racial, and economic justice. Because the life and death of transgender folks is not outside of our community, and it is our obligation to stand with each other in times of joy and in times of sorrow.
Doing the work of deconstructing and consciously choosing our gender identities is work that is important for all of us. Consciously choosing to wear a dress or a tie or a relatively androgynous cardigan is empowering, and once we feel empowered in our own choices, we can better understand how others make theirs. Begin by doing the internal work and standing up for your own right to express your gender, fight the misogyny and gender essentialism in your own lives and the lives of your families. This can be a painful and difficult process, and it is also unavoidable.
More externally focused, respect everyone’s right to choose their pronouns and names and decisions about their bodies, support them in those decisions in their company and when they are not around. One easy place to start is right here, reminding folks that I use he/him/his as pronouns. Try on correcting someone, see how it feels. And of course, there are plenty of opportunities for political action. In doing all of this, we will create a space for the memory of transgender folks, just as Abraham, by securing a burial spot, creates a space for Sarah’s memory.
I want to end on a more personal note. Transgender Day of Remembrance is both about who I am as a transperson and not about me. Most of the names I read earlier are those of transwomen, and the majority of those transwomen of color. I do not have friends who have lost their lives because of their gender identity, and, thank G-d, do not feel that my life is at danger. And yet the night Aniya Parker was killed two miles from my apartment, I called my girlfriend crying, shaking, scared. That taste of fear is part of what places Aniya and I together in the same community. My identity as a white transman means that I privilege to use as an ally. And, I hope that my sharing words of Torah for you will elevate the stories of those who have died and continue to make their memories a blessing.
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In honor of the upcoming annual observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance we are devoting space in our blog to posts about gender. Be sure to check out other stories of gender in our Jewish community including: “Transgender 101,” the personal reflections of two parents faced with the reality of gender roles at day care, and a Tachlis of inclusion post entitled “How to Hire a Transgender Rabbi.”
When we first meet the Biblical figures Sarah and Abraham, they are not yet called Sarah and Abraham. When we first meet Abraham and Isaac, their bodies have not yet undergone a surgical alteration. We know our first Jewish family in the Torah both before and after these transitions. And the ways in which we know them can help us to be better allies to transgender folk within our current communities.
Abraham and Sarah were not always called “Abraham” and “Sarah.” Born as Avram and Sarai, their names are changed by an encounter with the divine, and they each receive an extra letter (the Hebrew letter “Hey”). From then on, they are known as Abraham and Sarah.
We call the first Jewish couple “Abraham and Sarah” because those are their names. We do not reject these names because they were not given at birth. We do not refer to their birth names their “real” names. We understand that to insist on only referring to our Jewish foremother and forefather as “Sarai” and “Avram” would seem confused as best, and insulting at worst.
In short, we get it.
We understand the fundamental concept that names are important, and can represent significant identities. We get that names may be altered or changed during the course of a lifetime, and that names assigned at birth do not trump names taken on later in life. And, we can know it with those in our world today. Just as we know this with Abraham and Sarah, we should know how to relate to transgender folk whose name is not that which was assigned to them at birth.
We read that Abraham performs the act of circumcision on himself. He also performs it on Isaac. This surgical action declares them both members of the tribe. From this, we see that alteration to a body given at birth can be a method of enhancing holiness. It can represent connection to an identity—a physical manifestation of a metaphysical plane. We understand that this act is not represented as an act of mutilation, but of holiness. We further understand that not all Jews must undergo this change in order to be Jews. For some it makes sense, and for some, it does not.
Some transgender individuals choose to surgically (and/or hormonally) alter the body they were born in. We know that a physical alteration can interact with and support identity in significant ways. And today, we are seeing the many ways in which gender-affirming healthcare (which includes hormones and/or surgery) can lead to positive health outcomes overall. If we are to believe (as I was taught in Hebrew school) that our bodies are a gift from G-d, then hormonal and/or surgical alterations may indeed be a tool for some to use in order to be a proper caretaker, and thereby sanctify the body they were given at birth.
Our first Jewish family can show us how to be a better support to transgender folk in our communities.
The ways in which we know with Sarah and Abraham and Isaac show us a path towards love, support, respect, and affirmation for transgender folk in our lives. We know and love Sarah, Abraham, and Isaac through their transitions. We can do the same for those in our communities today.
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- Transgender Day of Remembrance is November 20th. How will your Jewish community observe the day?
Our friends at The Canteen shared an Orthodox Rabbi’s hopes and prayers for LGBTQ children. Rabbi Avi Orlow, the Director of Jewish Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), concluded his blog post by sharing that “There is no doubt that some of you may be offended by what I have said here. But as Pastor Pavlovitz wrote, ‘This isn’t about you. This is a whole lot bigger than you.'” What do you think? And, If you—or your family—need resources and support, check out the Keshet Parent & Family Connection program.
As I prepare for Yom Kippur, I have been giving some thought to all of my and our collective sins. To paraphrase the Al Het Prayer, I have been thinking about both the sins which I have committed intentionally or unintentionally. What have been my sins of commission and my sins of omission? What have I done inadvertently by not doing anything at all? How will I be judged for my actions?
I was thinking about this yesterday when I read a profound blog post by John Pavlovitz, a pastor of North Wake House Church in North Carolina. In his piece entitled If I Have Gay Children: Four Promises From A Christian Pastor/Parent he boldly came out as a person of faith in support of his and other peoples’ children who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning.
Reading this, I got to thinking ahead to the Torah portion we traditionally read in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. This portion is comprised of a list of sexual prohibitions (Leviticus 18:1 – 30). Why would we read the primary religious source used to substantiate homophobia on our most holy day of the year? While I might not have an answer to this question, I do feel that silence on this issue is its own sin.
As a human being, I feel a need to speak out on this because there are those for whom it is not just their comfort or happiness that are at risk, but their very health, safety, and actual lives. As a Jew, I cannot stomach senseless hatred toward people because of who they are. An integral part of our Jewish identity comes from our experience as victims of the world’s hatred. We cannot stand idly by as other people suffer from bigotry. As a Rabbi, I feel a need to speak out for justice.
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- Find a chapter, get support,and take action with the Keshet Parent & Family Connection program.
As students return to college campuses, now is a great time to be thinking about how LGBTQ inclusive your Hillel can be. Here are several suggestions to make your Hillel more inclusive, welcoming, and a safe environment for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning individuals and families. Even if your campus doesn’t have a Hillel, you can adopt these practices for any student group. A special thanks to Keshet educator Suzie Schwartz Jacobson for helping to compile the original version of this guide—which can be found on the Keshet website.
Create Inclusive Policies:
Both current and potential LGBTQ students, as well as LGBTQ staff and faculty members, need to know that your Hillel values equality, and is committed to protecting against discrimination and harassment.
By mentioning this commitment in your existing policy documents or creating new language, you will communicate a commitment to equal treatment for all. For example, you should have a comprehensive anti-bullying statement for students and also inclusive anti-harassment Human Resources policies for staff. Click here for sample language for different anti-harassment policies and inclusivity statements. The statement should be easily available on your website, printed marketing materials, or other communications where fit.
Let the Campus (and the World) Know About Your Commitment to LGBTQ Inclusion:
Even if you think it is obvious, explicitly state in marketing materials, on your website, and other communications that your Hillel welcomes LGBTQ students. This will go a long way in letting potential students know that Hillel is a safe space for them, and letting all other constituents know the values of your institution.
Educate Yourself and Others on LGBTQ Terms:
Oftentimes one of the greatest challenges for non-LGBTQ people in talking about LGBTQ issues is uncertainty regarding language and vocabulary. As many terms are new, or are used differently by different people and in different contexts, people are sometimes uncertain and embarrassed to enter the conversation for fear of being wrong or of inadvertently hurting someone’s feelings. Click here for a list of LGBTQ terms and definitions.
When Planning Icebreakers or Small Groups, Do Not Automatically Group Students by Binary Gender (male or female):
It is sometimes an impulse of staff and students alike to group students based on binary gender (male or female). However, this is problematic for several reasons:
- It renders gender non-conforming or transgender students invisible, by assuming binary gender and categorizing students without consent;
- It encourages students to view gender as an either/or category, which reinforces stereotypes; and
- It discourages students from branching out and exploring friendships and experiences beyond their assigned or assumed gender.
Consider asking students to count off, or divide them alphabetically or by birthdays instead.
Create Programming that Addresses Jewish LGBTQ Issues:
Our commitment to the inclusion of LGBTQ Jews is not just a secular value, but a Jewish value. When appropriate, integrate LGBTQ issues and topics into your programming in order to demonstrate how inclusivity is essential to our Judaism. Going beyond the prohibitions in Leviticus, Judaism says much about positive sexuality, gender, and how to treat all people with respect.
- When discussing Jewish ethics around love and sex, do not just refer to heterosexual dating and marriage, but include a full spectrum of relationships and ways to experience human love.
- When studying Torah, understand the text using an LGBTQ lens. One way to do this is to use our book Torah Queeries, which provides an LGBTQ reading of each parasha or our Torah Queeries online database. You can also introduce or bring in LGBTQ scholars who interpret Torah from an LGBTQ perspective (Here is an example from Dr. Joy Ladin, and one from Rabbi Steven Greenberg.)
- When studying Jewish history, include the history of LGBTQ Jews.
Another tangible and easy way to start a conversation about LGBTQ inclusion at your Hillel is to share Keshet’s Seven Jewish Values for Inclusive Community poster or handout with your students. Hillel and Keshet partnered to create this special, co-branded version in the hopes that every Hillel will display these posters on their walls and use them in student programming. This resource can be printed and included in materials for new staff and student leadership, encouraging the issue of LGBTQ inclusion–and what it means to be a welcoming and inclusive community more broadly–will be emphasized on your campus right from the start.
These are just a few examples of the many possible ways to teach about LGBTQ and Jewish topics. What steps are you taking to make your campus a safe and inclusive one?
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Last week our Boston community sat down for a conversation with Ayala Katz, mother of one of the victims of the 2009 Tel Aviv LGBT youth center shooting. Jayne Guberman, a founding member and mentor for the Keshet Parent & Family Connection, moderated the conversation with Ayala about their shared experience parenting LGBTQ children, Ayala’s fierce LGBTQ rights activism in response to her son Nir’s tragic death, and the strength she and her family draw from one another.
I’m not one to think that spaces are inherently holy… as people who have davvened (prayed) in bars with me know full well. Synagogues are only as holy as their actions and impact prove them to be.
I’m a rabbi at this congregation, but I’m also an individual who was raised as a little brother to someone who grew up in a Jewish community in which he couldn’t share his identity until he left.
If only he could have found a time machine and flown back to future to the present, because of Keshet, he wouldn’t have had to play “catch up” on all the love that he lost from the Jewish community.
A teacher of mine (the great Jewish liturgist Dr. Larry Hoffman) taught me to think of Judaism not just as a “religion” or a tribe, not even just as a people, or a people – but as a conversation. Judaism is a Conversation.
I wanted to just open this Conversation with a word of Torah, from our Scripture – because I think it has everything to do with why we’re here. The word of Torah from this week’s portion pertains to memory.
It’s in this week’s parasha, parashat Ki Teitzei, we encounter a famous and disturbing mitzvah. Deuteronomy 25:17 reads: “Zachor eit asher asah l’cha Amaleik baderech b’tzeitchem mitzrayim…” “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt. How, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.”
Our parasha is saying to us: remember what happened to your people, at the very point at which you were most vulnerable! And when are we supposed to remember this horror?
Our text continues: “V’hayah b’haniach Adonai Elohecha l’cha mikol oy’vecha misaviv…” “When the Eternal your God grants you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal is giving you as a hereditary portion you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
When are we to remember? When we are… home. Safe.
This space, Temple Israel, is as safe a space as any. And still it’s mandated that when you’re feeling safe, when you’re protected, THAT’S precisely when you are to remind yourself about your vulnerable past. Perhaps that’s because we know that if just “sit back and relax” and let the story of today happen without our voice and our past, then ignorance and hatred will start growing like weeds.
In Judaism, we don’t have a word for history. Today the Hebrew word for history: HISTORIA. (The first phrase I learned in my year of study in Jerusalem was “zeh lo big deal!”). History is what happened in the past and it remains in the past. It’s passive. In Judaism we have ZIKARON, memory. Memory is something entirely different. Memory is ACTIVE. What distinguishes memory from history is that it’s wedded to responsibility.
Memory is how we carry our story into the future. Memory enables us to hold and preserve a tragic past in our heart and then with our hands build a future that changes the story, that adds healing and wholeness to the narrative that will be read about us in ages to come.
Simply put, we are at our best when we are champions of memory.
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that we – Temple Israel and Keshet – are currently in a state of mourning. Just yesterday we observed here a funeral of a beautiful human being named David Passer. A champion of Keshet, a leader at Temple Israel, and the Executive Director of Shir Tikvah in Weyland. David and his husband Marc made history – and memory – when they courageously became the first same-sex couple in our Commonwealth to join a Temple community as a family.
Many of us sat Shiva yesterday or today at Shir Tikveh. I lift this up because if it weren’t for David’s memory, the Conversation that is Judaism here in Boston and the Commonwealth might still be years behind where it is now. That’s because David was a champion of memory. Keshet is a big open tent filled with champions of memory; folks embracing memory to transform the world as it is into the world as it should be.
We are blessed to be having this Conversation – a conversation about equality and inclusion, about what love really looks like, a conversation about hope.
A special thanks to Temple Israel Boston for partnering with Keshet for the event and to our cosponsors: ADL New England, CJP – Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation, Congregation Kehillath Israel, Eshel, Family Equality Council, Gann Academy, GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders), Greater Boston PFLAG, JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Boston, Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston, New Israel Fund, Prozdor & Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston.
Visit www.keshetonline.org/supportfamilies for more info about our program for parents and family of LGBTQ Jews.
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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 Maggid Jhos Singer, who shows that standing up as a Jew takes guts and deep self-knowing.
It is the original ‘Hellfire and Brimstone’ rant to which all others pale in comparison. Its images of damnation know no bounds; It is one of those bits o’ Bible that has fueled the hateful lust of bigots and fundamentalists for centuries. I would go so far as to call it scriptural porn. It’s the stuff that
usually makes folks like me, a genderqueer Berkeley liberal Jew, run screaming from Judaism,
so it’s kind of odd to admit that I love this portion. It’s scary and exciting and makes me feel like
I’m watching a really weird piece of performance art.
The trick with this portion is staying cool, not reacting to the surface level ugliness and instead tuning into the God in it. When I read it I try to imagine that I’m hearing a song on a static-ravaged transistor radio, I’m standing amidst a huge noisy crowd, I’m getting jostled around, nearby some wild-eyed preacher is raving into a microphone, “Cursed are you sinner, you will burn for Eternity, you are a perversion,” people are yelling back, I hold the radio up to my ear straining to hear and little by little the song cuts through the din and a big smile spreads across my face… Welcome to this week’s parasha.
In brief, this portion tells us that if we are obedient we will be blessed, with the blessings described in one short paragraph. However, if we are not obedient we will be cursed. The Torah then unloads pages of orgiastic curses that we will endure for our transgressions, laid out in graphic, gory detail. It is grating and provocative, and I don’t mean in a nice way. Everything about it is repulsive on the surface. One has to wonder why the Torah would include such ugliness.
But read it carefully, and you will first note that the Torah tells us explicitly that the orators here are not God, but Moses and the Elders: “Moses and the Elders of Israel commanded the people, saying, ‘Observe the entire commandment that I command you this day.’ ” (D’varim 27:1)
Perhaps it is simply that Moses, and his cohorts, are on a proto-Pentecostal roll, taking the law
into their own hands, so to speak. To his credit, even in the midst of this diatribe, Moses manages to sputter out a key spiritual concept. He says that it is God’s voice that we should be listening to (28:15), that we must hear the commands that God is giving us (in spite of Moses’ interpretation).
Might Moses have been trying to tell us that we have to fine tune our spiritual hearing so that we can know what it is that God wants from us, rather than what other people want from us? Similarly Moses seems to be implying that God speaks to us as individually and if we let someone else do our channeling for us the price we pay will be high. Additionally, in the midst of describing the litany of ills that will befall us if we don’t follow Moses’s commandments, there is a sweet dose of wisdom slipped in. Moses says, “You will be mocked and starved, diseased and blighted. You will be so bereft and so debased that you will become the supreme example of human depravity to all other peoples, Because you did not serve your Source of Being with gladness and with a full heart when
everything was abundant.” (Deuteronomy 28:47)
I experience this line as God getting in a word edgewise.
There is much to learn from this raw scripture. Coming out as homo-, bi-, or trans-sexual takes steel and faith. It takes tuning out the hate mongers and spiritual terrorists, and overriding the din of ignorance and fear to find God’s message and lock on. Standing up as a Jew, whose faith and ways have been seen as “queer” since we began, takes guts and deep self-knowing. Queer folk, of every stripe, cannot afford to loose our balance. Is it any wonder then, that the Torah includes an opportunity for us to practice listening to the ugliness of degrading threats while training our ears to hear the personal word that God whispers to each of us? After all, didn’t our communal revelation on Sinai begin just like this, in the sound and the fury? So we stay calm, focus our hearts and minds and – “Shema” – we listen.
And there, in the bang-clanking cawing of curses, we hear some of the most loving words of
Torah: “Yea, verily I saith unto you: That you will be destitute, crazed and destroyed if you don’t
give your self to gladness when times are good.” I hear this line being spoken with love and
compassion, I imagine God cradling my head in Its big soft hands and whispering, “Aww now
pun’kin, why so angry? Look around, you are healthy, loved, smart, blessed and cute as a bug’s
ear. Lighten’ up and enjoy it baby.”
Indeed, the LGBT community has survived, and even thrived, in some part because we know
how to party and be glad. We know how to show up with bells on and bring color and music
into the world. Every community that has instituted a Pride Parade was initially met with
resistance. The megaphoning morality meisters have shown up again and again, bellowing out
their messages of loathing and disgust — but they have never been able to drown out Sylvester z’‘l, or Sister Sledge or Barbra or Judy z’‘l, who have told us in whispers in the dark: Come on get up and dance because somewhere over the rainbow we are a family of the luckiest people in the world. We have listened to them and we have danced and we have been glad and we have known that we are not cursed, but so very blessed.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav said, “Mitzvah g’dolah l’hiyot b’simcha tamid.” (It’s a great mitzvah to insist on gladness.) As this week’s teaching reminds us, we must practice being glad when there is something to be glad about. We cannot take a single blessing for granted, peh peh peh, lest the challenges and difficulties of being our true Self become overwhelming. We must be astute enough to know who God created us to be, no matter what the imperfect human authorities in our lives would say about it. Even great human leaders sometimes try to scare us into submitting to their ideas of who we should be. But remember: God relies on each one of us to manifest in this world our own unique aspect of It. Be brave, choose life, choose blessing. Tune out the static, listen hard and I’m sure you will hear a still small voice boldly singing “Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh”— “I am what I am” (Exodus 3:14/Jerry Herman by way of Gloria Gaynor).
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Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, our reflection comes from Rabbi Rick Brody. Rabbi Brody first wrote this piece in 2006, so the time-line might feel a little off. We still think this is a relevant look at Parashat Shoftim and the idea of a just society.
It is amazing how procrastination affects one’s work. I began drafting this d’var Torah several days ago, but with the whirlwind of summer classes and make-up-work (Rabbinical school is not as glamorous as it seems) I hadn’t finished it by my “goal” date.
I had begun to write about the work of Citizens to Restore Fairness (CRF), a group in Cincinnati, Ohio, dedicated to protecting the rights of GLBTQ people in their city. In 2004, CRF successfully led a campaign to repeal a 12-year-old ordinance that outright denied gay people protections from discrimination. In March 2006, the Cincinnati City Council approved an anti-discrimination law, which would protect GLBT individuals from losing their jobs or being denied housing just for being queer. However, an anti-gay group, disguised as one committed to values, blocked the ordinance by petitioning to have the issue on the ballot. This summer, equality activists from across the country descended on Cincinnati to prepare for the November 7th election and to fight this anti-gay ballot measure. Uniting people across lines of race, class, gender and religion, this diverse group of people was working to bring justice to their community.
Then, this morning, the phone call came. “We won!” my girlfriend yelled, as she came running into the room. “What???” I replied, confused. Was this the Hebrew Union College softball team with its two-win record? No. “Citizens to Restore Fairness won!” she exclaimed.
As it turned out, the people so devoted to “community values” felt that signing the petition with fraudulent names, such as that of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, was an honest way of achieving their goals. With the petition proven corrupt the organization proposing the ballot measure withdrew and accepted defeat. We had achieved our goal: justice for the residents of Cincinnati; fairness for GLBTQ people in the city.
How does this relate to the d’var Torah I was writing? This week’s portion, Parashat Shoftim, or “magistrates,” is about creating a just society. It is part of Moses’ closing speech to the Children of Israel. The Israelites are standing and waiting to go into the Land, but Moses is unable to go with them. Because of Moses’ bad behavior in the desert, he will be left behind as the Israelites go on to the promised land.
In Moses’ speech, he provides ethical and administrative norms to be followed by the community. A dominant word within this parasha is tzedek, “righteous” or “justice.” The word occurs six times in the Torah and 68 times in the entirety of the Tanakh.
What is justice? Many modern Jews, myself included, take pride in our faith’s commitment to social change. “Social justice” has become a sort of buzzword for young Jewish activists working in a variety of fields. As a Reform rabbinical student, I take particular pride in my denomination’s leadership role in certain areas of social justice. The idea of a just society is rooted in our most holy text, the Torah. According to W. Gunther Plaut, a leading commentator on the Torah, “no people gave as much loving attention to the overriding importance of law equitably administered and enforced as did Israel.”
What, then, does a just society look like for LGBTQ people? This week’s Torah portion says “they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18). Plaut suggests that this roots the ultimate administrative power in the people, rather than the king. This leads us to ask questions of our own lives. How can our leaders lead justly? How can we be leaders in our own community? How can the people create their own just society?
In Parashat Shoftim we are commanded “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice, you shall pursue,” Deuteronomy 16:20). The verb tirdof is in the imperative, commanding us to engage in the work at hand. Why does the word tzedek, “justice,” repeat twice? There is a Chassidic teaching that the word justice is repeated because “in matters of justice one may never stand still. The pursuit of justice is the pursuit of peace. Do justly so that justice may be engendered.”
We all must take a stand for justice wherever we see injustice taking place, not only for our own communities, but also for those in need of our support. The work of Citizens to Restore Fairness was accomplished through the work of people of all races, of many religions and across the entire spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is through embracing our diversity that we have the power to create change.
The words of Moses, whom the sages call Moshe Rabbeinu, or “Moses our teacher,” are instructive to all of us. Our Torah is our guidebook. Each year we read the text again, and each year it appears in a new light. Even though we have heard the stories before, they meet us where we are this year. Just as a parent lovingly guides a child towards the correct path, so too does our Holy text teach us. May we all be able to glean from its words the messages that will help us live our lives as better people and build a more just society: Ken yehi ratzon, may it be your will.
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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, Chaim Moshe haLevi examines Parashat Vaetchanan, questioning how we prove our love for God.
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.
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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Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser examines Parashat Matot and Parashat Masei, taking a careful look at vows and the role of women in a patriarchal society.
At the close of Bamidbar/Numbers, the fourth book of Torah and the last book of the Jewish journey to the Promised Land, Moses engages in a long colloquy with the leaders of the tribes (matot) on the nature of oaths and vows. Parashat Matot begins with Moses instructing the leaders of the people on when vows can and cannot be broken. Parashat Masei (“Marches/Travels”) closes with tribal leaders asking Moses to adjust the vow made by Moses to the daughters of Zelophehad that they would inherit their father’s portion.
Strikingly, both of these discussions center particularly on women and vows. In Matot, we learn that a man has no choice: if he makes a vow or oath, he must “carry out all that has crossed his lips.” Whether a woman must carry out her vow—or even whether she is permitted to carry out such a vow—depends very much on her social status. If she is divorced or widowed, i.e., outside the sphere of a man’s influence, then her vows cannot be broken; she has the same status as a man in this regard. However, the world of Torah is patriarchal: if a woman is married or if she is an unmarried woman living in her father’s house, then she is considered subservient to the male head of the household, and he has the right to dismiss her vow.
Before we shudder about the inequality of women’s roles in the Torah, we should take a second look. What is perhaps most surprising about this discussion of vows is how limited a man’s power is to circumscribe women’s obligations. The man only has 24 hours after learning that his wife or daughter has taken a vow to cancel it. If he does not act in that time, the vow is in full force. In fact, if the man forces the woman to annul her vow after that time, it is he, not she, who will suffer the divine consequence.
Moses faces precisely this kind of challenge at the end of parashat Masei. The leaders of the tribe of Manasseh come to Moses with a problem. Moses has just divvied-up the land of Israel, giving set acreage to each tribe. The problem for Manasseh is that back in Numbers 27, Moses vowed to give the daughters of Zelophehad, members of Manasseh, their father’s inheritance, as there were no male heirs. Yet, in tribal Israeli culture, if Zelopohehad’s daughters married, their heirs would be considered members of their husband’s tribe, and thus some tribe other than Manasseh would inherit their land.
Moses cannot break his vow, because it was not a simple legal agreement made with these daughters but a vow made in the name of God—God said, “The pleas of Zelophehad’s daughters is just; you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.” Moses had to let that vow stand, yet he had to do something; tribal leaders would revolt if they thought that women could inherit land that would then pass out of the tribe’s control. Moses’s solution was that the daughters of Zelophehad had to marry within their own tribe, so that their heirs would be members of the tribe Manasseh.
The case of Zelophehad’s daughters illuminates the constraints around women’s vows in parashat Matot. Even though women in the biblical world have far fewer rights than men, parashat Matot insists that women have full rights before God—they have the same ability as men to forge a private relationship with God through vows. Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, calls this relationship the I-Thou relationship. God sees us for who we are; when we stand before God, we are naked, stripped of the social world that usually surrounds and binds us. We speak to God “face-to-face.”
In the world, however, we rarely are able to maintain an I-Thou relationship with God or even with each other, seeing each other as the person we really are. The social world intrudes, with its material requirements. Such is the situation for women in the biblical world. Their entire society was patriarchal, based on the rule of the householder over his house, the rule of the tribe over the householders, and eventually, the rule of the king over the tribes. These relationships are not I-Thou relationships, but I-It relationships; individuals are not known for who they are in themselves, but as objects, objects that dictate their role in the tribe.
Because the society was patriarchal, women had no agency at all in the social structure. Thus, allowing them to have an I-Thou relationship was dangerous, as an I-Thou relationship is predicated on the complete agency of the two who face each other. So, Torah allows the man who has most agency over a woman in the society, that is, who has the strongest I-It relationship to her, to prevent her I-Thou relationship with God. That the discussion of vows is really a discussion of the implementation of patriarchy is made clear by the fact that Moses only gives instructions about vows to the heads of the tribes (rashei ha matot). The instructions here are not about the value of women’s vows; the instructions are about how these leaders can preserve patriarchy.
We like to think we have moved far from the tribal society of Moses’ time, yet I see many comparisons. Reading this parasha brought to my mind the fight over same-sex marriage. In Judaism, the wedding ceremony itself does not entail a vow to God, yet marriage itself is understood as a sacred covenant, made by two people in the sight of God. Marriage is the ultimate I-Thou relationship between two people, a commitment to know each other as we really are, to see each other “face-to-face.” As we agree to meet the other as ourself, we bring ourselves closer to God as well. This is precisely the difference between marriage and a “domestic partnership.” A domestic partnership is a legal arrangement, in which we cede each other certain rights. A marriage is a sacred covenant, in which we agree to treat the other as a “Thou.”
Just as leaders of the matot were concerned that women’s vows would overturn their patriarchal society, so leaders of our civil society are concerned that gay and lesbian vows will overturn our hetero-normative society. They understand—we understand—that there is real power in the I-Thou relationship, a power that tends to overturn social mores and social structures. Seeing another as oneself is in some ways both the most sacred and most transgressive act, an act that defies social boundaries and cultural customs.
What I find most inspiring about Matot Masei is that Torah tells us that God welcomes this powerfully transgressive relationship. God welcomes the women of ancient Israel to make vows as well as men. God welcomes us to forge I-Thou relationships with God and with each other. It is not God who stands in the way of our deepest relationships. It is society that is not ready for God.
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.
The 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.
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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