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 Hashem‘s 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.
In 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 Hashem‘s 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.
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
Rabbi Jane Litman first presented these words of Torah for Simchat Torah in 2006, as part of the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. Her message is just as profound and relevant today.
Wow! Here we are – we have accomplished so much. We were oppressed, then came together and confronted the oppression. We built a movement, resolved internal disputes, struggled with leadership, created a new set of social norms, overcame setbacks, and moved forward. It’s taken a long time – many years – but now, finally, we’re poised to reap the rewards of all our efforts…. Only to find that we’re back at the beginning! Sound familiar? No, it’s not the story of gay rights during the Bush years; it’s actually the underlying revelation of Judaism’s ritual Torah cycle. Continue reading
The Torah is strewn with transgendered hearts.
How can that be true? The Torah, as we know, is not written for or about transgender people, and in any case, “transgender” is supposed to be a noun or adjective, not a verb, an umbrella term for the millions of people whose gender identity or expression is more complicated than “male” or “female.” “Transgender” gathers gender-complicated people into a broad, simple category – the equivalent of “African American” or “Latino” – and implies that our identities, like those of other minorities, are a matter of fact that is not up for discussion. But though “transgender” has real advantages for describing ourselves to others, for many of us who identify as transgender, identity is an often-messy, ongoing process, not a simple, settled fact. For me, “transgender” isn’t just something I am – it is an active, terrifying, exalting process of unmaking and remaking a self that will never quite fit established categories of gender or identity. Continue reading
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 book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Rabbi Jane Litman sees in the blessing before studying Torah echoes of the portion itself: we have the human need, and the human means, to connect with God.
The blessing that one recites before studying Torah is:
Baruch ata adonai, elohaynu melech ha-olam, asher kiddishanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu la-asok b’divray torah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who makes us holy with mitzvot and gives us the mitzvah of engaging in the words of Torah.
We don’t ask the Divine blessing for obeying Torah, or hearing Torah, or even reading Torah, but rather for engaging with Torah. It is the process of engagement – the passionate give and take – that is sacred, not the specific content. In a world in which biblical fundamentalism is on the rise, it’s important to note that the Jewish relationship with our sacred text is interpretive. Our task is to take Torah seriously, not necessarily to agree with its literal content. Sometimes when we study Torah, we are struck by the eternal quality of its message; at other times its words seem tightly bound to a particular cultural moment and place. Torah is both ancient and contemporary – that is its gift. Continue reading
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 book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Maggid Jhos Singer looks at Joseph’s reunification with his brothers as an example of the profound messiness of the Jewish concept of holiness.
While waiting on the schoolyard the other day for my kids to get out of their classrooms, I was chatting with a little clutch of fellow parents, none of them Jewish, when the issue of my working as a Jewish Spiritualist entered the conversation. One of the parents said something like, “It must be nice being so, well, you know, holy, you know, so spiritual and everything, you must feel really, uh, so peaceful.”
I could feel my face take on a look of confusion and was aware that my head had slowly tilted, dog-like, to one side. I wanted to say, “Are you on crack?!” But, being so spiritually evolved, I managed to just grunt a little and then, mercifully, the bell rang and all chaos erupted in the form of children streaming away from their day of state-imposed confinement, effectively ending the conversation. Continue reading
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 essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Karen Erlichman connects Joseph’s prophetic dreams with his inner moral compass, and urges queer Jews to remain similarly true to their inner selves.
They saw him from afar, and before he came close to them they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes that dreamer [ba’al ha’chalomot]! Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘a savage beast [chaya ra’ah] devoured him.’ We shall see what comes of his dreams!” —Genesis 37:18-20
This week’s parasha, Vayeshev, focuses on the story of Joseph, a dreamer and a visionary who was reviled and exiled by his own siblings. He shared his spiritual gifts with those around him, risking his own life to speak Divine Truth. Guided by an inner spiritual compass, Joseph’s clarity of vision and purpose guided him in every moment, even when faced with an unrequited offer of seduction from a woman, or a near-death experience at the hands of his own brothers. Continue reading
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 book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Miryam Kabakov examines Biblical examples of co-parenting, looking for lessons that LGBTQ families can learn from today.
Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last.
The passage from this week’s parsha (parshat Vayishlach) gives us a picture of a complicated family. If you think you have a complex living arrangement, look at Deena’s home. There are four mothers, one father, and twelve half- or full biological siblings. In this family, there was surely a lot of de facto co-parenting going on and today might be considered “alternative.” If it does take a village, this family has it made in the shade. But at the same time, it seems as if the matriarchs and patriarchs are in the dark about how to navigate family dynamics. Their lives are fraught with jealousy, deceit and one-upmanship. Rachel and Leah treat having children as a race to the finish. Yaakov’s hierarchical ranking of the mothers of his children doesn’t help: as the passage above makes clear, Yaakov is intentional in the placement of his family members as he readies himself to greet his long lost brother Esav. With vivid memories of Esav as a bloodthirsty hunter and fighter bent on revenge, Yaakov splits his camp. The reasoning is that if Esav does attack, at least half will survive. Continue reading
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 essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Maggid Jhos Singer sees Jacob’s flight from his family in Genesis 28 as a unique coming out experience.
Do you remember the first moment you stumbled out of the closet? I don’t mean the first moment that you privately realized you were queer (and by ‘queer’ here I mean whatever differentness you might manifest that isn’t readily apparent to a casual observer), or even when you first acted on your queer tendencies. What I’m thinking of is the first moment that you actually stood in the light of day, as it were, being totally out—just you showing up fully, unhidden, true. You know, your first Meg Christian concert or the first time you marched in an LGBT Pride Parade, the first time you wore a yarmulke/kippah out in the general public, or the first time you corrected a stranger who assumed you were something that you’re not. Thrilling, wasn’t it? Scary, but really incredible, right? I remember feeling broken open and alive in a way that was totally new, awesome, and powerful. While it feels kind of corny to admit it, it really was a spiritual experience. Continue reading
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 book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, David Levy looks at Biblical twins Jacob and Esau through the lens of nature versus nurture.
Toldot, the name given to this week’s parasha, has many layers to its definition. Coming from the Hebrew root meaning “birth,” it literally means “generations.” Its use in the Torah introduces genealogical lists, and also marks the beginning of important stories related to the members of Abraham’s particular genealogical line – some translations even give the word as it appears at the beginning of this week’s parasha as “story.” Toldot is a particularly fitting name for this section of the Torah, because the story begins with the birth of Jacob and Esau, and hinges on both the relationship between the older and younger generations and the question of who shall lead the generations to follow.
To me, Parashat Toldot reads like a divine statement on the “nature versus nurture” debate: are our identities and destinies somehow inherent in us, or are we shaped by the environment in which we are brought up, formed by the generation before us? In queer culture, this debate at times looms large. Are we “born that way” or are there external factors that “make us gay”? And if we adopt children, will our nurturing homes be enough to bring up a next generation in our image, or will adopted children turn out like their birth parents…whoever they might be?
While these questions may at times feel like irrelevant cocktail conversation, they also have a sinister side. If it turns out that queerness can be genetically predicted, will narrow-minded potential parents terminate pregnancies rather than bear queer children? If research points toward environmental factors, will it only fuel “ex-gay ministries” that attempt to “rehabilitate” queer people from their lifestyle?
In attempting to study the question of “nature versus nurture,” researchers have often looked to families with twins, particularly identical twins. After all, if twins share DNA and are brought up together, that’s as reliable a control group as one might hope to find. Whereas if twins are brought up separately, the influence of “nurture” might become more evident.
Now the twins in this week’s parasha – Esau and Jacob – are not identical, in either looks or temperament. Esau is a ruddy, hairy hunter; his younger brother a mild-mannered, smooth-bodied man. Their differences manifest themselves almost at the moment of conception, struggling in their mother’s womb. They are born fighting – Esau coming first with Jacob clutching his heel – and their relationship remains stormy well into adulthood. Even God affirms their nature, telling their mother Rebecca during her pregnancy “the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)
The first story the Torah offers us of the boys’ later life involves Jacob bartering Esau’s birthright in exchange for stew. Jacob is cunning, seizing the opportunity with no sign of premeditation. Sounds like a case for nature, no?
When we meet up with the brothers again, a similar story of Jacob stealing the blessing of his father from Esau unfolds. Only in this story, Jacob doesn’t act with the same initiative and cunning. This time, Jacob’s mother Rebecca orchestrates the entire affair, telling Jacob exactly what to do in order to trick her husband into blessing her favorite son instead of his. Rebecca’s plan involves not only cooking, but also grooming and clothing, along with a solid command of the cultural issues at play…in short, she’s practically a one-woman ancient Near Eastern “Queer Eye.” When Jacob protests that Isaac might not be so susceptible to Rebecca’s plan, she shuts her son up with a quick “Just do as I say.” (Genesis 27:13)
The whole birthright-stew exchange suddenly comes into a sharper focus after witnessing the skill in Rebecca’s plan and the way she dominates her son. Perhaps Jacob was able to seize that opportunity so quickly because Rebecca raised him. Exposure to his mother’s example would surely have sharpened Jacob’s acuity in such situations. Perhaps he was nurtured to be as he is.
But when two stories that are so similar exist side by side in the Torah, we can’t help but ask why. Why tell what is essentially the same story twice, if there’s not something to be learned from the contrast? In this case, I think a core lesson speaks to the futility of the nature versus nurture debate. This parasha presents two alternate versions of Jacob and Esau’s relationship, one colored by birth and the other by environment. Both turn out the same. Whether Jacob had it in for Esau from the womb, or whether he learned his behavior from his mother, shouldn’t affect what lessons we take from their interactions.
This lesson itself could bear repeating once in a while these days. When I think about the amount of money, energy, and talent being devoted to research into “gay genes” (and not, say, to curing AIDS), I have to wonder why. Whether we are born queer, become queer, or choose to be queer shouldn’t affect how we’re judged, our rights under the law, our access to appropriate health care, or our positive self-images.