Tag Archives: Torah

Parashat VaYikra: “And God Called”: The Process is the Message

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.

Creative Common/Alexander Smolianitski

Creative Commons/Alexander Smolianitski

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

Posted on March 11, 2013

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 Miketz: The Bumpy Road to High-Drama Holiness

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.

Parashat Miketz. Creative Commons / Purple Slog

Creative Commons / Purple Slog

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

Posted on December 10, 2012

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

Ba’al Ha’Chalomot: Keepers of the Dreams

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.

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Joseph and his coat of many colors. Creative Common/Brian Kolstad

Creative Common/Brian Kolstad

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

Posted on December 3, 2012

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

Deena Has Four Mommies: Tales of Co-parenting in Tanach

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.

Creative Commons / Elliot Margolies

Creative Commons / Elliot Margolies

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.

(Gen. 33:1-2)

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

Posted on November 26, 2012

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

And Jacob Came Out…

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.

Out of the Closet. Creative Common/Heiko

Creative Common/Heiko

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

Posted on November 19, 2012

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

Nature vs. Nurture: A Story of Generation(s)

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.

"The Birth of Esau and Jacob," Master of Jean de Mandeville.

"The Birth of Esau and Jacob," Master of Jean de Mandeville. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

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.

Posted on November 12, 2012

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

Camels and Consummation: Parashat Chayei Sarah

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, Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College and Keshet board member, explains how Rebecca, at the well, models the Torah’s unique brand of radical independence. Joy’s recent memoir is titled Through the Doors of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders.

Parshat Chayei Sarah, Creative Commons/Nick Leonard

Creative Commons/Nick Leonard

After burying his wife Sarah, the aged Abraham summons his servant Eliezer and makes him swear to leave Canaan and return to Abraham’s homeland to find a wife for his son Isaac. Eliezer prays that God identify the right woman by having her offer water to him and to his camels. Continue reading

Posted on November 5, 2012

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 Real Sin of Sodom

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, Rabbi Steve Greenberg re-examines the real sin of the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and considers the modern-day implications of their misdeeds.

Jerusalem Gay Pride. Wiki Commons/Guy Yitzhaki

Jerusalem Gay Pride. Wiki Commons/Guy Yitzhaki

This week [in 2006], daily riots erupted in Jerusalem’s streets as the Haredi (“Ultra-Orthodox”) community violently protested the upcoming Jerusalem Gay Pride march, scheduled for November 10. Haredi youths pelted police officers with large stones, blocks, bottles, angle irons, and wood planks. Posters lined the streets promising the payment of thousands of shekels to any zealot who would kill a “sodomite” marching in the parade. The riots were so intense that it became necessary for Haredi rabbinic leaders to come to the scene with megaphones and encourage the crowds to disperse. In another act of intolerance, the Edah Haredit, a right-wing Haredi rabbinical court, pronounced a rabbinic curse – a pulsa danura – on those organizing the march and against the policemen defending the marchers. Continue reading

Posted on October 29, 2012

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

Words of Torah, for Marriage Equality: Rabbi Rachel Isaacs

Marriage equality is on the ballot in four states this November – Maryland, Washington, Minnesota, and Maine – which could transform the landscape of equality in the United States. Because this is such an important issue, this High Holiday season a number of rabbis chose to use their pulpits, or have congregants use them, to encourage support of local measures. In this series, we’ll share with you one sermon from each state voting on marriage equality, and hope their words of Torah inspire you. You can read the previous sermons for marriage equality from Washington, from Maryland, and from Minnesota.

This week, we bring you the sermon Rabbi Rachel Isaacs delivered on Rosh Hashanah at Beth Israel Congregation in Waterville, Maine. Learn how to get involved in the fight for marriage equality in Maine by visiting Equality Maine.

Rabbi Rachel Isaacs at ordination

Rabbi Rachel Isaacs at ordination. Photo by Amy Stone.

I remember one day in rabbinical school I was having Shabbat dinner with a professor and his friends. One of the women who was sitting at the Shabbat table had converted to Judaism decades ago and had raised three Torah-observant Jews. When discussing why she was so committed to raising her kids with such strong Jewish identities she said, “You need to give your kids religion at home, otherwise they’ll catch it out on the street.” Her statement has stuck with me for years. Is Judaism really like chicken pox? Better to get it early and at home — otherwise, you may contract a much more noxious version of faith at a later age. While her words may have been a little crass, I think that they were deeply true. Religion can be an amazing, healing, resonant influence in our lives that provides us with deep roots and a clear, ethical, beautiful vision of what the future can be. However, faith — when taken to extremes, religion — when it asks you to defy your instincts,  Judaism — when it brings you to hurt and exclude others — can be very dangerous. Continue reading

Posted on October 17, 2012

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 Language of Blessings

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, Marisa James plays with ideas of language, blessings, and curses as they appear in Genesis.

Blessings and curses in this week's parasha

Creative Commons/Rachel-Esther

Last month, I had the dubious honor of reading parashat Ki Tavo at my shul on Shabbat morning, including the tokhekha, the list of all the curses which will come up on the people of Israel if we do not keep the commandments. It’s a long, difficult piece of text, and most Torah readers intentionally read this section faster than usual, and more quietly, to take away the sting of having to listen to so many curses on Shabbat.

Unfortunately, I spent the week before Shabbat Ki Tavo in bed, sick, fighting a losing battle against the flu. When Saturday arrived, I stumbled through the harder parts of the tokhekha, reading them slower instead of faster. But at least it was only the curses I stumbled through; when I read the blessings, they were loud and clear. As one of my friends said, “Better that your tongue should never be comfortable easily pronouncing curses.”

Continue reading

Posted on October 15, 2012

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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