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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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 two posts in this series here and here.
Rabbi Aaron Meyer delivered this sermon at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Washington on Rosh Hashanah . Find out more about how to get involved in the fight for marriage equality in Washington, as well more information on the Jewish Coalition for Marriage Equality in Washington, at the Temple De Hirsch Sinai resource page.
“Your attention please: would Aaron Meyer please report to the Guidance Office – Aaron Meyer to the guidance office.”
Me?!? Me, who still held his mother’s hand to cross the street when I was 15? Who didn’t even think about kissing a girl until college? The only type of guidance I needed was which book to stay at home reading on Saturday night! I slowly trudged down the hall, one foot after another, my mind whirling with all of the possibilities of the moment, before finally I stopped at the closed door to the Guidance Office. After a timid knock, I entered and did my best to disappear into a corner – no small feat when you are as tall as I.
Marriage equality is on the ballot in four states this November – Maryland, Washington, Minnesota, and Maine – and this High Holiday season a number of rabbis are choosing to use their pulpits, or have congregants use them, to encourage support of these initiatives. Over the next few weeks leading up to the election, we’ll share sermons from each state voting on marriage equality. We hope their words of Torah inspire you. You can see the first post in this series, here.
This week, we bring you the sermon Rabbi Harold Kravitz delivered on Rosh Hashanah at Adath Jeshurun Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Minnetonka, Minnesota. See below to learn more about Jewish Community Action (JCA), the organization mobilizing the Jewish community in Minnesota around marriage equality, and how you can get involved.
A privilege I have as a rabbi is getting called by people who want to tell me about their engagement and ask if I can officiate at the wedding. Sometimes the calls are from young people I have watched grow up in my twenty-five years as a rabbi here. Sometimes the calls are from one of the parents asking about dates, but the couple doesn’t know yet!
The calls are invariably touching. I may have officiated at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Actually, I am now at the point that I may have been at their baby naming. Our son Gabe, who married Yael a year ago August, may have the distinction of being my first such wedding. I look forward to many more of those in the years ahead.
Since my entire career as a rabbi has been in Minnesota, I have always done weddings here within parameters set by the MRA, the Minnesota Rabbinical Association. For the last 60 years, or so, the MRA policy has been to only do weddings in a synagogue, a home, or a park. It is an unusual policy. I know of no other community with anything quite like it. The rabbis who originally established it were concerned about what they saw happening in hotels and wanted to set a more appropriate tone for Jewish weddings. I really believe that this policy is one of the things that has contributed to the special strength and quality that has long distinguished the Minnesota Jewish community.
With the holiday of Simchat Torah coming up, rabbinical student Becky Silverstein considers how the Jewish calendar lets her renew her relationship with the Torah each year – and how it reminds her to use our sacred text as a tool, and not a weapon.
Eisegesis: an explanation of a text in which the interpreter’s own biases and assumptions are read into or placed upon the text.
As an educator who has worked mostly in experiential and informal educational settings, I know a lot of icebreakers and community building activities, not to mention name games. Last fall, as a visiting rabbinical student in a liberal yeshiva, I learned a new game that was intended to serve as both an icebreaker and a way for people to learn about each other. The name of the game was “eisegesis.” We, students and our teachers, gathered in small groups. Slips of paper with verses from that week’s Torah portion were distributed and directions were given: read the verse and share with the group how that verse describes a part of who you are, a part of your life, or a part of the community that you are coming from.
I looked at the verse in my hand just as it was being read aloud: “A woman shall not wear man’s clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Adonai your God (Deuteronomy 22:5).” I panicked.
As the only gender non-conforming person in the room and one of only two out LGBTQ-identified students in the community at the time, I had not yet decided how, if, or when I was going to come out and whether I would discuss my gender identity as it relates to my identity as a rabbinical student. The go-around began. A male teacher shared how his running in spandex shorts might be considered too effeminate. Another teacher asked him what he would do if his son wanted to wear a dress, making it clear that there was only a question about the father’s response if this happened once or twice. After that the son’s behavior would clearly need to be corrected. Another shared the first time she wore pants in her religious community. Shaking, all I could say was, “just another example of how the Torah can be used to oppress people.”
Marriage equality is on the ballot in four states this November – Maryland, Washington, Minnesota, and Maine – and this High Holiday season a number of rabbis are choosing to use their pulpits, or have congregants use them, to encourage support of equal marriage. Over the next few weeks leading up to the election, we’ll share sermons from each state voting on marriage equality. We hope their words of Torah inspire you.
This Rosh Hashanah Jamie Heller delivered this powerful and personal (and yes, humorous!) sermon at Kol Shalom in Rockville, MD. The Hellers are long-time Keshet leaders and supporters – Jamie’s son Daniel is on the Keshet board and Jamie’s wife Debbie is a founding member of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection. See below to learn more about Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), the organization mobilizing the Jewish community in Maryland around marriage equality, and how you can get involved in this effort.
Shana Tovah. Thank you, Rabbi Maltzman, for the honor of allowing me to address all of you this morning.
I want to start, by pointing out that not all problems are that difficult to solve.
One such example occurred just yesterday when my wife plugged a power strip into itself instead of the wall and then could not figure out why her computer wasn’t working.
An example of poor planning was the vacation I purchased on CheapCarribbean.com only to find upon arrival that the hotel and our room were still under construction.
Or the ill effects of hasty planning when I tried teaching our youngest son to parallel park by using our three cars. I accidentally parked two of the cars too close together so when he attempted the impossible task of wedging the third car in between, he damaged not only his self-confidence, but all three of our cars at once.
Unfortunately, not all problems are this simple to solve. Some pertaining to relationships, health, family and, career are truly hard. The one which I want to talk to you about this morning looks hard, but will be easy and obvious in hindsight. I want to talk to you about a civil rights issue.
Civil rights are the rights that belong to each of us as individuals because we are citizens of the United States. They promise us equal protection under our laws and freedom from discrimination. Sounds pretty simple, right? Continue reading