When LGBT Jews re-encounter their tradition on their own terms, they can experience spiritual risk, iconoclasm, and reimagined faith. One way to better understand and relate to this process is through the lens of biblical figures. Eshel, the national effort for LGBT inclusion in Orthodox families and communities, is introducing a series of monthly shiurim entitled, “The Real Modern Family: Biblical Characters in a Whole New Light,” which will explore nine biblical characters through this lens.
In order to give you a taste of this endeavor, I’d like to offer a short musing on a biblical character that plays a supporting role in the unfolding of the Abrahamic vision. Eliezer, Abraham’s chief servant is mentioned explicitly only once, in chapter 15 of Genesis.
Following a battle with kings to extricate his nephew Lot, Abram is promised great reward. The words “great reward” fall blankly upon Abram as he responds with subtle impatience. He reminds God that he is still childless and that his steward, Eliezer from Damascus, is his only possible heir.
Eliezer is introduced as a fall back, a foil to God’s delayed fulfillment of covenantal promises. God assures Abram that, this one, “ze” will not inherit him, but a child of his own body will. Eliezer is the first rejected heir. Later Ishmael will also be rejected. As the story unfolds, only a child of both Abraham and Sarah will fulfill the intended mission and give rise to the covenanted people.
Abraham’s trusted servant appears later in the narrative at another junction of threatened continuity. After taking care of Sarah’s burial, Abraham asks his steward to swear an oath that Isaac will not marry a local Canaanite woman. He bids the servant to seek out a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s kin. We should expect the chief servant to be Eliezer, but not once in Abraham’s extraction of the oath, the servant’s prayerful preparation or the detailed negotiations with Laban, is his name mentioned. He is “eved Avraham,” Abraham’s slave, or “ha’ish,” the man.
Both rabbinic and scholarly consensus suggests that the unnamed servant is indeed, Eliezer. If so, then the avoidance of his name may be pointed. He is the shaliah, messenger, par excellence. Instead of being Abraham’s heir, he is his double, effecting Abraham’s will. For the Rabbis, Eliezer not only acts to accomplish Abraham’s purposes, he extends Abraham’s moral vision as well.
We are told that Eliezer happened by Sodom and stayed the night. During his short visit he has two distinct encounters. The first is with an aggressor who strikes and wounds him. Eliezer goes before a judge who deems that he owes his attacker a fee for bloodletting. With wit and humor, Eliezer rebuts by striking the judge with a staff and calling upon the judge to employ the bloodletting fee that is now owed him, to cover his debt to the original attacker. Here, Eliezer is playing Abraham’s iconoclastic role. Like the son of Terah who smashes all the idols and puts the club in the hands of the largest idol, mocking his father’s beliefs, Eliezer humorously (and similarly aggressively) contends with Sodom’s corrupt justice.
Eliezer’s second encounter with Sodom offers a poignant portrayal of the clash of cultures. The Sages associated Sodom with an aggressive rejection of the duty to welcome and protect travelers. The wealthy Sodomites, fearing an inundation of needy foreigners, had abandoned hospitality for the stranger. The Rabbis employ the myth of Procrustes’ bed, renaming it, the bed of Sodom to comment on their own cultural conflict with Athens and Rome (BT Sanhedrin 109b).
Procrustes’ bed inverts the ethic of hospitality. Procrustes (meaning he who stretches) kept a house by the side of the road for passing strangers. He offered them a warm meal and a bed. Once the visitors laid upon it, Procrustes would cut off the legs of those too long or stretch those too short. Theseus, the hero of the Greek tale, turns the tables on Procrustes and fatally adjusts him to his own bed. In Sodom, the Rabbis tell us, they also had a bed upon which weary guests might rest. Eliezer is offered to rest in the Sodomite bed and declines. He explains that since his mother died he pledged not to have a pleasant night’s sleep on a comfortable bed.
The people of Sodom are not only frightened of human need; they are also desperate to force everyone to fit a single measure. They have a well-to-do gated community that has both zoned out poverty and insured that only “our kind” of folk will be welcome.
Eliezer’s mourning for his mother saves him from being amputated or stretched. Mourning the dead is a particularly selfless expression of relationship and love. The people of Sodom treat all outside its walls as already dead and Eliezer treats the dead as still alive. Eliezer is saved from Sodom’s evil not by his sword or cunning, as is Theseus, but by his own loving beyond all boundaries or benefit.
According to the Sages, Eliezer is one of nine biblical characters who entered the Garden of Eden without dying (Masechet Derech Eretz Zuta, Chapter 1). Perhaps Eliezer’s self-effacing service, his humility, and his love beyond the grave gave him an unusual pass, a seamless entrance into the next world.
This early expression of dedication to both the teacher and his covenantal ideals feels like a precursor to a conversion process that will wait generations to become formal. Eliezer is not related to Abraham by birth, but in the words of Isaiah, he is a faithful “foreign son” (Isaiah 56:6). Jewish continuity is primarily familial and reproductive, nonetheless, access to the God of Abraham and Sarah cannot be restricted. As Eliezer’s name suggests, God helps anyone who wishes to serve. Unlike Sodom, our tent is open to everyone, different as they may be, needy for respite, hungry for food, yearning for depth, or just eager for companionship.
Eshel extends a hearty welcome to any and all to join us for a Chanukat HaBayit at our new downtown office on November 20th at 6pm followed by the first session of “Real Modern Family” on Sarah Imenu: The Laughing Princess.
Visit www.eshelonline.org/beiscamp to learn more about the “Real Modern Family” series.
Her name can be found in most American history books, and her accomplishments are part of every U.S. history curriculum. This recognition is not undeserved, as she revived interest in feminism with her book The Feminine Mystique and facilitated change in women’s roles by establishing the National Organization for Women (NOW). Although most high school students treat Betty Friedan as another name to memorize for a history test, she is so much more than a removed figure in a textbook for me. She is the reason that I am a feminist.
My middle school history teacher developed my interest in First Wave Feminism, encouraging me to write papers for class and National History Day (NHD) about the suffrage movement. I loved learning about these long-ago crusaders for women’s equality, people who battled for rights I took for granted. My interest in the history of feminist activism led me to learn about Second Wave Feminism on my own during the summer before ninth grade. While researching this era, I read most of the major feminist classics, all of which really resonated with me. I identified most with 1960s and 70s feminism largely because the issues relevant then, from LGBT rights to equal pay, are still pertinent today.
However, it was not until I read The Feminine Mystique that I had my “feminist click moment.” I was shocked by the blatant sexism that society had condoned and the prevalence of discriminatory attitudes towards women, all in such a recent time period. Friedan’s exposé was so powerful that it rallied me to action and made me want to battle for women’s rights. It was official: I became a feminist.
Ever since reading The Feminine Mystique, I have gotten involved in numerous feminist activities. I am particularly proud of my work with Star of Davida, the Orthodox Jewish feminist blog where I have posted biweekly articles on women’s issues since summer 2010. As someone who enjoys writing and believes strongly in feminism, blogging has allowed me to combine these passions and engage with both of them on a deeper level. It has also compelled me to follow other bloggers and read their thoughts on the issues, which has broadened my horizons, introduced me to new ideas, and given me the opportunity to examine my own opinions in order to change them or reaffirm them.
Betty Friedan influenced my current actions as well as my future aspirations: I hope to pursue gender studies in college and become a labor lawyer specializing in women’s issues. These goals were solidified when I attended the 2012 NOW conference as part of the NOW Young Feminist Task Force, an exclusive group that unites young feminists and gives them a greater voice. Hearing motivating speeches and meeting dedicated feminists showed me that this is what I want to do with my life. Although I never met Friedan, who died in 2006, I know that she would be proud to have inspired me to carry on the torch of feminism.
This was Talia’s college admissions essay for Harvard University, where she is now finishing her first year. If you discussed your Orthodox feminism in your college application, or in an essay for high school, college, or graduate school, tell us about it! Send your essay to email@example.com.
Orthodox feminism’s struggle for women’s leadership and ritual inclusion set a strong precedent for the recent consideration of the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. As JOFA supporter Dinah Mendes asserts in Moment Magazine, “LGBT traditional Jews share some similarities with traditional Jewish feminists; like them, they press against established gender boundaries and norms in their quest for more equal representation and involvement.”
“There is no new thing under the sun,” declared King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, the literary, somewhat world-weary distillate of his lifetime experience. But if the wise old king were catapulted into our new gender relaxed world, would he still opine thus? Would he stick to his guns if the Sunday Times landed on his breakfast table, the “Vows” section filled with the nuptial announcements of gay couples? Or if he were to glance at the cover article of a recent Atlantic Monthly entitled “What Straights Can Learn From Same-Sex Couples,” positing the higher level of fulfillment enjoyed in many homosexual unions?
Although legally sanctioned anti-Semitism ensured Jewish cultural separatism and prevented full participation in the larger world for much of Jewish history, Jews living today are, for the most part, free to design the parameters of their dual citizenship. This is not much of an issue for ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are largely self-insulating, or for relatively assimilated Jews at the other end of the spectrum, who are unburdened by the yoke of religious Jewish authority. Ultimately, only traditional and Modern Orthodox Jews, who aspire to inhabit and integrate two worlds, confront serious challenges at points where the values of the two cultures clash with each other.
Continue reading “Is There a New Judaism for Gender Identity?” at Moment Magazine.
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On Keshet, an anonymous group of parents reflects on their difficult journeys accepting their children—and the challenges their communities pose.
“We are not going to tell you it was easy absorbing this news from our children. We had the same hopes for our children that you have for yours. But as hard as it has been for us, it has been a much more difficult journey for our children. We now see our children as very brave for having told us, their friends and extended family, about who they are. As most have described it to us, it was a frightening and lonely experience to hold on to this secret, and most have held on to it from a very young age. We have come to respect how difficult it was for our children to find the strength to come out of the closet in a seemingly unbending Orthodox world.” Continue reading here>>
The excitement in the halls was palpable. Was the enthusiasm because of the record-breaking number of attendees (1,000), the new venue John Jay College, or was it the opening panel with Ruth Calderon? The spirit of optimism and confidence at the recent JOFA conference was so high that most likely it had to be more than the sum of these wonderful elements. For what happened was the creation of a historic gathering in which we saw how far we have come.
The days of tiptoeing around difficult subjects have been swept aside. Instead, we saw new faces exploring new uncharted territory. Topics that had previously been “dealt with” were now embraced and engaged on a profound level.
For the first time, LGBTQ concerns were taken up during four separate sessions in this one-day conference. Here, Queer, and Machmir: Orthodox Life in the LGBT Community launched the events. A screening of DevOut, a movie about the spiritual lives of lesbian and transgender Orthodox women, followed a lunchtime affinity gathering. Finally, a panel entitled Modern Family: Unconventional Structures offered a picture of the challenges faced by nontraditional family constellations in Orthodox contexts.
Miryam Kabakov, one of Eshel’s Executive Directors, remembered that ten years ago, when she had given a session at the JOFA conference on Lesbians in Orthodoxy, the session was nowhere to be found on the program. Only through word of mouth could JOFA attendees locate the “secret” session. Most of the women who attended that session were not openly lesbian, bi, or trans women, but rather agunot, divorced, childless, and single women, who said they were there because this session spoke to their own marginalized status in Orthodoxy.
Ten years later, a cross-section of the conference came to the sessions on LGBT Orthodox Jews. People wanted to explore how issues of gender identity and sexual orientation impact their own lives and those of their family and friends. Parents who have heard the statement: “Imma, Abba – I’m gay,” wanted to hear from a panel of LGBT Orthodox Jews to understand what lay ahead in their children’s future living in Orthodox community.
JOFA has come of age not only due to the persistence and vision of great women, but in some measure due to the men, rabbis and laymen, fathers and brothers who did more than cheer from the sidelines. Orthodox men are increasingly present as “allies.” Many Orthodox men, among them leaders, have joined the chorus of voices when it comes to women’s access and leadership. For both women and LGBT people, allies broaden the field of concern making the challenges of a minority a calling that we all face together. This groundswell of communal action has the power to urge leaders toward an expanded understanding of community itself. The very power of alliance is that it moves us from a place of pain and complaint to a broad sense of communal purpose and shared values. In a sense, alliance is a first step in a process of communal expansion, one in which a new sense of “us” appears on the horizon.
We at Eshel are very grateful to JOFA for opening up the international conference to our voices. Your alliance is not only incredibly encouraging; it will make an enormous practical difference for us. Parents and siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, teachers and students, and friends can help us to urge our religious leaders to open up a space of hope for LGBT Orthodox people and their families.
This year’s JOFA conference felt like a whole community beginning to walk forward together. What comes to mind is Moshe’s insistence to Pharoah that the service to God that he has in mind cannot be done by a few chosen insiders: “With our children and our elders will we go, with our sons and our daughters….will we go” (Exodus 10:9). The deepest religious vision, and truest service, requires us all. No doubt people will excel in different ways. We will need the old to carry memory and the young to carry promise. We will need strong-hearted women and men to lead us so that no one will be left behind. Redemption, like the revelation to come, requires us all.
Eshel’s Retreat for Orthodox Parents of LGBT Children is March 7-9, 2014. If you know anyone who might benefit, please share this link.
Become a member of Eshel’s Orthodox Allies Roundtable; an organizing effort to gently and respectfully move our communities forward. Sign up as an ally. Join OAR.
Listen to a recording of the session, Here, Queer, and Machmir from the JOFA Conference:
We’re getting really excited about the JOFA conference, less than a week away! The 8th International JOFA Conference, set for December 7-8 at John Jay College in New York City, will be full of hot-button issues and interesting speakers from around the world.
Topics to look forward to are: unconventional families, LGBT inclusion, new mikveh rituals, eating disorders, educating for sexuality, gender segregation in Israel, raising feminist boys, Women of the Wall, “slut-shaming” in the Orthodox community, and the emergence of new Orthodox feminist communities around the world, including the newly formed JOFA UK.
Our goal is for participants to leave not only with new information and resources on these vital issues, but also with inspiration and vigor in order to promote social change in their own communities.
Some of the speakers we’re most excited about are: Rori Picker-Neiss, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Gabrielle Birkner, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Susan Weiss, Dr. Ronit Irshai, Dr. Melanie Landau, Blu Greenberg, Dr. Rachel Levmore, and more. The conference includes speakers from the US, Canada, UK, Israel, and Australia. You can see the whole program here.
Notice also that we are using fun new technology to enable you to build your own program online in advance. Please let us know how you like this and how it affects your conference experience.
Since the first JOFA conference, in 1997, which paved the way for a new movement to change the way Orthodox women and men experience Jewish life, every conference has been a watershed event, instigating important transformation within the Jewish community – from equal educational opportunities to sexual abuse to women clergy and more.
“This JOFA conference is different from past conferences because the world has changed so much over the past few years, and it’s time for Orthodoxy to address these new realities,” said conference coordinator Bat Sheva Marcus. “We are looking at new rituals, new family structures, and new communities, and we are particularly interested in reaching the younger women in our community and addressing the issues that are foremost concerns for them.”
Other innovations in this conference include a special Educators Track for day school educators, a teen track with a poetry slam, live-streaming and live-tweeting, and a Saturday night musical program including Ofir Ben Shitrit, “Girls in Trouble,” an indie band with midrashic themes, a cappella singing groups S’madar from Barnard and Tizmoret from Queens College, and Peninnah Schram’s acclaimed storytelling. There will also be opportunities for networking, with lunchtime affinity tables.
If you have any comments or questions, please contact us anytime.
Hope to see you there!
To register for the 8th International JOFA conference, December 7-8 at John Jay College, go to http://www.jofa.org/2013conference
Watch this great studio performance by Alicia Jo Rabins of “Girls In Trouble:”
Watch Ofir Ben-Shitrit on Israel’s The Voice: