Queer Tribes: Finding a Place for Alternative Families

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n honor of Father’s/Fathers’ Day, we bring you Gregg Drinkwater’s essay on being a gay dad. You can read other posts in our series on and by parents: by a mother of a queer daughter in Colorado, here; by an Orthodox parent from Baltimore, MD, here; by the mother of a gay son in the Philadelphia suburbs, here; by the mother of gay twins and wife of a rabbi, here; and a video celebration of Mother’s Day/Mothers’ Day here
This essay, originally published in May 2006, is drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, based on the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible.

Gregg Drinkwater and daughter

Gregg Drinkwater and daughter

The Book of Numbers opens with the voice of God, commanding Moses to conduct a census of the Israelites “according to their families, according to their fathers’ household.” (Numbers 1:2) Thirteen months have passed since the Exodus from Egypt and the “children of Israel” are still wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. The census is to be organized “according to their families,” which is to say, by tribe. Only men over the age of 20 are counted since the census is undertaken, in part, to prepare for war before attempting to enter the land of Israel. The count of each of the 12 tribes is then enumerated, one by one, until Moses and Aaron reach a final tally of 603,550, with another 22,000 Levites counted separately and marked off as a distinct group.

Earlier in the Torah, in Exodus, the Israelites are counted as a whole – as a nation – without tribal distinctions. Here, the focus is on familial lineage as measured through tribal affiliation and descent, “according to their fathers’ household.” Unlike the matrilineal system generally used to define the Jewish people as a nation (under traditional Jewish law a Jew is defined as someone born to a Jewish mother, or one who converts to Judaism), this focus on the line of the fathers marks the “tribe” or family as male space, suggesting that familial ties are primarily measured through men. As a people, Jews are the collective children of the matriarchs – Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah. But as families – Cohens and Levis, Goldbergs and Greenblatts – Jewish bloodlines are counted through men.

Posted on June 14, 2013
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