FeedBurner makes it easy to receive content updates in My Yahoo!, Newsgator, Bloglines, and other news readers.
I am a very, very strong supporter of equal rights and the freedom of men and women to marry whomever they love.
-Duncan McAlpine Sennett
Mazel Tov, Duncan and the folks at Congregation Beth Israel for nurturing and supporting him.
You have to admit, this is a wonderfully queer holiday. And a once in a lifetime occurrence. (You’ll have to wait another 77,798 years for it to occur again.)
In all seriousness, we are grateful to each and every reader of this blog for engaging, exploring, and yes, even disagreeing with us. And our heartfelt thanks today and every day for everyone who helps create a fully inclusive Jewish community.
Wishing you and yours a very happy Thanksgivukkah!
Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), memorializes trans individuals who have died because of anti-transgender discrimination and victimization. It occurs annually on and around November 20 each year. We invite you to explore, learn, and participate with your Jewish community this year. Below are some resources to get you started. And if you missed our earlier post by Rafi Daugherty, on why marking this day is important, you can find it here.
See how Jewish organizations are observing TDOR this year and check out events happening around the country.
This Hanukah guide, part of the Ask Big Questions/Hillel, is perfect for group discussions about the risks and rewards of taking a stand. The guide features an important, moving essay by author S. Bear Bergman about the intersection of Hanukkah and Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Includes tips for hosting a successful remembrance event, guiding principles, ideas for events, and planning tips.
A prayer (in English) written by Rabbi Reuben Zellman on the occasion of TDOR.
In this d’var Torah, professor, poet, and Keshet board member Joy Ladin retells the biblical stories of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac through the lens of their gender and life transitions as a way for transgender readers to find themselves in the Torah.
In this sermon about identity and self-understanding, Kadin Henningsen highlights the ways that characters in this Torah portion come to know themselves and what we as LGBT people can glean from this.
For many transgender people and people who don’t conform to societal gender norms, using a public restroom is a daily struggle. Use this sign at your next event to explain why you have created an all-gender bathroom.
Check out this series of videos of transgender Jews and allies to trans Jews. Tremendous gratitude to Keshet members Alex, David, Stacy, Stephanie, and Suzie for sharing your lives with us and to the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition for this project.
Laura Thor spoke these words at Transgender Day of Remembrance last year, at a service held at Jefferson Unitarian Church, Golden, Colorado. Laura will be speaking again this year at this event-we invite you to join us.
How many of you have seen the YouTube video of Lana Wachowski’s acceptance speech fat the 2012 Human Rights Campaign gala ?
Lana has grabbed the brass ring, found the Holy Grail, or, as she says, won the Lotto. In her speech to the HRC she speaks of being loved in her entirety, of finally being known for who she is… for being seen.
Four times she returns to the power of being seen or failing to be seen and recognized for who she is.
She speaks of the universal, essential need for each person to be seen, not only in order to be known and loved, but in order to exist at all.
To find our place and to fit in, we have to be recognized as belonging. We will never trust we are lovable unless we feel known in our entirety, and that can’t happen unless we show ourselves, make ourselves visible.
But the conundrum of course, is that for the Transgender person, showing oneself can get oneself killed.
We are social beings who don’t do well if we go unnoticed, unattended to. From infancy our lives depend on being seen and understood. If our caregivers don’t recognize our cry for food or holding, we go hungry and neglected.
In school, if no mentor ever sees our innate gifts, we don’t tend to recognize them in ourselves, and without someone speaking truth to us about who we are and who we might become, we might not believe it ourselves.
We can’t know much about ourselves outside a community of others who also want to risk vulnerability for the sake of being known, of being real, together.
Isolation is safe, but it leads to stillbirth, not life.
We can try to stay safe by hiding out on a private island inhabited by no one but ourselves, but we can’t live there for long. Remember what happens to Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Cast Away?
After the first year of living alone on the island, he almost throws himself off a cliff, but something stops him: perhaps his fear of bungling it, we’re led to guess. But by four years of living alone, he starts talking to his volleyball. It seems to talk back, for he has conversations with it, he keeps himself sane arguing with Wilson the volleyball: ‘Whatever works.’ Wilson is of course a metaphor, a stand-in for God, for that Love, that Presence that keeps him alive because of a relationship that sustains him in his otherwise empty place.
Same thing happens for Lana. When she’s about to throw herself in front of a subway train late at night when the platform is empty, something happens,
or rather Someone happens. It’s not fear that stops her.
It’s the shortest relationship ever. It’s being seen by an old man who joins her on the platform, whose eyes don’t let go of her, they don’t look away; familiar eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses just like her deceased beloved Grandma’s. Lana and the Old Man stare at each other the way animals do, eyes locked, and she doesn’t know why he wouldn’t look away. She says “All I know is that because he didn’t, I am still here.”
We need people to keep us accountable to the possibility of meaning and purpose.
Because I am a sentimental, hopelessly religious person, who, like many folks here tonight, I’m betting, has had a few wild ‘God experiences’ myself, I sense that her Grandma was there for her; God was there in a way Lana could recognize, in Grandma form.
Much later she meets “the first person that has made me understand that they love me not in spite of my difference but because of it. She is the first person to see me as a whole being.”
And later still when Lana meets her mom as herself, her mom says that instead of the fear she expected to have, of grief and loss of her son, she discovers someone she has never known, an unseen part of her grown child that now she could get to know. She felt it was a gift.
But did our dead receive any gifts along their journeys? Did they die before ever being seen and known and loved? I think, I hope they were fulfilled in this way, for they had mourners, loved ones. So I believe that means their murders could not revoke all that. The meaning of their lives remains with us who bear witness to their hope and courage to live out loud, instead of in hiding and silence.
Still, I have this problem. As a religious and spiritual person who tries to be honest with God about my frail trust, I have to admit I am upset. I tell God I am upset when God doesn’t seem to be around for the Gwens and the Brandons and the Angies among us. What was God doing when they were not seen for who they are but were outed, uncovered against their will, violated, and destroyed?
This question touches into my anger and I argue with God about it all the time. I want to know where were those red-beret’d men and women, the ‘Guardian Angles’, (interestingly named), who prowl the nights of our cities looking for evil, looking to see it eye to eye? Aren’t they supposed to show up and use their unarmed witness to disarm and disperse the hate that boils up when people are faced with what they don’t understand?
I want to know…God doesn’t say. Not yet anyway, not on this plane of existence. I am annoyed. But I stay connected anyway, because whatever that Energy is, I have nothing else to turn to. And I need to believe that death and evil are not the finality of us. …there’s that Biblical truth, “the evil are dead while they are alive, but the righteous are alive even after death.”….I’m not sure that’s enough.
But there is a teaching that sustains my hope in mercy and justice, compassion and healing. It is said that at the beginning of our lives, God breathes our souls into us, She exhales her divine Life into us, and at the end, God inhales us, our souls, our essence, back into Godself. We are not lost, not our essence anyway.
I trust that in the very end of each life, when consciousness gives way to essence and our spirit is being taken up, we die accompanied by Love. We return to the Source.
Because I try to have trust, to continue to hang in there with God, I have to wait to see if this is true. I have to wait and be comforted by the Psalm that claims that God made each of us in secret, our true selves hidden until we can see ourselves without fear, until we affirm each other as Divinely made. Psalm 139 says
It was You Who created my inmost self, and put me together in my mother’s womb…I am in awe, I thank You for the wonder of myself, for the wonder of Your works. You know me thru and thru, from having seen my bones take shape when I was being formed in secret, knitted together in my mother’s womb.
I choose to live trusting that God delights in seeing us become who we are.
On Friday nights at our interfaith, inter-political home, we pronounce the Sabbath Blessing over our teenager [when she’s home anymore] and each other. This blessing doesn’t promise protection from harm at the physical level, but promises, and encourages us to believe that we will be fulfilled in our yearning to be seen, known and loved. If I may share a part of this blessing with you all tonight:
May you be blessed in who you are, and in all that you are, and in all you are coming to be;
May God shine Her face upon you, love you into your life,
and grant you peace.
If this prayer feels desirable to you, will you join me in saying ‘Amen.’
When I was growing up, as a little girl in the Orthodox Jewish community, I would stare longingly over the mechitza feeling betrayed by G-d for giving me a body that didn’t feel congruent with my soul. I never imagined that one day I would feel right in my body, accepted in my community, and able to walk freely in the world as a Jewish man.
Observed annually on November 20th, Transgender Day of Remembrance was established as a day set aside for remembering the lives of those gender non-conforming individuals who were viciously murdered for being themselves. It is sometimes hard for us to make the leap between thinking about people being murdered and what that has to do with our community or with us. We think, “No one I know would ever murder a transgender person!” While that may be true, I challenge us all to ask ourselves:
What else can we take away from this day?
Most transgender people spend years hiding and fearing “coming out” because they do not have a community where they know they will be accepted. Many transgender people, like myself, have used drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of being “different,” and even contemplate suicide to escape from making the heart-wrenching choice between family and being true to themselves. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been different if I could have known as a child that I could be myself and also be a part of my community. . . .
I hope this day inspires us to ask ourselves:
*How can we make our community the type of community where a transgender child or adult will feel that they can safely express who they are and not only will we not shun them, we will love and embrace them, and encourage them down their chosen path?
*How can we use this day to bring an end to the silence around gender expression that might be allowing bullying in our Hebrew schools?
*How might we bring awareness to the issue of bathroom safety for gender non-conforming individuals in our institutions?
*How can we widen the arms of our communities’ embrace so that it can enfold the most stigmatized and ostracized individuals and bring them closer to G-d, to Judaism, and to themselves?
I ask you to take a moment to think about how you might use this day to find a way to make a difference. Next week we’ll share resources to help the Jewish community mark this day.
This gift guide is specially tailored to lovers of rainbow pride, Judaism, and the lucky individuals who live the intersection of both. We’ve got everything from silly to serious. Take a look!
Hail your rainbow pride every time you walk through the door with this beautiful Metal and Glass Rainbow Mezuzah ($39.99).
The Purim Superhero ($7.16) is a children’s book about Purim that just happens to feature a two-dad family. We love how unremarkable that fact of little Nate’s life is. Oh, and it’s a really cute story involving an alien costume.
Sport your pride with this LGBT pendant, Rainbow Ray Star of David Necklace ($15.99). Makes a great gift.
Following an ancient tradition, Torah Queeries ($23.40) brings together some of the world’s leading rabbis, scholars, and writers to interpret the Torah through a queer lens. This incredibly rich collection unites the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight-allied writers, including some of the most central figures in contemporary American Judaism.
Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires ($12.50) gives voice to genderqueer Jewish women tell the stories of their coming out or being closeted, living double lives or struggling to maintain an integrated “single life” in relationship to traditional Judaism.
A Queer and Pleasant Danger ($13.13) tells the true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology, and leaves 12 years later to become the lovely lady she is today, Kate Bornstein.
Milk ($6.79) is a biographical film based on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk–the first openly gay person elected to public office in California.
We hope these picks help you narrow down your gift search for yourself, your family, and your friends!
Keshet’s Executive Director, Idit Klein, has been named to the Forward 50, The Jewish Daily Forward‘s annual list of American Jewish leaders who have made an impact on Jewish life. Idit is not the only LGBTQ Jew on the list this year. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, but the lead honoree this year was none other than Edith Windsor, the 84-year-old whose Supreme Court case struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act!
In less than two decades, Keshet has evolved from a small grassroots group in Boston advocating the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Jewish life to a nationwide organization that, today, operates on a $1.7 million budget and has educators in over 200 Jewish communities across the country.
Much of this success can be attributed to Idit Klein, 40, who became Keshet’s first executive director in 2001. Shocked by a wave of LGBT teen suicides in the 1990s, Klein envisaged eliminating the roots of discrimination by raising the awareness of teachers and parents as well as by boosting the confidence of LGBT youth.
Under her leadership, the organization developed a training curriculum for inclusion, which teaches community leaders about Jewish perspectives on sexual orientation and how to respond to homophobic bullying, among other topics. Keshet also offers support and networking opportunities for Jewish LGBT youth, LGBT parents and, since 2012, parents of LGBT youth.
In 2010, Keshet merged with Jewish Mosaic, a Denver-based Jewish LGBT inclusion organization. In June 2011, Keshet opened its third office in San Francisco.
Klein was the executive producer of the 2005 documentary “Hineini: Coming Out In A Jewish High School,” which screened in more than 14 countries. It depicts the struggle of a lesbian ninth grader, and, according to Keshet, inspired several LGBT youths and their parents to address the issues they faced in their communities.
This spring, a writing contest organized by Keshet lead to the publication of “The Purim Superhero,” the first English LGBT-inclusive Jewish children’s book. The first printing sold out within months.
When I was 21, I came out as transgender and identified as a boy. Simultaneously I also came out as frum. At the same time that I began binding, I began wearing tzitzit. I took on a name I had used with friends in high school while also taking on the obligation of t’filah. I asked people to use the pronouns he/his and him when referring to me and when I was bestowed aliyot at shul, I made sure the gabbai said Simcha ben Rachel Dvorah v’Eben instead of Simcha bat.
After over a decade of feeling uncomfortable in Jewish ritual spaces despite my desire to nurture my neshama (soul), I realized how large a role gender identity played in my ability to move within Jewish spaces in general.
When I moved to Brooklyn six years ago, I sought out different entrances into Jewish community. Upon attending a prospective members’ gathering at a local Conservative shul with my then-partner, I was unexpectedly met with confusion from established members. Addressing my cis-female (i.e. not transgender) partner, a middle-aged man asked “Is this your brother?” referring to me. He was reading me through heterosexual and cis-gender eyes, or from his assumptions about the world as a straight and cis-man. Instead of appearing to him as I was, a 23-year-old queer person with his partner, the middle-aged man rendered me a teenager tagging along with his older sister.
One shabbes whilst attempting to mingle with members of the same shul, I struck up conversation with a middle-aged straight couple. “Where does your family live?” they asked. Slightly confused, I responded that my parents are in Boston but that my brother lives around the corner. After a few more questions with the kind of subtle condescension adults normally intone when speaking to children, they asked if I had ever met Ari. I knew Ari to be a young boy of about twelve who attended the shul with his father. I looked at them perplexed as to why they felt I needed to meet a child. “No,” I said. “I don’t know Ari.” As I endured this well-meaning couple introducing me to Ari before taking leave to talk to other adults, I realized they had read me as belonging to Ari’s peer group.
While I wasn’t turned off from attending the shul’s services, further similar interactions did alienate me from attempting to participate in their community.
Over the two years I vigorously navigated frumkeit as a transgender person I tried various community settings from black sheep Orthodox to suburban chavurah and found the assumption, and often, the law of the gender binary, cis-gender experience and heterosexuality overwhelming. Too overwhelming. Eventually I found it easier to just daven (pray) and carry out mitzvot alone. A position contrary to the intention and spirit of Judaism.
Later still, I chose to depart from frumkeit and Jewish community altogether. Instead I invested my energy into Brooklyn’s radical queer community and found deeply restorative reflections of myself in others. In my newfound circle I was met with more mochin d’gadlut, more expanded consciousness, than I had ever found in a Jewish community. Instead of battling continuous streams of assumptions and straight-tinted goggles, I experienced the possibility of community constantly working on creating awareness of the many different kinds of plights people deal with every day.
Three years ago I helped found the transgender and Jewish band Schmekel (I play drums). The project combines Jewish and punk sounds with Jewish and queer topics. Through Schmekel I have found an entrance into Jewish community on my terms. Performing and talking about the occupation of two currently divergent identities has helped in manifesting a union. In turn, Schmekel has manifested community. This became glaringly obvious to me at an early show we played on the first floor of a queer house. Our last song of the night was New Men with Old Man Names, a celebratory tune intended to poke fun at our transmasculine friends who selected dated appellations like Harvey, Enoch and Amos. The song ends with Hava Nagilah. As we reached the point of launching into the classic Jewish tune, the already packed room made up of mostly queer Jews erupted into a frenzied mosh-hora-pit. As I furiously banged out a two-step, the floor bounced beneath me and the crowd shouted along with such ruach (spirit), I couldn’t distinguish my lead singer’s voice from that of the spontaneous community that had formed in front of me.
Whenever we play the kitschy and beloved Hora song, the always mostly queer crowd instinctively leads us through as if unleashing a lifetime’s worth of alienation around a tradition so profoundly loved. It is from this place that I have begun to pick up the pieces of the emunah (faith) my neshama intrinsically makes home in.
Read an interview with members of the band Schmekel here.
Ami wrote this right before he left for college this fall. He bravely chronicled coming out at his Orthodox high school while still a student. He was recently chosen as a “young visionary” of the Jewish community by The New York Jewish Week. You can follow Ami @thesubwaypoet.
Shushan Purim — the day after the Purim that Jews outside of Jerusalem celebrate — is the day that I came out of the closet to my closest friends. I was barely 16 years old, and came out not knowing a single other LGBT person, let alone another LGBT Jew. The irony of coming out of the closet on Purim was lost on me until recently.
Coincidence though it might have been, on a holiday we celebrate by dressing up and hiding who we really are, I chose to share my deepest secret with my best friends. In doing so, I embarked on a journey that changed the way I would view both myself and the path my life would take.
For many, coming out of the closet was a way to escape from religion — some were chased away, others left voluntarily. Coming out in high school, however, was the exact opposite for me. Instead of distancing me from religion, it changed how I approached my Judaism. Ultimately, it brought me closer.
I grew up in a very religiously right-wing community in southern Brooklyn. I was the only one of my peers to attend a coeducational high school, and one of a few to be attending college in the fall. I felt alienated even before I realized I was gay and came out of the closet. Coming out, for me, only served to reinforce the divide that I felt between myself and my community. That gap became so wide that my family eventually felt forced to leave the community, and lost contact with all but a few people from the neighborhood that I considered my hometown.
I came into high school expecting mostly to pass through without being noticed. I wanted to be lower on the radar than I was in middle school, where I was bullied for being effeminate and un-athletic, and for living in a neighborhood farther away from everyone else. I didn’t want to “find myself” — whatever that meant.
Instead, I did. In coming out of the closet, I found my way back to religion, I found a community, and I found my passion. High school, for me, was as much about academics as it was about incidentally finding a group of friends who were accepting enough for me to open up to them about the secret that I had sworn I would never reveal to anyone, and who would encourage me to seek out — or create — opportunities to make a change in my high school. When the door to one community shut me out completely, the window to another community opened. It was these friends, and this community that I sought out and ultimately found that would redefine the way I would approach religion and my identity as a gay, Jewish teen.
When I came out, I did so to virtual silence. I was one of a handful of students to have come out while still a student at my school. Few people I came out to had ever met a queer teen before, and fewer still had met one who was out in an Orthodox Jewish day school like mine. (To be fair, though, when I was coming out to these friends, I hadn’t met a single other openly LGBT Jewish teen attending a Jewish day school, either.) It was this silence that prompted me to cultivate a community inside my school of people who cared about the LGBT community, and seek a community outside of school that would allow me to synthesize my gay and Jewish identities.
In school, my friend and I co-founded the Sexuality, Identity, and Society Club, which helped me find people who were passionate about discussing issues that were often pushed to the side, and also helped put the same ideas into the minds of the rest of the student body: now, others were beginning to think of the same issues that I had to face when I was coming out of the closet. Outside of school, I became connected with Keshet and Eshel, where I met other queer Jewish teens (through the former, at their shabbatonim), and queer Orthodox Jews (through the latter, at their retreats and through their Speakers’ Bureau training). For the first time in my life, I felt as if I no longer had to hide an integral part of who I was. I was a gay, Orthodox, Jewish teen. And for the first time, something felt right.
As I look forward to college, I realize that my opportunities were somewhat limited. I was only able to go so far in high school. College — and especially the program I will be attending — will allow me to study my Judaism not only from an academic perspective, but from an experiential perspective as well. There, I will be able to study the Jewish community’s history and philosophy, which will give me the background I need to create a lasting change in the Jewish community.
High school was a time for me to help myself find the resources that I need. Now, I have those same resources at my disposal, and more. In college, I hope to begin creating resources for queer, Orthodox teens that can be much more readily available than just one club at one school, and to find ways to reach out to communities that might be more isolated than my high school. I hope that college will be a time when I lay the groundwork for work that will help others come after me, so that no other queer Jewish teen will ever have to feel the alienation that I once felt as a quiet, closeted Jewish teen in southern Brooklyn.
The other day I turned on the television so my son could watch an episode of his beloved Wild Kratts. But, since it takes our sort-of-old TV a few seconds to actually turn on once you press the button (and since I’m horribly impatient), I popped into the kitchen to grab a snack while my son waited eagerly on the couch.
When I came back into the living room I found my son engrossed in whatever he was playing. I crossed my fingers that it was mildly appropriate, but with two other adults living in the house (my husband and my brother) it’s always a crapshoot as to what channel was last viewed. Upon a first, quick glance, it didn’t seem to be anything too offensive. I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry is a comedy starring Adam Sandler and Kevin James. I haven’t watched the whole thing but the general plot is that these two firefighter buddies end up getting married for insurance benefits (OK, so actually kind of offensive).
However, without knowing the whole plot of the movie, the scene we were watching seemed innocuous enough and it definitely caught my son’s attention.
“Wait! Leave it Ima. It’s a wedding!” my son pleaded.
Today we were named one of the top American Jewish Organizations by Slingshot. We’re especially grateful to be honored as one of 17 Standard Bearers in the guide.
In the future, when Jewish life fully includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Jews, it will be because of Keshet.
AND BECAUSE OF YOU!
You along with thousands of:
• lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Jews
• our parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles
• teachers and administrators
• youth group leaders
• camp counselors
• rabbis and cantors
and countless others who believe that a vibrant and thriving Jewish community is one that includes all of us.
Mazel Tov to all of our friends and colleagues in Slingshot ’13-‘14 who inspire us with their commitment and dedication to our shared future.
You can learn more about the guide here. Our continued gratitude for all you do to make our community a home for us all.
The full text of Keshet’s entry:
In the future, when Jewish life fully includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Jews, it will be because of Keshet. Hebrew for “rainbow,” Keshet continually makes advances in the fight for LGBTQ inclusion in the Jewish community. Rather than simply shouting loudly from the sidelines, Keshet works within organizations to make small changes that impact communities in deep and sustaining ways. At JCCs, synagogues, schools, youth groups, camps, and social service agencies, Keshet provides training and resources to help communities be effective LGBTQ allies. In addition to community-building activities such as Shabbat dinners and singles mixers, the organization also develops curricular and resource materials used by Jewish organizations around the country to enhance their own programming. Keshet also works collaboratively with other LGBTQ Jewish groups to advance the Jewish LGBTQ movement as a whole.
Keshet continues to adapt its tactics, recognizing the new and changing needs of the Jewish LGBTQ community. Recognizing that coming out can be challenging for the whole family, the organization has expanded its program offerings to provide support and understanding for parents of Jewish LGBTQ children and teens. Most recently, Keshet has helped to launch The Purim Superhero, the first LGBTQ-inclusive Jewish children’s book, published in 2013. The organization also continues to provide trainings and educational resources, build community, and mobilize the Jewish community to support equal access to marriage and transgender civil rights.
Keshet is a Slingshot Standard Bearer because:
In its 17 years of operation, Keshet has built and led the field of Jewish LGBTQ inclusion. Over and over again, Keshet has proven its ability to adapt its work to the needs of the community. This adaptive nature combined with a focus on self-evaluation and the ability to embrace and foster partnerships with other organizations is valuable to the Jewish world in reaching every individual. “When other organizations entered this program space, Keshet has embraced and fostered partnerships with them,” writes one evaluator. “[Keshet is] nationally recognized as the leader when it comes to Jewish LGBTQ issues.
In September, a family member came out to me after months of struggling with his sexual orientation. He cited the earlier version of this very blog post, which appeared on my personal blog, as a source of strength. I hope it might help others as well. – GG
He stood up on the fireplace of the room that nearly every member of our school was occupying. He began to speak. He thanked all of us for welcoming him into our community, for making him feel like he had been here his entire life. What he had to say was very sweet, but that’s not what he came to tell us. That’s not why he paused the end-of-the-year festivities.
He and I hadn’t been close until that year. For whatever reason, I never made an effort to connect with him. I figured he was just another typical out-of-towner. But when I began to write for him, when I began to give him a look inside of my head, into my beliefs, that’s when it all changed.
In the middle of the year, I wrote an article calling for the discontinued usage of gay slurs. In my article, I proposed a hypothetical situation in which a Jewish, homosexual student was forced to hide who he was for the sake of avoiding chastisement. I concluded the article by proclaiming my hope that one day, just maybe, a student at my school would have the courage to challenge the Orthodox day school status quo by coming out to the student body. At the time, this was merely a hope. To be honest, I never saw it happening. Though it’s entirely realistic, and even factual, that Orthodox day schools across the country include a large number of closeted homosexuals, I never imagined somebody I knew would have the courage to actually come out. After all, they would be jeopardizing their reputation and opening themselves up to the possibility of seclusion and rejection.
I’ll always remember the night he came out to me. I was giving him a ride home when he stopped our conversation to have one of far greater importance. He beat around the bush for a few moments, but eventually cut to the chase. When he finally squeezed out the two most revealing words, I wasn’t sure how to react. I could have delved into a deep, philosophical conversation about the causes of homosexuality. I could have done the typical song and dance, congratulating him and telling him how courageous he is. Or I could have rejected who he truly was.
But I didn’t do any of these things.
Instead, I drove around the city for two hours, asking silly question after silly question. I felt like a teenage girl. But he fielded them all. He showed me what it truly means to be comfortable with who you are. Not once did he blink, not once did he swallow his words, not once did he feel uncomfortable. He was ready to be himself around me, and that’s something I will never forget.
Our friendship went from one of exchanging the occasional pleasantries, to one of immense depth and closeness. He has become someone I regard as a best friend. He has become my backbone in many instances, offering emotional support whenever I need it. He has become an inspiration.
It was nice of him to thank us for welcoming him into the community, but that’s not what he came to tell us. He paused for a moment, all eyes on him, and somehow mustered up the courage to become who he is:
“One more thing, and I really am feeling quite happy tonight so this is why I’m telling you. I am gay. I am coming out tonight. Thank you so much.”
Being that this sort of public coming out is unprecedented in our community, I didn’t really expect the reaction that his coming out brought.
It seemed like time suspended for a moment, like everything was hanging in the balance as I awaited the reaction of the many who had not yet known his sexual orientation. I knew some would be taken aback by it, because, after all, homosexuality is still somewhat of an uncomfortable topic for many people. I even expected some to cause an uproar, to publicly rebuke his coming out as a sign of disgust.
But I didn’t expect what actually happened.
Almost everybody in the room went ballistic. We yelled, clapped, and celebrated this momentous announcement. Suddenly the diffuse group organized into a line. Students young and old lined up to hug him, to tell him congratulations, to accept him. The moment was so overwhelming that it moved me, along with many others, to tears.
I’ve always been a confident person, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’ve always been courageous. But when I met him, when he came out to me, when he imparted on me that it’s okay to be yourself, suddenly I felt like I could do anything. I began to write about the things many people didn’t want to discuss. I began to let my passion drive controversial conversations within my sometimes rigid community. I began to accept myself for who I am, and do my best to correct my flaws.
His coming out was something he and I have discussed for quite some time now. He was apprehensive about it at first, but after countless conversations in which we discussed the importance of being who you are, he was ready to do it. His coming out in such a public form was one gigantic step toward the rest of his life. He no longer had to hide. He no longer had to keep up a facade. He no longer had to try to stay content being someone he is inherently not.
He could finally be free.
The thing is, though, his coming out stretches far beyond just him. His coming out is going to impact this community, this school, so much. His coming out has pushed many to recognize the reality that is homosexuality within Judaism.
In a Jewish community that is so stagnant, this sort of monumental occurrence is going to have a vast impact on the ideological scheme of things. The topic of homosexual acceptance has always been discussed solely in hypotheticals. We’ve all had our own opinions on how to resolve religion with sexual orientation, but we’ve never actually had to translate those opinions into practice. Now that our hypothetical world has become reality, we must take a definitive stance on what is so sadly deemed an “issue.” This coming out was the first of its kind, and I hope it won’t be the last. Many community members may be up in arms, but many more will not be. And those who aren’t will be supportive, they will be accepting, and they will do their best to spread their attitude of tolerance to the other, more close minded members of the community.
This is a progressive world, folks.
He did something so notable by getting the literal ball rolling on this issue of homosexual acceptance within the Memphis Orthodox community. The hypothetical ball is no more.
When I entered high school, it was the norm to call someone a faggot or a queer. It was okay to throw around gay slurs, despite the fact that those few words could tear someone apart inside. As my years have flown by and the school’s attitude toward homosexuals has drastically shifted, the norm has become acceptance. By the start of this year, many had cut down on their gay slur usage and enhanced their tolerance, especially in a public sphere, paving a pearly path out of the closet for him. With the already growing acceptance within our school, it’s inevitable that more is to come. His announcement slapped many of my schoolmates in the face with reality. They now know someone who is homosexual. They now have a friend who is out. They now recognize that your sexual orientation doesn’t define who you are as a person.
I’m not entirely sure how his announcement will impact his relationship with various students at the school, but I genuinely hope that those students don’t change their behavior as a result of discomfort. His announcement has given us, the student body, a chance to create an atmosphere in which everyone feels safe being who they are. The overwhelming support he met after his announcement only reaffirmed my belief that this school, and perhaps this community, is headed in a new direction than in years past. To see all of my fellow classmates hug him, congratulate him, and even praise him was something I will never forget.
When it was finally my turn to congratulate him, I held him tight and told him that he was my inspiration. I told him that he was my hero. And he is. He’s taught me that, despite all of the struggles that it may bring, being yourself is the only way to live. He’s taught me how to love myself for who I am. He’s taught me that I have a voice. He’s given me a reason to become an even stronger proponent of gay rights in particular, and civil rights as a whole.
When I say that he has changed my life, I’m not simply throwing around cliche phrases that sound nice. I mean it. This year has been one of immense personal growth. I truly believe that how far I’ve come would not have been possible without his help.
An eighteen year old did something no one has ever done in this community. An eighteen year old exemplified courage to the fullest extent. He is so young, yet he’s wise enough to know that he is capable of impacting those around him for the better. I never thought I would be writing a post like this. I never thought I would see someone come out in front of my classmates. But I couldn’t be happier that this is all happening. I couldn’t be more inspired, more moved by the courage he has shown.
When I look back at the beginning of Summer 2013, I’m going to remember the graduation. I’m going to remember the overwhelming sadness that rushed over me as I listened to my best friends utter their parting words. But, above all, I’ll remember when one person changed an entire city.
There’s nothing more to say to him than thank you. We all have a reason to appreciate the person he is and the courage he possesses. We all must note that what he has done is just that – notable.
He’s set me on a path to find myself, and, with his inspiration, I feel as if I have the courage to become who I’ve always wanted to be.
“No freedom until we’re equal. Damn right I support it.”
Gabriel blogs at http://thoughtsofajewishteenager.blogspot.com, where this post originally appeared.
April 4-6, 2014: LGBTQ and Ally Teen Shabbaton:
Join us for a weekend of fun, community, and learning for and by Jewish LGBTQ and allied teens! Meet new friends, learn about LGBTQ organizing and identities, and celebrate a lakeside Shabbat with a warm, vibrant community of LGBTQ and ally teens and adults
When I thought about my future as a kid, the image of a wedding would come into focus. A beautiful huppah, my beaming parents, and adult me standing next to the love of my life with whom I’d build a Jewish family. Judaism was always a strong and important force in my life, one I cherished. My commitment to carrying on my heritage was a given, particularly charged by the fact that I’m the grandson of Holocaust survivors. But as I grew into my teens, that image of my future became distorted when I realized that there would never be a bride in white standing next to me. At the time, I could never imagine a second groom wearing a kippah at my side either. Merging a Jewish path and a gay identity felt like a pipe dream.
Growing up, I was a student at an Orthodox yeshiva. Each day in Talmud class, we analyzed traditional Jewish laws and values in ancient Aramaic, but I was surprised to find how often the Rabbis brought the conversation to current politics and the ‘evils of the modern world’. While the study of Talmud was characterized by rich and dynamic debate, ‘evils’ like homosexuality were taught as black and white —they were inherently wrong, case closed. These lectures on the ‘abomination’ of being gay scared me to my core, as I was simultaneously discovering that I was most definitely attracted to men. While I was being told it was against everything G-d and Judaism stood for, in my soul it was the most natural and honest thing I could feel.
After many years of fear and confusion, and the occasional suicidal thought, I reached the light at the end of my teenage tunnel: my freshman year at a large, liberal college. There, I met a group of supportive, down-to-earth friends who challenged me to look in the mirror. One late night in February, I got up the courage to come out to my parents…via Instant Messenger (after all, it was the early 2000s). Hiding in the warm light of a computer screen, I communicated words to them I never imagined articulating. I held my breath and stared at the words, waiting. What followed were lots of questions, fear and worry. It was done, out in the world and irrevocable.
The years that followed proved to be a bumpy landscape for me and my family, with highs and lows as we navigated this new reality. While I had gained newfound self-acceptance, my life had become more secular and my connection to Judaism a bit fainter. My mother worried that I’d never find happiness, and my father felt conflicted and hurt. The good news was that they still loved me, but they were slow to understand me, and I became increasingly frustrated that they weren’t progressing faster. By my senior year though, I had to admit that they were making an effort. They read books on Judaism and Homosexuality, turned to my hometown rabbi for support, and started telling friends. I came to realize that my parents are human too, that they were figuring out all of their feelings just like I was, and they needed the same love, patience and gentle respect from me that I was seeking from them.
In time I had become very comfortable with myself and my life as a gay man, and imagined that I’d eventually find a partner, but my hope of having a Jewish family was a distant memory. I would enjoy the occasional Shabbat dinner with my family on Friday night, and then hit the bars in Hell’s Kitchen with my friends on Saturday night. My gay identity and my Jewish identity were like tolerant neighbors who refused to socialize with one another. After many failed first dates and unfulfilling excursions in online dating, I realized that finding someone who could understand my faith and share in my family’s culture was more important than I thought. And then one ordinary Monday afternoon in September, I took an elevator ride that changed my life.
David and I struck up a conversation between floors two and six, and I instantly felt a connection. We shared a ton in common, and remarkably, he happened to be Jewish too. The first time I brought him to my parents’ Shabbat table, I nervously held my breath during quiet introductions. My father began reciting the blessings, and David put on a kippah and chanted them along with my family. I watched my parents relax, settle in, and get to know him. Over the course of that dinner, something changed for my parents. My homosexuality had transformed from an abstract, scary idea into something beautiful and palpable: the connection they recognized between me and David, holding hands next to each other, laughing and kibitzing with them at their dinner table.
Fast forward to May 19, 2013. There I was, standing under the chuppah, looking into David’s eyes. My parents are in front of me on one side of the chuppah, and his are behind me on the other. I’m surrounded by our closest friends and family, listening to a rabbi pronounce us LEGALLY married in the state of New York and before G-d. I pinch myself. This is not a dream, this is really happening. My parents have tears in their eyes, but they are the joyful kind. Later, we dance. I spin my mother around the dance floor, and my father and brother lift me in the air on a chair. I watch my parents give a toast with pride. I realize that it was possible after all.
I don’t mean to suggest I have it all figured out. My feelings about the intersection of traditional Judaism and the modern world are still complicated. I still have the same big questions about how Torah fits into modernity that I had as yeshiva boy. But now, I ponder those questions and work to make sense of the world alongside my husband at our own Shabbat table, filled with humor, love, and a deeper understanding of meaningful Judaism than I ever had during my time at Yeshiva. Our relationship has actually brought me closer to my heritage and has provided me with a stronger understanding of its place in my modern life. What I do know is this: I didn’t have to choose one path at the cost of another. For the first time in my life, my Jewish identity and my gay identity have blended to one—just me. All of me.
We’re incredibly grateful to Yiscah for sharing this excerpt from her forthcoming book, 40 Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living. She describes her book as her “memoir of the joys and struggles with my own spirituality, gender identity, and commitment to living true to myself.” You can learn more about Yishcah here and learn more about the book here.
Approaching the Western Wall thrust me into the very consciousness that frightened me the most in my life and caused my chronic daily anxiety. The walk to touch the stones for myself, a powerful source of gratitude and thanksgiving for hundreds of thousands of Jews over the past 2,000 years, plunged me into the confusing mire of a definitive and absolute binary gender system. Here there was simply male or female, with no room for anything in between. Visiting the Wall requires separation of men and women—so simple for most, but heart wrenching and dreadful for those of us who, at birth, entered the world where this was anything but clear. There was no flexibility, no blurring of the clearly drawn lines. I felt forced to choose, to announce to the world whether I was male or female. Males to the left, females to the right.
If I’d chosen the women’s side, where I knew I belonged, I would have aroused unimaginable extreme attention. If I were to choose the gender that the world defined for me, and that to which my body tragically acquiesced, I would have likewise aroused all sorts of unimaginable attention, albeit internal. By now I had trained myself to pervert my own sense of truth into a disguise, allowing the world’s mistruth about me to direct me as my guide. And so to the left I went—excited to touch the stones and despising myself once again for not being authentic and genuine, especially at Judaism’s most sacred place.
Equally well trained in denial mechanisms, I embraced each step to the Wall as an opportunity to relish in a moment of time where my gender confusion may have not even existed. Ah, the power of imagination!
As I drew closer and closer to The Wall, each of the stones grew in both physical size and in their significance. They dwarfed me and yet drew me closer and closer. I experienced the sensation of being in a magnetic field, utterly helpless to resist its pull. I looked to my left and right to see how others behaved when directly in front of the Wall. How is one expected to behave? What do I do when my face is so close to the stones that every time I inhale and exhale I can feel and even hear my own breath? What is expected? One touches the Wall. One kisses the Wall. One not only touches the Wall, but affectionately, with care and intent, caresses it. One not only kisses the Wall, but glues one’s face to the Wall after kissing it. A touch, an embrace, a kiss that one dreaded breaking. I wanted, I yearned, I sought with hunger and thirst to experience such closeness and intimacy. But with whom? Of course, with God! With HaShem—literally meaning The Name.
Closeness and intimacy with God was never something I had considered. I had not a clue what this meant, entailed, or implied. To complicate matters, I knew enough to realize one can only approach intimacy by being authentic and genuine. Nothing about me at that moment, aside from my yearning to live in truth, was authentic and genuine. What the men around me saw was a lie, my lie. How could I dare think I was worthy of such a deep connection.
Yet, here I was. Not knowing what else to do, I imitated those around me, and for the first time in my life, I gently touched and caressed the Wall in this sacred space and time, and then I kissed it. I kissed what appeared to be a stone. A huge stone, a pretty stone, one that bore and continues to bear witness to history, but nevertheless, a stone. I felt the stone gently touching my hands, my face, and my lips in return, as I experienced a warmth that was both foreign and yet familiar. Such a completely new experience, as if HaShem actually greeted me personally and uttered the words just echoed by 150,000 of my people buried in the Mount of Olives, “Welcome Home.” I sensed I belonged here. I sensed I was dwelling in a space of encouragement and protection. I felt loved and I felt embraced by the Source of Love. This sacred space messaged to me that while I lived in a fragmented and strife-torn inner world, restoration of a unity experienced somewhere in my past was now possible! Oh how I wanted to believe this! Oh how I was desperate to believe this invigorating and redemptive idea. And a part of me in fact did. Immediately!
I touched and then kissed my past, my present, my future, my people, my soul—all at once. And my past, present, future, my people and my soul all at once embraced and kissed me in return. On a conscious level, this was my first real intimate moment with my own spiritual center, my soul. In that sacred moment, I knew that for the first time I had encountered pristine truth, in its most vulnerable and naked state, void of all rationalizations, veils of denial, and garments of fear and shame. Did I know what this implied? Did I even know what this meant? Of course not. But intuitively I was aware that I possessed the secret to this hidden knowledge. All I could pray for at that moment was that I would never forget this moment of spiritual awakening and infusion of vigor, of hope and of encouragement. What else could I pray for? I could have prayed to be praying from a place of truth. I could have prayed to embrace the truth by somehow being the impossible—being that which had evaded me for the past 20 years, being authentic and genuine. But this was far too frightening. I was not yet ready to truly come home. For now I was excited to begin the journey, having no idea to where it would lead.
I had approached The Wall so torn up, my integrity so painfully compromised. As I slowly backed away from it, I was still tormented, but now I felt inspired, energized to discover and learn about another part of me that until now had been ignored in its state of spiritual latency. My spirituality was bursting to be acknowledged, to be embraced, and to find expression.
But just as quickly as I found myself focused on a part of myself beyond gender, I sadly remembered a fundamental truth. Judaism is a culture strictly for males and females. I knew right there, at the most profound place to the Jewish people, that somehow I must be given admission into this world and not be excluded. I was determined not to spend the rest of my life as an outsider looking in from a distance. I could not be relegated to an observer status, forced to merely watch my own peoples’ destiny unfold. They are my people. I am in direct lineage to those who have been pouring out their hearts and prayers without compromise in this very spot for the past 2,000 thousand of years. And yet, how? How could a woman trapped in the body of a man enter? Through which gate?
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, Michael Sarid sees echoes of Noah’s behavior after the flood among Holocaust survivors – and those who lived through the AIDS crisis.
Imagine that you are alone in the world. A monumental calamity has destroyed life as you knew it.
Your friends and community? Gone.
Your home and possessions? Gone.
Your frames of reference, your very identity? Gone or, at least, forever transformed.
How do you go on? How do you reconstruct a life for yourself? Is there no one to help or guide you? To comfort you when your nightmares of the devastation become unbearable? Why did you survive when so many others perished? Your sense of loss is so overwhelming that you feel paralyzed. You may even feel, perhaps subconsciously, responsible for the destruction.
While the Torah provides scant evidence of the emotional lives of most of its characters, I imagine that Noah must have experienced these feelings after the Great Flood, which wiped out the world as Noah knew it. We can allow ourselves to relate to Noah’s experience, as devastating loss is of course a continuing reality in our world. My thoughts naturally turn to my father, one of the few members of his extended family to survive the Nazi death camps; like many Holocaust survivors, he still bears the scars of his losses 61 years later. I think of myself and my own urban LGBT community during the early years of the AIDS crisis, a time when suffering, death and loss seemed absolute and unrelenting. And I think of my friends who have lived with AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses, and their succession of harsh losses: daily routines, bodily functions, hopes for the future.
How did Noah’s enormous personal losses affect his life after the flood? The Torah tells a brief but strange tale (Gen. 9:20-26) that has challenged commentators for centuries, but which I feel can only be properly understood from the perspective of a man who has lost everything. After the waters recede, God creates a rainbow as a symbolic promise to humanity and all of creation never to destroy it again. Noah beholds this hopeful, beautiful sight, but does he draw reassurance or inspiration from it? No; to the contrary, he responds by cultivating the world’s first vineyard, drinking the world’s first wine, and, upon drinking himself into oblivion, becoming the world’s first substance abuser.
It was only in rabbinic times that wine became a symbol of joy. The biblical view of wine, by contrast, is decidedly mixed; drunkenness is viewed with particular disfavor. Examples abound. When Abraham’s nephew Lot gets drunk, his daughters’ incestuous advances result in the birth of two nations that become enemies of Israel. (Gen. 19:33-38) Eli the priest mistakes Hannah’s sincere, silent prayer for public drunkenness, and judges her harshly before realizing his error. (1 Sam. 1:13-15) King David causes Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, to become drunk as part of a scheme to cover up David’s own adulterous crime. (2 Sam. 11:13)
So how is it that Noah, whose innate virtue is the reason he and his family are singled out for survival in the first place, engages in such a disgraceful activity, in the biblical worldview? Traditional commentators have used Noah’s drunkenness to cast aspersions on his supposed virtue, pointing out that Noah is never described as righteous in an absolute sense, but merely “the most righteous of his generation” (Gen. 6:9), a generation whose overall corruption warranted destruction.
I have a different view: Noah was self-medicating. Perhaps God, in creating the rainbow, was attempting to respond to Noah’s personal anguish – essentially, trying to cheer him up. The problem with good cheer, as we know, is that it often backfires, especially when the recipient is in the throes of overwhelming grief. Unintentionally, God’s rainbow may have served to intensify Noah’s pain. For the same reason that my father avoids Yom Ha-Shoah observances, a promise of “never again” is also an implicit reminder that it happened once before.
Alcohol can numb our pain. Paradoxically, it can also cause us to let down our defenses, to make ourselves naked and vulnerable to further pain. As a physical manifestation of Noah’s emotional state, he takes off his clothes and falls to the floor. It is at this point that I imagine Noah’s tent as a scene of chaos and despair. A smashed jug of wine, rotting half-eaten food, and human filth are strewn everywhere. Insects are swarming. An old man reeking of alcohol and vomit, unshaved and unbathed, lies naked and alone on the dirt floor. Noah is human degradation personified.
Enter, Noah’s son Ham, who witnesses his father in this sorry state. Ham’s first instinct is to flee the scene in disgust. He alerts his brothers Shem and Japheth, who tend to their father by covering him up while averting their eyes. Later, when Noah sobers up and learns what has happened, he furiously sputters out a curse on Ham’s son Canaan: “The lowest of slaves shall you be to your brothers!”
What, exactly, was Ham’s sin? Was it witnessing his father’s nakedness? Was it failing to cover Noah? Was it mentioning what he saw to his brothers? What was so terrible in Ham’s behavior that warranted such a vitriolic curse?
Again, I believe the answer lies in Noah’s anguish. When we are suffering unbearable grief, it can seem outrageous to us that others do not share our misery, and are in fact carrying on their normal lives as though nothing were happening. A small number of American Jews pleaded with President Roosevelt to bomb the death camps when our military had the opportunity, and it was horrifying to those activists that the U.S. government knew what was happening but failed to act, as the evidence now shows. As one of many ACT-UP demonstrators in the 1980s, the rage that fueled my activism was based in the complacency, the absence of horror I perceived in the non-queer community. How dare people fail to be outraged by what felt like the collapse of the world I inhabited?
If Ham had been more of a mensch, he would have understood that his father was in great pain. The fact that Ham entered Noah’s tent at all was insensitive. But it was downright cruel, once Ham bore witness to his father’s degradation, to fail to react. Ham could have comforted his father, or at least cleaned him up and covered him with a blanket. He could have taken any of many possible actions to help restore Noah’s dignity in some way. But Ham did none of those things. He simply passed on through, leaving Noah in his tent in the same state in which he found him. Of course Noah was outraged! His curse is vicious, but in the biblical perspective, it restores moral balance. By failing to treat his father with a shred of dignity, the future of Ham’s offspring will be defined by slavery, the ultimate in human degradation.
If we can learn anything from Noah’s life after the flood, it is to recognize loss for what it is, even when it is not expressed in words. Despair cannot be simply cheered up out of existence with a promise, no matter how brightly colored the symbol. And to witness human suffering and do nothing to alleviate it is indeed a moral outrage, in both the biblical world and our own.
Ken y’hi ratzon.
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.
This week, just as the Hebrew tribes are set to venture into the Promised Land, we who have journeyed with them this entire year must let go of the narrative moment and return to the beginning. How frustrating! It could never happen in a Hollywood movie, or even a Dickens novel. Where’s the climax? The great battle? The heroic resolution? Where’s the “they lived happily ever after”? We don’t even get a week to sort it through. On Simchat Torah, no sooner do we read the final verses of Torah – about the death of Moses – than we re-roll the entire scroll literally back to bereshit, the beginning, to the universe unformed and void. It’s an emotional shocker: no closure, no time to mourn Moses, no opportunity to find out what happens to the Jewish people. And we do this to ourselves every single year!
Every year we read the grand tale of the Jewish people from its “prequel” at the start of the universe, through its inception during the time of the matriarchs and patriarchs, its enslavement, liberation, and formation, only to break away at the cliffhanger, right before the big finale, the successful settlement of the wandering tribes in their own homeland. Sure, we can find out the rest of the tale. There it is in the book of Joshua. The Samaritans, who emerged after an early schism in Judaism, do include Joshua in their core texts (though they exclude the other prophetic works and the rest of the Jewish biblical and rabbinic canon). But Jews don’t read Joshua as part of our worship service. Torah ends in the wilderness, not in the Promised Land. Why does the Torah exclude the book of Joshua, the literary final chapter of the story? Why does that Torah reject a tidy satisfying closure to its epic tale?
There’s a message here. Our human lives aren’t like a Hollywood fairytale, no matter how much we try to make them so. Life is full of false starts, unresolved cliffhangers, incomplete closures, premature endings, repeat stories, and going back to the beginning. Life, like Torah, is a wandering journey in the wilderness, not a destination. Even the major developmental steps of a life – education, career choice, sexual identity, love relationship, family formation, geographic location, retirement – seldom come in exactly the right order at the right time.
This is even more true in the queer community. How many of my friends have “gone back to school” later in life? How many have children in their forties or fifties? How many spent their twenties or thirties (or later) negotiating a new gender or sexual identity? How many times have I myself come out? It never stops. Just when I think that I’m about to reach the Promised Land, wham! There I am back at the beginning! I think I’ve got it all figured out only to find that I’m unformed and void.
But there is a spiritual maturation in this seemingly endless cycle. As Jewish individuals, communities, and as a people, each time we return to the beginning, we do so with a bit more experience and wisdom. Though we didn’t reach the Promised Land, perhaps we learned a bit more in the last cycle of our journey. There is a richness and depth to revisiting important themes, both in Torah and in our lives. As we return to the beginning, we also get to look forward to a more complex future.
This year, how will I newly engage the Torah’s lessons: the Tower of Babel, Jacob’s stranger, Miriam’s bravery, the murmurings in the desert? What new insights and understandings will be revealed? How will I grow in my own unfolding torah cycle? When I hit that moment of “I’ve been here before,” how will my past learning allow change? Torah is a circle, but also a spiral. Each Simchat Torah, we return to the beginning, but we are changed, as individuals and as a people. It is both the same and different, and therein lies the revelation.
There are more spiritually resonant symbols associated with the Festival of Sukkot than with any other major Jewish holiday. On Yom Kippur, the only visual marker is the special clothing many wear as symbols of teshuvah. On Passover, the redemptive symbol of matzah is joined by the visual and performative symbolism of the Seder. Shavuot has almost no visible reminders of the holiday other than the special liturgy. But Sukkot offers the 4 species (lulav, etrog, willows, and myrtle), each with their own multi-layered significance, as well as the sukkah itself, a symbolically powerful stage that encourages those celebrating the holiday to open their hearts, their minds and their homes to a transformative experience of the divine. During the 7 days of Sukkot, observant Jews live – or at least eat their meals – surrounded by the walls of a fragile hut with a roof covered in branches sparse enough to allow glimpses of the heavens and an expanded field of vision.
As the weather begins to cool, and as – at least in Israel – the rainy season draws near, Jews go outside to a structure far from the comfort and reassurance of the bricks, mortar, steel, and concrete that normally shelter them, literally and figuratively, from directly engaging with the outside world. During the rest of the year, even when Jews leave their homes to join together as a community, they usually gather in synagogues for prayer and study, in schools for learning and training, and in Jewish community centers for fun, leisure and public programs. In all of these communal institutions, as in our own homes, solid walls provide structure and safety, boundaries and reassurance. Those inside are protected from the outside elements and from those not like themselves, able to feel safe with their own kind. Seeking community and shelter within, these communal structures keep out those who, the people inside feel, may pose a danger – those with whom they feel less comfortable.
Yet the Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism, suggests that it is not those structures built on strong foundations, however grand and however beautiful, that call to the Divine. Rather, it is the frail and unstable building, the sukkah, that generates such energy that the divine presence manifests itself in these small booths along with the souls of Judaism’s righteous ancestors. During Sukkot, the Zohar tells us, the souls of 7 historic leaders of Israel (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David) leave the heavens to visit with the Jewish people (Zohar – Emor 103A). Called the ushpizin, the Aramaic word for “guests,” observant Jews welcome a different guest each day as they begin their Sukkot meal.
Today, many also welcome female guests from the Jewish tradition: Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah, Abigail, Hulda, and Esther. While having its roots in some classic sources, this is a sign for many women of a greater inclusivity in Jewish ritual as the tradition continues to evolve. Women who were once outsiders are now invited in, and women who were once forgotten or cast aside are remembered.
Some years back when a sukkah put up by the ultra-Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch outreach organization in Venice was filled to overflowing, the rabbi asked of the women who were present to sit at a series of tables that were extended just outside the sukkah. They were not, he pointed out, bound by the same halachic obligation as the men to eat under the roof of the sukkah – a mitzvah delineated in the Torah. Some out of duty and some so as not to cause trouble, followed the request. A male friend of mine, Daron, felt the insult in the request, so he too moved to the area where the women were now seated. In the seat next to him he met the woman who would soon become his wife. Break down the traditional barriers and new possibilities emerge.
The sukkah is a sign to open one’s hearts at this season. Just as its roof opens to the sky, so too may those celebrating Sukkot be open to the stranger, the other, and the guest who they do not see everyday in their synagogues, in their JCCs, and in their homes. On the High Holidays, many synagogues may require tickets to enter the building. Most JCCs require membership or charge entry for events and programs. But all are welcome into the sukkah.
The sukkah invites the Jewish community to effect change in the way it treats all people. This may include those to whom Jewish institutions may be blind – singles, gays, lesbians, transgender people, the unengaged, the elderly, newcomers, and the marginalized (as well as a whole host of other community members with special needs). These “outsiders” may already be in synagogues, quiet and in the back, but on Sukkot, Jews are commanded to welcome them as guests. Those on the outside are invited inside and welcomed to join the community in sisterhood and fellowship.
There are other times when Jews may feel as though they welcome others into their institutions. On Passover, tradition demands that all who are hungry be invited to a Passover table. But, while observing the seder ritual, most stay in the comfort of their homes. The door may be opened to welcome the presence of Elijah, but only for a brief moment. On Sukkot, living quarters themselves become open, ready to receive guests, both invited and unexpected. The sukkah reminds Jews of their collective and individual vulnerability — no walls, no guards, and also no high holiday tickets to collect, nothing regulating the gates of entry and access. As one may see out to the stars, so too can anyone see in.
Sukkot reminds us that our structures and institutions need to be opened up. Only when those in the community open their homes, even temporarily, to those outside – only then can they draw near to God and receive the sacred gift of the presence of the ushpizin. And only when welcoming the outsider into our lives can we return to the everyday of permanent structures, concrete, brick and walls, with a new love and respect for all humanity.
The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12) teaches that each of the 4 species represents a different type of Jew.
The lulav has taste but no smell, symbolizing those who know the traditions of Judaism but do not practice them. The myrtle (hadass) has a good smell but no taste, symbolizing those who do good deeds but do not have knowledge of Judaism. The willow (aravah) has neither taste nor smell, symbolizing those who never study Torah and never carry out good deeds. The etrog has both a good taste and a good smell, symbolizing those who know the traditions of Judaism and apply them in their lives.
The mitzvah of Sukkot is only fulfilled when all 4 are held together. Then, and only then, are all Jews one people. Each compensates for the other. The community can know that it is strong. It is one.
Another Midrashic interpretation (Vayikra Rabbah 30:14) sees each of the 4 species as representing a different part of the body. The lulav is the spine. The etrog represents the heart. The willow, the lips, and the myrtle, the eyes. Only when they work in unison, can a body function. Metaphorically, then, only when people speak out, feel for, and see those they may often overlook, do they appreciate the ability of the back (the spine and the center of a person) to stand strong.
A more modern Midrashic approach may see sexual symbolism in the 4 species as well. It takes little imagination to see why. The lulav clearly seems phallic, particularly with its basket attached below, reminiscent of the scrotum. The etrog is clearly breast like, with its pronounced “nipple.” When our community is fragmented we are weak. But when men and women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, singles and married, young and old, all stand together – we can, as is so of the lulav and etrog, move in many directions. As Jews sit in the sukkah, whether it is the sukkah at their congregation with fellow congregants, at the JCC with neighbors, or at home or with friends and relatives, may all feel renewed by God’s presence, sheltering and blessing us and our newly invited guests.
Communities, institutions, families and friendships create a sense of common identity, a sense of “we.” Since no two people – no two Jews, or gay men, or lesbians, or transgender people, or Orthodox Jews, or even identical twins – are the same, that sense of common identity is always created despite our differences, as when my family saw my sister as one of us despite the fact that she was the only blond, blue-eyed, left-handed member. Those were trivial differences, but they still made us uncomfortable; my parents teased my sister about them, and when she was small she would sometimes cry, because she didn’t want to be different. She wanted to be one of us.
I knew how my sister felt. Even though I looked the way a member of my family was supposed to look, I knew that I was different – different in a way I feared would, if it were discovered, permanently exclude me from my family, the Jewish people and, for that matter, the human race. My body was male, but my gender identity was female. I looked like and tried to act like a boy, but my male body and identity felt deeply, disturbingly, wrong.
Though we teased my sister about her differences, my parents and I understood them as part of the normal range of human variations. My parents knew that even among Ashkenazi Jews, children can be born blond, blue-eyed and left-handed. But I knew that my difference would be incomprehensible to them. Differences like mine didn’t appear in TV shows or movies, they weren’t referred to in school, they weren’t acknowledged by authority figures who always seemed to address children as “boys and girls” and adults as “ladies and gentlemen.” When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, there wasn’t even language for differences like mine. The umbrella term “transgender” hadn’t been invented yet; a few (very few) doctors treated “transsexuals,” but that word wasn’t used by anyone I knew. So no matter how good I was at acting like one of “us” – a member of my family, one of the boys, a Jew – I knew I was different in a way that couldn’t be spoken about, that no one could understand.
I grew up hiding my true self from my family, from friends, from the entire human world. My disguise worked. No one knew who I really was. I was safe from rejection, but I felt utterly alone, shipwrecked on the desert island of my difference.
But my isolation came with a consolation. I was alone, but I was alone with God. My difference from others, my detachment from an identity I knew wasn’t really me, my constant wrestling with the body that tormented and interminable questioning of who and what I was – all the things that distanced me from people brought me closer to God. God knew who I really was, knew how I felt, was always there, day or night, to hear my anguish. Like me, God was something other than human, someone who didn’t fit in, who couldn’t be seen or understood.
I lived on that island, shipwrecked with God, for more than forty years – my entire life as a male. My family wasn’t Orthodox. I didn’t have any authority figure to tell me that God wouldn’t be close to someone like me. I read the Torah regularly, so I knew about the verse in Deuteronomy in which Moses declares that God abhors men who wear women’s garments. I had some legal questions about the verse – did it apply even when I was a child? Did it apply to those who male bodies who felt female? But I knew that even if God “abhorred” me, God was there. Abhorrence is a visceral reaction. If God “abhorred” me, God must be very close.
This anecdote shows that far from alienating me, my LGBTQ identity brought me closer to God. Is it a Jewish story, a story about a kind of relationship with God that is recognized in Judaism’s sacred texts? LGBTQ identities tends to be thought of a secular phenomena, either opposed to or simply outside religious life. But I suspect that for many religious LGBT religious Jews, our relationships with God have been profoundly shaped by our sexual orientation or gender identity, not because being gay or trans is inherently spiritual, but because when religious people wrestle with suffering, isolation, and fundamental questions about who we are and how we should live, we tend frame our struggles in terms of our relationships with God.
But can relationships with God that are shaped by LGBTQ identity, like my sense of being shipwrecked with God, be Jewish, or does the LGBTQ element render such relationships, and the experiences of God that grow out of them, foreign to Judaism and Jewish tradition?
For me, that question is answered every Yom Kippur afternoon, when we read the story of Jonah, a man who runs as far as possible from the life he was created to live, and finds himself in the belly of a fish, shipwrecked with God.
Many LGBTQ Jews have lived our own versions of this story, so desperate to flee our LGBT identities and the lives they would entail that we hurl ourselves into the depths of depression, into the jaws of death – and find ourselves alone with God, the One who made us as we are, who formed us in the womb and preserves us even in the midst of death.
That spiritual paradox – flight from true self leading simultaneously toward death and intimacy with God – is the core of the Book of Jonah. Jonah’s flight from becoming the person – the prophet – God created him to be is portrayed not as sin, but as suicide. At first, it looks as though Jonah is merely running away, but the narrative make it clear that Jonah’s slumber during the storm that has everyone else frantically trying to save the heaving ship is no ordinary sleep, just as the storm is no ordinary storm. Both register as metaphors for Jonah’s psychological state, suggesting the deep sleep of depression into which he has sunk in order to endure and ignore the crisis precipitated by fleeing from becoming the prophet he is. When the sailors wake him and tell him to call to his God for deliverance, Jonah responds not with prayer but with a self-destructive gesture, telling the sailors to throw him overboard. Jonah’s suicide seems to resolve the crisis: the storm is quieted, and Jonah, having nobly sacrificed himself for the sake of the community threatened by his presence, sinks down toward death, “into the depths, into the heart of the sea” (2:3), far from the human world of sailors, prophets, cities and kings, to the bottom of the food chain, where he is “swallowed” by a fish.
But the closer Jonah comes to death, the closer he comes to the God he fled. As Jonah sinks, God singles him out for miraculous deliverance, turning what would ordinarily be a mode of death (being eaten) into a means for Jonah to survive in the depths. In the belly of the whale, Jonah finds breath, warmth, protection – and recognizes that God is literally surrounding him, keeping him alive. Jonah, so desperate not to become what God made him that he literally tosses away the life he was created to live overboard, finds himself shipwrecked with God.
Yes, this relationship with God – the shipwrecked relationship to which my stifled trans identity led me – is a Jewish relationship, a relationship envisioned by the Torah and highlighted by reading Jonah’s story on Yom Kippur afternoon. That recognition comforted me during my decades of life as a man I knew I was only pretending to be. Though I felt cut off from the contemporary community of Jews who, I feared, would never accept my true self, the Book of Jonah reminded me that my life was still part of the millenia-spanning life of the Jewish people, that I was shipwrecked with God not only as a transsexual, but as a Jew.
When I was living as a man, my life-story, and my identification with Jonah’s, ended in the depths, in the belly of the male persona I adopted to avoid becoming myself. To me, as this poem suggests, the Book of Jonah wasn’t about deliverance, gratitude and teshuva, but about the comfort I found in despair:
Letter to Jonah
It must be cozy there, in the belly of the whale.
The whale knows you aren’t the end of his world,
his enormous heart
pumps unbroken in the dark.
God reverberates quietly inside you,
a psalm you sing as you dissolve
in his gastric juices.
Dissolving is safer for all concerned
than growing into who you are.
And aren’t you really closer to God,
there in the belly of the whale,
dissolving into gratitude and krill
and a story sailors tell
about a man who slept through a man-killing storm
and when they woke him up to pray
said “Throw me overboard.”
Like the Jonah I imagine in this poem, I was so desperate to avoid becoming the person I was created to be that I was happy to choose death over life, despair over hope, isolation over human. Even in the midst of family and friends, I was alone at the bottom of the ocean. It was cozy down there, and though I was miserable, I was safe from rejection: no one but God knew or could touch me. I was lonely, achingly lonely, but God was there, surrounding me, holding me, keeping me alive; even as I tried to dissolve in the depths of that darkness, I clung to the God who sustained me, the God who held me and never let me go.
In the Torah, Jonah responds to God’s deliverance with teshuva-inspiring gratitude: he turns from death to life, from fleeing to facing the life God created him. When the fish vomits him out on shore, Jonah overcomes his reluctance to publicly present himself as a prophet – one of those crazy people who disrupt the peace of the community, draw unseemly attention to themselves, and demand that people question social norms and values with which most seem quite happy – and heads to Nineveh. The post-whale Jonah isn’t perfect. He kvetches right to the end of the book, and always seems more concerned about himself than about God or other people. But Jonah’s gratitude to God for his deliverance prompts him to risk living a life in which he is publicly, patently different from those around him: a life in which he is true to himself, true to God, and true, however grudgingly, to his obligations to humanity.
Unlike Jonah, I responded to God’s preserving presence neither with gratitude nor teshuvah, but by making myself at home in the depths of despair. God didn’t want me to live, I told myself. For the sake of my family, God wanted me to hide my true self forever. As long as I – the real me – never surfaced, no one would be hurt by the truth about the son, husband, father, they loved. That’s what it means to love, I told myself: to pretend to be what others want me to be. To suffer in silence. To live in misery and fear. God had made me transsexual so that I could sacrifice myself for others, had formed me in the womb and sustained me through anguish and despair so that I could be what I have heard called “Divine roadkill,” the collateral damage of a Divine plan I wasn’t supposed to understand.
I didn’t, and still don’t, understand God’s plan either for humanity or for me in particular. But thinking of myself as Divine roadkill – not as a human being, but as something that only existed to fulfill others’ expectations – made it impossible for me to serve God with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my might. Indeed, living in the belly of despair made it hard to serve God at all.
Defining my life as Divine roadkill not only erased my sense of my own humanity, it defamed the God who created me, by denying God’s love for me. God’s love formed me in the womb, fed me, sustained me, enabled me to grow. As I huddled in the depths of suicidal, self-hating despair, it should have been clear to me that if God didn’t love me, I couldn’t survive a moment.
That’s what Jonah realizes in the belly of the whale – that he exists because God wants him to exist, that despite his flight from God and from the life God created him to live, God’s love was so great that it literally kept him alive in the depths of the sea, transforming what would normally be a place of death into a bubble of deliverance.
Like Jonah at the bottom of the ocean, I was floating in the midst of death, preserved by the bubble of God’s love. But unlike Jonah, though I felt God’s presence, I couldn’t feel God’s love, because I hated what God had created me to be. I hadn’t only run away from becoming my true self because I was afraid of hurting my family, friends, students and colleagues, or because I was afraid of their rejection. I had internalized my culture’s hatred of my difference. “Internalized” is a fancy way of saying that I not only knew my culture hated people like me, I participated in that hatred: I hated myself for being different. God could preserve my life amidst the soul-dissolving acids of bitterness and suicidal despair, but as long as I hated myself for being what God had made me, though I could feel God’s presence, I couldn’t feel God’s love.
God kept Jonah alive in the depths for a day or two. God kept me alive there for decades, but I wasn’t grateful to God for preserving a life I wished with all my heart, all my soul and all my might, would end.
Every year, when Elul’s horn began to sound, it woke me up to how low I had sunk. But no matter what I vowed during the days of Awe, I knew I would keep living as a cardboard cut-out of a man, day after day and year after year. God could keep me alive in the depths, but even God couldn’t deliver me from them unless I made teshuva as Jonah made teshuva, by dedicating myself to living the life God created me to live.
Of course, despite his deliverance and teshuvah, Jonah wasn’t thrilled by the life God created him to live. As he makes clear toward the end of the book, he still didn’t want to go to Nineveh, and he still thought it was a waste of time to play the prophet. I didn’t want to be stared at, treated as an embarrassment or public menace. I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, to challenge or change the social order. I didn’t want to be a transsexual, a this-slash-that, an other. I just wanted to live as a woman.
But God didn’t give me that option: I could continue to hide, shipwrecked with God in the cold wet darkness of my male persona, or I could become myself.
But why would God give me such a choice? I could imagine the harm that would result from being true to myself – who would be hurt, who would hurt me – but what good could possibly come of revealing that I was different?
Jonah would have understood my quandary. Even though he is ready and able to question God’s purposes, Jonah never understands why God needs him to publicly live as the prophet he is. Won’t God be just as merciful without him? It’s a reasonable question, but at very the end of the book, God suggests that Jonah’s reluctant but courageous public prophecy was a necessary part of the process of teshuvah and redemption. Perhaps that’s the ultimate message of the Book of Jonah: that even though we don’t know why, God wants us and needs us to become our truest, wholest selves, not just for our sakes – Jonah doesn’t seem to enjoy being a prophet, and living as an out trans woman definitely has its drawbacks – but for the sake of those around us.
By being true to who he is and living the life God created him to live, Jonah is able to inspire teshuvah even in the people of Nineveh who, God says, “don’t know the right hand from the left.” We don’t have to look far to see that same dynamic in our own time, in our own community. I have seen Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Miryam Kabakov and many others inspire change by through their openness, their courage, their determination to be true to themselves and the God who created them. In response to their presence and their example, whole communities have engaged in teshuvah, questioning norms and assumptions that have lead them to bully, browbeat and exile their LGBTQ members.
Even if we aren’t leaders, visionaries or prophets, by living the lives God created us to live rather than hiding in the depths of despair, we become living examples of the power of teshuvah, proof to those around us that no matter how scary it seems or how difficult it is, we all can become who we are created to be. Every relationship in which we are accepted for who we are becomes a more honest, loving relationship; every community in which we are welcomed becomes a more embracing, loving community. Those who despair of becoming who they truly are see as our lives as beacons of hope, possibility, proof of God’s life-changing, soul-sustaining love. That is the tikkun olam we do when we, like Jonah, show our gratitude to the God who created us by being true to ourselves.
The Book of Jonah makes it clear that no matter how far Jonah wandered from his people, God was with him. Whether or not we have Jewish communities that are ready to embrace us, God is with us, sustaining and loving us not despite but because we are who we are. And I have faith – three thousand years of faith – that wherever God is, Judaism will follow.
If it takes holy chutzpah to argue with God, Jonah has it in spades. God’s word steers him to Nineveh, the great Babylonian metropolis whose wickedness is driving the Divine to distraction, but instead of traveling to Nineveh to “proclaim judgment upon it” (Jonah 1:2) as God asks, Jonah books passage on a boat heading to Tarshish, in the opposite direction. Angered that Jonah would turn “away from the service of the Lord” (1:3), God sends a storm to shake up his ship. While the sailors pray and bail water, Jonah sleeps down below in the ship’s hold. After the sailors toss him overboard in the hope of calming the storm and deflecting God’s anger, Jonah spends three nights in the belly of a giant fish, and finally gets coughed up onto the beach of Babylonia. There, he makes a half-hearted pass through the city, proclaiming destruction in forty days.
This, my friends, is Judaism’s most successful prophet – the only prophet the Hebrew Bible records as actually bringing about the full repentance of his flock. If nothing else, he’s proof positive that God has a sense of humor, or at least a fine appreciation for irony.
In spite of himself, Jonah provokes the people of Nineveh to such repentance that they even garb their cattle in sackcloth and ashes. Yet when Jonah sees God spare the city, he’s furious. “God!” he says, “Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? This is why I fled toward Tarshish. Because I know You are compassionate and generous, slow to anger, abundant in Your kindness, slow to anger, and refraining from evil” (4:2). Rabbi Haim Ovadia teaches that Jonah is actually raging against God’s compassion — Jonah wants the bad guys to get what they deserve. Jonah runs because he knows God will forgive them, and he’d rather die than be a part of it.
But God doesn’t truck with Jonah’s vision. Over the course of the Book of Jonah, the haftarah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon, God drags Jonah on his own journey of transformation – showing him compassion, witnessing his anger, trying to wake up his heart. But it’s precisely Jonah’s attachment to judgment I want to highlight here, because I believe many of us live in Jonah’s shoes. Judgment is bedrock in Jonah’s universe.
As queer folk, many of us carry deep wounds around judgment. Coming out and being out leaves some tender places in our lives open to public scrutiny. For many of us, Yom Kippur gets tangled up with our own memories of being judged – often by those who claim to speak for God. As we take stock of own lives and try to make amends for where we’ve fallen short, most of us face the harshest judge of all: ourselves.
Humans have a hard time expressing love and limits simultaneously. As children, many of us found “being good” the best road to love and approval, while “doing bad” made love harder to find. But on Yom Kippur, we have the chance to submerge ourselves in a different story. For the Holy One loves with a love that cannot be withheld. The Holy One loves with a love that cannot be undone. For all our power to inflict harm and pain on one another and ourselves, we cannot separate ourselves from God’s compassion. We can deny it, forget it, or ignore it – but we cannot shatter it. No matter what you or I do, the love bond between us and God endures.
This is Nineveh’s lesson. This is truth that Jonah knew and couldn’t face.
God’s love doesn’t excuse our actions. It isn’t about our actions. God’s compassion is not an ethical force. It cares not one whit for what we do or who we are or what mishigas we’re mixed up in. God’s compassion is a Presence that stays with us, regardless. It doesn’t fix our problems, and it doesn’t spare us pain. It doesn’t protect us from tragedy or misery or fear. God’s Presence changes nothing, and it changes everything. Because the soul needs love in order to survive. Love is the very stuff of life, as elemental as breath and just as necessary.
Amidst this love that exists and endures and sustains us, Jewish tradition also calls forth God’s capacity to express righteousness and moral judgment. Unlike human hearts, which have a hard time expressing love at the same time that they feel disappointment and pain, the Holy holds all this in one awesome bundle. The discerning God, the God who desires the world to be a more ethical, wholesome, life-sustaining place. It is the God who weeps at human suffering, who cries out against evil, and calls us to make a whole and holy world. The God who knows we can transcend our smaller selves, transform our moments of mean-spiritedness, and hallow our hearts. The God who holds us, all the while, in compassionate and enduring love.
Gut yontef, L’shanah Tovah, Shabbat Shalom!
Before I begin, I want to offer my deepest thanks to all of my beloved Sha’ar Zahav community for the opportunity to be here with you this year. It is a privilege and a joy, and at this time of year I am especially grateful to God and to all of you.
We stand here tonight without knowing quite where we are. Or more precisely, we don’t know quite when we are. Shabbat has come in; the sun is just gone over the horizon. During this evening’s service light gives way to dark, and the old year and the new year meet. We cannot ever pinpoint the exact moment when the old year disappears forever. But we know that there is a time at sundown when it is no longer the past year and it is not yet the year to come. It is old and new, both and neither one, at the same time. For fleeting minutes on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, time and certainty are suspended, and we who have come to pray are lifted up into twilight and its mystery.
Each of us has arrived in this sanctuary in our own unique place, with our own unique stories. Together, at this in-between time, we give thanks that we have lived to see another year arrive. At this most holy interval between the years, we begin the process of teshuvah, of turning towards God and towards our own best selves. Each of us begins to search our souls to understand what we do well and what we might do better. Together tonight, we open ourselves up to new hope and new possibilities as we stand here in between.
This past spring, a college student walked down the streets of a major U.S. city on the way to work. Suddenly shouts came from behind: “Hey! Hey!” Since the woman shouting was a stranger, the young person walked on and ignored her. The woman began to follow the student down the sidewalk.
“HEY! I’m talking to you! Are you a man or a woman?” Now the woman cut off the student’s path. “I asked, are you a man or a woman?” The student, now forced to stop walking, said nothing, simply looking into the stranger’s face. “Just tell me what you are!”
When the student did not respond, the woman continued: “Oh, so you’re a woman, right? I knew it, you’re a woman.” Now the student finally responded: “No.” “Well, fine, so you’re a man then.” And again the young student replied: “No.”
Now the woman began to scream. “Which are you? Why won’t you tell me?” The student swallowed, and said as evenly as they could: “I’m not either a man or a woman. I’m neither. I’m both.” For a moment the stranger’s face froze, and the student instinctively lifted an arm to protect their face from the blow that would probably be coming. Instead, loud peals of laughter.
“That’s a good one! You’re both! You’re both! You can’t be both!” The laughter followed the student, and the student’s classmates, down the street.
The student in the street had defied categories. They faced the question: “Are you a man or a woman?” – and replied that they did not fit so simply into either one. Instead, they lived in a space in the middle. But the woman could not believe that a person could exist outside of the two categories — “male” and “female” — that she knew. “Both” was not an option. She felt compelled to define this person in front of her, even though she didn’t know them.
Like this woman, we have all been taught that knowing the difference between men and women is of paramount importance. From the moment of birth and even before, we instantly and fervently delineate gender for every new human being. What’s the first question we ask about a new baby? We ask, “Is it a boy or a girl?” We continue to ask this question of every person, in one way or another, almost every day, as long as we live.
Every form we fill out requires us to check one box — either “M” or “F.” If you do not pick one gender — and only one — you do not get a driver’s license, or a mortgage, or food stamps. We must pick a gender in order to get a job, travel, or enroll a child in school. Is it a boy or a girl, man or woman? We are almost never allowed to imagine that there might be space in between.
As the twilight falls on Erev Rosh Hashanah, it is a most appropriate time to consider what happens in in-between places. Jewish tradition has a unique relationship with twilight: that ethereal moment in every day when dark and light meet. The rising of the sun and its going down are moments that we cannot label with certainty, and all the more so the twilight of the evening of the new year. “Our sages taught: As to twilight, it is doubtful whether it is part day and part night, or whether all of it is day or all of it is night. How long does the twilight last? After sunset, as long as the east still has a reddish glow: when the lower [sky] is pale but not the upper, it is twilight; [but] when the upper sky is as pale as the lower, it is night. Such is the opinion of Rabbi Judah…Rabbi Yosi said: Twilight is like the twinkling of an eye as night enters and the day departs, and it is impossible to determine its length.”
How much more mysterious are the minutes between one year and the next. And tonight is also Shabbat, that great divide between the everyday and the sacred. This, right now, is the twilight of twilights.
Our rabbis believed that twilight held great and unique power. Demons abounded in these minutes between night and day. One was especially vulnerable to the many forces of evil. Our sages, of great intellect and tremendous spiritual gifts, seem to have been a little bit afraid of what they could not define. Like the woman shouting in the street — like all of us at different times — our rabbis wanted to categorize and label. They desired to understand when day ended and night began — which was which, and what to call it. But ultimately, many of them acknowledged that they could not draw a simple line between one and the other. That middle place between light and dark could never be boxed in. It was not day, and it was not night. Twilight was something else all its own.
With their concern about demons, we might expect that our rabbis would have warned us of the grave dangers of twilight. Perhaps we should not leave our houses at the time of sundown. Twilight could have been considered an inauspicious time for important activities. Perhaps the inscrutable twilight is when God hides God’s face. In other words, our rabbis could have shut down twilight for us. Or they could have ruled it away, artificially dividing night from day with no possibilities in between them. But they didn’t. Instead, the rabbis taught that twilight, and dawn, are the best times to pray. They concluded that these times that are in-between and indefinable are when our prayers are most likely to be heard. The place in the middle that made them afraid was also for them the place where miracles were most likely, where divine forces rise, where transformation is most possible. Rather than shutting down the twilight hour, they opened it and elevated it. It is not a degraded middle place. It is exceptionally holy.
This approach to intermediate time is also, in many instances, Judaism’s approach to intermediate space. Places in the middle are not places to rush through. They are places to be sanctified. At the Red Sea, our ancestors sang songs of praise to God for that miracle of passage. Thus our people were named ivrim, Hebrews, from the root avar — “to cross.” At our essence, Jews are a people who cross over borders that previously seemed impossible. And when these boundary-crossers came out from the sea, they did not emerge right into their promised destination. They came forth into many years of wandering, in a vast desert between one place and the next place. This wilderness is where the majority of our Torah takes place. It is where we received our laws and our ethical teachings, where God came down in fire and in the great blast of the shofar. In between one place and another, our ancestors became the people that we now know. Today we still inscribe God’s name in our places of passage. In a Jewish home, we hang mezuzot that contain our most sacred words. And the place where we are commanded to hang them is in the doorway. Stopping to see or kiss the mezuzah reminds us of who we are: boundary-crossers, people in the middle. In the place between two places, we affirm the oneness of God.
And what about people in the middle? Our tradition knows middle time and middle space — how does it treat human beings who do not fall neatly into a gender category?
Yes, our rabbis of ancient times knew that humanity did not fit into two boxes. Just as day and night cannot be clearly divided into two, according to some of our most ancient texts, neither can people. In approximately 100 C.E., it was written in the Mishna: there are people who “are in some ways like men, and in some ways like women, and in some ways like both men and women, and in some ways like neither men nor women.” It goes on to say that people of intermediate sex and gender were not to be harmed; their lives were of equal value to any other person’s. A few hundred years later, the Talmud describes our ancestors Abraham and Sarah as tumtumim — as people whose gender or genitals could not be clearly labeled. Today it may be almost hard to believe that the Talmud could envision Sarah and Abraham in this way. They are the ancestors of our people, and we are told that their gender could not be determined. Dozens and dozens of other Jewish texts speak of sex and gender in similar ways. Twilight cannot be defined; it can only be sanctified and appreciated. People can’t always be defined; they can only be seen and respected, and their lives made holy. This Jewish approach allows for genders between male and female. It opens space in society. And it protects those who live in the places in between.
Unfortunately, this traditional understanding has been muffled in the last thousand years. Today we are taught that there are two and only two options, male and female, that are determined by anatomy and do not change. But transgender, intersex and gender-queer experiences are beginning to challenge this belief. Transgender people, Jews and non-Jews, ivrim, border-crossers, people in between — are standing up and telling our truth. One may be born with a “male” body, and know herself to be female. One can feel that they encompass qualities called “male” and qualities called “female.” Others identify as another gender entirely — not male, not female, but a third gender. Some people choose to change their bodies or names to reflect their inner identities; some don’t. People might know themselves to be transgender as children, or in their twenties, or forties, or eighties. Some people are deciding that they do not have a gender, or do not wish to choose one. Transgender experiences are asking us all to question some of our most basic categories.
For those who have never known someone who is transgender, all of this might seem difficult to understand, or even a little crazy. I invite us all to question what it is that we’ve always believed. I invite us to fully embrace that great promise of the High Holy Days: that the way things have been is not the way that they always have to be.
All of you here are needed in the work of opening minds and hearts; because for those who live in these gender-places in between, our ancestors’ twilight demons can be real. It is dangerous not to conform to gender categories. People whose gender is unclear suffer high rates of violence, discrimination and abuse. But in the face of this, trans people — like gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer people before us and alongside us — are standing up every day to insist that the world is bigger than what we’ve been taught, more complex and wonderful than two simple fixed categories. Like the wide spectrum of sexual identities, gender diversity is a gift to be celebrated. Some transgender experiences are about finding holiness in a journey from one gender to another. Other people choose to sanctify some place in between, or another identity entirely. No one can define twilight, but we all know its power and its beauty. Each human being, no matter what their gender identity, is created in the image of God. God’s image transcends all categories.
It is not only transgender people who can live in difficult and sacred middle places. Every person has been there, in their own way. Some of us here may be between jobs, or have just left a relationship. Perhaps you’re awaiting a birth, or in recovery, or planning a move. Or maybe you are struggling to survive in a desert that lies between old pain and new promise. Perhaps you enter the new year knowing that you face great challenges ahead, and wondering what that journey will look like.
It is not only transgender people whose lives demand room in the middle. Every person has had profound experiences of the in-between. Maybe it’s a sunrise; or perhaps you’ve witnessed the moments when life begins, or when it ends. Most of us here have found ourselves in some kind of wilderness — maybe without knowing how long we might be there. These in-between places can terrify us, as they frightened our rabbis. And these are often the experiences that most deeply change our lives. In our rushed, stressful world, where we race from one obligation to the next, we are rarely encouraged to find holiness in the in-between places. We feel so much pressure to achieve, to get to the next level, to find a new relationship, to finish school — to “get where we’re going.” There never seems to be time to make sacred whatever lies in between here and there. How often do we linger in the doorway and feel the presence of God? How many twilights have passed by without us offering some kind of prayer — a pause to marvel at the sunset; to hug a loved one; to reflect on the day?
As the High Holy Days begin, each of us confronts in particular that uncomfortable space between who we are and who we would most like to be. Our tradition sanctifies these intermediate places, where we all dwell. At this season, we are even reminded that it is better to have made mistakes and repented for them than never to have made that mistake, never to have made that journey, at all. The journey towards our best selves continues all our lives; and Judaism makes each one of us holy as in-between people. What places are each of us in between tonight? Can we use this new year not only to consider where we’re going, but to sanctify where, and who, we are right now?
Tonight, at the twilight of twilights — this is the time to imagine. Let us take this opportunity to open ourselves to possibilities in the middle that we may never have thought about, or never believed we would live to see. This is the time to throw out last year’s fears; to question all the little boxes that tell us what, or where, or who we’re “supposed” to be; to reconsider whatever categories prevent us from exploring or becoming our full authentic selves. This is the time to envision the change we might begin in our own life and in our own soul during the Days of Awe.
We began our service with a song, a liturgical poem, set to a melody by the Jews of Casablanca. Once each year, as the last day of the old year fades and disappears, we chant Achot Ketanah, “Little sister.” One should begin singing it when it is still barely light, and finish just after the sun has gone down. At this very moment, as day turns to night and ushers out the last day of the year five thousand six hundred and sixty-six, thousands of Jews in houses of prayer across the globe sing this song with us. This is the melody that hallows our passage from year into year, and opens up the twilight hour in all of its potential.
I invite you in a moment to join together and sing again the melody for the twilight of the new year. Offer up your prayers, whatever they may be. Let us open ourselves at this holy hour to new ways of being and new ways of seeing — even those we may not yet understand — to new places, even those that may seem too frightening to go. Each of us is invited to make holy whatever in-between places we are in.
God of all times and places, God of all people in between — be with each human being here tonight, whoever and wherever we may be. May the twilight that brought our new year in lift our prayers up; and sanctify our journeys for a year of life and peace.
Read an interview with Rabbi Reuben Zellman in our Queer Clergy in Action” series.
Yesterday we introduced you to the great new series on transgender Jewish identity published by the Forward. It’s the first comprehensive exploration of this topic we’ve seen by a mainstream paper in the Jewish community.
I spoke with Naomi Zeveloff, editor of the series, while it was in its early stage of conception. I caught up with her again, curious to learn more about the impetus for this groundbreaking series and what she learned while working on it.
At the Forward and elsewhere, I have done a lot of reporting on sexuality, gender identity and religion. A few Jewish LGBT advocates told me that transgender issues are the “new frontier” for the Jewish community. I was also seeing a lot of stories about transgender people and issues in the secular press at the time. This got me thinking about the experience of transgender Jews — did they feel welcome in liberal Jewish settings and elsewhere? Were they creating community of their own? Did Jewish practice facilitate gender transition? These were massive questions to start out with. Luckily, I had an assistant to help me: Michael Berson, the 16-year-old son of a Forward board member, did extensive research on the topic for me. From there, I developed the ideas that became the five stories that we ran in our Transgender and Jewish series.
I was surprised by how forthcoming my sources were. I expected to have a very difficult time with access, given the sensitivity of the issue, but I found that most of the trans Jews I interviewed were willing and even eager to speak with me. It’s a very small, connected community, and, I think, once one person felt comfortable speaking with me then other people opened up as well.
Learning more about gender transition was a moving experience. It’s a very serious undertaking, and demands deep introspection. I have tremendous respect for people who transition genders, who take it upon themselves to know and understand themselves at such a profound level.
Some of my favorite stories came from Rabbi Elliot Kukla, the first out transgender rabbi, who told me about doing pastoral work with elderly cisgender and transgender Jews. He told me, “I say as a joke that to a lot of elders I am not more surprising than an iPhone. It’s like, this is what a phone looks like now, and I guess this is what a rabbi looks like now.” Kukla said that people underestimate the capacity for empathy in others. But he shows up with empathy and expects and is very often given empathy in return. I found that attitude very impacting, and very hopeful.
Our series got some national attention, from GLAAD and from the folks at Sirius XM, where I was a guest on the Mike Signorile show about LGBT issues. I haven’t heard much from transgender readers of the Forward. I’m very curious to know what they liked and didn’t like about the series, and what they feel we could have done differently or do in addition. I see this series as a jumping off point for the Forward to report more comprehensively on gender and sexuality.
Want to see more reporting on transgender Jewish identity at the Forward?
Have a comment/compliment/complaint about any of the articles? Leave a note in the comments or shoot Naomi an email.
Last week, Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Private first class Bradley Manning, made headlines. Her announcement that she would be living as a woman eclipsed the news of the previous day–her 35 year prison sentence for leaking classified government documents.
So while the mainstream media was tripping over itself, The Forward was wrapping up a terrific series exploring transgender and Jewish identity in all of its wondrous complexity. The series looked at how Jewish summer camps welcome gender-nonconforming campers, the link between gender transition and conversion for trans Jews by choice, mikveh rituals for transitioning, transgender rabbis who paved the way as well as rabbis still in rabbinical school.
Tomorrow, we talk with editor Naomi Zeveloff about what inspired her to produce this series and what she learned while working on it.
For Transgender Converts, Changing Gender and Finding Faith Come Together
For some transgender converts, turning to Judaism is intrinsically linked to gender transition. The process of soul-searching unearths one truth, then another.
Marking Gender Transition in the Mikveh
When Max Strassfeld helped write a ritual for a friend’s transition, he mapped contemporary ideas about gender onto a very traditional Jewish space — the mikveh.
When Jewish Transgender Teens Come Out of Closet, Many Leave Camp Behind
Summer camp has not always been a welcoming place for transgender Jewish youth. That’s changing as new camps spring up — and existing ones try to be more inclusive.
First Generation of Transgender Rabbis Claims Place at Bimah
When it comes to transgender Jews, the community is in a moment of transition.
New Generation of Transgender Rabbis Ties Jewish Practice and Gender Change
The number of transgender rabbis in America will soon double — from three to six. The next generation is blazing a trail with a unique approach to gender identity and Jewish spirituality.
Emily Aviva: Creating a Jewish Community for Trans Women
(For readers of this blog, you probably recognize Emily her from her deeply personal and thoughtful blog posts like Wrapping Myself in the Fringes and Learning to Return to Myself.)
This summer, Habonim Dror Camp Na’aleh did something unprecedented at Jewish camp – we had a transgender bunk counselor. At Camp Na’aleh we live according to the values of Habonim Dror and the kibbutz movement. Campers and staff at Na’aleh integrate the values of cooperation, equality and activism into their everyday experience at camp. So when I was approached during the past year by Amit Schwalb, a transgender staff member, about shifting his role from garden specialist to bunk counselor, my first instinct was not to ask, “Are we ready to have a transgender staff member living with kids.” It was to ask, “How can we make this happen?”
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 a line promising inclusion for “queer doorways” that might open the verse, and its promises, up even wider.
A GenderQueer Doorway
In Parashat Nitzavim, Moses relates the covenant between God and the Hebrews, explaining the curses that will befall them if they do not follow God’s commandments, and the blessings they will experience if they return to the way of God.
Moses tells the Hebrews the covenant is even for “woodchoppers and water drawers,” (Deuteronomy 29:10) which is usually understood to mean “everyone” — but I’m not satisfied that in traditional interpretations “everyone” also includes queers.
We look back at the ancient Israelites and infer that the “woodchoppers” in such a traditional society were men, and the “water drawers,” women. So Moses’ “woodchoppers and water drawers,” or “everyone” clearly refers to both “men and women.” But there’s a queer doorway we can use to expand our understanding of this text. We might ask: could a eunuch chop wood? Perhaps an androgynos (a person with a combination of male and female genitals) might draw water with the women? I’m not playing fast and loose with the tradition, either; although I’m guessing about the specifics, gender variant individuals were not prohibited from having a role in early Israelite society. The Rabbis of the Talmud modeled Jewish law on the variety life showed them, including the variety of physical bodies they saw in their communities. This covenant is for every Jew — not simply every straight male Jew.
The passage is even more radical: Moses invites into the covenant not just the Israelites gathered before him in the desert of Sinai, but also those Jews who “are not with us here this day.” (Deut. 29:14). Usually, this is interpreted to mean men and women of future generations. But since Moses has essentially invoked time travel, we can see that this clause is flexible enough to include not only Jewish genderqueers and preferencequeers but also a universe of potential differences we can’t even imagine yet. This is an open-ended glimpse into a very queer eternity.
Cursed as a Spout of Wormwood
We enter our second queer doorway by asking about those curses that Moses refers to. S/He who created us in Hir image knows there will be those queers among us who say, “I shall be safe, even though I follow my own willful heart.” (Deut. 29:18). [Note: "Hir" is a gender-neutral pronoun used by some intersex, feminist and transgender scholars and activists. For more information, click here.] (This is the famous “this law doesn’t apply to me” clause.) But a-following my willful heart I will go, until I get the Torah written that addresses my life specifically and particularly. In fact, commentators on the next parasha, Va-Yelekh, underline my obligation to write that very Torah. Va-Yelekh is the source of the commandment that every Jew should write a Torah for hirself.
So I am the person Moses warned against, and the person Judaism didn’t plan for, but I am also covenanted. I am “a stock spouting poison weed and wormwood;” (Deut. 29:17); a person who follows his own “willful heart” – and I am covenanted. The law – as it is commonly understood – doesn’t apply to me. What about you? Claim it with pride! This condemnation does not — cannot — possibly apply to me. This law denies my existence and oppresses me, and it is my obligation to comment on those things that blot my face out of our common scripture loudly enough and often enough, such that a new twig, a new blossom, a new leaf, and some healthy new roots grow upon this Tree of Life. As G-d intended, my covenant with Hir is still being written in the pages of my life. The curses visited on the people because of my transgressions? Intolerance and bigotry. The blessings? A living example of the ability of humankind to transform itself.
A third queer opening presents itself when we realize that transgression teshuvah is built into the covenant as two sides of a coin, and the covenant is modeled on a chimerical binary quality of life: A binary code is built into the alternating base pairs of our DNA. We are one thing and then the other so quickly that black and white becomes myriad shades of grey and all colors of the rainbow. Like light, which may be perceived as a particle or as a wave, we flicker from transgression (ayin bet resh, the Hebrew root, means “to traverse a boundary”) to teshuvah, and back again. Teshuvah is to return — to remember where you have been. Traverse a new boundary. Remember where you have been. Traverse a new boundary. Remember. Traverse. Remember. Traverse. Think, act, think, act, think. . .
Boundaries get redrawn all the time. Then they are no longer boundaries.
Gravity of Concealed Things
The final queer opportunity in this parasha is the “hidden things” clause: “Concealed acts concern the Lord our G-d; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply this . . . Teaching.” (Deut. 29:28).
All humans conceal certain acts. Some things are not safe to reveal to a bigoted and short sighted populace. A transgender man goes stealth. A queer woman remains closeted. A gender queer identifies as a man in certain unsafe contexts, and as a woman in safer contexts. These things are no one’s business — it’s between one person and G-d. One need only justify one’s choice to G-d.
Hiding has consequences, though. Some communal fellow-feeling is lost when one hides, and the closets we hide in are not entirely invisible to our fellow humans. They have a kind of “gravity well” that pulls us one way or another; when closeted, we are not entirely free, and neither are those persons from whom we conceal aspects of ourselves.
All humans reveal certain acts; some revelations are transgressive. In this passage, open acts of transgression may be seen as opportunities for challenge to the community. In the quotation above, the Torah says we must “apply” these teachings to everything that is revealed, that it’s our business to do so, that it’s our obligation to inquire into the ethics and spiritual reality of that which individuals in our communities reveal to us. What we queers need to remember is that “apply” does not mean “condemn.”
We are obligated to address that which is revealed. If I have taken the bold step to trust my community with those things that formerly were concealed, sacred to myself and God alone, my community is obliged to understand the sanctity of my revelation, and engage with it as Torah instructs. To learn this new passuq (sentence) as one would study any other Torah, with all the difficulty and exultation that study entails.
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, Marisa James discusses how the Biblical injunction to care for the vulnerable applies to today’s LGBT Jews. This week’s Torah Queeries essay was written in 2007.
As we read Parashat Ki Tavo, we’re also in the midst of the Haftorot of Consolation, which we read every week from Tisha B’Av until the beginning of Rosh Hashanah. We’re also about half-way through the month of Elul, which precedes the beginning of our new year. We are threatened with punishment; we are consoled; we are expected to recite every day of this month our wish to dwell peacefully in the house of God. There’s a lot on our plates, and I know I find it difficult to stay focused on the Parashah or my preparations for the High Holidays when there are such fierce and competing emotions battering me from all sides.
This week we read in Ki Tavo about the punishments that will come if we do not follow the laws of the Torah exactly. To console us after the lists of harsh punishments, we read in the book of Isaiah the Haftorah, which promises us that God doesn’t really mean it, that we are, in fact, the chosen people, who will inherit good days to come. Isaiah has a beautiful vision for us this week, telling us that the day will come when “The cry ‘Violence!’ shall no more be heard in your land, nor ‘Wrack and ruin!’ within your borders. […] The smallest shall become a clan; the least, a mighty nation.” (Isaiah 60:18, 22)
Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. about his dreams. In the midst of the civil rights movement, King did not hope that one day Kenyan or Haitian or Jamaican children would be free; he dreamt of a day when all black people, and all people, would be free. King looked beyond the limits of his own community to dream that “we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children — black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics — will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Over the course of the summer I wrote this essay, I’ve heard three different conversations about activism in queer communities. In those three conversations, I heard variations on the following: “It’s not working because gay men and lesbians actually have nothing in common,” and “Transgendered people have their own issues to deal with – we should stay focused on ours,” and even “Why should I give money to the AIDS foundation? It’s all straight people spreading it now.” How on earth can Isaiah’s promise come true, when the smallest doesn’t want to be a clan, and the least refuses to join a mighty nation?
In the beginning of Ki Tavo, we’re given a few instructions about being thankful. The first fruits of our labors are to be given to God, after which “you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that God has bestowed upon you and your household” (Deuteronomy 26: 11). After this, our obligation to be thankful and share our blessings with others does not end; instead, “When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield — in the third year, the year of the tithe — and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements, you shall declare before the Lord your God: “I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, just as You commanded me.” (Deuteronomy 26:12-13)
First, we are to share with the Levite and the stranger. In the third year, we add chairs to the table and extend our hospitality to the fatherless and the widow. Who are all of these people? The Levites are the priests, our leadership. The stranger is our obligation, the person not of our own community; it is a blessing to welcome the stranger to our home and table. The fatherless and the widow we can understand as those without protection, people who don’t have a community structure to lean on or a place at the table. It’s an interesting mix; for example, what does the Levite have in common with the widow? But all are expected to share a table despite their differences and share the fruits of the harvest.
Coretta Scott King also understood that everyone had to come to the table. “My husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ On another occasion he said, ‘I have worked too long and hard against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concern. Justice is indivisible.’ Like Martin, I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.” (June 23, 1994)
If the queer community is ever going to make large strides forward, it will depend on all of us being part of a true community. We don’t need to have the same issues, the same concerns, the same eating habits, the same family structures… but we do have to share a desire for justice and a sense of purpose. If we are sitting at different tables in our own small rooms we’ll achieve very little. But if we come together and share the fruits of our labors, if those of us who are leadership sit down with the unprotected, if those of us who feel orphaned by society sit down with the big shots, if we are all sometimes willing to be the stranger at the dinner party, then we can begin to be consoled by having a place at the table.
As we approach the High Holidays, think of the lines of Psalm 27, which we read during the month of Elul: “One thing I ask of God, only that do I seek: to live in the house of God all the days of my life” (Psalms 27:4). This year, seek your place in the divine, but without forgetting the importance of your place at the table.
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 charges us not to forget the Torah’s “good soldier.”
This Torah portion encompasses almost four chapters and is the source of more than 70 of the 613 mitzvoth. Because the parasha seems at first glance to be disjointed and chaotic, I spent time studying its literary themes and narrative structure. There appears to be an overarching meta-narrative to the parasha which suggests that the ethical behavior of soldiers, both at home and in the military encampment, will lead to the ultimate victory of Israel and the acquisition of the land that is God’s promise. The “meta-narrative” is difficult to identify, appearing via a number of successive but marginally related instances of case law. Like a tapestry, we can ultimately make sense of a welter of instances by stepping back and looking at the pattern from a distance. Oftentimes this kind of analysis is a way to grasp a “macro-vision” of Queer Wisdom (in this instance I mean “queer” in the sense of “secret” “hidden” or “mysterious”) from a text that is explicitly anti-Queer when viewed up close. The meta-narrative appears explicitly in the beginning, the middle, and at the end.
The meta-narrative begins (Deuteronomy 21:10-14) by identifying the boundaries of ethical behavior for an individual soldier. The middle segment of the meta-narrative is the definition of an Israelite man, and the meta-narrative ends by encapsulating the essence of Israelite masculinity.
Woven into the meta-narrative are a series of instances of case law. Structurally, each “case” encapsulates a legal scenario that links to its successor by means of a common theme. The result is a daisy chain of loosely-linked cases, and a movement of themes that is practically symphonic. The first case describes the compassionate (at least for the ancients) treatment of a captive woman taken by a soldier as wife. A woman captured in battle, desired by a soldier, is required to undergo a ritual transformation from “captive” to “mourner” to “wife.” After possessing her, a husband may divorce her, but while he may “send her away” he may not profit by selling her into slavery.
A narrative on the theme of “wife” becomes the common thread grabbed up by the next case, which concerns a man with two wives, one of them loved and one of them hated, and the legal inheritance of the firstborn son who emerged from the womb of the hated wife (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). Through this literary device of “cases,” the explicit theme of a soldier’s behavior has become secondary to the theme of an Israelite man’s home life, adding depth and character to the personage of a “soldier” as simply a taker of the spoils of war. A soldier is also a man with responsibilities to his family.
The next theme in the daisy chain is “sons,” and the issue is the administration of a death-sentence to a rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). This case outlines the boundaries of the soldier’s parental responsibility. (I am skipping some cases here for brevity.)
The meta-narrative began with the ethical behavior of a soldier toward the human spoils of war, while the daisy-chained themes in the parasha started with the common thread of wives and moved from there to sons, and from there to capital punishment (the cases I skipped). Such a daisy-chain is often found in early written texts, which prior to their history as “text” to be read, were first law codes that were spoken. Linked themes are an aid to memory. In my reading, the cases also serve to contextualize the meta-narrative, and (in this parasha) the characteristics of an idealized soldier. It is as though the compositor of this text were using these instances of case law to illuminate the contours of the Ideal Soldier.
Chapter 22 begins with the legal theme of ethical management of lost property, and is one oft-cited source in Jewish canon for the idea of “ethics” as a Jewish core value. I think, given the meta-narrative I am hypothesizing, that the issue of lost property answers the question, “How does a soldier behave toward members of his community, and even toward his enemy in times of peace?” According to the text in verse 1 through 4, he is obligated to care for lost livestock or possessions until the owner comes to claim them. Furthermore, he can’t ignore a neighbor’s troubles, but must assist, as though the person whose ox fell under a heavy burden were a member of the family.
Chapter 23 is the midpoint of the parasha, and here at the midpoint the meta-narrative is brought back into the text implicitly. If an Israelite soldier is an Israelite man, how does one define an Israelite man?
The first verse in Chapter 23 concerns whom the Israelite man may marry, and taking up the theme of “an Israelite man,” the next verses (2-9) define the physical and genetic constitution of an Israelite man in good standing with the community. To be a member of the Assembly, these verses tell us, a man may not be the product of an unlawful union and he may not be castrated or genitally wounded, and he may not be a member of certain population groups even after the third generation, or certain other population groups (ostensibly more offensive to God) up to the tenth generation.
This is perhaps the most difficult passage in the entire parasha. In addition to demanding racial purity and a standard of physical perfection that eliminates many of us who are physically challenged, it excludes from the Assembly of Israelites, (the body who comes together to make decisions in the Israelite community), all those persons who are female, gender-variant, and homosexual (according to the first verse an Israelite man must be married to an appropriate female). But, with respect to the meta-narrative, we come to understand that an ancient Hebrew soldier was a man of a certain type.
The next verses (10-15) describe what a modern ethical sensibility must consider oxymoronic: a sacred war camp. The verses describe how a military encampment is to be maintained as a sacred space.
Chapter 24 once again moves to the home front in which we learn through illustrative cases that the Ideal Soldier is not a newlywed, and that he is an ethical businessman.
Chapter 25, the tail end of our parasha, concerns disputes between Israelites, or a kind of “internal warfare.” Chapter 25 concludes with a curse against Israelites who commit fraud of any sort. Their curse is that what befell Amalak, the arch-enemy of the Israelites, shall befall the Israelite that commits fraud: he will not be remembered among the Children of Israel.
The meta-narrative ends with the idea that “being remembered” is the essence of masculinity. A soldier is a family man and a citizen and a businessman who behaves ethically both in wartime and in times of peace. The meta-narative concludes on the idea implicit in this final chapter that a soldier who behaves fraudulently in any realm will not have “a remembrance” (zekher) and is consequently not male (zakhar).
As a friend pointed out to me, human communities tend to remember odd behaviors, whether oddly good or oddly bad. We haven’t forgotten Hitler or Amalek. The person we forget is “the good soldier,” the person who blends into the crowd.
What does this tell us about the Ideal Soldier described in the meta-narrative?
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, Cantor David Reinwald investigates how the repetition of key words can inspire a continual struggle for justice.
The only way I can describe how one approaches Parashat Shoftim is with honor, as this portion surrounds itself in such ideals. I find that while there is so much to grapple with in this portion, it was that one famous quote that was drawing me nearer and nearer as I leafed through the text, but turned back to every time. Tzedek tzedek tirdof, (Deuteronomy 16:20) a quote which I have seen so many times written on posters for rallies of protest for social justice and which is commonly translated as “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
As it is for so many, the repetition of the word tzedek is for me a continually intriguing notion. I marvel at the Torah’s ability to say so much in so few words. Yet, we continually find ourselves digging incredibly deep to search for meaning in doubled words. I immediately thought of another famous instance in the Torah amidst the Akeidah where the repetition of words is essential. God cries out to Abraham, “Avraham Avraham,” a call to immediate action for Abraham that changes the course of everything to follow. It made me wonder if tzedek tzedek is a similar cry out to us in our own pursuit of justice.
I sought to see how else this had been translated. By Everett Fox, I found not “justice” but “equity,” seeming to more greatly define the implications of justice. In Christian translations, the Revised Authorized translation writes, “That which is altogether just, shalt thou follow,” adding a dimension of quality to this understanding. While in the New English Bible one finds, “justice, and justice alone,” point blank. The late medieval rabbi Rav Bachya ben Asher commented in like fashion, “The double emphasis means: Justice under any circumstance, whether to your profit or loss, whether in word or in action, whether to Jew or non-Jew. It also means: Do not use unjust means to secure justice.” The Talmud guides us to apply justice to any judgment or compromise. Perhaps this is the simplest, yet most powerful suggestion. We hardly live in a black-and-white world, and we have to always see both sides of the situation, especially when we are caught in that gray reality.
But back to language. We cannot deny how moving a talented orator can be or the destructive nature of demeaning language. This is all connected to the choice of words. In my perusing, I found a surprise in the words of Isaiah in this week’s Haftarah. It was our prophets who best understood the value of their words as motivators of our people through their lofty and poetic speech. And in this week’s Haftarah we find not one, but four pairs of repeated words. “Anochi, Anochi,” (51:12) as Isaiah takes up the post of speaking God’s words proclaiming “I, I am the one who comforts you.” Then, “Hitor’ri, Hitor’ri” (51:17) the first of the three calls to action as Isaiah implores Jerusalem to “rouse yourself,” followed by “Uri, Uri” (52:1), a call for Jerusalem to awaken itself to new heights. Isaiah concludes with “Suru, Suru” (52:11) for Jerusalem to depart from its past and move forward to new days of redemption. I imagine it was so beautiful to hear these words spoken, and they were notably also an inspiration to the Kabbalists who modernized and built upon these themes, making the “Hitor’ri” and “Uri” repetitions part of the prayer Lecha Dodi.
We can once again modernize this call for ourselves to continue moving forward in our own fight for justice as LGBT Jews. We need to summon all we can to rouse and awaken the minds of those who stand in our way. We can help them to depart from their shackles of homophobia or hatred to move toward the light of the pursuit of justice for all.
Welcome to our fifth installment of “Queer Clergy in Action,” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers. Here, we interview Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell.
Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. You can also read the first four posts in this series, about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, Rabbi Denise Eger, and Rabbi Elliot Kukla.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell has worked as a rabbi for over three decades, serving congregations in California, New Jersey, and Virginia, and taught at a number of universities across the country. She was on the editorial board for The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and was one of the editors of Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation. She was the Director of the Los Angeles Jewish Feminist Center and has worked for the Union of Reform Judaism since 1996.
How has being LGBTQ informed your work as a rabbi?
I see my queer identity as a mirror and a reflection of my identity as an engaged, committed Jew and as a rabbi. For both LGBT folks and Jews are other, subversive, challenging, counter-cultural. This is a source of great strength and creativity. I hope that my work as a rabbi is a reflection of my continuing growth and learning to be present, compassionate and deliberate as I work for greater justice in each of the communities each of us inhabits.
What should we, as members of the LGBT Jewish community, be focusing on now?
Showing up and stepping up, taking leadership in the spheres we inhabit, sharing our wisdom and our truths as we continue to create and nurture structures and spaces that welcome all of us and support our continued growth.
Favorite queer Jewish figure?
Favorite queer Jews: Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, all the unnamed men and women who loved others like themselves and were rarely supported in sustaining those loves. I deeply admire Rabbi Jill Hammer‘s pioneering work and powerful vision, and am deeply indebted to the scholarship and longtime friendships of Rebecca Alpert and Yoel Kahn. I look forward to learning from many of the amazing folks who are pushing the boundaries now!
What’s next for you? A project, a sermon — what are you working on that’s queer and Jewish?
Exploring wise aging and the rich rewards of contemplative practice, reading, writing, and deepening connections, and sharing the joy of grandparenting with my wife, Nurit.
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, Gregg Drinkwater, former Colorado Regional Director of Keshet, considers the “prophesy” of LGBT Jews, and how it can powerfully change Judaism.
In the opening lines of Parashat Re’eh, Moses shares both a blessing and a curse with the Israelites. “The blessing: if you obey the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I command you today. And the curse: if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord, your God, and you stray from the path that I command you today.” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28) Fair enough. Moses seems to be offering a perfectly reasonable and clear proposition — one with which most Jews can feel comfortable, whatever variety of Judaism they follow.
But what does “obey the commandments” actually mean? Who is blessed and who is cursed? For Orthodox Jews, to “obey the commandments” means keeping all of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) found in the Torah, following halacha (Jewish law) essentially to the letter, and living a life embedded in Jewish tradition. For most progressive Jews (Reform, Liberal, Conservative, etc.), though, to “obey the commandments” is interpreted a bit differently. Most progressive Jews are deeply committed to Jewish tradition and the Torah, but approach the mitzvot and Jewish law with varying degrees of skepticism and modification. In some cases, progressive Jews are comfortable with outright rejection of those precepts which seem to violate competing ethical standards or which don’t easily conform to the realities of contemporary society. All of us understand what it means to “obey the commandments” from our own perspective, as we each adhere to our own Jewish journeys.
The followers of the various Jewish movements, then, all feel eligible for the blessing, and reserve Moses’ curse for someone else, somewhere else. We are all Lake Wobegon Jews – each of us above average. So far, so good.
We continue in our parasha, to verse 13:1, “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it.” Now we have a problem. What does it mean when Moses tells us that we should “neither add to it nor take away from it”? Does this simply mean that we can’t edit the Torah by adding or subtracting verses? What about the Oral Law? Is that included when Moses references “that which I enjoin upon you”? Halacha? Tradition? Everything? Nothing?
The Chatam Sofer, a fierce opponent of change who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, famously responded to the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) and early Reform Judaism by ruling “hadash asur min ha-Torah” (anything new is forbidden by the Torah). This concept had a profound impact on what we today call Ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Judaism, and it helps explain the traditional dress and habits of most Haredi Jews (although the fact that it’s impossible to find a Haredi Jew without a cell phone – at least in Israel – is another matter). Of course, one interesting problem with hadash asur min ha-Torah is that this idea is new in itself, thus making it an oxymoron. Leaving this problem aside, we can take from the Chatam Sofer that all change is forbidden – change to the Oral Law, Halacha, tradition, etc.
In contrast, Joseph Albo, a 15th-century scholar, wrote in his Sefer Ha-Ikkarim (Book of Principles) that “it does not necessarily follow that a divine law cannot be changed…the Torah merely warns us not to add or to take away from the commandments on our own account. But what can there be to prevent God himself from adding or diminishing as His wisdom decrees?” Albo isn’t suggesting that we should re-write Jewish law as we see fit, but rather that prophets may come along from time to time and we should remain open to their insights. We can skip going into the details here and simply focus on Albo’s insistence that change is indeed possible, despite what Moses tells us in Deuteronomy 13:1.
Now on to our contemporary world and one of the most pressing questions facing Jewish communities in relation to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues: What does Jewish law tell us? And if we aren’t satisfied with the answer, what can we do about it?
Commonly, Leviticus 18:22 is interpreted to explicitly forbid sexual relations between two men. Lesbians aren’t referenced directly in the Torah, but we have two-and-a-half Talmudic discussions that are commonly understood to indirectly prohibit sex between two women. As for transgender Jews, the commandment in Deuteronomy that prohibits cross-dressing, as well as the prohibitions on modifying the body are, once again, commonly understood to forbid living a transgendered life. For each of these, I gave the caveat that they are “commonly understood” to prohibit this or that, because there are indeed alternative interpretations.
But let’s, for a moment, ignore or bracket those variant interpretations and ask instead how we can move beyond these limits and affirm LGBT individuals, while remaining true to Jewish tradition and to halacha. Hadash asur min ha-Torah? Anything new is forbidden? Perhaps, but such fundamentalism only resonates with a tiny minority of Jews, and in any case, it’s not always clear that even the most insular haredim make an absolute commitment to this principle.
Must we wait for a new prophet to channel the will of God, following Albo’s formulation? Maybe we already have one. How would we know? Could the wisdom and spark of our LGBT rabbis be a form of prophecy? What about the lives of gay and lesbian families? The loves of transgender and bisexual couples? The commitment to tikkun olam, justice, and chesed (lovingkindness) shining forth from LGBT synagogues? What truth can the Jewish world learn from its LGBT brother and sisters? What prophetic vision do LGBT Jews bring to Torah?
A teacher in Jerusalem told me once that Sir Jonathan Sacks, England’s chief rabbi, once said “Judaism never changes, but halacha does.” This teacher went on to explain that at Sinai, God gave us truth. This is Judaism. We seek a world returned to absolute peace through the coming of Moshiach (the Messiah) – pure goodness. Halacha and tradition, then, help us on our journey from truth to goodness, from Sinai to Moshiach, bringing us closer to tikkun olam. Along the way, halacha and our tradition changes as society changes, allowing us to keep and celebrate the core values given at Sinai. “Observe only that which I enjoin upon you,” or as Hillel once said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.” (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a)
As LGBT Jews become fully integrated into the Jewish world, thus revitalizing and re-energizing our communities, then will we see: LGBT lives will “be for a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2)
“There was a deep sense of comfort, of relief, of finally feeling like we could be ourselves.”
“I was amazed at how liberating it was to spend time with others with whom we have so much in common.”
“Being in a community that truly felt like a community for so many reasons that are absent in my day-to-day life experience in our Orthodox community.”
— Eshel Shabbaton attendees
When I was 24, I came out to my parents the day before the gay pride parade in New York City. My parents and I were closer than close, and they knew everything about me, except for this. I carried around this decade-old secret in shame, pain and confusion.
The day I unleashed my secret, I felt like I was walking a foot above ground. It was the end of hiding, a realization that I was not going to change and an indication that I had achieved some degree of self-acceptance. My friend came to pick me up the next morning, to escort me to the parade to march with 500,000 other people down Fifth Avenue, steps away from my parents’ apartment. It was one of the most freeing and jubilant days of my life.
I left the secret behind in that apartment with my parents, not intending to also leave them with their own pain, confusion, and questions. The parallels between my previous decade of hiding in shame and their decade to follow were striking. It took them about as long as it took me to feel resolved and get over the pain, shame, and confusion to a place of happiness about me.
The parallel process of LGBT children and the parents they come out to has never been as crystal clear to me as when I spent Shabbat at an Eshel weekend with forty Orthodox parents and relatives of LGBT people. Over the course of three days I realized just how much pain parents can experience when their children come out to them and how long it takes to feel comfortable with this information.
My son came out to us a year and a half ago and cannot figure out why we are not OK with this yet, reported one mother.
But there are even more commonalities between parents and their LGBT children within the Orthodox world. In the Orthodox world, being in the closet is a form of internal exile – you live in community but are completely alone; cut off from yourself, your community, your spiritual source, and friends who might be able to comfort you. If you do reveal your sexuality, you go into actual exile, sometimes needing to leave your spiritual and physical home.
The same proved to be true for this group of parents: compounding their pain about their children’s identity is the isolation it brings them within their communities. They feel unsafe sharing this new information with their communities, family members, and friends.
This retreat was a first for many of them: it was the first time they did not fear being approached by a friend asking them how their son was; was he dating anyone, all the usual questions. Whether these parents end up feeling happy and resolved as my parents did, remains to be seen. For these three days they could release the burden with each other; share the pain they feel in having an LGBT child; discuss challenges in parenting; experience together the joy of loving their children that brought them together for this weekend. Ultimately, the life-changing experience of being surrounded by people going through similar challenges provided a sense of hope, perspective, and happiness.
For more information on this retreat, read this article in “The Jewish Advocate.”
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, Amos Lassen considers what Moses can teach us about LGBT pride.
The book of Deuteronomy focuses on the time just before the death of Moses. The Israelites are encamped on a plateau in Moab, poised to enter the land of Israel. Parashat Eikev, the third Torah portion in Deuteronomy, opens with Moses addressing the assembled Israelites. Eikev translates from Hebrew as “if” or “as a consequence of.” Yet, the literal translation of “eikev” is “heel” and comes from the same root as the name “Ya’akov” (Jacob), who was so named because he was holding onto the heel of his twin, Esau, when the two were born. We, therefore, can read Deuteronomy 7:12 as saying, “And it will come to pass on the heel of your hearkening to these rules. . .” Nothing in life occurs in a vacuum, nothing happens just by itself; everything happens “eikev” — on the heel of everything else. As we venture through life, we are always dependent on someone or something and as we strive to achieve our goals, we rely on each other and G-d.
The word “eikev” in the context of Torah teaches us to make decisions that are in accordance with G-d and with the larger society — even more so when the larger society is unjust.
Looking again at the word “eikev” as “heel” or “that part of the foot we use in walking,” we see that whenever a person takes a step — either literally or figuratively — he or she must first reflect and decide if that step demonstrates respect for society and for the will of G-d. If in doubt, then we should hesitate to take the step. We must understand the verse of scripture to be “Vehaya eikev,” and realize that with every step we take, we shall learn if it is the will of G-d that the step should be taken.
When the Israelites took their first steps into the Promised Land, “eikev,” or on the heal of the long journey of the Exodus, they found a “good land” (8:7) and one rich in resources and beauty. The wealth of the land posed its own danger, though, and the children of Israel were warned that wealth can bring about false pride. Herein lies the message to us, the GLBT community. Our position today in society is good — at least in most places in the United States. It is “wealthier” than it has ever been before, but we cannot let that sense of pride stop us from making even more progress.
The entire “gay pride” issue has always been a difficult one for me. I am not always sure what exactly it is that I am supposed to be proud of; sometimes, I am concerned that some of us abuse the word “pride.” As I read Deuteronomy, it seems to me that pride is something to be earned. Gay pride is more than a parade once a year followed by a series of parties. We march proudly because we have accomplished something. Asking for equal treatment is a socially just act. But I often wonder: How can we be proud and expect others to accept us if we do not accept ourselves? Just as Moses told the children of Israel that they must be honest and true, so must we.
Many times in the Bible we are commanded to follow the rules that G-d has set before us, but what is the incentive? In Parashat Eikev, the incentive for the children of Israel was to enter the land. As the GLBT community today, ours is to be equals in the world at large. Following rules, though, assumes that people are capable of exercising free will, of making conscious choices from real alternatives, and we are thereby held accountable for our actions. Looking at the phrase “if you obey and observe them,” Rashi sees that observing the will of G-d is not necessarily a given; it is a matter of free will. We in the GLBT community can choose to follow the rules of G-d and we can choose to work within the existing system to change it. Otherwise, do we have the right to demand that we be a part of it?
We, like the children of Israel, are crossing our Jordan. What we say and feel matters and our importance is increasingly recognized. It is time to leave the gay ghetto behind us and cross our metaphorical Jordan into mainstream America while knowing and accepting who we are.
Like the children of Israel who crossed the Jordan and made their home among enemies, we must do the same. People fear what they do not know. Once you know who YOU are, there is nowhere you cannot go. However to know yourself, you must be honest with yourself, you must not rely on false pride to see you through.
“Know then that G-d does not give you this land because you are virtuous but because of the wickedness of the other nations. . .” Let us show others who we are and then show them, as well, that we are the children of Israel, the GLBT children who are coming to the land that He has promised us.
While Moses prepares to say farewell to the people he has led for forty years, he offers to them a blessing that G-d “will love you and bless you.” Moses, here in his final speech sees the entire Exodus as a test of faith, “That G-d may test you by hardships to learn what is in your hearts.” We, GLBT Jews, often regard ourselves as being “twice chosen.” Many of us do not feel comfortable being chosen once much less twice. Because we are “chosen” we have been singled out for persecution and censure, resentment and envy. Do we have the right to hold ourselves above and apart from others? We must attempt to find our place among others and no longer remain separate by our or their choice.
When we recite the prayer that states that G-d gave us the Torah, we realize that this one singular thing is what makes us “special.” How special are we if we do not share that gift with others and that we do not allow others to see us for who we are — proud GLBT Jews!
We have a beautiful gift for the world — we bring diversity, we bring the rainbow, we bring love and understanding. We have crossed our Jordan and we are home and we should be proud.
This was the d’var Torah (discourse) I gave at the Jewish service on Friday night at the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, 14 June 2013. In it, I build on and try to give a preliminary answer to a question I started to explore some time ago, as one conference participant put it, “What does a gal do with her bar mitzvah tallit?”
The time was two o’clock in the morning, and I was about to complete the crafting project I’d been working on all evening. I sat on the couch with my scissors in one hand and the cloth in the other. All I finally had to do to finish the project was to cut four pieces of thread. A simple task, nothing to it. My hand holding the scissors hesitated slightly; my brain became uncertain. Suddenly I broke down crying uncontrollably, sobbing, unable to make the final cuts, unable to complete this project.
Back up to 1998. On Saturday, the sixteenth of May, I became a bar mitzvah, a “son of the commandments.” My parents presented me with a tallit, a beautiful blue silk prayer shawl, a visible external symbol of manhood. I proudly put it on, in front of our entire congregation, while in the back of my mind I was thinking how much happier I would have been had the tallit been pink and not blue. I led the entire service and chanted the Torah and Haftarah portions, and I remember being upset at myself because my voice had already started to change and it was sounding about a perfect fifth too low. I smiled and put on my most cheerful face as I went through the motions, but underneath it all, I was wishing that this was not the day when I was expected to somehow, magically, poof! become a man.
My parents gave me a second tallit, white with blue stripes, and it was this one that I actually came to think of as mine. I kept the blue one for very special occasions — my brothers’ bar mitzvah ceremonies, for example, or the High Holidays — and employed the white one for ordinary use. I put it on pretty much every day during morning services in my high school, and every Shabbat in synagogue. I began thinking of this tallit as an extension of myself, certainly as an expression of my Jewish identity, but also an expression of myself as a Jewish man, a reminder of that role and those expectations. It was a reminder of the kind of Jew, the kind of human being, the kind of man that I felt people were expecting me to be. That tallit and those feelings stayed with me for a long, long time.
I started transitioning to living “full-time” as a woman in April of last year. In September, when I was starting to go back to synagogue for the first time since transitioning, I brought along my tallit, but I wasn’t sure I could actually wear it. The Torah is very explicit about “cross-dressing”: “A woman shall not wear that which pertains to a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment, for whoever does this is abominable to YHWH your God.” (Deut. 22:5) Would this qualify? I honestly didn’t know whether I would be violating this commandment, in some sense, by putting my tallit on. But in this day and age, women wear the tallit as well, especially in an egalitarian synagogue such as the one I attend. Would putting on my tallit — a gift from my parents when I became a “man” — be an act of reversion? Would this be “Doing It Wrong”? Would it mean that I wasn’t Serious Enough about being trans, that I was still really a man? Would my therapist consider it a break in my “real-life experience”? Would I get hit with Trans Demerits?
I eventually came to realize that my tallit was not something that “pertains to a man,” because it was mine, and I am not a man, so how could it be a man’s piece of clothing? Lots of trans women tend to talk about “boy mode” and “girl mode,” as if these are two completely separate things. And for some people, they certainly are. But for me, I don’t have a “boy mode” or a “girl mode”. I’ve got one mode: every mode, for me, is Emily mode. Every mode, for me, is I mode. What I wear is women’s clothing, because I am wearing it and I am a woman. Simple as that, right? At least, that was the answer I came up with back in September.
Well, as it turned out, like many things, this was nisht azoy pashut, not really so simple. After a few weeks of wearing my tallit, this very same white tallit with blue stripes that I had worn since I was a teenager, I started to realize that I was not comfortable in it. But I felt uncomfortable not because I thought of it as a “man’s garment,” and not because I felt that wearing it made me not “serious enough,” but because of something deeper: something about it just wasn’t me. So I started to think and explore. Why this could be, and what could I do to make a prayer shawl that was not just mine but for me? How could I use my tallit to celebrate my transgender identity? What would a transgender tallit look like?
The tallit is derived from the Torah’s commandment to make tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of our garments. The passage in Torah where this commandment occurs is recited twice a day as part of the Shema, one of the most central prayers. There is a tradition during the morning recitation when the tallit is worn to gather its four corners together and kiss the tzitzit at every mention of the word “tzitzit.” The commandment goes:
YHWH spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and instruct them to make fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout all their generations, and have them put a thread of blue into the fringes on the corner. These shall be tzitzit for you. You shall look upon them, and you shall remember all My commandments, and do them, and do not be led astray after your heart or your eyes, which you are accustomed to stray after, in order that you remember and do all My commandments, and be holy before your God. I am YHWH, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; I am YHWH, your God. (Num. 16:37–41)
The Hebrew word often translated simply as “holy,” kadosh, means, at its root, “separate,” “distinctive,” or “unique.” And it was this word that got me thinking not just about what I wanted my tallit to look like, but what I wanted it to stand for. I wanted to make something that would celebrate the kind of Judaism that I wanted to practice, to affirm the Jewish identity that I was working to build as I transitioned genders. I wanted to make a tallit with tzitzit that would not lead me astray when I looked at them, but that would remind me of the kind of Jew, the kind of human being, that I wanted to be in the world.
There are dozens of different styles of tying tzitzit, many of them going back hundreds or thousands of years in various Jewish communities all around the world. These days, most tzitzit are only white, because even though the Torah requires a thread of blue, the dye for this particular blue was traditionally made from a snail whose identity has been lost over the ages. The Hebrew word for the blue color that is supposed to run through the tzitzit is techelet, and various groups claim to have rediscovered which snail produces the dye for this particular color, and you can now purchase pre-dyed techelet at great expense. I knew that I wanted to have some blue in my tzitzit, not just because I thought it would be pretty, but because I liked the idea that the intertwined colors would stand for — something. But why would they be there? What would they stand for?
Suddenly it hit me: the Torah calls for a thread of blue, yes, but it doesn’t say what color the other threads must be. We use white by default, but it doesn’t say that you can’t also have a thread of pink! In my mind’s eye I saw a tallit: four fringes, made of intertwining blue, white, and pink threads, in the colors of the Trans Pride flag. A transgender tallit.
I went to my neighborhood crafting shop, found some strong locally-made and ethically-dyed yarn (no endangered snails being killed so that I can do this, please!), and took it home. I tied several practice runs, the technique getting marginally better each time I tried. Finally, took a deep breath and threaded two white strands, one blue strand, and one pink strand through one corner of my tallit. I said the traditional phrase L’shem mitzvat tzitzit, “I do this for the sake of fulfilling the commandment of tzitzit,” and added the word ve-hit’yatz’rut, “and for the sake of self-creation,” a word written into the declaration by my friends and teachers Rabbi Elliot Kukla and Ari Lev Fornari for a ritual they wrote celebrating other transgender identities. I began tying: five equal sections of blue, pink, white, pink, blue.
The commandment vi-hiyitem kedoshim le-eloheichem, “You shall be holy (kadosh) before your God,” I read above as “unique” or “distinctive.” My tzitzit are certainly unique: I conceived of them myself, and I tied them myself. They are certainly distinctive: I have never seen anyone else (yet) who has the same tzitzit. They stand for a commitment to the Jewish values of affirmation and acceptance, of celebration of different identities, of standing up for the oppressed. My Judaism is a Judaism that is intersectional, that fights for justice. My Judaism is for those of us who live of the margins. My Judaism is a Judaism of the fringes.
The fringes on my tallit, which I gather and kiss every time I say this paragraph in the morning Shema, are a talisman of affirmation. Wrapping myself up in them is an act of liberation. Looking upon them is an act of celebration. Kissing them is an act of commitment. When I celebrate with them, I remember the commandments. I remember my commitment to social justice, to fighting against oppression. When I see the blue threads and pink threads intertwined, I am reminded of the places I came from and the places where I am going, and what I am taking with me there.
I had several false starts while tying — one of the tzitzit is noticeably a first run — and I had to try a few different techniques and tricks. It took about three hours total to finish, but finally, there I sat on my couch, having finished tying these new tzitzit onto my tallit. I was patting myself on the back, feeling elated and exhilarated at having created something new and meaningful, at having innovated, at having found a new meaning in an old tradition, at having changed something that “pertains to a man” into a “woman’s garment.” Only one thing remained before the tallit would be complete: in order to get the length and direction of winding correct, I had kept the old tzitzit on the tallit while tying the new ones on, so each corner right now had two tzitzit running through it. So in order to finish the project, I had to cut the old ones off. And when I realized this, I started crying.
When a male Jew dies, the tradition is to wrap his body in his tallit before burial, and immediately before the casket is shut, to cut the tzitzit from the tallit. Seven years earlier, I had buried my father, carrying one of the tzitzit from his tallit in my pocket as I carried his casket to the graveside. As I sat on my couch, holding the scissors, preparing to cut the old tzitzit from my tallit, I understood something I had failed to grasp until that moment: that the act of creation requires destruction. The act of healing needs a wound. Until that moment I had created without destroying, and I had destroyed without creating. As my hands holding the scissors cut the old tzitzit from my tallit, I realized what it was to do both in the same action. My male tallit had died, and my transgender tallit had been reborn. I cried, and I set my tallit down, broken and scarred but paradoxically finished and whole. And my crying, broken, scarred self said a Shehecheyanu, a blessing of thanks for having made it one small step closer to becoming finished and whole.
There is a traditional Kabbalistic meditation some Jews say before putting on the tallit in the morning: l’shem yichud, “for the sake of unification”: I perform this mitzvah, this commandment, for the sake of unification of the Yud–Heh of the Holy Name with the Vav–Heh. I perform this mitzvah for the sake of unification of the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the masculine Holy One, blessed be He, with the Shekhinah, the feminine Divine Presence. I perform this mitzvah for the sake of unification of the feminine and the masculine within me. I perform this mitzvah for the sake of living my whole life in Emily mode, in I mode. I perform this mitzvah for the sake of unification of the blue, the pink, and the white threads. I perform this mitzvah for the sake of healing the rifts between those parts of myself, and for the sake of living as a complete person. I perform this mitzvah for the sake of unification of all transgender Jews with their Jewish communities, and for the sake of unification of the Jewish community with its transgender children. I perform this mitzvah for the sake of the Judaism that I wish to live, and for the sake of creating the kind of world I wish to live in — a world of tikkun olam, a repaired world, healing from the wounds we have so grievously inflicted on it. I wrap myself up in the fringes for the sake of all those who are wrapped up in the fringes. May this be so for all of us.
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, Jay Michaelson imagines how LGBT people can fulfill the commandment to love God with all of our hearts, souls, and might.
A tension: We are commanded, in Parashat Vaetchanan, to love God with all our heart, soul, and might – v’ahavta et adonai elohecha b’chol levavcha, b’chol nafshecha, u’vchol me’odecha. But what about everyone else? Do we love our families and God “in different ways”? At different times? Do we love other people as God, in a pantheistic sense – as incarnations of the One? And if so, what of their particularity?
Love itself may be simple, but its articulation is not.
And of course, for gays and lesbians, love is something that must, in a sense, be learned. Not the movement of love, of course – rather its articulation and its validity. Those of us who, for some period of time, denied our sexuality know that we need to love. The physical energies of sexuality may be dissipated in a variety of ways. But the spiritual and emotional energies of love must also find an outlet.
Perhaps, then, religion holds a perverse appeal: yes, it is the source of the repression, but it also offers an avenue to express the repressed. As the queer African-American poet Langston Hughes wrote:
To some people love is given
To others, only heaven.
Imagine a lifetime of romantic repression, and of alienation, and of the tight bond of secrecy linking the hidden homosexual with the One Who Knows all things. Is it any surprise that so many mystics, from Rumi to the Native American winkte, shared this bond of substituted passion?
And how many in our community feel it today? They may read these words only furtively, they may not identify publicly as gay – but from their yearning and loneliness nurtures a powerful shoot of love, even one that grows out of shadow. Most gay people, we suspect, leave religion and its ignorances. But some stay, and burn.
Clench your fist, and hold it for five seconds. The relaxation of release is more than what was there before the fist. In the same way, some of us have come to know love keenly because it has long been denied us.
But is the intensity of a Whitman or a Wilde only about repression? It their poetry reducible to a transmutation of the impossibility of the immanent into the fantasy of the transcendent?
By way of counter-example, consider the rapturous, homoerotic religious poetry of Sufi, Greek, and Japanese cultures, produced in climates without the repression and homophobia which we wrongly think to be universal. In these very different religious contexts, God was imagined as a beautiful boy by men, and as a maiden by women, and without the impetus of repression and sublimation. There, loving God was not a substitute for loving men or women.
So queer religiosity is not reducible to repression, or to a neurotic response to it, any more than is straight religiosity. We are sublimating only as much as others are.
And yet, there are some distinctive ways in which the V’ahavta is expressed by queer mystics around the world, ways that are directly traceable to the outsider experience of queers.
First, there are the distinct roles that have been assigned to queers in some religious cultures. In certain Native American traditions, for instance, when boys appear not to be taking an interest in girls, and appear to be taking on feminine traits, their inter-genderedness is acknowledged and sanctified by the community. Perhaps queers, like Jews, are a nation of priests. This explains the gender-variant shamans of the Plains Indians (including the Omaha, Sioux, Iban, and Hidatsa people) and Siberia (including the Chukchi, Yakut, and Koryak tribes), the basir of Borneo, the male isangoma of the Zulu. All apart from the conventions of love, in love with the Infinite instead.
Second, and conversely, there are the secular rituals of gay culture itself. Christian de la Huerta, author of Coming Out Spiritually, has suggested that what goes on in gay dance clubs on Saturday night is an ecstatic ritual, albeit with its spiritual heart removed. Dancing, celebration, trances, the use of drugs – all are hallmarks of ancient and deep ritual practices. But the sacred heart has been replaced with vapidity, because we have been so wounded by religion that we now cower from our sacred mission. Perhaps.
Third, queer religiosity often carries the perspective of the outsider, which lesbians and gay men share with prophets of all stripes. Like all outsiders, historically alienated queers have a perspective on society which insiders lack. They see that we live in boxes of our mental construction. And so they are more apt to transcend them. Hence the V’ahavta of the trickster: camp as coyote.
Fourth, the images are different. Imagining God as man and lover; resting in His arms; making love with my soul, or my body. My path cannot be the one of the majority, because its geography is defined by difference.
And finally, the V’ahavta of the gay man or lesbian is less innocent, more “experienced,” than that of the straight man or woman. This is the real meaning of the fairy tale about the prince disguised as a frog. In the original version of the tale, the frog does not turn into a prince when he is kissed. Rather, the lady who has found him ends up throwing him (in frog form) against the wall, in anger and frustration. Only then does he turn into a prince. Likewise for many of us, our anger at God is a step along the path to loving Her.
When I was younger, I was angry at God for making me gay. Still, sometimes, I feel it. Marriage is so beautiful, the alignment of love and society so neat. Same-sex marriage is also beautiful, but without the alignment, and with the slight ringing in the ears of bigoted slogans and jeers. There is an aspect of defiance, amid the harmony. Sometimes I want it to be pure.
Other times I was angry at God for allowing Himself to manifest in the form of misunderstandable verses of scripture. Or for not helping me be stronger in overcoming my urges. Or for not helping me be stronger in accepting and loving them.
I learned at least two things through this anger. I learned that, no matter how hard I tried to efface them, my desires were real. And I learned that, no matter how angry I was at God, how excluded I was from His service by those who interpret holy texts—no matter how many times I was rejected, that I still loved the Holy. I learned that love, too, was real.
So queer religious love, when it is realized, is necessarily self-aware, because it has been tested, as Abraham’s love was tested. The gay man, who has been required to know the holiness of his own love, has a different, and perhaps often deeper, understanding of what it is to love, than someone for whom love has always been sanctified. Our love is not taken for granted. It is not celebrated in most of our culture. It is something we come to know. And so we love God as we love people: with less innocence, but perhaps a more conscious affirmation. Even those of us who were never denied, must still return, again and again, to the source of our knowing – our love – when jabbed at by the fingers of bigots.
Would I have turned to meditation if I had not known twenty years of denial? Would I walk alone in the woods, seeking God, if I were fully satisfied with my personal life? I cannot say. There are those who claim that spirituality is only a balm, who wink at the curious coincidence that unloved souls are the ones who happen to perceive universal love emanating from every paper clip. But if we do that, if we reduce the love borne of suffering to a palliative, then we must also reduce every work of art to sensory titillation, and our joy at childbirth to gametes.
What does it mean to be Jewish and queer? What about dating queer and Jewish? Does it make a difference?
I am Shaily Hakimian from Lincolnshire, Illinois studying elementary education at Indiana University. I have been working in the LGBT movement since I was 14 – so about 8 years. I grew up going to Solomon Schechter Day School where I received a Conservative Jewish education as a Sephardic Jew living in America. My dad is from Iran and my mom is from Morocco, though she spent part of her life in Israel. My mom has always had a strong connection to Judaism. Though we have slipped slightly in our observance of kashrut among other things, she still pushes me on a regular basis to marry Jewish. G-d forbid I don’t meet someone Jewish.
I always think of what it would be like bringing someone who was not Jewish to Israel to meet my family. What would my cousins think? In Israel, the chances of a Jewish person not marrying another Jew are slim. But in the U.S., the chances of that happening are far greater. Over the years I have tried to understand why my mom and other relatives always pushed this so hard on me. Why is it so important for me to date Jewish?
My mom and I have an annual routine of going to Chabad for Lag Ba’omer. Last year, while dancing around the traditional bonfire, my mom whispers in my ear in her heavy French-Moroccan-Israeli accent, “This is why you have to marry Jewish, marry goy is no fun like this.”
This is one of those conversations where I could see why dating Jewish is so important. From my life so far, I have seen Judaism as spending time with my family during Shabbat and holidays, as organizations giving me free food on campus, as dressing up for Purim and having an excuse to get drunk, as a global community. I always tell my friends that meeting someone else who is Jewish is like an inside joke. I feel like there is so much I already know about a person just after meeting them. We have a shared experience. To me, this is turning into my reason why I hope to commit to someone Jewish.
But what about queer Jews? Does this hold?
Most of my activist work has been in the youth and education sector of the LGBT (etc.) movement. But over the last few years, I have looked closer at my own intersection of Jewish queerness. I have gone to Tel Aviv pride and I have lead Jewish caucuses at both Creating Change and MBLGTACC, both queer conferences, among other things. I have spoken to people who work in the area of Jewish queerness and I have talked to Jews who work throughout the LGBT movement.
The stories I hear from grownups in this movement have made me reflect on my upbringing. One mother told me how she is worried that her nine-year-old son won’t have the same Jewish upbringing she had growing up because her wife/partner is not Jewish. Another Jewish transman in the movement told me that he didn’t go to Israel when he had a chance back when he was younger and now, as a leader in his organization, he does not know when it will be possible. Another prominent member of a national LGBT organization was in a relationship for over a decade with a man who was not Jewish but is proudly connected to his synagogue. I asked a woman at a conference if she was Jewish because I just had that feeling and she said yes, but said she had not done anything in years and implied that maybe she does not count.
These interactions, and the many other conversations I have had during caucuses, have led me to believe that queer Jews have been left behind. I say this from the perspective of a young person who sees all the efforts on campus to keep Jewish young people connected. Whether it is my Aish rabbi who puts on fun Shabbat weekend activities at his house and helps young Jews get to Israel for free, or my Chabad rabbi who loves to use cheesy icebreakers to get all of us to know each other, or my Hillel rabbi who wants to make all Jews a part of her Hillel board – including an LGBT member, or Birthright indiscreetly making jokes about increasing the “Birthrate” of Jewish babies after their trips, and so on and so forth. There has been a huge effort to get young Jews to meet each other and potentially date. Though as a whole I don’t think Judaism excludes LGBT Jews as much as other religions exclude queer members, I don’t see this same effort happening to keep queer Jews dating. The pride is still there amongst all the Jewish queer people I mentioned, but are we doing enough to keep that energy going to future generations?
Is getting people to date something we want to prioritize with Jewish queers as it has been done with straight Jews throughout the Jewish movement?
I have dated my fair share of Jews and non-Jews, but none too seriously. But I feel like I am at a point where I need to decide what direction I’m going to take. Who knows, I may not ever meet anyone I commit to or maybe I will fall for a non-Jew. Who knows, but this is where I stand right now. My opinions may change over time. I am sharing this as an insight to my mind. I hope that this blog post can start a dialogue. Please feel free to respond to this post. As a young person, I have so much to learn but I also have so much to teach. Wherever learning comes from, I am happy to take it.
When the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would decide on the legality of California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June, I decided to take a look at a speech I gave about lesbian and gay families for my synagogue’s oratory contest in 2004. At the time, Multnomah County, Oregon (a mile from where I lived) had briefly legalized same-sex marriage, bringing LGBTQ rights to the local forefront for the first time I could remember; I, as a not-yet-aware-I-was-queer 13-year-old, wanted to share my thoughts from a Jewish perspective. My speech (which won second place in the middle school division!) was well-intentioned, but often misguided. Among other things, it:
In the years between giving that speech in 2004 and now, I grew and changed: from a middle schooler to a grad student, from a Conservative Jew to a humanistic one, and from a closeted boy to a proud queer man. During many of those years, I struggled to understand and accept my sexual orientation. I recently reflected upon what I wish I had known before that struggle, when I gave my speech nine years ago:
The Torah’s condemnation of homosexuality only discusses sex, but sexual orientation involves much more than what happens in the bedroom. My Jewish upbringing included nothing about the feelings of attraction and love a person may have for someone of the same sex, nor did it mention that sexual orientation is simply a part of who a person is. Thankfully, there is a greater awareness of that today.
As a child in Sunday school, I learned about the family as an important unit within Judaism, but the families I learned about were all heterosexual. This masked the existence of lesbian and gay families, including some I had been unaware of within my Jewish community. Having an awareness of these families and other LGBTQ people in the Jewish community would have made it easier for me to embrace my own identity and desired family structure.
While Jewish texts are not LGBTQ-affirming, Jews often are — over three-fourths of us support marriage equality. I did not realize how quickly Jews would embrace equal rights given an understanding of sexual orientation and the experiences of LGBTQ people. Being different and experiencing prejudice for being Jewish can help us to empathize with other marginalized groups.
If Jews are roughly 2% of the population and LGBTQ people are about 4%, then LGBTQ Jews are only 0.08% of the population, or 1 in every 1,250 people in the U.S.! That can be isolating, but there are also a number of Jewish LGBTQ organizations that recognize Jewish LGBTQ youths’ intersecting needs and experiences. These include LGBTQ Jewish youth groups (such as NUJLS), Jewish Gay Straight Alliances, university organizations, and online resources such as the Jeff Herman Virtual Resource Center and, yes, Keshet. Raising awareness of these resources is essential: while LGBTQ Jews may range from frum to cultural and closeted to out-as-can-be, bringing together and affirming these two important parts of an LGBTQ Jew’s identity can be informative, meaningful, and inspiring.
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, Marisa James sees common themes in the need for the ancient Israelites, and LGBT people throughout history, to keep moving forward.
And God said unto Moses: it is time for a travelogue, so that the Israelites may see where they have been, and what they have done, and that you have been a good and worthy tour guide to them. Remind them that there is no refund if they are not satisfied with their 40-year tour of the desert of Mitzraim [Egypt, or "the narrow places"], nor do they have the option to change the route of their tour. They must stay with the group, or else God and Moses are not responsible for what might happen if they piss off the locals, or eat their food without paying for it.
And God and Moses said unto the Israelites: Look forward! Get up! Keep moving!
When we find a safe place, we want to stay there — it’s scary to give up peace and quiet on the chance that an unknown place might be better. But in this week’s parsha, D’varim, the Israelites are close to the end of their journey. “It was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month” (Deuteronomy 1:3) when Moses tells them that they must keep moving. Most of these Israelites were born in the desert; they are in their 20s or 30s and have lived their entire lives in transit, in between countries, constantly moving. How can Moses expect them to press forward when they have no memory of God’s promise of “the good land” (Deuteronomy 1:35) and they only know shifting sands?
Our queer ancestors did just this, without a Moses to rely on. God speaks at Horeb to Moses and the Israelites, saying “You have stayed long enough at this mountain,” (Deuteronomy 1:6) but in every generation, gays and lesbians and bisexuals and transgender folk have figured out when it was time to leave the shadow of the mountain on their own. We don’t have ancient scrolls to tell us their names, but in every place where humans have tried to understand their own existence, there have been people who understood the message coming from their own hearts. Many of us have heard it in our lifetimes; the little voice that says: Look forward. Get up. Keep moving. And our GLBT elders and ancestors did this even knowing that most of them were not going to inherit a promised land by coming out of the closet, or by quietly living their lives on their own terms.
The promised land, the good place where God leads us, is not an end in itself, but a difficult and necessary team effort. Moses tells the Israelites, “How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!” (Deuteronomy 1:12) Even with the help of God, the pain of being constant wanderers is overwhelming, and the feeling of growing up lost in the wilderness makes for a community of people who are frequently troubled and searching for home.
We have to raise the children of our communities to be wiser than we are, to know the history of our troubled, burdened, bickering people who have been wandering for generations, to understand that safety cannot be a goal without freedom. We must reflect on where we have been, and teach the story of our exile and our journey through the desert to every generation, but without forgetting to keep moving forward and up.
When this parsha is chanted at services all over the world, emphasis is placed on the names of the only two Israelites who left Egypt and are permitted to enter Canaan; “Kalev ben Yefunneh” (Deuteronomy 1:36) and “Yehoshua bin Nun.” (1:38) Caleb and Joshua are given the responsibility to care for the land because each looked past their lives in the desert and saw a vision for a future where others saw only their own fears. But when Moses laments that he will not enter the land himself, there is no interesting trope, no different way of singing the text that calls attention to his statement; “God was incensed with me too, and said: you shall not enter it.” (Deuteronomy 1:37) It’s not worth dwelling on the sadness of coming so close to the promised land without being able to enter. But it is worth calling attention to those who continually looked toward the future without succumbing to the bitterness of life in the desert. David and Jonathan. Oscar Wilde. Marlena Dietrich. The women who dressed and lived as men in every century. The fierce and fabulous drag queens who made Stonewall an integral part of our vocabulary.
“You have stayed long enough at this mountain,” God told us. “Up now! Cross the wadi Zered!” said Moses.
If we were blessed with scrolls full of wisdom from our GLBT ancestors, if we chanted their stories every week to learn from their lives how to live our own, what would we hear? We have been wandering in this desert for too many years, and too many days of too many months. You may not enter the good land yourself, but don’t stop at the foot of this mountain. Look forward. Get up. Keep moving.
Living in Israel, for me, meant mastering the art of feigning ignorance. “Ani lo mevin, ani lo mevin. Rak midaber englit v sfardit,” I would often say. “I don’t understand, I don’t understand. I only speak English and Spanish.”
But I always knew exactly what the stranger in the kibbutz cafeteria or the shop-owner in the shuk or the security guard by the bathroom was saying as he chuckled to himself and asked, “Atah ben o bat?” with eyebrows raised. His Hebrew translates to, “Are you a boy or a girl?” but really what he’s getting at is, “Come on, really?” He’s reminding me that I am a puzzle to be figured out for his amusement, and that because I am a puzzle (read: not a human), it is A-OK to ask me rude questions.
Throughout my stay in Israel, strangers and friends alike would ask me this question in an array of rude ways. And though I often felt hurt and disappointed by the ease with which those around me seemed to prioritize a few laughs and quick satiation of their curiosities over my well-being, as I look back at my stint in Israel, it’s difficult for me to blame these perpetrators. As far as I, someone raised in America who lived in Israel for only six months and is and was far from culturally integrated into Israeli society, can tell, gender separation is the law of the land of Israel; it’s as Israeli as hummus or yelling.
Upon an emotional visit to the Kotel, the Western Wall, arguably the most sacred site to the Jewish people and a prominent international symbol of Judaism, my many experiences of gender alienation in Israel fermented and constellated, and I became painfully aware of the pervasive nature of a binary gender system in Israel. I was skeptical of a Kotel visit, but the visit was on the itinerary of a seminar about tensions between the religious and the secular in Israeli society I was taking part in that weekend, so it felt imminent. I had been two years prior, seeking spiritual rebirth only to be severely disappointed by the realization upon arriving that it would not be safe for me to be on either side of the mechitza. Though as I arrived at the Kotel for my visit I deemed it safe to enter the men’s side of the mechitza, I decided that I did not want to participate in and benefit from a structure that not only did many of my queer and trans* friends and siblings not have access to, but that seemed to serve as a critical aid to the subjugation of women and the denial of their right to freedom of religious expression. So I remained on the stairs above the wall, and cynically shook my head back and forth for a few minutes before I started to weep. This supposed scene of intense holiness was in reality an instrument of the most unholy of unholy: oppression. I felt like giving up on my Judaism. I had put so much energy and care into drawing meaning from that history and culture, but in that moment it felt like it was all for nothing. I had given so much to make Judaism and Jewish peoplehood “work” for me as someone at the margins of that culture and community, and it felt that all I had received in return was a reminder that I am unwanted and don’t belong.
Things felt bleak for me in Israel as a trans* person. But that’s not to say that being trans* and Jewish or trans* and in Israel is totally and unendingly disappointing. During my time in Israel, I met so, so many wonderful, open, and warm-hearted individuals committed to building an Israeli society and culture here rooted in a deep, deep sense of equality. Time and time again, I was reached out to in committed, meaningful ways by a variety of queer people, many of whom I was previously only peripherally connected to. These connections, these conversations were crucially rejuvenating and inspiring for me.
As I, a young adult, move further and further from my world of childhood and plunge into the wider reality of the planet, I see and feel how pervasively messed up most things here on earth are, and it often feels crippling. I fall into feeling that the actions I take to make this planet a hospitable place for everyone and everything it contains are meaningless, futile – just tiny, tiny drops in a large, large bucket. But as I reflect on the connections I forged with LGBTQ people and our allies in Israel, and I realize and appreciate how much more at home these people made me feel, I start to understand how these connections can mean the world to the folks involved. And though I still struggle to stomach the world around me, I feel less futile, and more inspired to keep reaching out and keep building just and whole communities for the sake of my health, the health of my loved ones, the health of my communities, and the health of the planet.
Tu B’Av is a little-known Jewish holiday, coming just six days after the mournful commemoration of tragedy during Tisha B’Av. In ancient times, Tu B’Av was a joyous matchmaking holiday for unmarried young women; in our day, it’s observed as a more general day of love. In the spirit of this holiday, we present you with snapshots of three well-known, real-life, queer and Jewish love stories.
Tony Kushner is a playwright and author, best known for his epic play Angels in America, while Mark Harris is an author and editor whose focus has been Hollywood and cinema. So it is perhaps not that surprising that the two reported that their first dates, way back in the late ‘90s, took place “in theaters of bookstores.” In 2003, this couple had the distinction of being the first same-sex commitment ceremony to be featured in an extended column in the Vows section of wedding announcements of The New York Times. (The very first same-sex couple to be featured in The New York Times wedding announcements was another Jewish couple, Steven Goldstein and his partner Daniel Gross, on Sunday, September 1, 2002. Their wedding website www.Celebrating10.com is still up and features the original announcement. Thanks Steve for sending us this!)
They sometimes speak or present together under the title “Too Tall Blondes,” and for Kate Bornstein, author, playwright, and gender theorist, and her partner Barbara Carrellas, author, sex educator, and university lecturer, it seems a fitting title. This couple resides in New York City (with a house full of pets), but between teaching, presenting workshops, writing, and appearing in online classes, their combined reach is huge. (You can read more about Kate, one of our LGBT Jewish Heroes, here!
A Jewish power couple if ever there were one: Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, have only been romantically linked since December 2012, but they’re already a familiar site together at public events throughout New York, as well as in the Jewish press. Rabbi Kleinbaum is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, one of the oldest LGBT synagogues.
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 Seth Goren examines what Jeremiah’s attempts at correcting Jerusalemites’ behavior can teach us about fighting ignorance, homophobia, and transphobia today.
Biblical prophets typically have a rough time. Elijah is effectively chased out of the Kingdom of Israel after being threatened with a death sentence. After attempting to avoid his mission, Jonah is swallowed by a large fish, regurgitated and forced to prophecy against Nineveh. Hulda foresees and forecasts the future destruction of Judah, while Moses’ regular encounters with rebellion and objections epitomize the challenges prophets face.
The prophet Jeremiah is no exception to this rule. G-d directs him to warn Jerusalem that its inhabitants’ immoral and unlawful behavior will lead to the city’s destruction. In the course of speaking out on G-d’s behalf, he is arrested and imprisoned. After languishing in a mud-filled cistern, he watches as Jerusalem is destroyed and goes into exile in Egypt. All in all, Jeremiah’s life as a messenger in G-d’s service is not one that most would envy.
We have a window onto Jeremiah’s experience in the two Haftarot of Admonition, paired with last week’s and this week’s Torah portions. These two haftarot, both drawn from the Book of Jeremiah, retell G-d’s initial message of Jerusalem’s impending destruction that the prophet is compelled to deliver. Although we will read only the second of these prophetic selections this Shabbat, the first describes Jeremiah’s aversion to acting as G-d’s envoy. It is not until G-d promises to be with him and to deliver him that Jeremiah sets forth on his divine mission to publicize the difficult truth that the people of Jerusalem surely cannot wish to hear.
While we might like to think that we’ve come quite a distance since biblical times, inviting people to glimpse the truth in the 21st century can be similarly challenging. Many modern religious figures take pains to render invisible the existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. For example, too many religious leaders ignore or are unaware of the nearly two-thousand-year history in Jewish texts of the gender categories “tumtum” and “androgynos,” types of gender variant people recognized in the Mishnah and Talmud (these categories refer to individuals who we would today consider to be “intersex” – born with anatomy that is neither explicitly male nor female – see “note” below for more details). We often do not want to hear about the immutable nature of sexual orientation or gender identity, as evidenced by the proliferation and ongoing existence of ex-gay groups, including the Jewish organization JONAH. Pointing out inaccuracies and fictions in these contexts is often met with bewilderment, disgust or even violence.
Nevertheless, we are obliged to speak truth on these issues. Lest we believe that the commandment to speak out applies to only Jeremiah and similarly situated prophets, we find a directive targeted at all of us in Leviticus 19:17, which instructs: “You shall not hate your kinfolk in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor so that you do not incur guilt because of him or her.” In the Mishneh Torah, Rambam clarified this passage, instructing that we have an obligation to admonish and correct others who act in error. Moreover, the last part of the verse especially holds true: all of us bear the consequences of failing to confront the homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and misandry around us. That we may be confronted with anger, rejection and denials does not refute the truth and validity of our words and experiences, nor does it relieve us of our obligation to speak out to the benefit of ourselves and others.
Certainly, there are limits on how this verse should be applied, as it would be inappropriate for us to spew tokhechah (rebuke) incessantly and omnidirectionally. Drawing on the Talmud, Rashi instructs us that we should not shame a person in public, while Shmuel bar Nachman draws a connection between reprimand and love. Along the same lines, the medieval compendium of biblical commandments, the Sefer HaChinukh (or “Book of Education”), suggests that we probe to discover the way that a particular person we are correcting is most likely to hear and comprehend our words. And of course, we continue to keep in mind the wisdom expressed by Rabbi Tarfon in the Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of Our Fathers”): “It is not our responsibility to finish the task [of repairing the world], but neither are we free to leave the status quo alone.” (Pirkei Avot 2:15)
With these caveats, we embrace our obligation to share the truth of how G-d created each of us and all of humanity. We do this with the hope that everyone will come to appreciate the full range of human identity and sexuality that G-d has gifted to human beings and that cannot be confined to narrow dichotomous definitions.
Ultimately, Jeremiah was unsuccessful in his task. The people of Jerusalem were unable to hear the truth of his words, and the city was destroyed. All the same, the words G-d spoke to Jeremiah apply to us as well:
Before I created you in the womb, I selected you
Before you were born, I consecrated you
I appointed you as a prophet for the nations. (Jeremiah 1:4)
May the way that G-d formed each of us guide us and inspire us to speak truth in this world.
I’m still reeling from yesterday’s amazing news.
And I’m so incredibly proud and inspired to see so many LGBTQ Jews and straight allies stand up to affirm the Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA and Prop 8 in cities across the country like Washington DC, Denver, Miami, Cambridge, and San Francisco.
I don’t think Hollywood could have scripted a better ending to Pride Month.
But what happens when the excitement of DOMA and Pride end? Check out this one minute video to see our vision:
Two years ago this summer, I stood under a chuppah (marriage canopy) with my wife. Because we live in Massachusetts, we are “lucky” that our relationship is recognized by our state. However, under the current law, we are denied 1,138 federal rights that our straight friends are automatically granted when they wed.
Today, this discrimination is over!
We are elated that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of fairness and equality by striking down DOMA and Prop 8. Our ancient Jewish values teach us that we all are created B’tzelem Elohim (in God’s Image) and our current laws violated this sacred principle by refusing to recognize and protect same-sex relationships.
The overwhelming majority of American Jews support equal marriage (81%, 2012 Public Religion Research Institute) and this is a proud day for us all.
On this anniversary, I celebrate not only our relationship, but the hundreds of thousands of other LGBTQ Americans who will be able to access this fundamental right.
Thank you for all you’ve done to help us reach this day. Onward together to full equality!
Executive Director, Keshet
Ready to tie the knot?
See what today’s decision means for one Jewish gay man. Read more
Join Keshet at these celebrations:
5:30 pm, DOMA Decision Day Celebration, Cambridge City Hall, 795 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge
In the Bay Area
2:00 pm SHARP: Interfaith Religious Leaders Press Conference, Grace Cathedral, 1100 California Street, San Francisco
6:15 pm: Gathering at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, 290 Dolores Street, at 16th Street, San Francisco
6:30 pm: Community Rally in the Castro, Harvey Milk Plaza, Market & Castro Streets, San Francisco
6:30 pm: Prop 8 and DOMA Decision Day Rally, Colorado State Capitol, 200 East Colfax Avenue, Denver, Colorado
A Small Revolution in a Synagogue Book Group
This past January, Hebrew College invited poet and scholar Joy Ladin to speak during our Winter Seminar on Feminist Theology, Theory, and Practice. Weaving her personal story of transition with a clearly articulated theology, Ladin held the community’s attention for over an hour. I sat in the front row, typing notes and being held by her gentle, soft-spoken way of being. As a trans* identified student, I was overwhelmed by the ways my story and my experience of the divine were being seen and lifted up for what felt like the first time.
At the same time as Ladin’s story was being lifted up in the Hebrew College community, I was beginning to struggle with the lack of LGBTQ voices at my internship. As the rabbinic intern at Congregation Kehillath Israel (KI) in Brookline, MA, I attend weekly minyanim, teach parsha (the weekly Torah portion) study, lead Junior Congregation on Shabbat morning, and teach the 4th/5th grade religious school class. The KI community has welcomed me enthusiastically and has revealed itself to be more diverse and open than I could ever have imagined, but as the year progressed, I began to notice the way in which the communal discourse continued to tell the story of the presumed status quo: heteronormative, Shabbat observant, two-parent and multiple children families.
I felt the weight of my self-inflicted censorship and lack of other LGBTQ-identified folks and vocal allies. As I struggled to articulate how being present in the KI community was difficult for me, I heard Ladin’s voice again, this time suggesting that I share her story as a way to bring a different voice into communal conversations. I asked my supervisor, Rabbi Rachel Silverman and a small group of board members, who had already begun discussing how we might make the community more inclusive, to read Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders together.
What follows are the reflections of one of the board members, Jennie Roffman. I am grateful to Jennie for her open-hearted and unequivocal support throughout my year at Congregation Kehillath Israel.
Please share a few general thoughts and reflections on the book:
I learned a lot. I do not have any direct or close personal experience with the issues associated with transsexuality, and I had not previously confronted the anguish of gender dysphoria and the direct causal link between untreated gender dysphoria and suicide. While I read, I was keenly aware of how little I know about the struggles of trans-identified people, and I wondered how useful I might prove in supporting a friend, a fellow congregant, a student, one of my children experiencing a journey similar to Ladin’s.
Yet even as I climbed this steep learning curve, the emotions evoked in me by Ladin’s story were familiar themes with which I struggle frequently in my work as a synagogue lay leader, an active member of my Jewish and secular communities, and probably most deeply, as a parent. How can we help those who are struggling, particularly with pain that they themselves do not yet know how to cure? Community members who are grieving the loss of a parent or coping with the dissolution of a marriage, or those who are trying to balance the need to care for themselves during an illness while somehow managing to remain the always-available parent and spouse that lies at the core of their identities – these are the people for whom a synagogue community must be present, constant, comforting, and reliable. Similarly, the idea of a child suffering in silence as he is denied access to his own true self evokes anguish in me as a parent, as does the concept of the suffering endured by a parent whose journey to realize her true self results in agony and alienation for her children.
How has Joy’s story influenced the way you view your work at KI?
I serve as a member of KI’s board of trustees, specifically charged with programming around youth education. In this work, I attempt to define the relationship between organized faith and the developing individual at several key transitional moments in the life span of my fellow congregants – during nursery school (as experienced by young parents as well as young children), and during religious school and broader youth worship experiences (leading up to the b’nai mitzvah ceremony and beyond). Joy’s story is all about the developing individual – learning to heed and respect the internal voices that make us who we are and who we are meant to be. Her visceral, heart-rending account of her journey highlights for me the important role that faith, and an organized faith community, can play in the life of the individual, and in the individual’s lifelong journey toward self-actualization, no matter what that journey looks like or how complex it might be.
Reading Joy’s story, and thinking about the ways in which, had she been a member of KI, we might have supported her and her family, inspires me to work with all of our educational programs, to ensure that we are truly a faith “community,” in the deepest and most literal sense of the word, and that we embody inclusion and embrace diversity in all its forms:
Is there a specific moment in the book that you are carrying with you?
Young learners, really all learners, experience a tiny version of the crisis of identity endured by Ladin during her two visits to the Wailing Wall [first as a man, then as a woman]. We open ourselves up to a certain vulnerability when we come to worship or to learn at shul; we admit that we are not whole without this learning, this faith, this community. In many ways our community at KI is a diverse one, but we have a long way to go. I know that gay congregants, people of color, and our talented and courageous queer rabbinic intern look around the sanctuary at KI and do not see enough others with whom they can wholly identify. It is my hope that Ladin’s adaptation of her daily blessing, “You made me, God… I belong in this world, just the way I am” (page 213) will infuse the learning, teaching, and worship of the young people at KI, and that the words “this world” will refer for them not only to our larger worlds of Brookline and Judaism, but specifically to the smaller world of KI. Reading and discussing this book together is a good first step toward articulating some of the ways in which we need to grow as a community; I look forward to continuing this work.
Jennie’s reflections are only a piece of the conversation happening at KI. The current conversation centers around two processes: my personal process of bringing my full self to the community, and a community process investigating how to surface and support the diversity that already exists at KI (with the hope that this will make the community more accessible to others). I have been excited and energized by the willingness of the rabbis and these lay leaders to engage in the ongoing process towards more inclusion of LGBTQ identified people, as well as other marginalized groups. As I undertake this work with all of them, I remain grateful to my classmates, friends, and Keshet for their support. I am also grateful to Joy for modeling vulnerability and strength. Joy (because I know you will read this), thank you for putting your voice into the world. I feel privileged to be walking and working with you.
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 Katzenelson explains what the silence of the Biblical Zipporah can teach us about refusing to allow ourselves to be ignored.
Parashat Pinchas takes its name from Pinchas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron. The story of Pinchas covers all of chapter 25 in Numbers. To understand this story we must also read the end of the previous parasha.
While the Israelites keep camp in Shittim, they are attracted to Moabite women and join the worship of Moabite gods, a worship that includes sex. Especially popular is the worship of Ba’al Pe’or, a Midianite god. G-d is angry and a plague spreads among the Israelites.
One of the Israelites, Zimri, a chieftain from the tribe of Simeon, finds a Midianite woman, Cozbi daughter of Zur, and has sex with her “in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who are weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” (Numbers 25:6) Pinchas gets up, leaves the assembly and stabs Zimri and Cozbi to death with a spear. The plague ends.
G-d speaks to Moses in praise of Pinchas. Pinchas and his offspring are rewarded with priesthood and G-d’s “Pact of Peace.” G-d commands Moses to make the Midianites his enemies, and defeat them in war, as they have tricked the Israelites into idol worship and sex. Pinchas is one of the military leaders of this war, while Eleazar and Moses stay behind.
So what do we have here? There is praise and a “Peace Pact” given to a fanatic murderer who took the law into his own hands. There is cruel stigmatizing of an entire nation for the sexual transgressions of one woman, and a call for war and probably genocide against that same nation. It is possible to read this text to claim that sexual relationships are forbidden with women of a specific ethnic group. It is quite enough to make my rabbi wrinkle her nose and declare “It’s all very problematic.” And she is right.
Exodus 6:25 tells us that Pinchas’ mother is “one of the daughters of Putiel.” Rabbinical literature claims that Putiel is none other than Jethro, father in law of Moses and priest of Midian. So fanatical Pinchas, with his willingness to kill a Midianite woman, has a Midianite mother!
Is Pinchas a religious zealot or a tormented soul acting out an old rage against his own mother? If the latter is true, it may explain why G-d gives him a “Pact of Peace.” Such a tormented soul truly needs peace. He would be a danger to his surroundings otherwise. But such a person should be prevented from killing more Midianites, not sent to war against them.
And what about Moses? G-d orders him to defeat the Midianites and he obeys. Not a question or word of protest. No discussion. Can he really accept the thought that an Israelite should not have sex with a Midianite due to their idol worship, while staying married to Zipporah, the daughter of the Priest of Midian?
Zipporah and her nameless sister, Pinchas’ mother, must have been present while this story was playing out. The two daughters of the Priest of Midian, both of them married to powerful Israelite men, watched as a woman from their own nation was murdered. They watched their husbands accept this murder as a deed pleasing to G-d. They did not protest.
I can only imagine the pain and fear they must have felt. They were after all, “only women,” “only foreigners” and understood that speaking up would risk their husbands’ careers. It was safer to be quiet, stay out of trouble.
The text completely ignores them and any fears or misgivings they may have had.
It is possible to make an analogy to Queen Esther. Just like Zipporah and her nameless sister, Esther is a woman and a foreigner married to a very powerful man. She is forced to watch as her husband is drawn into a plot designed to destroy her own people. Denied of any political power, Esther uses her cunning to influence her husband and save her people. It seems that Zipporah and her sister remain quiet.
It is very tempting to denounce these two women as passive cowards. But does our honesty allow this? How much support would two Midianite women be able to gather? Would we have acted any differently in a similar situation? We have yet not managed to stop the harassment of GLBT people or Jews in the world.
In the telling of these events, the Torah ignores Zipporah and her sister. They are neither praised nor condemned. This can be read as a punishment in itself. But it can also be understood in a different way. The text refuses to judge them, refuses to force them into being anything other than who they are. And the text protects their right to go under cover and protect their private lives.
Do we want to be ignored?
When teens transitions to a new gender, what happens to the rest of the family? In November, we shared a post from the perspective of a daughter whose father transitioned to being a woman; now, we’re bringing you the first of two essays written by a sibling. Sophie, a high schooler whose sister (now brother) transitioned within the last few years, writes here about what the beginning of those changes felt like for her as a sister. In her next essay, she’ll discuss her brother’s eventual surgery.
I would first like to start out by saying I love my brother.
There is nothing I wouldn’t do for him. In my life, he is the person I have spent the most time with. Unlike most siblings, we are best friends. I am proud to say that even with all that we are going through, it had made us even closer. Still at such a young age, he has gone through so much and I will always be there for him. The following group of memories show my struggles and my acceptance of who my brother is and part of why I love him.
It was the last day of sleep-away camp four years ago. I cried and cried every year – camp is my favorite place on earth and I hate leaving. I kissed my friends goodbye and promised I would keep in touch. My only thoughts were, could I stay away from this place for another year? My sister and I had always gone to camp together but this year, instead of just staying for one month like me she would stay for two months.
Tears streamed down my face as my bunkmates and I savored our last moments together for the summer. Then suddenly I heard my dad say “Hey, Sophie!” I immediately ran as fast as possible to him. “I missed you,” I said, tears still drying on my cheeks. My dad knows how hard it is for me to leave every year, but this year would be even harder with my sister, Shayna, not coming back with me.
Before we left camp my dad, Shayna, and I walked around the camp like we had in the past. Like every other year, I showed my dad everything over and over again even though I already knew he had seen it; he always let me show him because he knew it was important to me. I said goodbye to my friends, old and new, and for the last time promised to keep in touch, even though I might not see my closest friends for a whole year. I knew that today, the hardest goodbye would not be for a friend, but for my older sister, Shayna.
Surprisingly, Shayna walked out with my dad and I to where all the cars were parked. As I started to see my dad’s car tears gushed from my eyes for the hundredth time that day. Just then, I heard Shayna say the seven words that will never leave me, “I have to tell you guys something.”
At that moment, I knew exactly what she was going to say, and in my head I prayed those words wouldn’t come out. All I could think was not today, not now. But this conversation would happen with or without my consent.
“I think I like girls,” Shayna said.
“Okay,” my dad, said, tears swelling in his eyes. I knew that wasn’t the whole story.
“And…” Shayna went on “I think I’m going to start using non-gender specific pronouns.”
Now, all I could do was bawl my eyes out, partially because I was leaving camp, and partially because my whole world had just been turned upside down.
At that time, my dad didn’t get what she was telling us, but I knew, I always knew; she didn’t have to tell me. At that moment I said six tiny words that will haunt me forever; I wish I could take them back and throw them away into whatever ugly place they escaped from. I looked her in the eye and I said, “Promise me you won’t get surgery.” My sister stared at me for a while; “I won’t,” was her only response. We said our goodbyes and my dad and I got into the car and began what felt like the longest car ride from camp to my life back at home. I cried and cried. “Everything is going to be fine,” my dad said, although looking a little choked him. But he didn’t get it. He hadn’t heard what Shayna had just told us. He didn’t hear his little girl just tell him she was transgender.
Shayna came back from camp a month later, and I couldn’t have been happier to see her – all I wanted was to talk and laugh with my sister. I needed to know at that time she was still mine. Yet it was not until she told me she wanted me to start calling her Eitan and using he instead of she that I almost lost it. I was mad at myself – I had always been supportive with other people I knew were transgender, but I could not bring myself to accept the fact my sister was my brother… just yet. I was scared because I knew who he was, but I didn’t want to let go of my sister yet. She was the person who had always been stable with me my whole life and now she was supposed to be my brother, but… she was born this way, and what right did I have to keep her from who she really was?
People at camp started calling Shayna, Eitan. It was not till one night when my nightmares came true. I was walking to my bunk from the shower house at camp with my best friend Mandy. Right before I was about to open the door to my cabin Mandy turned to me and asked, “Sophie, does Shayna want to be a boy?” So shocked by her sudden question and scared of having to admit the truth, I quickly said “no.” “Oh,” she said, “Well, why do people call her Eitan?” I didn’t want to loose the last piece of Shayna I had left so I lied again and said, “It’s just a nickname.”
For a while, I had totally rejected the idea of calling my sister Eitan. It was not until I finally saw the pain in my brother’s face every time he was referred to as she, or called Shayna, that I began to change. His pain helped me get over my fear that not being able to call him my big sister or never being able to call him Shayna Chaya Weitzman again meant that I was losing my sister. My issues with Eitan at that time were not about who he wanted to be, but whom I was afraid to loose. I finally realized it wasn’t in the name; Eitan loved me just as Shayna had, and he needed me.
I started by calling him Eitan but still referring to him as my sister. Then, one day, my best friend Mia Pare was over my house one afternoon and Eitan walked into the room. “Hey Eitan!” Mia said her usual cheery self, “Hi”, he said back. I could see the shock on his face but more importantly, I could see the happiness in his eyes. That’s the exact moment I knew it was time to call Eitan my brother, and I haven’t looked back since.
Today I am the proud younger sister of my wonderful older brother Eitan. The process of being able to say that was hard but to not accept someone is not in my blood, especially since he is my own blood. Now I have been there for every time he needed to talk. I have been there to support him, make him laugh when he is down. I was there for him when he went on testosterone, and I will be there with him in December when he undergoes chest surgery. Would I have liked more support through this journey? Yes, but that’s not important anymore, because I learned that I wasn’t losing a sister, I was gaining a brother. And, in that process, Eitan didn’t change. We are still best friends, we still fight, we still have inside jokes, and we still tease each other. And still, most importantly, the love I have for him grows everyday, and that will never change.
This spring, Rabbi Jason Klein was elected to lead the Reconstructionist movement’s rabbinic association, making him the first out gay man to hold such a national position in the U.S. Keshet caught up with Rabbi Klein to discuss his experiences in Jewish institutions, the next steps for inclusion at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA), and what it’s been like to be out.
You’re the first openly gay man to lead a national rabbinic association in the U.S. What has the response been like? Among Reconstructionist Jews, and also across the Jewish community?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive from Jews of all denominational identifications. I have been struck by some younger people’s feeling affirmed in their own identities as LGBTQ or allies and the responses of elders who have watched so much change happen around creating warm communities just within the span of their adult lives.
Do you think the response was different because Rabbi Toba Spitzer was first out leader of a national rabbinic organization (also the RRA)? Is it different for lesbians and gay men in leadership?
I am thrilled that Rabbi Spitzer blazed this path in 2007 as the first out person to have such a role and to her as a senior colleague and mentor. There are a variety of reasons for why having a gay man in a leading role is significant.
First, for many people, it is easiest to feel most welcome and empowered when it is easiest to see themselves in someone else, so the more people of different Jewish, backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations, and other points of diversity there are in leading Jewish roles, the more other people can see themselves in those roles.
The second reason has something to do with the history of sexuality itself, which set the stage for sexual orientation identity in modern times. Since ancient times, women’s sexuality has been, in many quarters, made invisible compared to men’s sexuality. Even in the Hebrew Bible, sexual activity itself seems to be defined by the presence of a man. For a variety of complicated reasons largely connected to this history, to lingering sexism and heterosexism, and the fact that most sexual violence is perpetuated by men, I believe that women’s sexuality comes across to many as less threatening than men’s — and, therefore, when someone comes out as not conforming to the norm, the presence of a gay man may arouse more fear in some people than the presence of a lesbian.
Finally, in some Jewish circles, relationships between two men and thus gay men’s identity are considered “more forbidden” than relationships between two women and lesbian identity, because some Jews understand particular sexual acts between men as prohibited by the “written Torah” [while no such prohibitions exists for two women] as opposed to prohibited the “oral Torah” — rabbinic tradition. This tension is probably strengthened by the enduring sexism and invisibility that I mentioned earlier.
What’s the next step for LGBTQ inclusion for the RRA?
At our annual meeting, we approved a groundbreaking document about Jewish identity and status that goes beyond discussions of matrilineal or patrilineal conveyance of Jewish status and seeks to name the varied ways in which families are created and the ways in which we convey Jewish status and honor Jewish identity. In addition, we unanimously approved a resolution for education across the setting in which our rabbis serve around inclusion and celebration of transgender people.
Have you been out the whole time you’ve been working the in the Jewish world? What changes have you seen over time, or in different parts of the community?
I have been out the whole time I have been working in the Jewish world. When I was an undergraduate and we sought to create a gay Jewish student organization back in 1994, much of the student leadership of the Jewish community on campus advocated strongly against our presence in the Jewish community. At a large town hall style meeting, both our Orthodox and Reform rabbi spoke out publicly in favor of the group’s existence. The former honored me by writing one of my rabbinical school recommendations two years later. Publicizing information about opportunities for LGBTQ Jews was not a forgone conclusion in the Hillel student world nationally, so a group of us claimed victory when we organized the first national gay and lesbian Jewish student leadership conference in 1997 and information about the conference was shared over the Hillel staff listserv. That conference would evolve into NUJLS.
Years later, as someone who has worked within the Hillel world for nearly seven years now, I have come to understand that not only were students doing their own grassroots organizing, but there were Hillel professionals who advocated for these issues within the larger family of Hillel professional staff. Perhaps the most significant change is that people are able to talk about LGBTQ issues, and that the internet has created an opportunity for queer-identified people, their families, and their allies to connect with one another. I also appreciate that more and more communities are not just accepting or “gay-friendly,” but have become more and more sophisticated around what it means to welcome and the real value added in communities in which diversity is truly celebrated. Within the denominations, it has been particularly wonderful to see a Jewish Theological Seminary that accepts openly gay and lesbian rabbinical students and an Open Orthodox world that is grappling with reading two verses in Leviticus narrowly — that they might prohibit one specific act, nothing more and nothing less — and putting the Talmud’s mandate to prioritize the dignity of God’s creation front-and-center.
What are you most excited about in the new job?
The Reconstructionist movement is at a wonderful time of transition — from merging two of our institutions (RRC and JRF) to better train rabbis and better serve our constituents. I am excited for the 325 members of the RRA to shape the future of the movement, to shape the future of the Jewish people by using our collective wisdom, experience, creativity, passions, compassion, and vision.
What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
I like airplanes, wish I knew more about them, and am fascinated by frequent flyer miles.
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, Andrew Ramer considers the “queer” power of talking animals, and the blessings and curses they can bear.
The American Heritage Dictionary says this of Queer:
1. Deviating from the expected or normal; strange; a queer situation.
2. Odd or unconventional, as in behavior; eccentric.
3. Of questionable character or nature, suspicious.
All of this could describe the talking she-ass who appears in this week’s parasha: unexpected, unconventional, of questionable nature. Parrots and myna birds can mimic human speech. Chimps and gorillas have been taught to sign in human languages. King Solomon was said to be able to understand the languages of the animals. But a talking she-ass is something else all together.
Talking animals are found in every culture, from Aesop’s fables to Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Miss Piggy, the cowardly lion of Oz, and even several talking donkeys: Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh, Benjamin in Animal Farm, and the talking donkey in the Shrek films. But in all of the Torah there are only two talking animals, the serpent in Eden and now our donkey. Just as Parashat Shelach Lecha calls to mind Parashat Lech Lecha, I believe we’re supposed to think about the serpent when we read this portion. The serpent led the first human beings astray, separating them from their primal garden home,while the she-ass carried Balaam the son of Beor toward blessing the Israelites with words we recite to this day: “Mah tovu: How goodly are your tents, Jacob; your dwellings, Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)
Balaam’s blessing occurs in a parasha unlike any other in the Torah. Several rabbinic sources consider it to be a separate book of Torah all together. An ancient text uncovered in 1967 in Jordan contains fragments of the prophecies of Balaam the son of Beor, making him one of the few characters in the Torah to be mentioned in non-Biblical sources. The Balaam in this week’s parasha, in agreement with the uncovered inscriptions, was a pagan prophet hired by Balak the king of Moab to curse the Israelites. Balaam set out to meet Balak on his loyal she-ass, who swerved off the path through a vineyard — to avoid the angel with a drawn sword who was blocking her way. Balaam couldn’t see the angel and beat the she-ass three times, trying to get her to go back on the path. Unwilling to do so, she turned to Balaam and said, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me?” (Numbers 22:28) To which Balaam replied, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” (Numbers 22:29). The angel then revealed itself to Balaam and made it clear to him he can continue on, with the understanding that he will only say what he’s told to say — blessings, not curses.
These lines from an Inuit poem by Nalungiaq collected in the 1920s offer a window into this parasha:
In the earliest time, when both people and animals lived on earth,
a person could become an animal if he wanted to
and an animal could become a human being.
Sometimes they were people and sometimes animals
and there was no difference.
All spoke the same language.
That was the time when words were like magic.
The human mind had mysterious powers.
A word spoken by chance might have strange consequences.
It would suddenly come alive
and what people wanted to happen could happen —
all you had to do was say it.
Nobody can explain this:
That’s just the way it was.
But we don’t live in the earliest time. The division between human and animal is firmly established, hierarchical, an institutionalized apartheid. We are higher, they are lower. But sometimes something queer happens. Someone crosses the rigid divide. And when that happens, we are for a moment linked back to primeval wholeness once again. A talking animal wasn’t necessary in this story. Another human being could have served the same role, seeing the angel in the vineyard that Balaam couldn’t see. But this is a division-disruptive tale, tucked into a Torah that likes its separations, between night and day, male and female, animal and human. For who among us still has the ability to move back and forth between genders, between time and worlds? In earth-connected cultures it’s the shamans who do that. In our modern world, shamans are very rare. It’s we queers who walk between worlds, between genders, between cultures and desires, who link and unite, who make one from many. Whenever I read this parasha, and come to the poor nameless she-ass being abused by her human but inhumane master, I think of our queer shamanic selves. We are reviled by the dominant culture for our “animal” impulses, but like the she-ass, we are often far more capable of seeing the angels that surround us than they are, who claim to be in alignment with Scripture, in direct communication with God, and holier than everyone else.
Comic on one level, this parasha, with its female protagonist, is a tale of great power. Our ancestors understood this. Tradition tells us that the donkey’s mouth was one of ten things created by God in the very last moments before the very first Shabbat, including the rainbow, Miriam’s well, the manna that later fell from heaven, and the worm which ate through the stones used to build Solomon’s temple, so that they weren’t cut by anything metal that might resemble a weapon. Comic and holy at the same time — when animals talk, we must always pay attention. The boundaries between worlds are coming down. The primal Truth is about to be revealed. The sacred is queerly manifest in a vineyard, shining and proclaiming the way. Spirit and matter are once again united, as they were in earliest times. And through this union we are reminded that separations are temporal, temporary. And as Nalungiaq, the Inuit poet reminds us, words can have great power. As we read and speak of Torah in this queer way, we make things happen that may have been hidden away since just before the very first Sabbath. We build new houses, new shrines. We are witness to the sacred in all things. One moment we are wandering lost through the fields of the world — then suddenly we see, hear, and understand once again that all is One.
In 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.
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.
This patrilineal system of marking family and community plays an important role in the legal and cultural system of the Israelites, determining inheritance rights, marriage obligations and a host of other issues. Even today, most of us trace our family names patrilineally, silencing the familial histories of our mothers and grandmothers, most of whom gave up their “maiden” names, and in some cases their very identities, to assimilate themselves into the families of their husbands.
As one of two gay fathers of a six-month old daughter, I wonder: Where does this leave me? How is my daughter to count her tribe (forgetting, for a moment, that women were not even included in this census in the Book of Numbers)? She has two fathers – two tribes to account for. In the census of Jewish families, does she get counted twice, once for each “tribe”? And to make matters even more complicated, her mother, the woman with whom my husband and I co-parent, offers yet another familial lineage, another “tribal” bond. In our three-parent, two-household, one-child family, where does our daughter fit? How does Hashem count her? What place is there for her in the Jewish community?
I see my daughter’s multiple familial legacies not as a complication but as a blessing. She has eight grandparents (my own parents are divorced and have since remarried, so I offer up half the grandparents in this equation). How great is that? More people to love her, more people to claim her, more people to attend her bat mitzvah, and more people to bring presents every year on her birthday. Yet, I know that other people’s perceptions of our “non-traditional” family will create complications for her, not the least of which will be the confusion over how to make her count in the Jewish world. As a three-parent queer family we don’t fit the standard Jewish mold, or even the standard queer mold of a same-sex couple raising a child together. What names will be used to call her up for her first Torah reading, when the traditional incantation references only one father and one mother? How will our family be measured in a Jewish world obsessed with family and lineage? On first glance, I found little guidance in this week’s parasha. Indeed, my initial reading of parashat Bamidbar left me frustrated at what was presented as Hashem’s silencing of women and the exclusive focus on one child, one father, unto the generations. But reading further, I came to the strange line at the beginning of Chapter 3: “These are the offspring of Aaron and Moses on the day Hashem spoke with Moses at Mount Sinai: These are the names of the sons of Aaron…,” followed by a list of Aaron’s sons. Why does the passage refer to the “offspring of Aaron and Moses” and then list only the sons of Aaron?
In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 19b), the sages tell us that although Aaron is indeed the father of his sons, Moses taught Aaron’s sons, so they are, in a sense, Moses’ spiritual children. As it says in the Talmud, “he who teaches Torah to the son of his neighbor, Scripture ascribes it to him as if he had begotten him.” In this same section of the Talmud, the sages offer several examples of children who have “parents” other than just their biological mother and father. They remind us of a reference to a “son of Naomi,” even though the son in question came from Ruth’s womb. “Ruth bore [him] and Naomi brought him up; hence he was called after her [Naomi’s] name.” Through my queer eyes, this reference to Ruth and Naomi offers a perfect prooftext for why BOTH moms in a lesbian family are indeed full and equal moms. Yes, each child of lesbian parents came from only one womb (although, with technology today, some lesbian couples have opted to implant an egg from one mother into the womb of the other), but any other woman who raises that child is a mother. End of story. Likewise in my family. Our daughter doesn’t have two “real” parents and a stepparent. She has two dads and a mom. Three parents. Period.
The description of family earlier in this parasha, as counted via a single father (and back through his father, and his father’s father, and so on) suddenly looks less limiting or clear cut. Thanks to Hillary Clinton, we all now know that “it takes a village” to raise a child, but the Torah shows us that Hillary’s idea isn’t so new. Expanding our notions of family creates a Jewish space for my queer family, while also creating openings for all other “alternative” families (single parents, blended families, children raised by grandparents, etc.).
When a child comes out, a coming out process begins for the entire family. In honor of Mother’s and Father’s Day, we bring you our third post in a series by parent leaders of Keshet’s Parent & Family Connection. The Connection is a confidential peer support program for parents and family members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Jews. We celebrate the support and love that these parents give their LGBTQ children – and the support they now offer other parents. This week’s post is by Ruth Loew, wife of a rabbi and mother of twin gay sons. You can read the previous posts in this series: one, by a mother of a queer daughter in Colorado, here, one by an Orthodox parent from Baltimore, MD, here, one by the mother of a gay son in the Philadelphia suburbs, here, and a celebration of Mother’s Day/Mothers’ Day here.
A couple of decades ago, the synagogue to which my family belongs hired a young rabbinic student, who happened to be gay, as its youth group adviser. In short order, its leadership then fired him, not because of any transgression, but merely because of who he was. The congregation’s membership turned out to be more liberal than its leaders. Shul members, appalled, rallied to the adviser’s support, and he was quickly rehired.
At the time, this incident didn’t seem very relevant to me. My three sons were nowhere near youth group age yet, and I didn’t know many LGBT individuals very well. I wholeheartedly supported the synagogue membership in its adamant opposition to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Apart from that, though, I didn’t give homosexuality much thought, amid the ongoing pandemonium of parent-teacher conferences, carpools, swimming lessons, and squabbling siblings.
Then, during the adolescence of my two younger sons, identical twins, I started to wonder if one or both might be gay. They weren’t overt about it, but they certainly didn’t seem to be at all interested in girls. They were both fervently interested in justice for minorities in general, the minority that concerned them most seemed to be the LGBT community, and the worst criticism either could level at a politician was to call him homophobic. My husband’s response was generally: “They’re young, they’re shy, and they depend on each other socially; maybe they just haven’t figured out their sexuality yet.” Maybe so, I said; but if they look like ducks and quack like ducks, maybe they ARE ducks. By their senior year in high school, when they insisted on attending a seminar on gay marriage, even though it meant making their own travel arrangements and delaying our family Shabbat dinner, I was pretty sure. I didn’t want to talk to local friends about the matter, though, because I didn’t want to say anything that might embarrass the boys later.
As I became more convinced that one or both boys were gay, I found it immensely reassuring to realize what a non-issue this was in my synagogue and how much support we, as a family, had there. By then I had come to know a number of LGBT individuals as friends, fellow synagogue and Jewish community members, and key contributors to that community. Once my sons were comfortable with being out in the Jewish community, I began to tell fellow congregants. As one gay friend said, “You can talk to me any time. It’s one thing to be liberal in the abstract, but it can feel different when it involves your own family.” I like to think that this synagogue environment made it easier for our sons to come out to us. Certainly it continues to support my husband and me in accepting and celebrating their sexual orientation as they have grown into responsible, compassionate, interesting young men.
Jewish institutions need to be, not merely passively supportive of LGBT rights, but proactive in being welcoming and fully inclusive. We need everyone’s talents to build a community. We are enriched by the involvement of all. And where LGBT individuals are truly welcomed and valued, parenting a gay child becomes infinitely easier, too.
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, Rabbi Jill Hammer considers the connections between impurities, power, and the roles of Moses’ sister Miriam.
The biblical categories tahor and tamei, usually translated “pure” and “impure,” mean something like insider/outsider. One who is tahor can enter the sanctuary, the dwelling-place of God’s presence and the heart of Israelite ritual. One who is tamei cannot. Tum’ah, impurity, can be contracted by a variety of circumstances including contact with dead bodies, menstruation, ejaculation, and childbirth. There are many theories about the nature of these categories — Mary Douglas, for example, who believes that things are impure or taboo because they cross boundaries in an uncanny way, or the ancient philosopher Philo who believed the system of tahor / tamei symbolically imparted ethical concepts. My own current sense, influenced by Avivah Zornberg’s book The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, is that things or entities become tamei when biblical society wants to repress them.
Death is tamei, because it frightens humans and challenges the life-giving powers of God. Childbirth, menstrual blood, and semen are tamei, because the life-giving powers of women and men are uncanny, echoing God’s power to create. And the metzora, the one afflicted with a biblical skin disease called tzara’at (commonly though inaccurately known as leprosy), are tamei because their skin condition reminds others of disease and death. Feared states are banned from the sanctuary, making it a place where God’s (and the priests’) power reigns supreme. This allows the ritual system to function, providing a sense of order and safety, but also leaves important truths outside the tribal walls.
What is the remedy for repression? In Parashat Chukkat, the Torah details the preparation of a mixture using ashes of a red heifer, a mixture that turns tamei to tahor and allows those who have encountered death to re-enter the sanctuary. This mixture is called mei niddah or waters of impurity. Into this mixture, in addition to the heifer’s ashes, goes hyssop and scarlet thread, and cedar wood. All of these things are elements of the sanctuary: hyssop used by priests for sprinkling, cedar for the wooden poles, scarlet thread for the curtains. These sacred substances mix with death — the corpse of the red heifer — to create a potion that combines death-consciousness and life-consciousness. According to the Ishbitzer Rebbe, the potion contains the four elements/four worlds of earth, air, fire, and water, allowing the individual to re-integrate the whole. It is this potion that can cross the bridge from tamei back to tahor, from repression back to sacred consciousness. Through the ashes of the red heifer, one who has come into contact with exiled truths can integrate them and return to the tribal center of meaning.
Immediately after the discussion of the red heifer ritual, Miriam dies. This is the first time we have heard of her since she challenged her brother Moses’ leadership and was stricken with tzara’at. Miriam herself is a repressed entity: a prophetess-priestess whose existence is literally exiled outside the camp. Her death is passed over briefly, without the long mourning period that will be decreed for her brother Aaron only a few verses later. Nor is her burial place noted. A midrash claims that Moses and Aaron bury Miriam in the middle of the night (Yalkut Shimoni Mas’ei 787), presumably to save group morale, or perhaps to preserve her modesty. This midrash draws attention to the strange silence regarding Miriam’s death. Shouldn’t the rescuer of Moses by the Nile, and the dancer of hope by the Sea of Reeds, be remembered? Yet Miriam, a woman who is a leader and a challenger of the status quo, becomes tamei in death: even her memory is exiled, excluded, repressed.
Yet the repressed always returns. After Miriam’s death, the people clamor for water, complaining: “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to bring us to this terrible place, a seedless place without a fig or a vine or a pomegranate, without even water to drink?” (Numbers 20:5) The fig, the vine, and the pomegranate are all symbols of the feminine (as when the Psalmist says: “your wife shall be a fruitful vine inside your house”; Psalm 128:3). So is water itself: the patriarchs tend to meet their future wives by wells, and it is women who float Moses on the Nile.
In Numbers, the people are subconsciously complaining about the loss of Miriam and of feminine leadership. A rabbinic midrash claims that the people have no water because the “well of Miriam,” a mysterious well that wanders with the people through the desert, has disappeared (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 9a, Bava Metzia 17a, Shabbat 35a). This midrash also seems to indicate that the loss of Miriam is sublimated in the people’s thirst. Moses responds angrily to the people’s complaints, snapping: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” The word rebels, morim, is spelled the same as Miriam. Moses has made a Freudian slip, letting us know that he too is thinking of Miriam, even though he never mentions her again. Moses strikes the rock, and the waters pour out — Miriam, the woman of water, is freed from her hiding place and once again courses among the people. The waters of the rock are even named Merivah (quarrel), a word which can be read as “miri bah,” or “Miri(yam) is in it.” Like the waters of the red heifer, the waters flowing from the rock reintegrate Miriam into the consciousness of the people.
The existence of queer members of the Jewish tribe is often repressed. The Bible categorizes male homosexual sex acts as tamei, to’evah, impure. Female homosexuality and other forms of sexual diversity are not even mentioned — like Miriam’s burial place, they are erased by the text. The erasure lasts for millennia, through Talmudic, medieval, and even much of modern times. This repression, like Leviticus’s repression of death and the double-edged power of fertility, arises out of fear of the unknown. In the face of this fear, how do we reintegrate queer experience into the sacred center of our people? How do we move from categories of rejection, tolerance, or acceptance of the outsider to a vision of the whole? How do we transform tamei into tahor?
The waters of the red heifer and the waters of Miriam are keys to reintegration: they remind us that the repressed returns, and that our truths inevitably must arise into consciousness. We help this process when we let our truths flow together with the truths of the Torah even when that seems contradictory. In this way, we can explore where our experience fits, rather than immediately judging it as inside or outside. When we are in the mode of contradiction, we are forced to choose between tamei and tahor, between the perspective of the outsider and the perspective of the insider. When we let go of the contradictions and allow ourselves to embody multiple truths, we become insider/outsider. We can approach the Torah as healers, bringing together elements long considered sacred with those that have been feared as eerie or pushed aside as marginal. We can crack open the monolithic rock and let the multiplicity of waters flow free.
How Jewish is the Hebrew Calendar? When we use a Hebrew word to identify a period of time, we may believe that we are making a more authentically Jewish choice. However, like so many words and concepts in ancient Judaism, the name “Tammuz” typifies the syncretic past of our people, fused together from various traditions.
We learn in the Book of Ezekiel:
“And God brought me to the entrance at the Gate of the House of the Lord which was at the north; and there were there women sitting, bewailing the Tammuz.” (8:14)
Why were the women bewailing “the Tammuz”? They were weeping, at least in part, because “the Tammuz” is not only a Hebrew month, but also the name of a pagan deity revered by some Jews in Babylon. The Jewish people had once again gone astray, and would pay dearly for their spiritual infidelities. In Nissan, we celebrated our liberation with Passover, and now in Tammuz we come to understand the risks inherent in the freedom to choose.
When we live immersed in foreign territory, we are granted the ability to incorporate the jewels of the outside world into our national treasure chest. However, if we do not vet carefully what we choose to adopt, and simply succumb completely to the pull of the outside world, we lose our spiritual center. We forget who we are and betray our mission. We forfeit the fortitude and integrity that come from resisting the mundane evils that surround us.
As LGBT Jews, I believe that we possess a special need for the spiritual center provided by our covenant. It is too easy to become awash in the oppression, callousness, apathy, anonymity, and carelessness of our world, just by default. However, the strictures and values of our tradition provide us with the tools to be mindful, empathetic, compassionate, thoughtful, and resolute. Our textual inheritance reminds us that God loves us, breathes life into us daily, and cries with us when we are in pain.
In Tammuz, we weep for sins committed and defenses that have been broken. However, the psalmist teaches, “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.” (126:5) Even though we cry in Tammuz, we nonetheless remain vigilant until the harvest. Then, as on Shavuot, we rejoice for the bounty and guidance that God has given us in Torah. As we approach Tammuz, let us remember the pain and price of forgetting our spiritual center, and also take comfort in the knowledge that we always possess the path to return.