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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 Assembly (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 leader of a 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.
Dan Brotman is a gay man from Massachusetts. So, legally, he can marry his fiancé, Keith. The only catch is that Keith is South African – so unlike heterosexual couples, Keith is not allowed to enter the U.S. as Dan’s legal spouse.
As a same-sex bi-national couple, Dan and Keith are not entitled to the same rights and protections as heterosexual couples. In order to live together, they have to live in South Africa.
Unfortunately, an amendment to the immigration reform legislation Congress is currently debating, which would have protected bi-national same-sex couples like Dan and Keith, was recently withdrawn. Now, the issue is left to the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to rule on the legality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) this month. If DOMA is ruled unconstitutional, it will no longer be legal to deny Dan and Keith the rights that heterosexual couples enjoy.
36,000 same-sex bi-national couples living in the United States and thousands of gay Americans forced into exile abroad were failed by both the Senate and the Democratic Party; the latter we expected to support us during our greatest moment in immigration reform history. Thousands of gay Americans living abroad would love nothing more than to be able to live back in our country, where we would be creating jobs and contributing to the economy and society.
When Senator Leahy proposed an amendment to the proposed immigration bill that would have protected us, he highlighted the heart wrenching dilemma in which same-sex bi-national couples are placed: “I do not believe we should ask Americans to choose between the love of their life and love of their country.” Yet, this is exactly what the Obama administration and Senate Democrats asked us to do when they caved into bigotry and asked Senator Leahy to not call for a vote on the amendment.
As an American Jew, the experience of legislated second-class citizenship is a painful recurrence in my people’s history. Spain’s Edict of Expulsion, Russia’s May Laws, and Germany’s Nuremberg Laws disenfranchised my ancestors and forced many of them to go into exile. Such legislation against Jews in the Russian Empire even forced Senators Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein’s grandparents to immigrate to the United States, where they knew their children and grandchildren would truly experience what it means to be equal under the law.
Like tens of thousands of gay Americans, I met and fell in love with a foreigner, who in my case is my South African fiancé, Keith. Although both opposite and same-sex couples can get married in 12 states (including my own, Massachusetts) and the District of Columbia, only opposite-sex marriages are recognized under current immigration law. This discrepancy diminishes same-sex relationships to “skim-milk marriage,” whereas our heterosexual brothers and sisters are afforded “full marriage,” in the words of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Due to the Defense of Marriage Act and our discriminatory immigration system, I was forced to uproot my life in Boston and expatriate 7,692 miles away in order to live with my partner.
For the past three years, I have been living in South Africa, where 90% of the population was relegated to second-class citizenship for most of the country’s history. Keith was born during the height of apartheid and was classified by the government as “Colored,” which meant that he did not have the right to live in the same neighborhoods, attend the same universities, or be eligible for the same employment opportunities as his privileged white compatriots. Non-white South Africans’ experience of legalized discrimination is not dissimilar from that of our Jewish ancestors in Tsar Alexander III’s Russia, where Jews were barred from living in most of the country, obtaining higher education, and entering many professions.
During apartheid, gays and lesbians were not afforded any legal protection. When the country transitioned to democracy in 1994, its Constitution became the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, as well as race, gender, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language, and birth. South Africa began to recognize same-sex relationships for immigration purposes in 1999, and became the first and only African country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2006.
Many of the US’ closest allies, including Australia, Colombia, Israel, and the UK, do not have same-sex marriage, but recognize same-sex relationships for immigration purposes.
Thousands of gay Americans living in exile desperately needed to be included in the immigration reform bill so we can move home. If South Africa could enact immigration equality only five years into its democracy, I am confident that the time has come for us to do the same in the United States. It now looks like the only way this is going to happen is through a Supreme Court ruling next month.
Every June people across the world celebrate LGBTQ Pride. As LGBTQ Jews and allies, we are proud of our own identities and those of our loved ones. Whether you are looking for a Pride Shabbat service, a fabulous Jewish sign to hold in a Pride Parade, or just want some inspiration, you’ve come to the right place!
Visit our Pride Events page for a list of Jewish LGBTQ Pride events happening across the United States (and a few in Canada too!) this June.
Download your own Pride posters, stickers, and a graphic to help you celebrate and show your pride!
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, Rebecca Weiner considers the need for order and boundaries, even in the midst of a revolution.
Looking back on my childhood, I often feel like I emerged out of two totally different worlds. I grew up in the “free to be you and me,” question-authority, communal-living, people’s republic of Berkeley in the late 1970s. At the same time, my sister had become ba’alat teshuvah (a non-Orthodox Jew who adopts Orthodox standards of observance) after a rather powerful trip to Israel at the age of eighteen. So while my nine-year-old cohorts spent their weekends running around Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue with their hippie parents, I spent every Shabbat at the local Chabad synagogue (an international Orthodox/Hasidic outreach organization), living a “normal” Berkeley liberal Jewish life during the week, but becoming an observant girl over Shabbat.
What stood out for me at the time about the people I met through Chabad was their dedication to the rules and regulations of living an observant Jewish life, and the love they had for halacha, or Jewish law. I had not yet developed a questioning mind and as I studied and mimicked all the mitzvot, I was struck by the practice of the rituals and the devotion these people had to Hashem.
Later on in my life, as I developed into the lesbian feminist that I am, I struggled as I questioned my relationship to halacha. The rules surrounding who could and could not be included in certain Jewish rites and practices saddened me. I questioned a God that would allow a man to throw a chair at my girlfriend as she attempted to pray with the Torah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. What God would allow such punitive action? What God doesn’t want all the people Israel to participate in everything that makes Jewish life vibrant and meaningful?
In this week’s Torah portion, Korach asks similarly challenging questions, and in doing so creates a minor revolution with dire consequences. He wants to know why Moses and Aaron are holier than the rest of the community. In response, Moses tells Korach and his followers to prepare a fire pan and present it before God so that God may determine who is the most holy. Well…we know from Parashat Shemini that there is not such a good track record in the presenting of “strange fire,” and once again, we see the punitive God who destroys those who aren’t worthy. We also see Moses struggling to be a leader, and learn how the sacrifices made in order to distinguish between the holy and the profane can create profound loss.
Often when I read through the texts of our tradition, I question who I would be in the narrative. So many of the shandas (Yiddish for “scandals”) for which the Jews have been punished by God remind me of just another average day in my queer existence. For example, the dancing around the Golden Calf? Saw it on a pride parade float one year. The Naked Olympics in front of the Holy Temple? Pretty much a typical experience any day of the week at Gold’s gym in San Francisco. I imagine that, like Korach, I might be the person to challenge the authority and ask: Why?
Perhaps because of the slow waxing of the hubris of my youth, I’ve been able to see two important lessons in this week’s portion. One is that you have to pick your battles. As queer Jews living our lives we cannot fight every battle. I don’t have to break down every door, shatter every glass ceiling and have every freedom. I have also learned that it is no easy task being a leader. This is especially true of our LGBT leaders, many of whom walk a complicated line of representing their constituencies while cultivating the influence needed to make change.
I am still troubled by the notion of punitive lessons. The little girl running around in 1978 in her tie-dyed tee shirt yearns for a more compassionate God. But as I remember back to my childhood and those Shabbats spent with Chabad, I am struck by the deeper lesson of how order can create holiness and holiness can create faith. Like the ancient Israelites, who continued to follow Moses as they wound their way to the Promised Land, I have had to learn that it is hard to build a tradition without order, without distinctions. Perhaps what our ancestors learned wandering in the desert was that their holiness was not determined just by their roles. In a world full of homophobia, racism, sexism, and classism, a world that will often exclude us just because of who we are, how do we learn to carry that holiness inside us? There is a lesson I learned even at that tender age, and it continues to be a teaching that serves me in my work as a radical queer Jew: It is not my revolution unless it has some boundaries. I continue to believe, as our wandering ancestors must have, that even within the dualities of punishment and freedom, leaders and those who are led, great miracles and great sacrifices, that eventually our struggle will continue to lead us back to the promise of our faith.
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 Carole Lukoff, mother of a gay son and a long-time Jewish professional in the suburbs of Philadelphia. 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, and a celebration of Mother’s Day/Mothers’ Day here.
When my youngest son Eric was in third grade, our local National Public Radio station asked our family to be part of a documentary entitled “Family Stories.” In short, the program, produced in the early 1990s, focused on different kinds of families and the many similarities and the not so many differences among them. Included in the mix were interracial, interfaith, same-sex and the – so to speak – traditional family (that was us). We were the quintessential Cleaver family (you know, that 1950s-style wife, husband, and two kids “Leave it to Beaver” television family). My husband and I were the Ward and June look-alikes, our oldest son Brian was a dead ringer for Wally and our youngest son Eric rivaled the happy-go-lucky Beaver… at least that’s how it seemed.
Fast forward to June 2003. 17-year-old “Beaver” gathered his brother and my husband and me and explained that he had something to tell us… that when he was twelve years old, he thought he could live a lie. He knew then that he was gay, but felt that life as a straight person would be so much easier. At seventeen he knew that he could not live like that, and that being gay is not a choice. Being gay was who he was and he was finally comfortable with that. He said he loved us all and he knew now that for us to truly be a family we needed to be honest and accepting of each other. In that instant “Beaver” stepped out of the closet and “Ward and June” stepped in.
My initial reaction combined feelings of love, pride, and respect for Eric, along with a feeling of despair and guilt as a parent. I was so grateful that Eric felt comfortable coming out to us, but at the same time I experienced a sense of grief for the hopes and dreams I had for him that now would change. At the time, change just did not seem like a good thing. Upon reflection, though, throughout the past ten years, my husband and I realize that Eric’s – and our – eventual coming out was a process, a journey and a learning curve that actually began way before our debut in the “Family Stories” documentary and continues today.
A few years ago, when Eric was managing a local political campaign, he moved back home for six months. When the election was over, Eric decided to move to the West Coast and set out for his new adventure. That evening, after he had departed, I found the following note which he had left for my husband and me:
I know I don’t have to, but I thank you both so much for everything over the past several months. I am grateful to know that I can always go home again. Not everyone is so lucky.
To me, that message held a myriad of meanings. In reality, my husband and I are the lucky ones. Through the support of extended family, friends and groups such as the Keshet Parent and Family Connections, the concept of our ideal family has changed. For the past five years, my husband and I have enjoyed a mini-support group that we formed with another set of parents in our synagogue community who also have a gay son. This group has been a place to help each other sort out many thoughts and feelings about having gay children. We have all become good friends and look forward to our continuing relationship and special bond both inside and outside our synagogue community. We are so grateful for the love, joy and acceptance that our family shares together today.
After nearly ten years of doing LGBT inclusion work in the Jewish LGBT community, first as the founding director of Jewish Mosaic and now with Keshet, our colleague Gregg Drinkwater is leaving Keshet to pursue his Ph.D. He will be missed sorely by those who work with him, but his ground-breaking work will have a lasting impact. We caught up with Gregg to discuss what the changes he’s seen within the Jewish community and larger American community, what he’s most proud of, and what he’s most looking forward to.
As you look back over your time at Jewish Mosaic and Keshet, what are you most proud of? You played a role in galvanizing support in the Jewish community for civil unions in Colorado; you created the Queer Seder, the biggest queer Jewish event in Denver; and you created the idea for – and co-edited the book of – Torah Queeries. What strike you as your biggest successes?
I’m most proud of the way my Jewish community, not just here in Colorado, but across the country, has stepped up and become a champion for inclusion. We still have much work to do and some Jewish communities in the U.S. remain deeply unwelcoming for LGBT Jews. But with so many Jewish voices speaking out for respect and inclusion, I couldn’t be more proud today to be an American Jew.
And don’t forget that a more LGBT-inclusive Jewish community impacts not just American Jews, but our country’s larger social and political landscape. The Jewish community has the capacity to help challenge the assumption that people of faith are anti-LGBT.
As an example, in Colorado this June, in Denver’s annual PrideFest parade – one of the largest in the country – Keshet will be joined by representatives of a record 31 Jewish organizations marching together behind a banner proclaiming “Jewish Community Pride.” Such an unbelievable level of solidarity from Colorado’s Jewish community is a tribute to the hard work of so many people – the current and former staff and board members of Keshet and Jewish Mosaic, the hundreds of volunteers, funders, and supporters who have been such an integral part of our growth, the community leaders who proactively advocate for LGBT inclusion within their own organizations, the rabbis who insist on building welcoming congregations, the educators who challenge anti-LGBT bias, and the allies who change minds one person at a time by acting as role models among their friends and families.
That through my work with Jewish Mosaic, Keshet, and the Torah Queeries project I was given the honor to play a very small role in that change gives me great comfort.
Your decision to be an openly gay married man in the Denver Jewish community has elevated your visibility. What kind of an experience has that been like for you, and your family?
We often think of a marriage ceremony as enacting a covenant between the two partners, and between the partners and God. But the Jewish wedding ritual is even more about a covenant between the couple and their community and between the couple and the Jewish people. The couple makes a public declaration of their love and fidelity, solemnizing that commitment in writing through the ketubah (Jewish wedding contract) signed by two witnesses. But all present for the ceremony are an expanded community of witnesses – a role they continue to play throughout their lives. For my husband, CU Boulder’s Prof. David Shneer, and I, our ceremony was about embedding our lives and our family in community, which is a very public act.
David and I stood together under the chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy) in Berkeley in June 1996. Surrounded by 130 family and friends, we committed to live a life of strength, fidelity, love, and respect; to build a Jewish home; and to pursue tikkun olam – the realization of a peaceful and just world. Ritual has a special power to foster accountability, which is why marriage equality is so important for our community. Through that ritual, as witnesses to that commitment, our family and friends became mutually accountable to us and us to them. Being married to David reminds me daily of my commitment not just to him, but of the commitment of care and mutual support I made to my family, my community, and the Jewish world. My marriage grounds my commitment to tikkun olam. Additionally, David and I both have jobs with public roles. For me, any visibility that comes from that simply reinforces this sense of community. And it goes both ways – my community has also pledged support and affirmation of David and I and our family, something I have been blessed to see in action countless times since that summer day nearly 17 years ago.
What’s been the most exciting thing you’ve learned, seen, heard, or done while doing this important work?
While working for Jewish Mosaic, and then Keshet, I have been blessed to meet, learn from, and work with so many inspiring people from throughout the U.S. and around the world. I’m thinking of the ultra-Orthodox therapist I met in Israel who, as an ally, counsels and supports LGBT and questioning members of her community, and of the amazingly energetic grassroots activists I met in Buenos Aires who are reshaping the communal assumptions of Argentinian Jewry. There are the brilliant rabbis, scholars, and activists who created TransTorah.org, a web site dedicated to helping people of all genders fully access and transform Jewish tradition, and the tireless volunteers who have dedicated year after year to build, sustain, and grow LGBT synagogues in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City and many other cities across the country.
What will you miss the most – and what are you most looking forward to in your new adventures in academia?
I’m so excited to be entering the Ph.D. program in U.S. history at the University of Colorado, Boulder, this fall. As I shift gears and refocus my energies on grad school, I hope to do dissertation research that sheds new light on the intersections between the history of religion and the history of sexuality in post-WWII America. Building on some of my professional work over the past nine years, I plan to study the role religion played in postwar-America’s wrestling with sexuality, particularly the negotiation over the place of LGBT people in American society and religious communities. I hope to reclaim a place for religion as a more frequently progressive, rather than conservative, force than is often recognized in conversations surrounding America’s 20th-century sexual revolutions.
To date, many scholars of queer history have largely focused on documenting the lives and activities of LGBT individuals, less frequently fully fleshing out the motivations and actions of the many non-LGBT allies who responded positively to calls for the affirmation of LGBT lives. In my dissertation research, I hope to shift this imbalance, adding to my investigations detailed attention to the trajectories of straight allies, particularly religious leaders, who were often instrumental in making space for lasting structural change in the landscape of American sexual politics. At its core, I hope to answer the question: In the early years of the LGBT rights movement, how did some American religious leaders get to the point of becoming openly supportive of those who, a few decades earlier, were deemed sexual and spiritual deviants by those same religious movements?
In the coming months, I will be reaching out to some of my mentors and colleagues for their perspectives on early Jewish organizing around LGBT inclusion. So stay tuned!
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 second 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 “MBSD,” an Orthodox parent from Baltimore, MD. You can read the previous post in this series, by a mother of a queer daughter in Colorado, here.
A peaceful Shabbat walk in the woods. I neared a bubbling brook, stood on a footbridge and gazed down at the streaming water, contemplating the beauty of Hashem‘s creations. I saw a wide bed of rocks of various shapes and sizes. There were boulders to the left, boulders to the right, even some in the middle. Together they formed their own community; each rock was an integral part of a whole entity that had a beautiful stream flowing through it. It was a metaphor for the ideal harmony we’d like to see in our Jewish communities. We are a people that share the same religion yet come from different backgrounds with different viewpoints. Still, we’re all connected by our love for Torah, that stream of energy that unites us.
In some cases, though, our differences seem to disenfranchise us from the greater community. Such can be the case with families of children who are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender). In a lot of Orthodox communities, families, such as mine, feel as though they must hide this fact from others. As though telling the truth would bring about alienation, and highlight the way in which we are different from the mainstream. We didn’t ask for this. Our children were born this way, b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. For reasons we may never know, God, in His infinite wisdom, created our children with a sexual orientation or gender identity that is not what we expected.
Yes, we know those verses in the Torah…. But we also love our children unconditionally and that love buoys us and gives us the strength to endure, to find a way to reconcile that feeling with our adherence to a Shomer Torah [traditionally observant] lifestyle.
On this particular Shabbat I was a participant at the first-ever national retreat for Orthodox parents of LGBT children. Held at the Capital Retreat Center, not too far from Baltimore, the weekend brought together thirty-nine parents from various cities, all seeking support and a sense of community. This event was organized by a wonderful organization called Eshel, which seeks to “create understanding and support for LGBT people in traditional Jewish communities.”
Most of these parents lived in Orthodox communities that were not welcoming or accepting of their LGBT children. There is such a feeling of “shonda” [shame] that many of these parents feel. And this is not from the Torah, but rather from the society in which they live. So, for them to spend an entire weekend in the company of people who could really relate to their challenges was a very affirming experience. There was a sense of “safe space” where fears could be expressed, tears could be shed, personal stories could be shared and confidentiality was upheld. The parents also brainstormed ways in which they could initiate conversations in their hometowns about creating more inclusion and understanding of their children.
Despite a lot of publicity, I was one of only three parents who came from Baltimore. It was frustrating to know that there had to be many other parents in my area who are dealing with a similar situation. Perhaps they are in denial or are still “in the closet” themselves about their child being LGBT. The time has come that we have to stop making this an uncomfortable topic of discussion. It just perpetuates the stigma. Moreover, there are so many people who have been suicidal due to the lack of family acceptance about their sexual identity. The Torah tells us, “Therefore, Choose life!” We must value the lives of each and every one of us.
The tranquil stream and the boulders give us a wonderful vision of unity for us to strive for. Just as they all exist in harmony, I appeal to everyone to live by the concept of “v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha” [Love your neighbor as yourself]. When that day arrives there will be no need for this kind of retreat and no need for pseudonyms because the stigma will finally be gone.
We in the Jewish community just spent forty-nine days counting the Omer, the period from liberation to revelation, from leaving slavery in Egypt to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. We marked the passage of time, each day, remembering, recalling, and reflecting. We arrive at Shavuot, and prepare to receive the gift of Torah, our story, our memory, our history, our guiding law.
The journey of the Israelites and the counting of the Jewish people have striking parallels to the work for marriage equality in Minnesota. The Israelites wandered for forty years, we are taught, after leaving slavery. Forty years is a long time of waiting, of watching, of wondering. They left Egypt full of hope and promise, but that youthful optimism quickly faded, and those who left slavery did not live to see the Promised Land.
We have been waiting a long time, some of us have been waiting for generations. I stood at the Capitol Monday with people who openly wept, remarking that they never could have imagined this day when they came out many years ago. They gave up marriages, children, homes, jobs, friends, family in order to be themselves and they doubted that their state would ever recognize them. They’ve been on a journey, stretching across miles and years. They never thought they’d live to see the Promised Land. But yet, in some ways, they have.
Marriage equality symbolizes the acceptance they have been seeking. And standing at the Capitol in St. Paul with 6,000 people for the bill signing is a feeling of community openness they never thought they would experience.
And our task as a community working for justice is to retell the story, to remember the liberation as much as the revelation, to remember the struggle as well as the victories.
We are like the Israelites at Mt Sinai. We have come so far. We are accessing something no one felt possible. But yet, we still have a distance to go. Safe schools legislation still needs to pass. Transgender nondiscrimination legislation is sorely needed. We still have a Federal Defense of Marriage Act and 80% of Americans live in states without the freedom to marry. We have a long way to the Promised Land. But we get there by joining hands, marching, together.
On Monday night, at a gathering for leaders of Jewish Community Action‘s Marriage Equality team, I reflected to the group that one of the things that kept the Israelites going for so long in the desert was that they were not alone. It wasn’t just Moses marching among the sand, it wasn’t Miriam solely searching for water, and it wasn’t just Aaron speaking out to the great expanse. They were strengthened by each other. They were helped by the presence of a myriad of people like them, trudging on together, helping them up when they fell, urging them on when they thought the trail was too rough.
This work for marriage equality similarly was supported by the tremendous work of so many. The leadership of Minnesotans United, OutFront Minnesota, and Project 515 knew that faith would play an important part of defeating the Marriage amendment and later would help bring marriage equality.
The leadership of the faith organizing wing of Minnesotans United helped gather tremendously diverse faith leader groups to shape approaches, highlight best practices and to support each other. I met some of the most inspirational faith leaders and found it my privilege to work with them. Just like Moses had to learn from his father-in-law Jethro, a Midianite Priest, I was blessed to learn from so many other faith leaders.
Jethro taught Moses “you can’t do it alone,” and my peers reminded me of that. I reached out to organize rabbis, which may be the hardest job known to humankind. I was particularly inspired by the work of rabbis serving conservative communities who spoke out at great personal risk and to younger colleagues who, despite their own newness in communities, raised their voices for equality. I have never been prouder to call myself a rabbi than when the statement from the Minnesota Rabbinic Association was published, the first statement from an organized clergy group against the then-proposed marriage amendment.
The Jewish community was the Nachshon of the faith communities, putting their feet first in the raging waters of the sea – holding giant faith gatherings no one thought possible and mobilizing hundreds of volunteers. This work was inspirationally spearheaded by the staff of Jewish Community Action. To me, they are the Shifra and Puah of this story. They are the midwives, the ones who deal with the gore and blood of birth, but who fade to the background when the baby arrives. They trained and organized, developed leaders and raised money. But they were often too humble to received the glory, and like the midwives of the Torah, the entire exodus story would not have taken place if not for their courage and forethought.
Shavuot marks the receiving of Torah. It is not, however, a one-time act. We receive Torah each time we teach it, each time we speak of it, each time we live by it. Similar is our work of equality and justice. We must teach it, we must speak of if, we must live by it. That is how we make this moment last throughout the generations.
Today Harvey Milk would have been 83. Instead, this gay Jewish hero, who was cut down in his prime, remains a vaunted icon of gay rights across the globe. On his birthday, now known as Harvey Milk Day, we celebrate his work, life, and lasting legacy. At Keshet, we’re honoring his life and achievements by bringing you some rare photos of this pioneer.
After a career that included the Navy, high school teaching, and time on Wall Street, Milk moved to San Francisco. By 1973, he launched his first run for City Supervisor – and lost. In 1977, after his third attempt, he won the seat, becoming the first openly gay man ever elected to major public office in America. Harvey Milk was assassinated in 1978. His legacy of working for the civil rights of all and building coalitions among diverse groups continues to inspire and inform social justice work today. Enjoy this photo essay in honor of Harvey Milk, and check out events happening near you on the Harvey Milk Day website.
Special thanks to the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center San Francisco Public Library for access to these wonderful photos.
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 Karen Perolman examines the Israelites’ struggles with their “coming out” experiences.
Coming-out (of the closet): To be “in the closet” means to hide one’s sexual and or gender identity. Many GBLT people are “out” in some situations and “closeted” in others.
– from Kulanu: All of Us, URJ Press 2007
As first among our days of sacred days, it recalls the coming-out (Exodus) from Egypt.
– from Erev Shabbat Kiddush.
Although the entire story of the Exodus from Egypt can be read as the Israelites’ coming-out story, the exact moment of coming-out occurs when the Israelites finally open the door to the closet and step out into what is literally new land, land that was newly exposed, and formerly under cover of water. In Exodus 14:21, God splits the Red Sea through the hand of Moses and the people walk on dry land toward redemption.
At this moment of coming-out the minds of the Israelites were filled with the possibility of their forthcoming freedom and “…they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.” (Ex. 12:39) After they walked free through the sand floor of the sea, they rejoiced and danced and sang praises to God for the miracle of their deliverance from slavery, their exit from the closet that had held power over them for 400 years.
The Israelites may have come out, as we who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or transgender may have come out, but the closet holds an unexpected and strange power over us, even after we pass through its boundaries. We tend to think of the closet as a space only of discomfort, where we long to be free but can’t muster the strength to free ourselves. But for many people, the closet is a place of safety, where one can be one’s true self: alone, but free of the fear of public truth-telling. The closet can be a place in which there are no uncomfortable conversations, awkward meetings between parents and new boyfriends or girlfriends, and no corrections when another person uses the wrong pronoun to refer to you or your partner.
It is in coming out of the closet that life can unexpectedly become more complicated. Instead of an immediate and complete sense of freedom, there are suddenly decisions to weigh, issues to debate, questions to answer. Like the Israelites, when we finally extricate ourselves from the closet, it can be easy to look back in and wonder what life would have been like if we had never left those walls of safety.
In this week’s parsha, Beha’alotecha, we again see the Israelites struggle with their coming out experience. Although the Israelites had previously complained to Moses and God about the manna and bitter water in the desert, it is in this chapter that the Israelites make their strongest statement: “Oh, why did we ever leave Egypt?” (Num 11:20) Only after leaving the closet do the Israelites remember that sometimes, being in the closet can feel comfortable and secure.
In Numbers 10:4-6 we read: “The Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look forward to!’” The Israelites take a look over their shoulders into their past closet and nostalgically remember what their life once was like. Like a parent who reminisces to their children, “When I was your age…” the Israelites remember a fictional world of the past where, through their rose-colored retrospection, life was better.
God’s solution to the Israelites’ bitter complaining is to rain meat from the sky: “A wind from God started up, swept quail from the sea and strewed them over the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and about a day’s journey on that side, all around the camp.” After the Israelites have their protein fix, God punishes those who eat. Instead of treating the Israelites with compassion, God is judgmental and embarrasses them. Perhaps we should consider not modeling our behavior after the God of Our Fathers in similar instances. On those occasions in our lives when we encounter our friends’ decision to remain closeted, either at all times, or only on certain occasions, we might instead offer encouragement and support as we navigate the tricky and often confusing space within and beyond the closet.
The closet, like the past, has a strange pull. It’s no shame to look back and wonder what might have been. At the same time, we can’t ignore our current midbar, the wilderness of reality, and the never-ending task of coming-out, transitioning, and transforming. It is through these ongoing, present-tense journeys that we will be able to say our own prayer of thanks to God: Nivarekh et Ein haHaim, asher natnah li ha’atzma l’tzeit (min haMitzarim) or (min haMitzrayim), “Let us bless the source of life for giving me the courage to come out (from the narrow places) or (from Egypt).” This coming out blessing, composed by Rebecca Alpert, plays on the similarities between the Hebrew words for “Egypt” and “narrow spaces.” When we thank God for giving us the courage to come out of the narrow space of the closet, we are also thanking God for giving the Israelites’ the courage to come out of the narrowness of Egypt.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav is often quoted as saying, “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important part is not to be afraid.” As we move from the narrow space of the closet and come out on the other side, may we too be full of courage and unafraid.
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, Darren Lippman considers the similarities between Nazirites and LGBT Jews – two populations who are “set aside” in important ways.
I first read Parashat Naso during my b’nei mitzvah class in early 2002, long before I discovered either my passion for Judaism or my love of writing. It’s no surprise, then, that after reading the extensive recounting of events in the Israelites’ camp surrounding the dedication of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle), my first thought was that this parasha was long and tedious: it begins with a census, continues with purifying the camp, and ends with dedicating the Mishkan, an event featuring identical offerings from each tribe.
Only twelve at the time, these three things seemed unrelated to each other or to me; even more when I looked at the specific cases therein: Husbands suspicious of their wives? Nazirites with holy hair? What did any of it mean to me? The Nazirites and the twelve offerings held my interest, but in the end, all I could think to say in the d’var Torah I gave at my bar mitzvah was that the identical offerings, each coming from a unique tribe, showed that no matter our differences, we are all equal before God.
Studying Parashat Naso at twenty, I see things differently. Now I see a relationship between the parasha’s three main events. Together they form a cohesive cycle beginning with exclusion (women, the disabled, and boys are excluded from the census, and that which is “impure” in the camp is placed outside of its boundaries) and ending in inclusion (each tribe gives an offering). This is a cycle that I’m journeying through now as I come out to my friends and family. I’m sure every GLBT person who comes out faces a similar cycle of exclusion moving toward inclusion. The Nazirite and the twelve offerings, however, are still what hold my interest the most.
First, the Nazirite: by his or her own choosing, the Nazirite enters into a pact with God to remain exceptionally pure during a year-long term. During this time, he or she abstains from wine, grapes, and vinegar, cuts neither hair nor beard, and doesn’t profane him- or herself by attending to corpses. At the completion of his or her term, the Nazirite’s hair is shaved and given as an offering, and the person, the term of the vow being completed, returns to life as usual. (Numbers 6:1-21) The Hebrew word for Nazirite, nazir, comes from the root nun – zayin – reish, which means “to set apart.” The Nazirite takes it upon him- or herself to be set apart from others, and through this, he or she is consecrated before God.
Similarly, we are each set apart as GLBT Jews; we are each in our own way a Nazirite. Unlike those who have chosen to be set apart, however, we are more like Samson from this week’s Haftorah, the famous Nazirite who was chosen by God to be set apart not for a year, but for life. Like him, most of us didn’t choose to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, but were instead given this gift by God.
However, the Nazirite’s vow was almost always temporary and ours is not. We cannot shave our heads and return to “life as usual,” because our lives-as-usual are what set us apart to begin with. However, we need not be set apart forever, nor do we need to be set apart at all. Just as the priests channeled God to bless others (Numbers 6:22) and were blessed themselves (“They shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them,” 6:27), so too can we open our hearts to others and they will open their hearts to us.
This leads me to my second fascination with Naso: the twelve offerings.
At the start of chapter seven, the dedication of the Mishkan begins with all of the Israelites giving a single offering, as a whole, to dedicate the Mishkan, which is then followed by each of the twelve tribes giving their individual, and identical, offerings on twelve consecutive days. For a long time it baffled me why this would be: after all, did they not already give an offering together? Why must their individual offerings all be the same, and why must each of them be given in such excruciating detail?
Repetition is a tool through which writers can draw attention to the importance of what’s being repeated. Each repetition, our Sages tell us, indicates a nuance of meaning. Even with all of that repetition and even with seven years of new experiences behind me, I find the same meaning in this repetition today as I did at my bar mitzvah.
When I looked at the individual tribes not as tribes but as individuals, they each became a different facet of the whole for me — the whole that has already given a collective offering before the Mishkan. Every day, the next chieftain in line offers the same as the last, and each day it is as important as the offering before it. Just the same, if we take a step back and see each chieftain as an individual, the identical material offerings become — much like each of us — the same, but different. Instead of gold and silver, we have our hopes and our dreams; instead of choice flour with oil mixed in, we have our wisdom and experiences; instead of goats and bulls, we have our hands and our hearts. Yes, the words are all the same just as before, but now it’s easy to see that what is behind them is as unique and as important to the whole as the individual tribe is to the whole of the people of Israel.
Naso’s true beauty, far beyond my grasp as a child, is clearer to me as I become an adult. Naso is no longer just a bunch of unrelated numbers and repetitions; now it is a story that we all can relate to, one that begins with our being set apart and ends with our being a part of the whole. However, even if we all started this journey in the same place, it doesn’t mean that we’ve all reached the end at the same time. For those of us who have already attained that wholeness, let’s keep opening our hearts wider and sharing ourselves with others. For those of us still waiting for the day when we may give our offerings at the Mishkan, let us hold tight to the gifts we carry in ourselves and never forget the words still spoken not only to the whole, but to those of us still set apart:
“May the Lord bless you and protect you! May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you! May the Lord bestow his favor upon you and grant you peace!” (Numbers 6:24-26)
Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will.
Here at the Keshet blog, we’re celebrating Mother’s Day with a reminder of how important parental love and support are. So here’s our Mother’s Day gift to you (and your mom(s)): a one minute video by our friends at The Righteous Conversations Project, a project of Remember Us, which brings together Holocaust survivors and teens to speak up about injustice through new media workshops and community engagements. In this short clip, two teens compare notes about their supportive, if slightly overbearing, parents. As these teens remind us, the things that bind families together, like love, concern, and even a little loving parental nagging, are pretty universal.
We know that for many families, Mother’s Day can be a tough time. If you know a mom (or dad) with an LGBTQ child who would like another parent to talk to, let them know about the Keshet Parent & Family Connection, a confidential peer support program for parents and family members of LGBTQ Jews.
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 first 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 Francine Lavin Weaver, a Colorado-based educator and author, and member of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection in Colorado.
This is that time of year where we Jews anticipate, we count the days, we count the Omer, and we count our blessings. The idea of counting each day represents spiritual preparation and anticipation for the giving of the Torah which was given by God on Mount Sinai around the time of Shavuot. We actively count in our prayers each day from Passover to Shavuot – all forty-nine of them.
On another note, wearing my many hats, I am a lifelong Jewish learner, teacher and family educator. I am a daughter, a significant partner, and a mom. I learn so much from my children every day. They teach me about life, and relationships, things that I never knew how to verbalize or incorporate when I was growing up.
A few years ago, my queer adult daughter attempted to explain to me what being queer was.
She said, “Mom, I identify as a woman. But, I have had and will have relationships with all kinds of people. I fall in love with the soul of the person, Mom…that entity that makes that person special. It doesn’t matter to me in what gender the person identifies.”
She then explained that being queer is stepping out of societal norms in regards to gender and sexuality — and even politics. This was definitely a new experience for me. To me, queer was a girl in my homeroom in Junior High who wore white socks — and saddle shoes. They didn’t have child development books about this when I was in college (pursuing my chosen career of special education).
I have always used my children as my barometer. If they were happy, they were learning, and they were healthy, then I was happy. My daughter is a very sensitive, caring young adult. She is a physical therapist in a rehab hospital. She volunteers her time to help older people stay in their own homes. She is a fun-loving, passionate social activist and I love her.
What a conversation we had. What a lesson it was. It was the beginning of many more lessons for me. I began to read books, I took classes, I joined the Keshet Parent & Family Connection in Colorado. The more I learn about LGBTQ issues, the more comfortable and proud I feel.
So, now, I anticipate, count the Omer, and count my many blessings:
My queer daughter is definitely one of them.
Part of the observance of Shavuot, the traditional spring harvest holiday, is the celebration of the bikkurim, the first fruits of the year. In this post, Becky Silverstein honors those “first fruits” of the LGBT movement who have made so much progress possible.
The journey from Passover to Shavout is seven weeks. Counting each night, we count the steps towards revelation and still, suddenly, the time for receiving Torah is here! As I prepare for my own experience of revelation this year, here is what I expect to see at Sinai: I expect to see millions of Jews standing together. I expect to see cultural Jews standing next to Orthodox Jews standing next to our non-Jewish family members and friends. I expect to see families, of all different configurations, huddled together under one tallit or around a picnic blanket. I expect to see cisgender Jews and transgender Jews, Jews with matrilineal lineage and Jews by choice. I expect to see millions of people staring at the heavens, watching the thunder and lightning.
In addition to being the day of revelation at Sinai, Shavuot is also an agricultural celebration that marked the bringing of bikkurim, first fruits, to the Temple. I imagine a time of great joy filled with song and sunlight. I see households celebrating together and praying for a successful continuation of their harvest. Like my view of Sinai, these households come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations.
Despite our reenactment of revelation at Sinai, we are no longer there, nor does the Temple exist today. Where are the places we connect to G-d and to community? They are synagogues and day schools, community centers and summer camps. I see these places just as I envision Sinai and the Temple – rich in diversity of people, of family configuration, of experience. I see children of queer parents celebrating their B’nei Mitzvah. I see LGBTQ people serving as rabbis, educators, and lay leaders. I see teenagers coming out in their youth groups and feeling safe.
In a time where an unprecedented number of civil rights are being granted to the LGBTQ community, it is easy to forget how we got here. In the moment of revelation or offering, it is easy to forget the 49 days of counting since our liberation at Passover. What I see in our communities is the result of hard work. It is the result of our own bikkurim, those who came before us and offered sacrifices on our behalf. They are the result of those who stood at Stonewall and those who insisted that being out was not a disqualifier for participation in Jewish communal life. They are the result of those whose stories I return to in the book Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation and whose stories educators celebrate when they hang posters from Keshet’s LGBT Jewish Heroes series on their classroom walls.
This Shavuot, celebrate the bikkurim of the queer rights movement that we enjoy – celebrate how are communities look now. Then, with one foot in the Temple, ask: “What are the first fruits I am bringing with me? What sacrifices will I make this year to move our communities forward?” And with one foot at Sinai, ask: “How I will I use this Torah to make Jewish communities more inclusive for all its members?” The answers sow the seeds for next year’s harvest.
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, Alex Carter sees the beauty of the delicate ecosystem of the Biblical wilderness – and in the unique queer culture we’re in danger of losing.
This week’s parsha, B’midbar, begins, as many parshiyot begin, with the words, “G-d spoke to Moses…” But this week, it specifies that G-d spoke to Moses “in the wilderness of Sinai…” It continues with a census of the men of military age, and with a description of how the tribes were to be arranged in the camp and for marching through the wilderness. Each tribe was placed in relation to the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which was at the center of the community at all times.
But I want to focus on the very first line – “G-d spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai….”
In everyday speech, we almost never hear the word “wilderness” without it being accompanied by some variant of “lost in…” or “coming in from…” We normally think of it as a desolate place of isolation and loss.
But the Torah narrative gives us a different perspective. The children of Israel were in a wilderness, yes. But it was not a desert. It was not a place of desolation. There was vegetation, shade, and even water, to sustain the people during their travels.
G-d brought the children into the wilderness in order to create a people – unlike their neighbors, unlike any other community that had been seen to that point in human history. G-d spoke to Moses in the wilderness – at the burning bush in the book of Exodus, and throughout the remainder of the Torah.
So we see that wilderness can be a creative, expressive space, where the noise and confusion of “civilization” fades. G-d created a whole people in the wilderness; we, fashioned in the Divine image, can use the wilderness of social exile to think our own thoughts, honor our unique perspectives, and develop our own forms of expression, of worship, of living.
I celebrate the social and legal progress our queer community has made. We deserve to be recognized as equal and valuable members of the human family and the body politic.
But I worry that perhaps the lure of progress – of more acceptance into straight “civilization” – will lull us into assimilation and complacency. And we’ll forget the benefits of being in the wilderness. We are a people unlike our neighbors, unlike any other community that has been seen to this point in human history
Yet the queer community is in danger from the very legal and social progress we may celebrate. I worry that queer culture is yet another unique, delicate ecosystem in danger of destruction by appropriation or assimilation. In Washington, DC, the annual Halloween high-heel “drag” race is covered by local television stations. Formerly queer (read: affordable) neighborhoods are being co-oped and co-opted – bland yuppies with strollers are displacing the rainbow of queer expression. I’m not sure if this is good.
We are far too fabulous to want to be just like everyone else. Just as every tribe was arranged to have a different view of the Mishkan, with each person having a different view of the holy place, so we too should value and explore our community’s unique perspective on the divine, and on human relations.
Let us not forget to honor that creative wild space, and keep creating a unique and vibrant community. Let us keep creating rituals, ways of living, ways of loving. Let us not just rush into to the relative safety – the leeks and onions, if you will – of heteronormative civilization.
Let us not squander the gift of the wilderness. Let us not allow the pull of straight civilization to unravel the fabric of our community. For those of us who may yearn for, and attain, the trappings of middle-class respectability – let us honor and care for those who can never pass, or who don’t want to assimilate. The Jewish community has anguished over the assimilation issue for over a century, and still struggles with it. Let us lead the way here.
The world needs us to remember, honor, and preserve our wilderness. There may be times when we may need to go back there, for a little while, to regroup, to remember our uniqueness, to refresh ourselves at Miriam’s well. And then return to civilization and continue to fight, in our integrity, for our rightful place in creation, in a way that honors our uniqueness even as it affirms our commonality with all humankind.
As I write this, lyrics from the 1960s Zombies hit are running through my head: “Wild thing, you make my heart sing…”
Let us stay in touch with our “wild thing” souls. Let our hearts sing our unique song.
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 Elliot Kukla.
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, and Rabbi Denise Eger.
How has being LGBTQ informed your work as a rabbi?
I work in a team of four rabbis at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, providing spiritual care to those struggling with grieving, illness, or dying, and I also direct the Healing Center’s hospice spiritual care volunteer program. The experience of being a transgender and queer person with a body and life trajectory outside of mainstream expectations is what led me to this work. I don’t consider being queer or trans a form of illness, but for me, being transgender and building a queer family and community has theological implications that also impact the way I respond to illness and aging. If we really embrace the idea that all of our various genders and desires were created in the image of God, we must believe that God wants and needs difference. This means that all bodies as they stretch, sag, shrink, grow, age and heal are divine; and all phases in the life cycle are holy and deserve sacred attention and care.
Not everyone will experience the estrangement from friends, family and religious community that often accompanies coming out as queer or transitioning, but all people, at one time or another, will get sick, will age, will have periods of disability and will experience loss. These experiences are inherently isolating – the world is for the well and when we are sick or bereaved we feel isolated from our families and communities, from media representations of what life is supposed to look like, and from day to day activities. When we come to age and to die our body will no longer fit comfortably into mainstream expectations for “normal” embodiment and we are often responded to with fear. Being queer helps me to access the feelings of isolation that many of my clients are experiencing in hospitals and nursing homes.
What should we, as members of the LGBT Jewish community, be focusing on now?
My answer to this question is framed by my work. We have put a lot of attention in the LGBTQ community towards access to marriage and adoption and other important life cycles that tend to fall in early or mid life, and much less attention has been placed on how we care for each other as we age, or when we are sick and vulnerable. I came out in the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1990 and saw caring for one another as an essential part of what it means to be queer, but memories are short and it is easy to forget how vitally queer people still need to advocate and care for one another in a health care system that is not always on our side. Homophobia and transphobia impacts the health care system enormously and we need good Jewish responses to this so that we are working to protect each other as we age and when we get sick. This means spiritual care resources for LGBTQ Jews who are suffering that addresses some of the spiritual challenges that queer people are likely to face as they age or get sick such as legacy to the next generation, fighting the invisibility of our histories, and finding meaning in self discovery.
We also need to advocate for education for health care and nursing home staff for the particular needs of LGBTQ people in vulnerable situations such as knowing how to ask about and respect chosen family members in end of life decision making, using pronouns of choice for trans people even when aging and illness may change their appearance away from their chosen gender, and protecting the rights of people who can’t or don’t choose to be out in all parts of their life when they are in a hospital or other institution.
Favorite queer Jewish figure?
Well I am a bit biased but I would say my colleagues and friends on TransTorah (an online resource for transgender Jewish resources and information): Rabbi Reuben Zellman, Jhoss Singer, Max Strassfeld, Joy Ladin, Ari Lev Fornari, and Micah Bazant. Check out all of their great writing, music, and art on the site!
What’s next for you? A project, a sermon — what are you working on that’s queer and Jewish?
A prayerbook for healing called “Mishkan Refuah: Where Healing Resides” was just published by the CCAR press and it includes some awesome prayers for stigmatized experiences of illness and suffering that many LGBTQ people can relate to including prayers for mental illness, male infertility, and gender confirming surgeries. I am excited to start working with these prayers with my clients. You can order your own copy for only 6 bucks through the CCAR press.
The Bay Area Jewish Healing Center’s annual bereavement camp, Grief and Growing, is coming up August 15. We welcome individuals and families of all genders and orientations who are grieving the loss of a person. All types of families and grief are respected and people often come from across the country to be with us at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa. Every winter we offer a training for people who want to be spiritual care partners to dying people called Kol Haneshama that is a wonderful opportunity to learn about caring and spirituality in a truly diverse group. You can find more information on either of these programs at the Jewish Healing Center’s website.
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, Marisa James considers what the sabbatical laws can teach us about the necessity of advocating for the powerless.
The teachings in this week’s paired parshiyot, Behar and Behukotai, are meant to prevent us from becoming greedy. At the beginning of Behar, literally “in the mountain” at Sinai, the first thing God tells Moses is “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord.” (Leviticus 25:2-4)
Why do we give the earth a shabbat every seventh year? The lifespan of the earth is much longer than ours, so maybe every seven years is enough! But we must give the earth a rest, and acknowledge that it does not belong to us. We are meant to be equal partners with the earth, and treat it with the same kindness we hope it will show us.
Later in the chapter, we come to the rules for the Jubilee year, which is to occur every 50th year, when “each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.” (25:10) This Jubilee year works in two ways: first, every person returns to the land that they lived on 50 years before, so that no individual gains all of the communal property and no individual is bereft. Secondly, this ensures that anyone who has fallen on hard times gets a fresh start, and if they have become indentured servants or slaves, “then he and his children with him shall be free of your authority; he shall go back to his family and return to his ancestral holding.” (25:41)
Giving both people and land a fresh start is imperative and ensures that we are all refreshed and protected, and able to move forward after our rest. We are not the owners of the land, but the protectors. In turn, we expect the land to shelter and protect us. We do not belong to the people who we work for; our employers are supposed to ensure that our pay and benefits give us access to a comfortable life.
In both the case of the earth and the former slaves, we are being asked to ensure that each gets the rest and relief each deserves. When we are individually commanded to keep Shabbat, each of us is expected to keep it for ourselves; but in these longer cycles of relief, we are being told to ensure that the earth and the disenfranchised get a Shabbat of rest. This goes beyond being a personal commandment; each of us may or may not rest on the seventh day, but everyone is obligated to protect the rights of those without freedom.
Now, many of us garden organically, buy local produce, compost and recycle. Many of us march for the rights of immigrants and domestic workers, campaign for universal health insurance and increased anti-discrimination employment policies — aren’t we fulfilling our obligation? Shouldn’t we, who follow these laws and work to care for our planet and its people, be individually rewarded?
After Behar’s description of these new cycles of shabbatot, Behukotai reinforces what the consequences will be, depending on whether we fail or succeed, in looking out for the rights of others.
The final parasha of Vayikra (Leviticus) begins with “Im behukotai teileichu v’et mitzotai tishm’ru va’asitem otam/If you will go by my laws, and if you will observe my commandments, and you will do them.” (26:3) As the book of Leviticus comes to an end, after we have been commanded to follow hundreds of laws, this final chapter begins with the word “if.” Not everyone will respect the earth and other people enough to ensure that all get their shabbat rest. In their greed, they genetically alter crops to produce more food, spray toxic weed and insect killers on their fields, and do their best to avoid giving their domestic workers the benefits they enjoy themselves.
Individually, many of us do the right thing — the movements for workers’ rights and environmental protection have gained momentum in the past few years. But we will only know the benefits of respecting all forms of life if all of us work together to repair our world. This doesn’t just mean standing up for our families, our friends and ourselves. This means standing up for the rights of all living things, especially the ones whose voices are the most difficult to hear. It is not just our responsibility to listen to what is widely reported, it is necessary that we listen for the voices that are suppressed, and be aware of how we treat those with no voice at all.
The beginning of our reward is the increasing number of people who are standing up for the rights of others who are not like them. More straight people are working towards equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folks. More city-dwellers are heading to farmers’ markets for organic produce. More parents are choosing not to subject their intersexed children to surgery. More people are using public transportation and finding earth-friendly ways to power their homes. More corporations are competing with each other to appear on lists proclaiming their commitment to diversity and workers’ rights. This is the beginning of our reward — and as we help this momentum to grow, the beautiful, healthy, peaceful earth and society God promises us will certainly follow.
Creating inclusive Jewish spaces is a great goal — but how do you do it? While the answer is likely different for every synagogue, school, and youth group, it’s helpful and encouraging to hear about others’ successes, triumphs, and their lessons learned. So we’re running this regular column, called “The Tachlis of Inclusion,” to spotlight practices and policies that have worked for Jewish institutions all over the country. We hope they inspire you.
Rabbi Amy Morrison first caught our attention when we heard that when she was a rabbinical student, she refused to take on any internship where she could not address LGBT issues. When we learned that Morrison works at Temple Beth Sholom in Miami, a city famous for both LGBT and Jewish life in a state not known for inclusive laws, we were eager to catch up with her about how she, and Beth Sholom, create a welcoming environment.
To what extent has being openly out affected your rabbinate? Any memorable responses from congregants or colleagues?
For as long as I can remember I have been on a journey to be true to myself. As a nurturer, a listener, a healer, a connector, and a spiritual seeker, being a rabbi allows me a chance to do all the things I love to do and be the kind of person I want to be. And in order to that with integrity I needed to be clear about being gay. At Temple Beth Sholom I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people who support me; and I have found that being open and honest attract the same.
We heard that prior to your ordination, you wouldn’t take any internship that forbade you to do work on LGBT inclusion, so clearly, this is a priority for you. So what successes – programs, classes, policies – in this area characterize your work at Beth Sholom?
Temple Beth Sholom and its leadership are always looking for ways to bring all types of Jews together under their roof and their success can be seen when you walk through the hallways. As the only out lesbian rabbi in South Florida and someone who does not cater to an exclusively gay constituency, Temple Beth Sholom is certainly making a statement. Once I joined the clergy I wanted to make sure that every pride event had a strong Jewish presence. In addition, I launched an interfaith LGBT group.
Beth Sholom will perform same-sex weddings, but marriage equality is not legal in Florida. In fact, Florida has often been held up as an example of a state with fairly homophobic legislation. Does that affect your work? Alternately, does Miami’s reputation as a city with a lot of Jews and a lot of LGBT people affect your work?
Without a doubt I am lucky to be in Miami and I worked hard to be here doing the work that I do. But by no means am I immune to gay-bashing, or anti-Semitism, for that matter. Though I am surrounded by warm and loving people, I am not living in a gay, Jewish bubble. I become most aware of the challenges in Miami when a teen sets up a meeting to talk to me about being gay or gay issues they are having at school – even the ones that are not gay. Some feel comfortable talking about gay issues or speaking out against xenophobic activity because they have had a chance to spend time with me and get to know how to deal with them.
What is one program, lesson plan, event, class, training, etc. that focused on or promoted LGBT inclusion that you would recommend to other synagogues, and why?
At Temple Beth Sholom we try not to focus on programs as much as on relationships. Statistics show that more people support same-sex marriage and other gay rights issues because someone they know is gay. Making sure that every community operates like an open tent, with safe spaces for each member to be true to who they are is key. The handicapped Jew, Jew of color, Jew by choice, and gay Jew should all always feel welcome and accepted.
Any advice for an LGBTQ rabbinical student?
Not everyone will be as lucky as I was, but my advice to rabbinical students would be don’t ever give up on your search to be true to who you are. When you are able to truly love and accept yourself, you will inspire the same in others. And they will thank 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, Rabbi Joshua Lesser considers the discriminating qualifications for the priesthood, and what they mean for the LGBT and disabled communities.
An Israeli friend of mine had a provocative part-time job as a “selector” for TLV, a gay nightclub in Tel Aviv. He would point to people waiting behind the velvet rope and grant them access to the club. Friends were shown a certain favoritism; however, much like the selection of the Cohanim in Parashat Emor, those with “defects” were often prohibited from offering up their gifts to the dance floor gods. In Leviticus 21, the Torah specifies quite a long list of physical disabilities and ailments that would disqualify people from serving as priests. Long acknowledged as one of the more painful parts of the Torah, it elevates the perfect male body as one that is best to ritually serve God. Before the Hellenistic model of male beauty, there was Leviticus and the Temple cult.
As a regular attendee of the temple we call “the gym,” it is abundantly clear to me that the idealization of the aesthetic male form as godly is something that restricts us all, particularly gay men, even though gay men — to their own personal detriment — are often the most avid supporters of this kind of body worship.
Clearly, as human beings who age and whose bodies change over time, such an emphasis on embodied perfection inspires dread in all of us and has the potential to make us fear or ignore people who remind us of the truth of our imperfect bodies. In leading diversity workshops, people tend to point out similarities between the oppression of GLBT and disabled folks. For instance, they notice that in both communities there is a preponderance of people who are different from their families of origin, leaving both GLBT and disabled people at risk of having family members reject them or discriminate against them. Nor are their families able to equip them to engage in the so called “normative” world. There are many other similarities between the forces of heterosexism and ableism that create barriers for societal participation. Despite these issues and other legitimate comparisons, I have found that both GLBT and disabled people often shun the similarities.
While my colleague at the Interfaith Disabilities Network often addresses the homophobia in the disabled community, it is more appropriate for me to speak about the ableism in my own community. When I first began doing diversity work, I too was uncomfortable with the comparison. Like other gay men, the comparison made me cringe because of my own body issues and my self perception that I was failing to live the gay ideal. I also said things like “being queer is an asset, not a liability,” to avoid having my sexual orientation be seen as a defect. I was missing a valuable point: whether or not I saw it as a disability, it is how others often perceive sexual orientation — as something lacking. Moreover, it reveals how I once saw people with disabilities — also as people with something lacking, instead of understanding that our society was deficient in its inability to adapt to the fullest range of human bodies and minds.
When recognizing that it is society’s understanding that is what needs to change, it creates a clearer pathway for us to find each other as allies. Who better to understand each other in dealing with our parents’ (initial) disappointment when they discover their child is not who they had imagined? When we look at how some disabled people’s civil rights around marriage and adoption are limited in ways similar to gays and lesbians, who better to create solidarity? When looking at the history of persecution, particularly during the Nazi regime, we see that the same arguments, false logic and practices were used to target both communities. Both communities have had to redefine what sex means despite the larger community’s grave discomfort with thoughts of either group actually having sex. But it is my belief that everyone ultimately benefits from this conversation, especially if we listen. Furthermore, both communities are saying accept us as we are. We are created in God’s image as much as the perfect-bodied Cohanim and have lessons to teach the world.
A few years ago, I was helping a child prepare for his bar mitzvah, which was on Shabbat Emor. As we were reading together the text from Vayikra/Leviticus, we came across the difficult part of the portion. As he read: “Adonai spoke further to Moses: …No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God,” (Lev. 21:16-17) he looked at me said, “I wouldn’t have been able to be a Cohen back then, would I?” Asking why he felt this way, he responded, “Well, I have dyslexia pretty badly. That’s a defect, right?”
This became the question we wrestled with for the rest of our preparation. He wanted to address this injustice, but another question emerged, perhaps even more challenging than the others. I asked him to think about how I view my queer identity, with all of its challenge and pain, as an asset: “What, if any, benefits come with having dyslexia?”
He looked puzzled at first and then he smiled. In his d’var Torah he ultimately spoke of how his dyslexia taught him to be more patient with others and a more compassionate person. This in turn made him a better brother, son, and friend. Just as importantly, he defied Levitcus’ narrow recognition of perfection and saw himself just as deserving to be in part of God’s worship. For me, this is what we have in store when queers and disabled people are able to come together — more of God’s perfection is revealed to a society whose ability to recognize it, is limited.
According to Jewish Law it is the practice to refrain from getting married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer (Shulchan Aruch 493:1). It is recorded that this practice serves as a memorial for the students of Rabbi Akiva who perished during this period of time. Their deaths came to an end (or at least a break) on Lag B’Omer. But, why did the students of Rabbi Akiva die? And why would we mourn their death by refraining from getting married?
Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot.” (Yevamot 62b)
It seems strange that Rabbi Akiva’s students died because they did “not treat each other with respect.” Rabbi Akiva taught that “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is the great underlying principle in the entire Torah. (Torat Kehonim 4:12 and Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4) It would be surprising that even just one student of this great tanna of the middle of the 2nd century did not learn such a basic lesson. What is the additional significance of the quantity of students who died?
It might be helpful to learn some more about who Rabbi Akiva was as a teacher. Despite his humble beginnings as a shepherd, Rabbi Akiva became a tremendous scholar. And while he had a tremendous effect on Jewish life, he was not without flaws. We learn in the Gemara that during the 24 years in which he accumulated these 24,000 students he did not see his wife once (Ketubot 62b-63a). There is no doubt that Rabbi Akiva loved his wife Rachel dearly. He gave his wife credit for all of the Torah they learned during his time away from her. And here is the issue. When his students first met his wife, he told them explicitly that they were all indebted to her. While living apart from his wife for all of those years, Rabbi Akiva did not show his students the daily habits of respect. How were his students to learn how to treat each other with respect if Rabbi Akiva did not model this for them? This is reminiscent of the adage, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.” On Lag B’Omer we should take a moment and try to learn the lesson that evaded Rabbi Akiva’s students. How should treat each other with respect? It is clearly not enough to just talk about it. If we want to teach respect we need to model it.
Lately there has been a lot of conversation as to what is a legal marriage. Many hide their homophobia and bigotry behind traditional heteronormative assumptions of marriage of their own religious establishment. While it does not seem too respectful, in principle everyone has the right to marginalize someone who does not live by their religious standards. But in a country that claims a division between church and state this religious perspective must be limited to those who chose to live within that particular context and should have no bearings on U.S. law. It is for the very reason that marriage is a sacrament that the state should not get involved in limiting these rights to heterosexual couples. It is not despite the fact that I am an Orthodox Rabbi, but because of this fact that I think the government should allow same-sex marriage.
How are we any different from the students of Rabbi Akiva? How can we in the religious establishment hope to teach people about respect when we do not model it ourselves? Looking no further than the staggering rate of divorce in this country it is clear that traditional heteronormative marriage is not all it’s cracked up to be. And we the bearers of the religious establishment do not embody divine traits in working to bar two consensual adults who love each other from enjoying the civil rights of a heterosexual couple. Not modeling basic human respect seems to be a true abomination.
As religious people, we should welcome this “challenge” of same-sex marriage as an opportunity to define marital commitment in the 21st century. It seems that we are getting lost in the form of a wedding and completely missing the conversation on the content of a marriage. Who will guide the conversation about commitment? It is laughable to outsource the definition of a marriage to the state. Are we going to leave the conversation of commitment in the hands of politicians? We, the leadership of the religious establishment, want to be the ones crafting the conversation on what makes a life-long commitment work. And in the end we have to realize that we cannot just preach respect from our pulpits. It is not enough just to talk about, or even just to show respect; we need to find new ways to involve each other in building respectful communities. So soon, with Lag B’Omer behind us, we can all get married.
I’ve never been one to have high expectations. I tend to take situations as they come and to be spontaneous in my decision making. That being said, I didn’t have any idea what I was in for as I stepped out of van and onto the cold snowy ground of the Isabella Friedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut this January.
Maybe I was subconsciously hoping the sky would be teeming with a myriad of rainbows, the clouds would part, and beautiful, teenage, gay women would fall from the sky, dancing to the hora and studying Torah.
Well, that didn’t happen. However, the weekend Keshet had in store for me and other LGBTQ Jewish youth at the second LGBTQ Jewish Teens and Allies Shabbaton was equally as magical.
As a sixteen-year-old Jewish lesbian who attends a private Jewish high school, I had never been surrounded by peers I could relate to. I had never met another Jewish queer, and often struggled to balance my religion with my “identity.” In fact, identity was a concept I had never fully grasped. Is identity something pre-determined and constant, like fingerprints? Is it a sense of self, altering as we grow and become more self-aware?
I did not expect three days and a small group of Jewish queers and allies to help me answer such difficult questions I had pondered all my life.
Our three-day long journey was filled with numerous moments that allowed these answers to unfold before my eyes. Perhaps it was the way that the other teens welcomed me with open arms, even though it was my first time at a Keshet event. I instantly felt connected to these people from day one. Although we each had our own backgrounds, hobbies, and personalities, we were all Jewish and queer, and that was enough to build relationships. Maybe it was the way the spirit of Shabbat filled the entire retreat center when everyone joyfully raised their voice to exclaim: “the birds in the trees are singing the song of Shabbat! The snowflakes on the ground are singing the songs of Shabbat… the queers in the shul are singing the songs of Shabbat!”
I began to answer my own personal questions during the Friday night story-telling program. Each person went around and spoke about what brought them to attend Keshet’s Shabbaton. Attempting to collect my thoughts, many answers ran through my mind. Yes, I was there because I wanted to make friends and to entertain myself over the holiday vacation. However, as a newfound friend finished speaking, I found myself sharing an interesting truth that I was unaware of until that moment. I had always had a safe space to be Jewish: with my school, my youth group (BBYO), and my Jewish friends. I often had a safe space to be a lesbian: with my family and my few queer friends. I knew how to be Jewish, and I knew how to be queer, yet I had never known how to be a Jewish queer, nor have I ever had a safe space to do so.
This realization has since allowed me to value the great gift Keshet has given to me: the space and ability to be all components of whom I am as well as a place where my religion and sexual orientation can coincide. Returning from the Shabbaton, I have discovered a greater sense of confidence and the ability to share what it means to be a Jewish queer with those who were not fortunate enough to attend such a spectacular weekend. My voice matters. As a young Jewish lesbian, Keshet has given me the tools and experiences essential to promoting social justice within my own religious community at home.
You can find other posts by LGBTQ Jewish teens and allies here, on such topics as coming out in an Orthodox day school, deciding to go “stealth” as a young trans person, being a professional ally to LGBTQ youth, and more.
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 Steve Greenberg deciphers deeper meaning in what appear to be the Levitical prohibitions of homosexuality.
The paired Torah portions of Aharei Mot and Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27) are, in gay Jewish terms, the “scene of the crime.” In these two portions are the two verses that are traditionally understood to excoriate gay male sex. In 1969 they were, as well, my bar mitzvah portion. At the age of 13 I had no idea that this double parasha would come to mean so much to me. By the time Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 came to have their full caustic power on my life, I was a closeted Orthodox rabbi living in Riverdale, New York, and involved in my first gay relationship. The high wire anxiety of this time led me to a showdown of sorts. I needed to make some sense of my life in light of these verses in order to continue in good faith, not only as an Orthodox rabbi, but as a committed Jew.
I spent roughly the next ten years working on the emotional, intellectual, legal and spiritual ramifications of these two verses. My efforts eventually became a book released in 2004 and entitled, Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition.
The task was especially difficult because there is little controversy in the rabbinic tradition on the meaning of Leviticus 18:22. While it is translated in various ways, the basic meaning has always seemed pretty clear: “And with a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman, it is an abomination.” The only difficult phrase is mishkeve isha (usually parsed as “the lyings of a woman”), because the phrase appears nowhere else in the Bible. A similar phrase, the lying of a male (mishkav zachar), appears in Numbers 31:18 and is understood to mean what women experience in intercourse, i.e. penile penetration. Consequently, mishkeve isha is what men experience in intercourse, that is, penile engulfment. If so, then the verse prohibits a man from lying with a male in such a way that his penis is engulfed in the other man’s body. And where is a man penetrable? Here the rabbis make use of the fact that the word lyings is in the plural form. The lyings of a woman are plural because she may be penetrated vaginally or anally. A man, missing the vagina, is singly penetrable anally. Consequently, for millennia the tradition understood that Leviticus 18:22 prohibited anal intercourse between men and Leviticus 20:13 reiterated and punished the crime with death by stoning.
By far the most intriguing element of the puzzle is the fact that lesbian relations are totally unaddressed in the Torah. The only explanation of this lacuna is that the Torah is utterly uninterested in “homosexuality” per se. The sameness of the sex (homo = same) that so dominates contemporary thought in regard to homosexuality is missing here. Instead, there is something about anal sex between men that is at the center of the biblical concern. Of course the obvious question is just this: Why does the Torah consider anal sex between men to be such a problem?
In his Torah Queeries essay of last week, Jay Michaelson suggests that the prohibitions described in this section of the Torah are about cultic purity and forbidding maasei mitzrayim, acts of Egypt – actions that are taboo for Israelites. According to Michaelson, sex between men is a ritual prohibition like eating pork or shrimp, which in a contemporary context pretty much fails to impress any but the most traditional of Jews. However attractive this approach might seem to some, in my view it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The transgressions enumerated in chapter 18 of Leviticus were indeed understood not only to be common among Egyptians, but to be the epitome of wickedness. As Jacob Milgrom in his work on Leviticus powerfully demonstrates, immorality is cultic impurity. The punishment for both ritual and moral violations of the sacred order – whether contamination of the Temple by contact with the dead, or the oppression of the orphan and widow – is exile from the land. Sexual violations are defiling in chapter 18 not merely because they improperly mix fluids, but because they are deemed to be immoral.
So then, what sort of moral argument can be made for the prohibition of sex between men?
One of the best avenues for understanding the meaning of any law is an exploration of the stories that provide the law with narrative contexts. There are a number of rabbinic readings that discover homosexual relations in the book of Genesis where one would not necessarily expect to find them. For example, Noah’s son Ham does not merely see his father naked and drunk in his tent, but either castrates or anally rapes his father. Rape of the father (or the father’s wife, as happens later in Israel’s monarchic history) is a violence short of patricide that could propel a son into the father’s role.
Of course, the most overt biblical narrative depicting male-male sexual relations is the story of the destruction of Sodom. Surprisingly, neither the later prophets who use Sodom as a symbol of evil nor the rabbis of the Talmud portray Sodom as a den of sexual iniquity. The city is singled out instead for cruelty, for the refusal to care for the poor, for inhumanity to strangers, inhospitality and violence. Sodom was no more about sexual license than were the humiliations of the prisoners of Abu Ghraib in our own time. The aim of the people of Sodom, according to the rabbis, was humiliation as punishment or sport, but not sexual fulfillment. Read in this way, the verse in Leviticus 18 might well be prohibiting sex as an expression of power and humiliation while leaving sex between committed and loving partners permitted.
Moreover, this understanding of the verse actually fits the chapter well. The chapter is dominated by rules against incest, the violation of which makes the family a dangerous place. Incest is essentially experienced by its victims as a form of violence and abuse made utterly invisible to the outside world. Adultery violates stated commitments, and in pre-modern contexts typically led to violence. Intercourse with a menstruant woman has the look of violence, and the child sacrificial rituals of Molech were pure violence.
Understood in this light, the verse in Leviticus 18 might reasonably be prohibiting the use of penetrative sex as a tool of humiliation and domination while leaving open the acceptance of a committed loving relationship between two men. And this may be why there is no direct biblical prohibition of lesbian relations in the Torah. Women are simply not capable of penetrative aggression. My proposed, albeit radical, interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 is then: “And a male you shall not sexually penetrate to humiliate; it is abhorrent.”
However, this interpretation of the prohibition poses a problem. If the text is condemning power-driven, humiliating or violent sex then it should surely only punish the penetrating partner of such a dyad. The verse in Chapter 18 works well with this reading since it only prohibits the activity of the penetrating partner and says nothing about the penetrated partner. But Leviticus 20:13 holds both parties liable. “If a man lies with a male the lyings of a woman, the two of them have done an abomination, they shall be put to death — their bloodguilt is upon them.” If in prison, for example, the strong and aggressive men take advantage of the weaker of their fellows and enforce sustained relationships of individual or gang rape, how is the victim to be blamed?
Remarkably, it is the Talmud itself that asks this question. The rabbis read chapter 18 as the warning and chapter 20 as the punishment. So why, they ask, are both parties punished but only the penetrative party warned? The answer according Rabbi Ishmael is found in the verse: “There shall not be a kadesh among the children of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 23:18) There is considerable debate among biblical scholars as to what a a kadesh is. Among the more common interpretations is that the male kadesh and the female kedesha served as prostitutes in pagan temple rituals. According to Rabbi Ishmael, the kadesh is the receptive male who has sex with other males as a part of a pagan rite. Consequently, there are actually two separate prohibitions in regard to male-male sex, one prohibiting aggressive violent power-driven penetrative intercourse and another prohibiting a pagan sexual practice of temple prostitution.
What is left open and unlegislated by these verses then are the sort of sexual relations that occur without violence or humiliation and are not associated with the dramaturgy of pagan rites but are marked instead by intimacy and love, care and commitment … in other words, holiness.
One day each year, students across the country pledge to take some form of silence.
In the hallways, in the cafeteria, they silence themselves in order to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment. Below are some resources to help your school, youth group, or Hebrew school class participate in this national Day of Silence.
GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, has a series of good videos on what the Day of Silence means and why it’s so important to LGBTQ teens and their allies alike. You can also find an a great assortment of resources for bringing the Day of Silence to your community.
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, Jay Stanton New considers how LGBTQ Jews, like the ancient Israelites, must overcome their fears of being few in number.
In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, God commands Moses to send twelve scouts to the land of Canaan on a reconnaissance mission. They are charged with the task of assessing the land and reporting back to Moses and the community about the resources of the land and the people who inhabit it. Giving their report after returning from their mission, they state that the land is filled with milk and honey, but the people who inhabit it are large and numerous. Caleb, one of the scouts, assures the people that, despite the difficulties, the Israelites will be able to conquer the land. Ten other scouts make a comment, which I will share below, about how small they are, while asserting the unwise nature of Caleb’s conclusion. Hearing fear in the voices of these eye-witnesses, the Israelite community exclaims the wish that they had died in Egypt. Upon hearing the Israelite’s comment, Caleb and Joshua (another of the scouts) rend their clothes in a passionate gesture of mourning, and implore the Israelites not to rebel against Moses and God. In response, God threatens to wipe out the Israelites. Moses pleads with God on behalf of the Israelite people, and G-d agrees to stay his hand. Instead of this immediate retribution, G-d decrees that all the adults of this faithless generation die out in the wilderness so that a new generation, one more like Joshua and Caleb (who were excepted from God’s decree), could advance to the Promised Land.
We saw the Nephilim there – the Anakites are part of the Nephilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them. (Num. 13:33, JPS)
These words offer a snapshot into human nature. When hearing that a task is difficult, how often do we respond to a challenge by convincing ourselves we are inadequate to the task ahead? This portion plays on universal tendencies to underestimate ourselves and let our worries overtake our reason. It is all too easy to see the courage of Caleb, and yet to identify with the concerns of the ten scouts.
We, as people, as Jews, and as members of the LGBTIGQQ community, are often afraid. We have good reason to be; in life, there are many threats. As queers and especially as Jewish queers, we know that some people wish to do us harm. This is the fear expressed in the scouts’ comment about being grasshoppers. How can we, such a small group of people, ever face a group of people bigger in size and numbers than we are? How can we have Caleb’s courage to go forward, despite the odds? The task of overtaking the land of Canaan, a sure thing that God promised the Israelites, suddenly becomes impossible when the scouts take a look at the people who inhabit the land. They, like many of us, fear failure. But more than fearing failure on their own part, they fear failure because of a lack of signs from God.
Clearly, given the circumstances, some sort of ot (sign) would have been appreciated. A sign, any sign, would have been reassuring. However, none was given. That does not mean that God wasn’t with the Israelites. We learn that “K’vodo malei olam,” God’s glory fills the entire world. We shouldn’t need a sign – God’s presence fills creation – and in this case, God’s word speaks for itself. But sometimes we feel we are alone without a sign. A sign to signify what jobs we should take, when to come out, or even what college major we should choose, would help us get through life’s challenges. Of course, we wouldn’t grow as much.
The ten scouts also perceived themselves as small. They saw themselves as grasshoppers compared to the people of the land. This perception is reasonable. How can we argue with the way one sees oneself in comparison to others? When I first came to the University of Chicago, I thought myself inferior to other students because they had read more of the classics, and they knew what words like “epistemology” meant, before entering college. I knew I had some catching up to do, and I feared I would be unequal to the task. However, in the classroom setting, I realized that more important than what you have been taught is how you think (you can always read a little extra). The situation with the scouts is similar: they perceive themselves to be less than those who inhabit the land because those who inhabit the land are more sure of themselves in the land; they have more experience being there.
The ten scouts perceived themselves as grasshoppers in comparison to the huge Anakites. We do not need to dispute this claim. Maybe the scouts were scrawny in comparison to the Anakites. If not in “reality,” it’s certainly how they imagined themselves. If they were smaller, and even if they simply imagined themselves to be smaller, they had reason to fear. However, the next step in their logic is problematic.
The scouts go on to say that they “must have looked” like grasshoppers to the Anakites. This step in their logic seems based solely on projection – the kind of imagination that produces monsters under the bed. As humans, we are not blessed with the ability to read minds. We can anticipate, after much practice, the actions of people we know, but we cannot know exactly what is going through their heads. All the more so, we cannot know what goes through the heads of people with whom we have never interacted.
Presumptuous and counterproductive, assuming the thoughts of another is rarely fruitful. Instead, it tends to reduce the imaginer to a childlike state. Lawrence Kushner, in the book Five Cities of Refuge, recounts a teaching of the Kotzker Rebbe:
Menahem Mendl Morgenstern of Kotzk says that it’s all right to say you feel like a grasshopper in your own eyes–that means you’re alert–but when you start guessing what you look like to someone else, you’ve given them permission to define you, so you’re still a child. For this reason, Caleb, who refuses to let anyone else define him, is a man and, along with Joshua, was one of only two men of the wilderness generation to live to enter the Promised Land.
The ten scouts are nervous, letting others define them; they have not yet trusted their own definitions for themselves. Caleb, in contrast, is strong and independent, letting no one else define him. Repeatedly asserting his stance on the subject at hand, he refuses to pass as someone he’s not.
If as a people, LGBTIGQQ Jews were to take Caleb’s actions to heart, we would follow his example of strength and independence. Stepping up to the challenges of our times, as queer Jews, allows us to grow as a people, especially if we employ hopeful imaginings or strength and pride rather than frightening projections of powerlessness. And then, like Caleb, (no matter the gender with which we identify) we will be menschen.
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, Jay Michaelson looks at the Levitical prohibitions around purity – including the ones related to homosexuality – and finds that ethics and morality have nothing to do with them.
For gay and lesbian Jews, parshat Acharei Mot contains some of the most infamous passages of the Torah, but the preceding two, Tazria and Metzora (usually read together as a “double portion”) contain some of the most obscure. In these portions, we learn about the laws of leprosy (actually tzaraat, a skin disease similar to it but different in various ways), seminal emissions, and menstruation; here we are told the detailed method of sin-offerings and wave-offerings, and the methods of purity and contamination. Few people spend much time poring over the vivid anatomical and biological details of Tazria-Metzora. And yet, how can we understand the meaning of the Levitical sexual prohibitions without a sense of their immediate context?
In fact, while today one hears all sorts of expedient pseudo-rationales for why “homosexuality” is prohibited in Leviticus 18, a review of the preceding eight chapters reveals an agenda entirely different from those usually proffered in our times.
The extended sugya (topical section) to which Tazria and Metzora belong begins in the previous parsha, Shemini, which describes how the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, brought “strange fire” (eish zarah, which can also be translated as “foreign fire”) into the tabernacle, and were destroyed. The Hebrew text, in the first verses of Leviticus 10, is actually a bit ambiguous as to what happens; it’s not clear whether God sends out a fire to destroy the young priests, or whether they are consumed by their own creation. But the response is clear: a “team meeting” between Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s remaining sons, in which new rules are set forth for regulating priestly behavior and maintaining the purity of the Israelite nation. In the context of what archeologists tell us regarding the cultic practices of ancient Canaan, which were varied, syncretic, and often ecstatic in nature, Leviticus 10:9-11 is perhaps most important. There, God says directly to Aaron:
Do not drink wine or strong drink, you and your sons, when you come into the tabernacle, so you don’t die. This will be an eternal law for your generations, so you can discern between holy and secular, and between impure and pure, and so you can teach the children of Israel the laws that God speaks to them through Moses.
This is both a clear retort to Nadav and Avihu, who invented their own ritual and mixed authorized and unauthorized sacrificial practice, and a prelude of what is to come for the next three parshiot. Israelite priestly worship is not to be an ecstatic bacchanal, in which distinctions are erased and the god(s) known in wild abandon. It is to be precise, mindful of distinctions, and separated from anything “unclean” or foreign. After those admonitions follow eight chapters of laws regarding exactly those topics: clean and unclean, pure and impure, permitted and forbidden. Chapter 11 spends 47 verses on which animals may be eaten and which are “abominations” (here the Hebrew word is sheketz, whose exact meaning, like that of Leviticus 18’s toevah, is unknown), before repeating the injunction “to discern between impure and pure.” Chapter 12, the first of Parshat Tazria, describes the laws of separation of the “impure” mother following childbirth; chapter 13, the specific diagnosis for tzaraat (59 verses) and chapter 14 (the beginning of parshat Metzora), its spiritual-physical remedy, which involves quarantine (i.e., separation to contain the contaminating agent) and special offerings and whose 57 verses are closed again by the injunction “to teach when something is impure, and when it is pure.” Finally, and ending parshat Metzora, 57 more verses, this time of chapter 15, describing how seminal and menstrual emissions render a person tameh (“impure”), and how tahara (“purity”) is to be regained after them. The parsha concludes, “thus shall you separate the children of Israel from their impurity, and they shall not die from it by defiling my tabernacle which is among them.”
Hopefully the general theme here is clear. This part of the Torah is not about what is “natural,” nor what is moral, nor what is ethical or unethical – but what is pure and what contaminates, what is proper for Israelites, and what is to be left to other nations. Indeed, Leviticus 18 itself is quite clear on this point. After reciting the prohibitions on incest, male homosexual behavior, bestiality, and sex with a menstruating woman – all of which seem to be equivalent in gravity – an explicit rationale is provided: “Do not impurify yourself with all these things, because with all these things the goyim, who I am sending away before you, impurified themselves, and impurified the land.” (“Impurified” is a bit clumsy, but it is meant to translate titamu, the same word as tameh; words like “defiled” fail to make the connection.)
It’s rare that the Torah provides such clear reasons for the commandments — and yet, how often are these reasons attended to today? This text is about ancient cultic purity, and the prohibition of foreign actions and mixtures which contaminated it. Not “homosexuality,” not the family, not nature, not morality. After all, what do menstruation, vultures, leprosy, and male anal sex have in common? Ethics? Hardly.
Let’s also notice how much more weight is given today to one verse in Leviticus 18 than the 47 verses of chapter 11, 59 of chapter 12, and 57 of chapter 15. Both religious bigots and anti-religious activists sometimes act as if the Bible is all about homosexuality, but a lot more of it is about leprosy. Presumably such subjects don’t suit anyone’s political or religious agenda – skin diseases don’t play a significant role in most contemporary spirituality, and menstruation is rarely a hot-button political issue – but it’s what’s in the text.
Sexual practices are forbidden not because of the convenient rationales one often hears today, but because they are maasei mitzrayim, acts of Egypt, and thus taboo for Israelites, who are exhorted to live a life circumscribed by distinctions. The prohibitions are part of Leviticus’s “Holiness Code,” which is chiefly about maintaining cultic and ritual purity – not ethics, not family, and not “nature.” Of course, we know from the archeological record that Israelite life was never so neat – the whole reason these practices were forbidden is that people were doing them, expressing their religiosity in unorthodox, hybrid, and “foreign” ways that were abhorrent to the priestly elite in Jerusalem. But as far as the text is concerned, the bumper stickers are right: God hates fags only as much as God hates shrimp.
If this world of purity and danger seems distant from our own, well, perhaps it is. Perhaps the Biblical obsessions with cleanliness and separation from other nations do not speak to us as they did to their original audience; that is a subject for a different conversation. But as far as the text is concerned, the meaning is clear. As Tazria, Metzora, and Acharei Mot all explicitly state, Levitical rules are about cultic purity. I wonder, though, why doesn’t the Religious Right also preach about separation from the unclean nations, or vultures, or menstruation?
Creating inclusive Jewish spaces is a great goal — but how do you do it? While the answer is likely different for every synagogue, school, and youth group, it’s helpful and encouraging to hear about others’ successes, triumphs, and their lessons learned. So we’re running this regular column, called “The Tachlis of Inclusion,” to spotlight practices and policies that have worked for Jewish institutions all over the country.
We spoke with Rabbi Jill Borodin of Congregation Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Seattle, WA, to find out how this congregation has evolved on the issue of LGBT inclusion, to become a place where the rabbi performs same-sex marriages and speaks publicly in support of marriage equality. Learn more about Congregation Beth Shalom’s LGBT inclusive offerings here.
What does Congregation Beth Shalom do for same-sex commitment ceremonies and weddings? I’ve read that in 2001 your predecessor took a year to deliberate whether or not to perform a commitment ceremony. I know you weren’t at Beth Shalom then, but can you speak to where you are as a community now? What did the process of that evolution look like? Was there community support?
You’re right – we do both commitment ceremonies and same-sex weddings. My predecessor did one, but I think that’s because he was only asked once. I’ve done three in the last eight years, and I’ve got another one on the calendar.
Same-sex weddings are basically the same at Beth Shalom as other weddings, except the couple has more leeway in choosing the language for what we call the ceremony: do they want to refer to it as a wedding, as a huppah – meaning not as a wedding – and so on. Everything else is basically as it is for straight couples: we have the huppah, the mikveh, the sheva brachot. We even mark anniversaries the same way, because couples are generally invited up for an aliyah together on their anniversaries. I guess there’s a small difference there, because we let same-sex couples determine their anniversary, in case they had a commitment ceremony and later a wedding, or something similar.
Until Washington passed marriage equality [in November 2012], I couldn’t do civil marriages as a clergy member. Now I can, and that’s great! Unlike straight couples, for whom I obviously require a civil marriage, for right now I’ll perform a religious wedding without a civil marriage. That’s just because it can be much more complicated for same-sex couples, given that they can’t get married on the federal level.
Happily, we’ve had very little pushback from within the congregation, as we began to do more same-sex weddings. It’s really clear to everyone that this is just who we are – we just don’t distinguish between gay and straight couples. I think it probably helps that we have a number of very high-level lay leaders who are out. It makes visibility very natural.
With marriage equality becoming a reality in Washington quite recently, what will change, if anything, about how Beth Shalom approaches weddings and commitment ceremonies?
Really, the only thing that will change is that I’ll be able to be the civil officiate for couples, too, which is definitely something I’m looking forward to!
Congregation Beth Shalom signed on to Washington United for Marriage. Were you active in the fight for marriage equality in other ways? Can you speak a little bit about why?
We had an amazing person running the effort for the Jewish community here in Seattle, so we were able to coordinate with the larger effort. We were involved in the marches, we helped the organizers of the phone banks, and supplied volunteers from within the community. We had a member give a dvar torah on the issue, which was great. And I spoke publically on the issue, too – I not only urged people to vote, but I wanted people to understand that marriage equality is an issue that we can understand in terms of Jewish values, so I spoke about how we can do that.
Especially as a part of the Conservative movement, which is still figuring out what lifecycle events for LGBT individuals and families might look like, we’re hoping you can share insight to help other congregations. Can you discuss some of the tachlis, the nuts-and-bolts, of how you work to actively include LGBT Jews?
We do LGBT programming – we’ve have a lot of success including LGBT relationships in our series on healthy relationships – but we don’t necessarily do a consistent amount of LGBT programming. I prefer to determine what the congregation’s needs are in any given moment, or see if there hasn’t been any specifically LGBT programming for a while, we’ll make sure to do some to send a consistent message of inclusion.
One of the things that has been really helpful for us is that we have a large population of out LGBT Jews who come to shul really regularly, so we’ve been able to tap into and make use of informal networks really well. People know us as an LGBT-inclusive space because of who comes to synagogue before anything else, is our sense.
We’re also careful to really use that LGBT lay presence. We have a mentorship program for people actively exploring Judaism, and we make sure to offer to match LGBT folks who are involved in this process with LGBT members.
We also did sensitivity training as part of a larger diversity training, and we focused a lot on the plurality of what families look like. This obviously includes LGBT families, but also single-parent families, multi-generational families, and others. One of the steps we found very helpful was switching our membership form, so now it says “Adult 1/Adult 2” instead of something like “Husband/Wife.” We wanted to make sure that our materials matched the reality of our community.
How do you let congregants or future congregants know about LGBT focused events or inclusive initiatives?
You know, we added the word “inclusive” to our mission statement, hoping people would know what that meant, but we’ve actually had the most success through just advertising our programming, and also through word-of-mouth. When we have something big coming up, I can ask people to put the word out, and everybody knows!
Inspired? Drop us a note if you have a story to tell and you may end up as next month’s feature!
When the last known gay Jewish Holocaust survivor, Gad Beck, died in 2012, it was a poignant reminder that both Jews and LGBTQ people simply cannot depend on survivors to tell the stories of the Shoah. The responsibility for remembering Holocaust-related history falls upon all of us. Within the Jewish community, it has been standard to commemorate the Holocaust for decades; within the LGBTQ world, rituals are still emerging.
Holocaust Remembrance Day, known in Hebrew as Yom HaShoah, falls this year on April 8th. For those of you interested in adding some LGBTQ content to your observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, we bring you the following resources.
There’s a new player on the Jewish blog scene, and it’s not holding back. Jewrotica is a “pluralistic and sex-positive organization that explores the intersection of Judaism and sexuality through essays, literature, erotica, and in-person programming.” Keshet caught up with Sarah Tuttle-Singer, former social media outreach coordinator and current contributor, to ask about what it’s like to write for Jewrotica, and what the existence of this new site might mean for LGBT Jews.
You’re a writer for a variety of Jewish publications – in what ways (other than the very obvious one) is Jewrotica different?
I’m a big believer in authenticity – in “owning your sh*t.” In other words, if you’ve got something provocative to say, then say it boldly, and don’t cower behind cheap metaphor. Writing for Jewrotica is a literalization of this – because unlike publishing on Kveller and Times of Israel (two sites which I adore!) not only is the content I submit on Jewrotica potentially problematic, but explaining the article in the context of the site also invites a secondary conversation. (Just ask my dad.)
That said, Jewrotica also understands that there are people with things to share that don’t want put a name to it. And that’s why it’s great that Jewrotica allows writers to use pseudonyms or submit anonymously. This definitely frees writers to push their boundaries in a safe space if they are uncomfortable going public with their experiences, interpretations, or fantasies.
I guess if I’m going to break it down, writing publicly for Jewrotica requires very serious intention – kavanah - for me. Do I believe there should be a place where Judaism and sexuality intersect? Hell yeah. And that’s why I love being part of this site.
Jewrotica breaks down its content by a pretty large number of variables – from PG through XXX, genre, categories like “romantic” or “awkward” or “naughty,” but nothing indicating sexual orientation, gender, anything like that. Was that intentional? Does it change the experience of writing for the site or shaping its content?
I’m deferring to Ayo Oppenheimer, the founder of Jewrotica for this one:
“Our tags include queer / LGBT, just like they include other groups within the Jewish and sexuality spectrum. We are pluralistic and aim to be as inclusive as possible, and have published stories by gay and lesbian writers. Just recently, we published a prose poem by Arielle Greenberg Bywater called “Putting Out.”
In fact, all three of our Valentine’s stories, essays and poems this year were queer-focused and written by gay Jewish authors, so that sends a pretty strong statement. However, we’re open to suggestions about how to be more inclusive. Jewrotica is a website, an organization, a movement, but mostly its an evolution and an organic creation. If you have an idea, tell us. If you want to get involved, reach out. We’re all about pushing boundaries in thoughtful ways and would love to include folks in being a part of what Jewrotica will become.” [You can contact the Jewrotica team here.]
I think Hugo Schwyzer is a beautifully brutal writer who takes his readers on very complicated and visceral journeys. I love this piece.
This story was arousing and painful on different levels.
Why Jewrotica? What’s Jewish about it?
Why not? What isn’t? Sorry, couldn’t resist answering that in a stereotypically Jewish way.
But seriously. Jewrotica is a conversation about sexuality – a work in progress, really. And while many people within our culture have absorbed stigmatizing stereotypes about sex, or feel that sex and spirituality have no place in the same conversation, Jewrotica seeks to change that.
How open is Jewish community to a publication like this?
Three Jews, five opinions. Depends on who you ask. A few Facebook friends have defriended me because they were uncomfortable with some of the content I was sharing – and that’s cool. Plenty more have subscribed. And submitted articles.
On March 26, 2007, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the legal and spiritual center for Conservative Judaism in America, responded to a new tshuvah, or Jewish legal ruling, issued by that movement, and officially announced it would ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis.
At an all day conference at the Seminary marking the one year anniversary of this historic decision, two rabbis offered a special kavannah, or guiding intention.
Rabbis Karen Reiss Medwed and Francince Roston wrote this kavannah to commemorate the occasion, using a traditional format and liturgical vocabulary. We bring you this kavannah to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the Conservative movement’s decision to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis, a major step towards making the Jewish world an more inclusive space for LGBTQ Jews.
“If it doesn’t bring more love into the world, it probably isn’t religion.”
The date was October 13, 2010, and I was at Tufts University’s Coming Out Day Rally. At the rally, Tufts University’s Jewish Chaplain, Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, spoke about the importance of not just tolerating people’s differences but embracing them and told the crowd the statement quoted above. This message was so simple, yet so powerful — and so powerfully different from what I expected a religious leader speaking about LGBTQ issues to say.
Growing up, I attended a Conservative Jewish Day School from kindergarten until 12th grade. Throughout high school, I struggled to come to terms with my sexual orientation and my religious beliefs. I was forced to grapple with these issues alone, as my high school did not offer any support for queer students and in general ignored their existence. As far as I know, no one has ever come out in my high school (though one student who was already out transferred in) and homophobic comments, including the commonly repeated phrase “that’s so gay,” went unchallenged. Consequently, I never felt safe coming out in high school.
I decided to come out at the beginning of my time at Tufts University and within my first few days at Tufts Hillel, it was clear that my identity as a queer Jew would not be viewed as a contradiction but rather something to be embraced. The welcoming and accepting environment that I discovered at Hillel was the result of the amazing individuals who were involved, the welcoming staff, and the institutionalized inclusivity created by a permanent Hillel programming board position for Jewish Queer programming. Throughout my three years involved in the Tufts Hillel community, I have always felt that my Jewish and queer identities complement each other.
I have been lucky and fortunate to be involved in a religious community at Tufts that embraces me for who I am and has a long history of embracing queer students. As a result, I have not had to work hard to create a more welcoming Jewish community at Tufts. However, recent events at Tufts University have emphasized that not all religious groups on campus provide such a welcoming environment.
In response to a religious group being “derecognized” by the student government for discriminating against queer students (among others), Tufts Committee on Student Life created a new policy last semester by which student religious groups could apply for exemptions from Tufts nondiscrimination policy in their leadership criteria. A Student Religious Group could therefore choose, if granted this exemption, to bar queer students or female students or any other identity protected by the nondiscrimination policy from leadership positions.
Since this policy was created, I have felt a need to speak out, as a Tufts student, as a Jewish student, and as a queer student. While I have no doubt in my mind that Tufts Hillel will not apply for an exemption from the nondiscrimination policy, I still feel I have a responsibility to work to overturn this policy. This responsibility in the end derives from my own Jewish values, which have taught me to speak up when I see injustice.
As a member of the Coalition Against Religious Exclusion (CARE), the group on campus that is working to get this policy overturned, I have been inspired by the actions and passion of my fellow religious and nonreligious Tufts students. Ultimately creating a more inclusive environment in any institution, whether Jewish or secular, requires a strong group of like-minded and passionate individuals. While this policy represents a step back in the inclusive environment I have seen at Tufts over my three years here, I am confident that with the urging of CARE and its many supporters, the University will eventually overturn this policy. Until then, I will continue doing my Jewish obligation to make Tufts’ campus a more inclusive environment for students of all religious and social identities.
It was exactly two years ago that I opened the door to a meeting of the Keshet Beit Midrash for the first time. I had moved to Boston a few months previously and, as Pesach (Passover) drew closer with its promise of spring around the corner, I was feeling the sting of isolation in the dead of winter in a strange city where people can’t pronounce their own French last names and nobody says good-morning. I had moved here from Louisiana in search of place to call home.
It was in that room that our small group, in honor of the approaching Passover, examined a passage from Torah Queeries. We read a piece written by Jason Gary Klein in hevruta (pairs) and discussed the ritual of storytelling, which Klein notes happens in a very ritualized way at the Passover seder, and which also happens less formally but with equal frequency in queer circles, where we are so fond of telling coming out stories. And, as Klein pointed out, our own narratives of oppression and liberation nicely parallel the story we tell each year at the Passover seder. During the discussion, my first time ever sitting among other queer Jews, I felt cogs turn in my brain that had been rusty from years of disuse. I felt sinews in my heart grow taut that hadn’t been stretched in a lifetime. I didn’t understand those feelings at the time, but in the two years since that beit midrash, I haven’t stopped thinking about our topic that night.
Storytelling is an incredible feature of the human animal. We are unique creatures in many ways, but it is our capacity to translate experience into memory, and then to transmit that memory to another through the act of storytelling that strikes me as nothing short of magic. We can know things that we have not ourselves experienced. This is how humans empower one another, how communities make each individual member stronger.
If you ask a neuroscientist, they won’t use the word magic. But they might tell you something surprising nonetheless. I was introduced to the work of neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux through NPR’s RadioLab hosts, who interviewed him for an episode on memory and forgetting. According to LeDoux, scientists have known for decades that memories are physical entities. When we store a memory, we are folding a tiny sequence of proteins in our brains. Our memory is like a giant linen closet. And each time we pull a memory off the shelf, we fold that protein chain a little differently before putting it back. That’s a stunning piece of neurology, that every time we recall an experience we alter it slightly.
As shocking and, frankly, disheartening as that may sound, Jews should know this to be true. Every year at the Passover table we change the story of the Exodus, sometimes with minor revisions, sometimes with wild reinterpretations. In the queer ritual of storytelling, our stories change a little every time, too. One thing that I have realized in telling my own coming out story is that it’s never a complete process. Every year I learn a new piece of the puzzle, an aspect of identity I hadn’t understood before.
The process of storytelling — the process of remembering and revising — is in fact a fundamental function of community. It allows individuals to refold experiences anew year after year. If we are, as John Locke claimed, the sum of our memories, then we change not only the story but our individual selves every time we remember the Exodus. We fold that protein chain a little differently than the year before. Our brains are literally changed by the process of storytelling.
It is significant, then that it is God who tells us to keep telling the story. In Exodus we are commanded again and again to tell the story in each generation. If you believe in an omniscient God, then surely God knew that revisions are inevitable every time the human brain uses a memory. It follows, then, that God must see some advantage in an ever-changing, unstable storyline. God wants that slight alteration in proteins to take place in our brains every time we gather in community. That is part of the dazzling sum of who we are.
When we remove ourselves from community, we lose the forum for storytelling and with it, we literally lose a piece of ourselves. Our community’s memories are absent from our brains and our own stories stay static, fixed, and lifeless. Without community, we halt the process of refolding. This is the devastation of isolation, that we become helpless to assemble a cohesive story line out of memories. Our Lockean identities are an absurd stream of consciousness, missing integral pieces. We are a linen closet in total disarray.
This is one reason that I’m thankful to have queer community this year at Passover, and year round. Just as the storytelling at the seder is an integral part of Jewish identity-making, so is queer storytelling to a queer identity. The pieces of others’ lives that I’ve heard have been stored in my physical brain and have literally become a part of me. Every Keshet Shabbat, every queer beit midrash, every community event, has been its own small queer seder. The story of the Exodus teaches us that simply leaving an oppressive land is not enough. Even liberation itself is not enough. It’s the storytelling that makes the people. It’s the continual refolding of memories that makes us who we are. When I walked through the door of the beit midrash, I was looking for community. I had no idea that I would also find missing pieces of myself.
The Torah is strewn with transgendered hearts.
How can that be true? The Torah, as we know, is not written for or about transgender people, and in any case, “transgender” is supposed to be a noun or adjective, not a verb, an umbrella term for the millions of people whose gender identity or expression is more complicated than “male” or “female.” “Transgender” gathers gender-complicated people into a broad, simple category – the equivalent of “African American” or “Latino” – and implies that our identities, like those of other minorities, are a matter of fact that is not up for discussion. But though “transgender” has real advantages for describing ourselves to others, for many of us who identify as transgender, identity is an often-messy, ongoing process, not a simple, settled fact. For me, “transgender” isn’t just something I am – it is an active, terrifying, exalting process of unmaking and remaking a self that will never quite fit established categories of gender or identity.
Thanks to this process, my heart has been stretched and broken across the gender spectrum, assigned to and exiled from one identity after another, sacrificed for gender, enlarged by gender, squeezed in gender’s vise. That’s what I mean when I say that my heart has been transgendered. However I handle my gender identity, I will always have a transgendered heart.
As the Torah’s stories of Abraham, Sarah and their son Isaac show, you don’t have to be transgender to have a transgendered heart.
For example, at the end of Genesis chapter 17, God commands Abraham, then 99 years old and still named “Abram,” to circumcise himself, his son Ishmael and all the male members of his household. Until then, Abram’s identity fit neatly into Bronze Age patriarchal gender categories: a wealthy nomadic pastoralist, Abram was the unquestioned legal and spiritual head of an extended family unit, a husband, a father, even on occasion a military leader. Abram’s relationship with his family deity was unusually intimate, but all extended families had their deities, and in trying to keep his family’s deity happy (and thus to keep the blessings comings), Abram was doing what was expected of any man in his position.
Though Abram’s relationship with God had led him into decades of wandering, God didn’t unsettle his identity as a man, until God told Abram to circumcise himself – to undergo elective genital surgery whose sole purpose was to permanently reassign his identity. Circumcision transformed Abram from a successful Bronze Age patriarch into a kind of man who had never existed, one for which even the Torah doesn’t provide a word: a Jewish man, a man who, no matter how successful he is in patriarchal terms, acknowledges that his will and power is subordinate to the will and power of an invisible, omnipresent, supreme God.
Abram makes this transition by publicly cutting his phallus, the physical sign of patriarchal identity and power. By literally and figuratively cutting open whatever even today some would call his “manhood,” Abram grows into his truest self, a self defined not by patriarchal categories but by his relationship with God. God marks Abram’s transition by changing his name to “Abraham,” adding a syllable to signify that he is no longer just the head of his extended family but the “father of multitudes,” fountainhead, through his sons Ishmael and yet-unborn Isaac, of entire peoples.
Like contemporary gender reassignment surgery, Abraham’s circumcision doesn’t just change what his genitals look like (presumably no one other than Sarah and a concubine or two would have noticed); it changes who he is to himself, to his family, to God, and to a world in which he is now permanently “other.” Abram was a man among Bronze Age men, at ease in the highest echelons of society. Abraham, though, is something else; his identity is inexplicable to anyone outside his family. No one else will even know that he has become “Abraham” unless he tells them. (You can imagine the awkwardness of those conversations: “Peace be with you, Abram.” “Thank you – but actually, my name is Abraham now.” “Oh, why is that?” “Well, the creator of Heaven and Earth told me to take a flint knife and cut off – never mind. Please just call me Abraham.”) God doesn’t explain the rules governing Abraham’s new identity, doesn’t specify when and to whom Abraham should come out as his new self, and when should he allow others to mistake him for the man he used to be. If he doesn’t explain his identity, no one will understand or even recognize who he has become. And if does, he risks the rejection, mockery, hatred and violence so many of us encounter when we reveal our otherness.
Our father Abraham had a transgendered heart.
So did our mother Sarah. As the Torah tells us, by the time of Abraham’s circumcision, Sarah was “advanced in years” (she’s close to 90) and, not surprisingly, “had stopped having the periods of women.” (Gen. 18:11) But even when Sarah was young and menstruating, she was unable to conceive the child she desperately wanted. By her culture’s standards, Sarah’s inability to build up her husband’s house with children or provide him with an heir makes her a failure as a woman. But at the beginning of chapter 18, newly circumcised Abraham offers hospitality to three angels, one of whom has come to tell Sarah, long resigned to being her identity as an elderly, infertile woman, of her impending pregnancy – a public, culturally incomprehensible transformation of body and gender identity even more radical than Abraham’s circumcision. There were – there are – no words, no gender roles or social customs, through which to describe, understand, or relate to a woman Sarah’s age who becomes pregnant, gives birth, and nurses a child. As with Abraham’s circumcision, God marks Sarah’s transition from the familiar kind of woman she has been to this brand-new kind of woman by changing her name, which before her pregnancy is announced to Abraham had been “Sarai.”
When the newly-renamed Sarah hears the news that she will become pregnant, she has a marvelously human reaction: she laughs. But this isn’t just any laughter. It’s the special laughter provoked by the violation of fixed categories of identity. If you want to hear this kind of laughter from a three-year-old, say something like “the cow said `neigh’;” if you want to hear it from an adult, present yourself as not just as male or female but as something, like a pregnant Sarah or a pregnant man, that violates established gender categories.
Sarah’s gender-violating transformation from aged infertile woman to at least partially rejuvenated motherhood is surrounded by laughter. Nowhere in the Torah is laughter mentioned more frequently. Abraham laughs when God tells him Sarah will have a child. Sarah laughs to herself when the angel passes the good news on to her. When God asks why Sarah laughed, Sarah, presumably afraid of being thought disrespectful or ungrateful, denies that her laughter, but God says to Sarah, “You did laugh.” When Sarah bears her son, she says, “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh at me.” (Gen. 21:6) Laughter is so central to the miracle that God commands that the child be named Yitzhak – Isaac – which means “laughter.”
It’s lovely to hear laughter in the Torah, but when Sarah says “everyone who hears will laugh at me,” she shows that she knows how fragile her new gender identity is, how likely the idea of Sarah as new mother is to provoke not only laughter but skepticism, doubt, and gossip. According to the midrash, Sarah was well aware of that others might doubt that she had in fact given birth to and nursed her son. That’s why Abraham “held a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned” (Gen. 21:8) – so that Sarah, like a transwoman I heard of who unbuttoned her blouse to convince police that she wasn’t a female impersonator, could prove she was a real mother (a real fertile woman) by publicly nursing Isaac.
Our mother Sarah had a transgendered heart.
Jews are children of Sarah, children of the transgendering miracle that led to the birth of the son God named “Laughter,” and we are also children of Yitzhak, children of the laughter provoked when the finger of God confounds human categories of identity, inviting us to grow into new, previously inconceivable modes of being.
Sarah’s miraculous pregnancy confounded the conventional categories that had till then defined her as a woman. But even as it complicated Sarah’s gender identity, Isaac’s birth reinforced patriarchal ideas about the importance of maleness. Sarah’s gender would have been transformed by any pregnancy, but according to Bronze Age conventions, she and Abraham could only become the mother and father of the Jewish people if the child she bore was male. Only a son could inherit Abraham’s family and fortune, and, because God had chosen Abraham’s family as the seed from which the Jewish people would spring, Isaac had to be male to inherit and pass on Abraham’s relationship with God. In other words, God used Bronze Age patriarchal conventions to create the Jewish people, establishing a link between Divine purpose and male privilege that continues to shape (and deform) Judaism and other Abrahamic religious traditions.
Isaac’s maleness was overdetermined, ordained by God, social convention, maternal and paternal longing, and the destiny of the Jewish people, and in terms of gender privilege, Isaac hit the jackpot. Even circumcision, which must have been a physical ordeal for his aged father, was easy for Isaac, the first Jewish boy circumcised on the eighth day after birth.
In addition to being painful, Abraham’s circumcision had been a bold step into the unknown, a blood-oath sealing his allegiance to an invisible God with no trace in human history, myth, law or custom. But Isaac was born into that allegiance. For him, God was not a mysterious voice from beyond the givens of family and society; God was a part of his family, a deity he inherited and whose favor he could take for granted, for without God, as his parents no doubt told him, Isaac would never have been born.
The only threat to Isaac’s status as Abraham’s son and heir was his older half-brother Ishmael, born to Abraham when Sarah, desperate to give Abraham a child, urged him to take Hagar, an Egyptian slave, as his concubine. When Hagar became pregnant, Sarah, rather than feeling her gender identity bolstered by giving her husband a child through a surrogate mother, felt that Hagar was looking down on her (Gen. 16:5), and treated her so harshly that the pregnant Hagar fled into the wilderness, where she met an angel who told her to go back, promising that her child would be a son, Ishmael, and give her many descendants. Hagar did as she was commanded, and Ishmael grew up and was circumcised as Abraham’s only son. Though God had already prophesied Isaac’s birth, many no doubt saw Ishmael for what he was: Abraham’s first-born son, and arguably his natural heir.
So it isn’t surprising that after Isaac’s weaning feast, Sarah demanded that Abraham “Cast out that slave-woman and her son,” as she seems to have called Hagar and Ishmael (Gen. 21:10). Abraham, assured by God that he should do as Sarah said, rose early the next morning, and sent Ishmael and Hagar into the desert with “some bread and a skin of water.” (Gen. 21:14) The just-weaned Isaac woke up to find his older brother gone. We don’t know how Isaac felt about Ishmael’s disappearance from his life, but it’s clear that his brother’s exile eliminated any competition for his father’s paternal affections, and cemented Isaac’s position as Abraham’s sole son and heir.
A few verses later, Isaac learns that Ishmael is not the only son his father is willing to sacrifice.
In chapter 22, the interlocking blessings that comprised Isaac’s gender identity – relationship with God, the love of his father, and his status as sole heir – lead Isaac into the nightmare our tradition calls “the Akedah,” the binding. The nightmare begins the way Isaac’s life-story began, with Abraham hearing the voice of God. This time, though, God is not foretelling Isaac’s birth but commanding his death: “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.” (Gen. 22:2) As he did when banishing Ishmael, Abraham gets up early, taking Isaac and two servants on a three-day journey into the wilderness. When Abraham realizes that they are approaching the place of sacrifice, he sends the servants away. Now he and Isaac have to do their own shlepping. When Abraham saddles Isaac with “the wood for the burnt offering,” his son becomes curious:
Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together.
They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. (Gen. 22:7-10)
As this excerpt shows, the Akedah narrative constantly highlights Isaac’s gender, repeating the words “son” and “boy” 12 times in its 19 verses, reminding us, even at the horrific climax, that God has told Abraham to sacrifice not just his child but all the hopes and blessings bound up with Isaac’s maleness.
Isaac probably wasn’t thinking about his gender as he lay there on the altar, but his gender is what brought him there. His status as favored son marked him for human sacrifice; his one-to-one intimacy with his father (how different this scene would be if Ishmael were still around) led him to unquestioningly follow Abraham into the wilderness and to accept being bound on the altar. The gender identity that has gave Isaac so much privilege and security has turned inside-out. His doting father has become his murderer; the God who upended the laws of nature to bring Isaac into the world has become his destroyer; and Isaac’s status as son and heir has made him a choice “sheep for burnt offering.”
Our father Isaac had a transgendered heart.
How many trans people have stared like Isaac into the pitiless faces of those who said they loved us? How many of us have suddenly realized that our families see as us not as children, siblings, parents, spouses, but as creatures that must be sacrificed to unyielding gods of gender, rage, ideology and shame? How many of us have longed to cry out to God, but cannot, because God, we are told, is the reason we must be sacrificed?
Given how frequently religion is invoked to justify for transphobia, it’s not surprising that practicing trans Jews are often asked how we reconcile being trans with being Jewish. Whatever conflicts some may see, when we read Genesis’ stories of the origins of the Jewish people, we see that trans and Jewish identity are profoundly connected. Like all Jews, trans Jews are children of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, children of self-othering circumcision, of gender-category-violating miracles, of a child named Laughter bound like an animal on the altar to fulfill what his father believed was the will of God.
Our transgendered hearts are descended from those of our ancestors. The Torah is strewn with transgendered hearts.
“To exclude same-sex families from membership and adult volunteerism is in direct contradiction of school policies, which place high value on inclusion.”
-Donna Oshri, Golda Och Academy
Creating inclusive Jewish spaces is a great goal — but how do you do it? While the answer is likely different for every synagogue, school, and youth group, it’s helpful and encouraging to hear about others’ successes, triumphs, and their lessons learned. So we’re running this regular column, called “The Tachlis of Inclusion,” to spotlight practices and policies that have worked for Jewish institutions all over the country. We hope they inspire you.
In October 2012, the administration of Golda Och Academy, a Conservative Jewish day school in New Jersey, sent a letter home to parents, letting them know that the school would not be renewing its Boy Scouts charter. The reason? The Boy Scouts of America’s decision to ban gay scouts and adult troop leaders.
“It was a very short meeting,” Adam Shapiro, Dean of Students at Golda Och Academy, remembers about the decision to end the school’s relationship with the local Boy Scout Troop. “Everyone on our administrative team looked at each other and said, this is pretty obvious. And since we made our decision, basically all of the feedback we’ve received has been positive.”
Golda Och Academy sponsored the Boy Scout Troop 118 and Cub Pack 118 and offered them a place to meet. But the Scouts’ policy of discrimination has made what had been an otherwise harmonious match untenable. “The Scouts and the school have enjoyed a wonderful relationship for many years,” said Donna Oshri, Director of Marketing at Golda Och. Donna continued: “The policy of the Boy Scouts of America to exclude same-sex families from membership and adult volunteerism is in direct contradiction of our school policies, which place high value on inclusion. Our school has decided that it cannot act as the sponsor organization until that national policy changes. Golda Och Academy has worked hard toward making all families feel welcome and comfortable. At this point in time, the scouts represent a problematic image for many families. This decision is based solely on ideology, and not as result of any biased action or exclusion on the part of the leadership of Troop 118 and Pack 118. Rabbi Lisa Vernon and Mike Schatzberg have been stellar leaders to the boys, scouting, and to the school, and we commend their unfailing commitment and leadership.”
The school has since received a lot of attention for their decision.
It’s encouraging to see that actions like these might not be falling on deaf ears: the Boy Scouts of America is currently debating formally abandoning policies that exclude gay members or participants, as well as permitting individual troops to decide whether or not to permit gay members.
Of course, it’s not only the actions of individual schools, communities, and troops that may affect the BSA’s ultimate decision: other forces have also been at work. Throughout 2012 and into 2013, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has been organizing against the Boy Scouts’ discriminatory policy, working with scouts and parents who have been forced to leave the organization because of their sexual orientation. They’ve also been collecting and posting the testimony of former Eagle Scouts who are now protesting the policy on the GLAAD website.
Meanwhile, the National Jewish Committee on Scouting recently voted to determine if they should maintain the ban on gay scouts and troop leaders. The vote was 27 to one in favor of overturning the ban, with one abstention. Though the Committee’s vote does not directly affect the BSA’s position, it was reported back to the Scouts’ Religious Relationship Task Force, and will hopefully affect the outcome of the ultimate decision.
What will happen to the policy is anyone’s guess, but for some, a strong stand against exclusion and discrimination is the most important thing.
“We had had a big push from within the student body last year to create a Gay-Straight Alliance. Clubs and activities are for the students, by the students, so we knew that this was something the students really wanted,” explained Adam Shapiro. “So we have a GSA now, which is not that common in Conservative day schools, and their main focus is on creating safe space within our school. Given that emphasis, the decision to step away from the Boy Scouts just seemed natural.”
Drop us a note if you have a story to tell and you may end up as next month’s feature! You can read the previous posts in this series, on the Israel Center for Conservative Judaism and The Beth El Synagogue Center.
[Below is the full text of the insert. You can also download a pdf version to bring to your seder table.]
Every year, Jews gather at seder tables around the world to remember, retell, and reconnect with the story of our collective redemption. Passover compels us to ask ourselves how we are moving out of Mitzrayim, the narrow straits of oppression and brokenness that still mar our world, and toward liberation in our lives today. As mothers, fathers, parents, and family members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Jews, we are inspired by our tradition’s story to strive for LGBTQ recognition, freedom, and acceptance.
Allies can have a powerful voice in that struggle, supporting LGBTQ people in their coming out process and helping others to understand the importance of justice, fairness, acceptance, and mutual respect for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. The role of allies is critical to the work of creating a Jewish community that is inclusive, safe, and supports all Jewish children, teens, and adults to be fully themselves.
At Passover, it is the family’s responsibility to retell the story, to inspire each new generation to accept the task of living out our values, of remembering that we were once strangers, and therein find an obligation to those on the margins of our own societies. As gay and straight parents and family members of LGBTQ children, we invite you to join us in considering our role in assuring LGBTQ liberation for generations to come.
Who are the Four Allies? Which one are you?
1. The ally who asks what “LGBTQ” means: The first step to taking bold action and advocating on behalf of others is to approach with curiosity, humility, and openness. An ally is open to learning new things and challenging their own assumptions.
2. The ally who stands up for a friend: The lives of people we care about, our friends, family, and colleagues can be powerful catalysts for action.
3. The ally who speaks up about equality: When we speak out against injustice because it’s the right thing to do, regardless if someone we know and care about is affected, we act on behalf our core values.
4. The ally who comes out as an advocate to move equality forward: As allies, we are often insulated from the vulnerabilities that LGBTQ people face in the world. However coming out publicly as an ally can also mean taking a risk on behalf of the values and people we care about.
What are the Four Questions we could be asking ourselves? Consider these:
1. What other social movements for equality have you stood up for?
2. When have you been an ally or seen someone else be an ally?
3. What kind of ally would you like to be?
4. What are you risking by being an ally? What is on the line for 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, Amy Soule explores the many meanings of the Biblical imperative to keep the altar light burning.
“The fire on the altar must be kept burning; it must not go out…The fire must be kept burning on the altar continuously; it must not go out.” (Leviticus 6:12-13)
In ancient times, these verses referred to the sacrifices people were making as an act of worship. Having a perpetual flame on the altar symbolized that God was being continually worshipped by our ancestors. Today we worship very differently, without making any animal sacrifices. Why do these verses remain relevant to our modern lives at all, let alone as liberal GLBT Jews?
Today we have an extremely modified version of a fire that is always lit. It manifests itself through the ner tamid (eternal light), a visible symbol in every synagogue. Some may treat this as ironic, since it helps represent God’s presence rather than any actions of our own that demonstrate God is perpetually worshipped, while others may call the eternal light “a symbol of a symbol” (Torah Queeries: Commentaries on the Torah), though it has great potential to be much more symbolic than any fire our ancestors kindled in ancient times.
We live in a world where it can prove easy to doubt God’s presence. Looking at the eternal light as we enter our places of worship can serve as a reminder that God will always be there to help us through everything we encounter during life’s tumultuous journey.
Something else that intrigues me about the mention of the eternal light in our parashah is that the terms translated into English as “on the altar” can also be read as “in him” according to the original Hebrew.
Looking at this alternative translation communicates a message that all of humankind should remember. We all have a light shining within that God has entrusted to us to nurture during our lifetime. Furthermore, no one should be led to feel they have to extinguish their light; God alone should be responsible for anyone being called home.
Some may look at the word eternal and be intimidated by it but making sure our lights go on doesn’t have to be a daunting mission. Tamid means always in modern Hebrew, but its meaning in biblical Hebrew is much more expansive.
According to biblical Hebrew, tamid can be translated as “performed regularly” or “necessitating regular maintenance.” Looking at it through this different lens can mean that we have to make time to nurture our souls every day. It can be hard to set aside any time to accomplish this but it’s necessary if we want to avoid “burning out” (whether that means depleting our energy reserves or actually thinking about, let alone attempting, and possibly succeeding at, suicide).
Others may fear that “eternal” means “unchanging” but it doesn’t have to. We can evolve while maintaining our inner light. Also, our light will be different according to the circumstances we’re in.
Sometimes our souls will be shining at maximum strength because we have achieved something significant or something has happened to lift us higher than we ever dreamed was possible.
Other times our light may seem like a flickering ember due to difficult contexts we are in. It is at these times that we have to strive toward matching our lights to the ones shining in our places of worship and ask God’s presence to come into our lives and help us through everything we are facing.
Looking at the verses about the eternal light in their whole context can indicate something else interesting. They seem to be connected to the sacrifices of gratitude and well-being that our ancestors offered many millennia ago.
According to this, maybe the light we’re not supposed to extinguish is the one of our gratitude. No matter our emotions, chances are we have something to be grateful for (perhaps our physical well-being, in keeping with the context of our Torah portion). If we can concentrate on that, maybe our internal light can slowly rekindle itself and grow strong once more.
Something else we can learn through analyzing the context the verses about the eternal light appear in is that they involve repetition. Our scripture is known for being sparse in its words; it doesn’t make any unnecessary repetitions. So why do we hear about the eternal light two times, let alone in consecutive verses?
One of our most revered sages (Rambam) states that the initial reference is directed toward the priest (making sure our leaders always have the right attitude toward their sacred profession) and the second one is directed toward the lay people (as a reminder to ensure the clergy don’t “burn out” through lack of enthusiasm for their jobs).
It’s easy for me to interpret this as saying that we are all responsible to help each other through negative experiences and making sure people never get to the level where they feel desperate. Having a strong, glowing light shouldn’t be a privilege reserved for some élite group of people; all of humankind deserves to live according to their maximum potential and anyone can help anyone else, no matter why they may be different.
As GLBT people, we are all affected by suicide. Many of us, and our peers, have seriously considered suicide due to depression instigated by experiences we’ve had because of our difference(s) and many more have been impacted by it since it has taken the life of people we care very strongly about. According to that, due to the message of our parashah, we are called to help through any means possible.
Doing this doesn’t have to be hard; sometimes, doing a random act of kindness can help people way more than they may expect. I’m not sure how many stories I’ve heard about a random hug or other similar action saving somebody from suicide or self-injury.
At the very beginning of the Torah, God said “Let there be light.” It then goes on to state that visible light (the sun, moon and stars) were created later. Perhaps our Torah portion helps explain this discrepancy.
Maybe the light God created right off the top was the light that shines within each human being. It may be invisible but that doesn’t mean it’s not supposed to be as strong as possible. God wants everyone to let their light shine as best it can. Make time for yourself, get inspiration wherever possible and help others, since it’s not always easy to go it alone.
The connection between the Passover story and LGBTQ liberation is easy. Too easy. A group of people suffer under oppressors for hundreds of years and, thanks to a charismatic leader and a little perseverance, they are delivered amid clap and thunder, free at last to live their own lives. And indeed the Passover story has served as a prototype for liberation narratives for ages, not just in an LGBTQ context. It’s a story of underdog triumph that we Americans love. Our culture has embraced this Biblical tale with an almost unprecedented tenacity, and Americans who haven’t the slightest clue what the “books of Moses” are can at least summarize the book of Exodus for you. And can anyone read the line, “Let my people go!” without hearing Paul Robeson’s rumbling baritone?
But we’ve got the story all wrong. I’ve been saying this for years, poo-pooing people’s feel-good glow of freedom during this season, but no one wants to listen to a curmudgeon during Pesach.
I realize I’m being a buzz kill, but the Passover story is not about liberation at all. We conveniently truncate the line, “Let my people go.” That’s not even the end of the sentence. Every single time the line appears in Torah, it is followed with the words, “That they may serve me.” God was not interested in the Israelites’ unfettered freedom. The story is not about liberation. The story is about servitude. God freed the Israelites for the explicit and solitary purpose of allowing them to serve a different master.
As the liberation-loving people that we are, we have co-opted the famous phrase. Once I realized how prominent the second half of that line factored into the story, I got a funny feeling, like the first time I learned that our American ancestors on the Mayflower did not weather the Atlantic Ocean in search of separation of church and state. That’s another story we’ve stripped of its complexity, rendering it virtually unrecognizable from its historical truth.
So what are we to learn from the Exodus, we queer people who fancy ourselves modern Israelites suffering under a stuffy heteronormativity, strangers in a strange land?
For one thing, I think the phrase, “That they may serve me” is helpful to keep in mind. Obviously I am not suggesting that queerfolk become religious. But we can be mindful that we, like the Israelites, are not truly seeking unfettered freedom. When the Israelites were freed in order to serve God, we were freed to serve the greater master, the greater ideal. We were no longer enslaved to a life of serving the lesser thing. This is truly the goal of LGBTQ liberation — not that we may live without rules, but that we may live under a rule greater than the rules of patriarchal establishments, homophobic laws, gender binaries, and safety concerns.
Another relevant aspect of this story is what happens after the climactic splitting of the sea. Once free, the Israelites immediately begin bickering: “We’re thirsty. I’m tired of manna. Where did Moses go? Oh, look — something shiny!” For the ancient Israelites and for modern people, the gain of privilege comes with a price: loss of perspective. Once free the Israelites lose their sense of unity, their willingness to work together for a greater ideal. Scenes follow in which tribes brandish swords against fellow tribes. The dramatic exit from Egypt becomes a footnote in a larger narrative of bloodshed. The freed wanderers wring their hands and wonder, “Is this truly better than dying in Egypt?” Around this time every year, rabbis across the world will denounce the Israelites for their ingratitude, but I think it’s a valid question.
That one of humanity’s earliest liberation tales so pointedly illustrates the cyclical nature of liberation and oppression is a sad statement on human nature. Long before queer politics drove home the point, the book of Exodus taught us that privilege is easy to become blind to when you are the one holding it. It’s no coincidence that straight white able-bodied cismen are the least likely to use the word “privilege.” They are the least likely to know they have it.
Sadly, LGBTQ communities are at times blind to the privileges that we hold, and too willing to wield them in a way that harms others, despite our own status as second-class citizens. We are too often a movement that favors the white, cisgendered, middle class. Our most visible advocates portray our cause using traditional family structures — monogamy, marriage, and kids — while leaving behind people whose ideas of love and family make us uncomfortable or push our limits. This is not a queer ideal. And it’s not a Jewish ideal either.
Moses’ negotiations with Pharaoh can be instructive to queer politics. For several chapters Moses and Pharaoh negotiate the terms of the Israelites’ release. Pharaoh tries just letting the men go, then just the adults, then all of the people but not the animals. Did Moses rewrite the bill, deleting any reference to the bathroom needs of hoofed animals, and then get his proposal passed? No. In a stirring image of inclusivity, Moses tells him, “Not a hoof shall remain behind.”
Pesach is a holiday of liberation, yes, but it is based on a story with a greater vision. It is a story that reminds us to ask ourselves if the values that we are serving are truly the greatest values possible. The story of Exodus provides a yearly reminder to search ourselves for privileges invisible to our own eyes, so that we may see our power over others before we turn liberation into a footnote in a never-ending story of oppression. And Pesach is a yearly reminder that we do not negotiate at the expense of others, that liberation is not a zero sum game, that civil rights do not exist in fixed quantities to be doled out sparingly, and that, in our journeys toward freedom, we are not allowed to leave a single hoof behind.
Passover is fast approaching, which means it’s time to prepare to lead, or participate in, a seder. It can be a of lot of work – and anxiety – leading a seder that’s meaningful for everyone. But an interesting, thought-provoking, relevant, and inclusive haggadah can make all the difference!
Here’s a selection of LGBTQ haggadot that can be easily downloaded and brought to your seder table. While all of these resources provide lots of LGBTQ material, some may be more appropriate for your seder. If you’re interested in crafting your own seder, consider any haggadah designed to be “open source,” which will easily allow you to skip or add sections. If you’re looking for a more conventional seder that simply includes LGBTQ content, look for a haggadah that describes itself as “traditional.”
If you use any of them, let us know how it went.
The Stonewall Seder is the result of several reinterpretations of a ritual originally designed for Gay and Lesbian Pride weekend. Now it’s a full seder, developed by a committee of laypeople at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City. Read the “user’s manual” and some historical background here.
Developed by JQ International in collaboration with Hebrew Union College’s Institute for Judaism & Sexual Orientation, the JQ International GLBT Passover Haggadah integrates LGBTQ Passover traditions within the spirit of the traditional Passover experience, including an LGBTQ-specific seder plate, the four LGBTQ children, the Prophetess Miriam’s Cup, and much more.
Ma Nishtana: A Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Ally Haggadah follows the traditional structure of the Passover Seder but contains readings and discussion questions pertaining to LGBTQ identity and life.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s haggadah – also known as The Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach – is a thorough resource all on its own, but as an “open source haggadah,” you, as a reader or participant, are encouraged to help write it anew each year by adding your own material.
Still not sure that these haggadot are right for you? Try making your own! Head over to haggadot.com to assemble various sections into a haggadah that works perfectly for your seder! There’s an entire section of LGBTQ resources you can include.
Plus, you can join in the work on The Neverending Haggadah – “the world’s largest crowd-sourced haggadah!” Add your story to the growing number of modern twists on an ancient tale.
March 28 | Colorado:
Keshet’s Queer Seder
Want the full LGBTQ Passover experience? Join us in Denver on March 28 for our annual Queer Seder. This event combines a traditional seder experience with exciting and creative new traditions. Registration closes on March 22.
March 26 | Wasington DC:
Parting the Waters: A Prop 8 Passover for Love, Liberation, and Justice
March 26 marks not only the second seder, but the challenge to Prop 8 being formally argued at the Supreme Court. Celebrate at Parting the Waters: A Prop 8 Passover for Love, Liberation and Justice, a night that promises to be a lively social justice seder focused on marriage equality for a multi-faith, multiracial, intergenerational, LGBT and allied crowd!
Stay tuned for our haggah insert on being an LGBTQ ally!
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Rabbi Jane Litman sees in the blessing before studying Torah echoes of the portion itself: we have the human need, and the human means, to connect with God.
The blessing that one recites before studying Torah is:
Baruch ata adonai, elohaynu melech ha-olam, asher kiddishanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu la-asok b’divray torah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who makes us holy with mitzvot and gives us the mitzvah of engaging in the words of Torah.
We don’t ask the Divine blessing for obeying Torah, or hearing Torah, or even reading Torah, but rather for engaging with Torah. It is the process of engagement – the passionate give and take – that is sacred, not the specific content. In a world in which biblical fundamentalism is on the rise, it’s important to note that the Jewish relationship with our sacred text is interpretive. Our task is to take Torah seriously, not necessarily to agree with its literal content. Sometimes when we study Torah, we are struck by the eternal quality of its message; at other times its words seem tightly bound to a particular cultural moment and place. Torah is both ancient and contemporary – that is its gift.
This week’s portion deals with the human urge to connect with God. It details several different kinds of animal offerings for the altar. The offerings symbolize profound human feelings such as gratitude, awe, happiness, well-being, remorse, repentance, and faith. In ancient Israelite society, different events or circumstances called for specific animal sacrifices carried out in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem according to the ritual guidelines spelled out in this week’s portion. Since the final destruction of the Temple in the year 70 CE, Rabbinic Judaism has decreed that prayer, study, and loving-kindness by ordinary people has replaced the detailed ritual of priestly sacrifice. Thus, this portion illustrates both the timeless quality of Judaism, the human soul’s yearning for connection with the Divine, and the evolution of Jewish practice through time, in this case the change from animal sacrifice to a different mode of expression.
Understanding that the Torah is paradoxically both eternal and time-bound is a core insight for queer Jews. We know that some of the Torah’s words seem homophobic, sexist, insensitive to disabled people, violent, and sometimes merely of a far away time and society. It is tempting to turn away from Torah altogether. Yet, like our forebears with their offerings, we yearn to connect, to engage, to be part of our people and its ancient truths.
Ironically, it is this very reflection, our self-awareness of our complex relationship with Torah, that is the holy sacrifice of our day. We bring to Torah the same profound human struggles – our feelings of desire, shame, pride, loss, hope, and thanksgiving – that underlie the sacrificial system described in this portion. But we do not live in the world of the ancients with its ancient rites. We live in the world of communication.
So it is through our mindful study, our discussions with others, and our engagement with the past and the present, that we catch a glimpse of God.
As we’ve explored in earlier posts by and about Orthodox Jews who are also LGBTQ (including a round-up of blogs, a video from hip-hop artist Y-Love, what it;s like to come out at an Orthodox high school, and an interview with the first out gay Orthodox rabbi), being Orthodox and LGBTQ is complicated. Luckily, in recent years there have been a growing number people and organizations providing support, safe space, and resources for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews and their families. Eshel, dedicated to building “understanding, support, and community for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people in traditional Jewish communities,” is a prominent example of the work being done by, and on behalf of, LGBT Orthodox Jews.
In January 2013, the author of this post attended a shabbaton organized by Eshel. These reflections originally ran on his blog, Orthodox, Gay, and Married Jew. We’re grateful for the opportunity to share his powerful post.
Like angels in the sky
in a garden full of glory
the galaxies so brilliantly related
on that first page of our story
The shabbaton started with davening on Friday night. I had been to support groups in the past, both for JQY or Jewish Queer Youth (an organization based in NYC whose primary objective is to give support to young men and woman struggling with issues related to being LGBT; please see www.jqyouth.org for more information) and a non-religious (and non-agenda driven) support group for gay married men (if you would like information about this group, please email me). When I went to these groups, which had about 10-20 people, I was scared and overwhelmed.
Fast forward to Eshel. Walking in on 120 or more people made me feel like a deer in headlights. At first I stood in the back of the shul and observed. I couldn’t bring myself to sit down. As davening continued with the singing of kabbalas Shabbos, I suddenly found myself feeling the warmth of the room rush through my body. There were opening remarks that further made me feel like I was finding a new family.
By the time Maariv came along I gathered the courage and decided to find my way to the middle of the shul. As I walked toward one of the few open seats I was greeted with wide and welcoming smiles. People vigorously shook my hand and said good Shabbos. I was part of something rich. A feeling of camaraderie took hold of me that I had never felt before.
So listen brother, listen friend
Just a little smile, a helping hand
And we all will find a loving kind humanity
We must teach our children to
Treat your fellow friends like they were you
And then we all find some peace of mind and unity
I found myself thinking, “How can most of the world and specifically many in the Orthodox Jewish community shun us?” This was more beautiful a davening than I had experienced in many years. Growing up ultra-orthodox I had davened in the frumest [most observant] of yeshivos and shuls in the world. The achdus [unity] I felt here far surpassed other davening experiences.
How can the rabbis be judgmental of people? People who kept a secret and burden to themselves in pain and agony for most of their lives? People who come together in a show of love with struggles a heterosexual person can never even imagine or relate to? Where is their heart? They pity the agunah who can’t get married (but potentially has the ability to). They pity the world’s other sorrows. It is more comfortable to look away and be silent when it is something that cannot be related to.
Ages rushing by
Writing chapters full of sorrow
Webs of self destruction, we are weaving
Because if we don’t even try
There’s no hope for our tomorrow
So what’s it all worth if we are not achieving?
There were workshops that educated and inspired. My favorite was the rebuttal of a recent Rosh Yeshiva‘s essay on homosexuality that was both factually wrong and hashkafically incorrect. I humbly suggest “al tadin es chavercha ad shetagiya l’mkomo.” This translates to “Do not judge a friend until you reach his place,” commonly known as, until you walk in his shoes.
There was a beautiful and intimate program led by rabbis, professionals, and community leaders. This allowed small groups of people to talk about feelings that arose over the weekend on a very personal level. I was inspired and heart broken by things that came up in that group.
Lastly I wanted to talk about the closing sessions. Perhaps this was the most moving of the entire experience for me. As the attendees entered the auditorium, everyone was asked to create a circle. Everyone interlocked with the people on both sides of them. Either they put their arm around the next persons shoulder or they held their neighbors hand. This became a circle of love. A circle of intimate connection. A circle of a people, many struggling to fit in on some level having an electric burst of energy pass from soul to soul.
We sang songs as one. I imagined Hashem smiling down at us and accepting our songs up to the depth of his heavens.
One of the leaders then spoke and thanked various individuals who spearheaded the Shabbos event.
He then said something that moved me to tears and I cry as I write this. I paraphrase, but this was the idea. He first talked about the strength of the people who came to the event. He talked about how brave they are because many did it at risk to themselves on various levels. Here is where I choked up. He asked everyone to take a moment to think about the people that could not be there. People who are scared. People who suffer quietly and have no one to turn to. I added in my mind, people who fear their communities, families and friends reaction to their potential disclosure. People who end up conforming to society’s norms. They live out their years in various stages of pain and denial, yearning for an intimacy they will never have. I hear from too many people who reach out to me through this blog. People who are married. People who are single and looking for love and guidance. Lastly, people who are single and dating (women). The married people talk about how their families feel their depression. They don’t understand. Husbands or wives not understanding the lack of intimacy that is being shown them. They feel caged and frightened. Single men and woman that are confused and have many questions. These people are your brothers, sisters, parents, children, and close friends. I do not judge. I can only speak from my experience and what people have shared.
One year ago that was me. I had lived 35+ years, married, frum and with a pain that pierced the depth of my heart. I was terrified to go to the Eshel shabbaton. This year I went. I went with the world knowing my secret. I went with a million pound burden lifted off my shoulder. I left exhilarated, knowing that I am loved for who I am, not for who the world wanted me to be.
When the leader asked people to step into the circle to share, I was scared. I knew what I wanted to share but I couldn’t gather the strength. Finally as they were about done, I stepped in and shared the feelings I shared above. Before I could even finish, there was a beautiful and rousing sound of applause that gave me a final burst of emotion.
Children, teenagers, adults of any age, please know that there are many people who were in your shoes. Know that you are not alone. Reach out to people that can help you and love you. You cannot learn to love others until you love yourself. Learn to love yourself. Release the burden.
I left the event hugging and kissing the new friends I made, feeling inspired, a sense of responsibility and for the first time in a while a surge of hope.
One thing makes me smile
now at last a happy ending
a universal union undivided
just a little while
we will join the angels singing
peace and love across the world united.
Lyrics are from Unity by Mordechai Ben David
Eshel will be holding a retreat for Orthodox parents of LGBT children, April 26-28. You can find more information and register here.
We’ve been really inspired by the posts penned by some of the teens and staff who attended the LGBTQ Jewish Teen and Ally Shabbatons organized by Keshet and The Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. Participants have been writing about their experiences, their identities, and the complicated and intricate ways that they navigate both. They’ve already covered coming out at an Orthodox day school and deciding to go “stealth” about trans identity, and one BBYO professional who staffed both retreats shared what it means for her, as a Jewish professional, to be an ally to LGBTQ teens.
These teens have shared their written words, and now we’re excited to for you to meet them in this short video! We’ll continue to run regular columns form LGBTQ and ally teens — stay tuned!
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 Jill Hammer sees in the construction of the mishkan a model for a community where everyone, including and especially LGBT Jews, can contribute their own gifts.
In the traditional Jewish community, queer people are often asked “What is your justification for being a queer Jew?” as if queer Jews are a controversial idea rather than a life form. This question may in part stem from an internalization of the model of Sinai, in which ideas are set forth or decried based on covenantal aims. Yet in the parshiyot of Vayakhel-Pekudei, we find a different model for what it means to be a sacred community, one radically different than the model we see at Sinai, and one that tends toward acknowledging people as bodies as well as ideas.
Moses has been instructed to create a mishkan, a dwelling place for the Divine. He asks the people to bring gifts of precious metal, colored yarn, tanned animals skins and jewels to beautify the shrine. The pattern for the mishkan has been set by heaven, yet it is human wisdom and physical activity that weaves the pattern into a multifaceted reality. We are told “all the women whose hearts stirred them up in wisdom spun the goats’ hair” (Exodus 35:26) and “Moses summoned Bezalel and Oholiav [the chief artists] and every man who was wise of heart.” This wise-heartedness allows the people to bring the plans for the sacred shrine to life. Unlike Sinai, when the role of the people is to receive, here the role of the people is to give, and for each to give a unique and personal gift. The design Moses has received cannot live except through the hands of the givers, workers, and artists who join together to weave, shape, build and forge all the necessary pieces of the mishkan-puzzle. When the mishkan is built, it holds something of each person in it.
The words in our parshiyot suggest that “wise-heartedness,” the knowing that comes from inside, has something to contribute to the body of sacred knowledge. Queer people, like other marginalized people, have often spent a great deal of time becoming wise-hearted: knowing and skillful in understanding the workings of their bodies, hearts and spirits. They have had no choice: this skill is a necessary defense against the many people who misunderstand, demonize, or ignore them. Only by knowing themselves can they accurately know which of the images others have thrust on them are false. The gifts they bring to communal understanding of self, sexuality, love and community are powerful. Their embodied wisdom is not simply an idea to take or leave, it is an expertise in being, one that the community needs in order to build.
Indeed, one way all of us become wise-hearted is by learning how to love. We learn this from our parshiyot as well. At the center of the mishkan, on either side of the most sacred altar, are two forms, two cherubim, facing one another across the sacred emptiness above the altar (Exodus 37:7-9). A cherub is a kind of angelic creature, and the name “keruv” or cherub, means “one who draws close” or “one who is intimate.” The Talmud tells us that these cherubim are male and female, and further, that they are embracing in an act of lovemaking. However, it is noteworthy that the Torah does not specify the gender of the cherubim, only that they are glancing at one another while also sheltering one another with their wings. Although the exact spot at which the Divine is said to rest is empty, it is framed by bodies in an act of union and eyes in the act of seeing one another. As Bible scholar Avivah Zornberg noted in a lecture, “God is at the point where the two gazes intersect.” The cherubim, like those who give to the mishkan, provide a throne for the Divine through an embodied act of love. They too teach us about the wisdom we gain from the experience of intimacy with self and other.
When the various cloths, objects and utensils are finally completed, Moses sets up the shrine. The Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, enters the shrine in such thick tangibility that no one else can enter (Exodus 40:34-35). In a sense, confronted with the reality of what the people have made, God becomes a body, a specific entity in a specific time and place, just as humans are specific to time and place. God has learned from, and nested in, the gifts of the people. It appears that the magic of chesed, of self-transcending love, has worked; the mishkan really becomes a receptacle for the sacred. The Shekhinah, who is said to be the sum total of the community of Israel, takes up residence in the place prepared for Her by the entire nation.
Sinai has a great deal to teach us about how to act in the world, but so does the mishkan. The mishkan, with its freewill gifts, its dedicated artists, and its entwined cherubim, teaches us the power of embodied and specific love. If these parshiyot could speak to queer people, they might ask, not “What is your justification for being?” but “What gifts are you bringing to sanctify and beautify the altar?” And this is indeed the right question.
I’ve always believed quite firmly that what is on our kids’ bookshelves, and what we, parents and children together, share at bedtime, makes them who they are. I was particularly excited to hear about the publication of a new children’s book, The Purim Superhero. This story of a little boy, and the Purim-costume dilemma he faces, along with the help of his fathers, feels like the children’s book I’ve been searching for a long time.
Books have fundamental power for our kids. Story time is a way to compellingly deliver the values we wish to instill in them. Books come alive, ideas flooding into minds, fueling connections and other ideas, feelings and sense memories. Expand the power of these books with the participation of a parent and children’s literature knows no bounds. And so I seek books that reflect and reinforce the reality and true diversity of my kids’ world, which we can share together. So, as I’ve written about in columns and blogs before, it’s always been important to me to have plenty of books about Jewish families and experiences. Then within that, we need winter scenes that involve palm trees and beach rather than snow, because, like other Jewish kids here in Florida, my kids don’t know from a white Chanukah and they do tashlich barefoot on the beach.
A few years ago I looked for books that truly reflected our community, which happily has lots of LGBT families and single-parents-by-choice. I was frustrated back then by a lack of books with two moms or two dads. Those that did exist seemed more instructive and less story-driven. They were about what it means to have two moms, rather than a story about a kid who just happened to have two moms. I declared back then that this was outdated – that gay parenting is no longer such a novelty – and that a real need exists for kids’ books that feature kids with LGBT parents simply as a fact, not a lesson. These books weren’t showing my kids reality as it exists for them, and it wasn’t giving me a chance to help instill this basic value in them: our families look different from each other, and that’s not just not a problem – it’s a part of our lives, and a nice one, at that.
Which brings me back to Purim Superhero, a new book published by Kar-Ben Publishing, and the winner of Keshet’s national book-writing context. When I first heard of Keshet’s contest for a Jewish children’s book featuring a queer family, I was absolutely thrilled for all of the reasons above. Now that I see the finished product, all I want to do is celebrate it and get it into the hands of every Jewish family and school in the world, and I hope there are more to follow. [Editors note: Readers can donate a copy of the book via the Keshet website.]
In the book, main character Nate turns to his parents, Daddy and Abba, for unconditional love, support, and problem solving. Peer pressure dictates that he must be a superhero like his friends for Purim. But encouragement from, and the intellectual freedom of, his family teaches Nate that he can get creative with the social standards and define his own rules. Oh, and by the way, Abba and Daddy are both men, heading up a household together amid lots of other families at school and synagogue. For me another big plus here is that the book goes even further to abolish hetero-normative family structure and binary gender measures and roles as Daddy and Abba also seamlessly take on traditionally female roles of household sewing and being a teacher.
The Purim Superhero is refreshing and empowering and I look forward to more books like it.
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 Jacob Staub looks at the narrative of the Golden Calf in search of a welcoming tradition.
I remember vividly the way, as a nine-year-old student at an Orthodox yeshiva in the Bronx, I was troubled when we first studied Parashat Ki Tisa. How could the Israelites have been so myopically impatient?! They had been witness to the plagues. They had been delivered out of Egyptian bondage. They had sung God’s praises on the shore of the Sea while watching their Egyptian pursuers drown. And now, asked to wait a mere forty days while Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they couldn’t wait? And. . . they needed a golden calf to worship?
I was an exemplary yeshiva bochur, at the top of my class, the pride of my teachers. My parents made no secret about having named me Jacob Joseph so that I would be a great rabbi like Rabbi Jacob Joseph, and no thoughts of rebellion had yet arisen in my mind. And so, I assented to my teacher’s traditional interpretation of the narrative: Aaron was right in characterizing the people as “bent on evil.” (Exodus 32:22) They had already murmured about the shortage of water (15:22-25) and bread (16:2-36). They were a stiff-necked people with a slave mentality. The Israelites could not enter the Promised Land until those born into slavery had died out in the wilderness and a new generation, born in freedom, had emerged.
A year or two away from my first conscious reflections on my attraction to other boys, I nevertheless internalized the message. We are sinners and descendants of sinners. We are fortunate to have been chosen to receive the Torah, and only through obedience to its commandments can we overcome our base inclinations. Otherwise, we are doomed to our sinful lives.
Decades later, long after I had become a Reconstructionist rabbi, this parashah continued to trouble me, year after year. I even published an article about it. (“Bless Us, Our Father: Parenting and Our Images of God,” The Reconstructionist [Spring 2000].) I would become angry at the God portrayed in the story. The Israelites, who were presumably several months into a new form of worship of an imageless God, revert to their prior practices, under the guidance of Aaron — who does end up Kohen Gadol (High Priest). As a result, God wants to wipe out the entire people. Moses convinces God not to do so, and instead, Moses directs the Levites to slaughter 3,000 people, followed by a God-sent plague.
If such a God (or Moses, for that matter) were to come to me for counseling, I would recommend anger management therapy! Clearly, the people who authored this text experienced God as an autocratic, ruthless tribal chief — not anyone in whose image I would want to be created. I would prefer to worship and emulate a Being with some compassion, who forgives our limitations, supports us as we falter, and calls us back as we stray.
I yearn for an image of God who forgives a sinful people, but I yearn even more for an image of God who embraces difference rather than condemns it. Moses, up on the mountain, was teaching a kind of worship without molten gold calves and joyful dancing. Some of the Israelites in the valley below were worshipping God by dancing around a golden calf. Can we imagine a story in which Moses respects difference rather than exterminating it?
One definition of the verb “to queer” is “to question all norms.” If we are going to queer Jewish traditions, there is no more important and formidable place to start than at Ma’amad Har Sinai — the narrative of the Sinaitic revelation of the Torah. According to rabbinic tradition, it was here that the 613 mitzvoth were commanded, here that the one, true way (halakhah) to worship the one, true God was revealed. This is the text that provides the foundation for the assertion that there are divinely commanded norms — and the mandate for enforcing those norms, even unto death.
Yet, at the very moment when Moses was receiving the Torah, the text reveals that there were other alternatives. Later interpretations have labored hard to explain the magnitude of the sin of the Golden Calf. The Israelites, however, were not such terrible people. According to rabbinic interpretation, only they, among all of the 70 nations, were so virtuous as to respond, “Na’aseh venishma”/ “We accept the Torah from God sight unseen and commit to doing whatever God commands us before we hear the details.” And they were following the instructions of Aaron, Moses’ brother, soon to be anointed High Priest of Israel, (32:2-6), contrary to his semi-truthful account when Moses later grills him (32:22-24).
It is not so difficult, then, to imagine that the Israelites were worshipping in ways that they thought were acceptable and were surprised by the fervor of Moses’ condemnation. And not so farfetched to imagine that Moses might have descended after forty days, delighted in his people’s enthusiasm, and patiently set out to teach them a new way of worship that was still unfamiliar to them.
Why was Moses so short-tempered and intolerant? According to many contemporary Bible scholars, he wasn’t. Five hundred years later, after the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the leaders of the Kingdom of Judah set out to write a history that blamed Israel’s defeat on the sins of King Jeroboam, who had made two golden calves for the temples in Bethel and Dan (I Kings 12:25-31). Until then, worship had taken place throughout the land in local shrines; now, worship became centralized in Jerusalem, where the leadership could control it. In the wake of the traumatic Assyrian invasion, difference and diversity was suppressed — even retroactively back to the retelling of the Sinai narrative.
So, Moses was portrayed as intolerant by writers who, in their own time, were seeking license to stamp out contemporary diversity. We have no record of what Moses might really have been like. Perhaps he was patient and forgiving. Perhaps, his experience as an outsider in the palace of Pharoah, in the Land of Midian, and even among the Israelites (with whom he had never lived) sensitized him to difference and softened his heart. We don’t know that he was, but neither do we know that he wasn’t.
Jacob J. Staub
From the valley below, the ebullient notes of celebrants,
the beat of tambourines liberated after four hundred years of abuse.
Sing unto the One,
Who smites the tyrant,
Who hears the cries of the oppressed,
Who parts the Sea and plants the seeds for generations yet unborn.
Ana, pool your gold. Adonai, give it to God.
Hoshi’a, smelt it down. Na, cast the throne.
Ashira, link your arms. Ladonai, circle the fire.
Ki, spin into oblivion.
Ga’oh, let go, let go, let go.
Ga’ah, God is One, we are one.
With broken bodies of former slaves, we undulate,
following the Source enthroned into the wilderness of promise.
And up over the ridge, the Levites wait, in formation,
swords on thighs, servants of the Lord, privileged
to follow orders, to do as they are told.
A martial clan descended from the heroes of the Battle of Shechem,
they wear their forebears’ medals proudly.
They have been instructed in the proper use of herbs and oils,
in the dire consequences of disobedience, of initiative, of openheartedness.
In formation, they await the signal from Moses, down from the mountain,
to charge, to slay three thousand defenseless, spent from a night of celebration.
Moses claims that You love only him,
that we were spared because he intervened,
that You do not like our offering.
Moses, who has never seen Your face—
not in the silent, steamy eyes of Tzipporah,
from whom he stays cloistered,
not in the bloody foreskins of his sons,
whom he ignores in the name of his holy work.
Moses, who doesn’t touch.
Moses, who doesn’t dance.
Moses, the bridegroom of blood.
Guide him please, Holy One of Compassion.
We don’t need another Pharaoh to lead us into freedom.
Love him doubly, forgive him his wrath.
He was taken as an infant from his mother.
Only You know what befell the lad in the palace,
but below, all we see is his sweltering rage.
Otherwise, as You surely can foresee,
generations will mistake
fervent worship for idolatry.
Anyone who has ever been to a proper Purim celebration knows that a good Purim party could never be a drag, but for much of Jewish history, it was the only holiday when Jews could do drag. Though cross-dressing was generally forbidden by the rabbis and scholars of our traditional sources, they made an exception for Purim. (If checking traditional sources is your thing, you can find more on this in the Shulchan Arukh.)
To celebrate Purim this year, we bring you two very different Purim-themed, drag-related stories.
The first is a retelling of the Purim story… by some very funny drag queens. The Purim story as you’ve never heard it before!
Check out part one here:
And part two here:
Plus, check out “High Healing: A Purim Message,” a 2006 send-up dvar torah by the Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross, the drag persona of Amichai Lau-Lavie. The piece originally ran as a part of the Torah Queeries collection. The Rebbetzin was writing about the Conservative movement before the decision to ordain out gay and lesbian rabbis, and her writing delivers the promised “kick in the tuchis!”
High Healing: A Purim Message
This morning, just after a fitting for my Purim gown, I visited the “closed-door” meeting of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, a rather tedious affair, even with the agenda focused on as flamboyant an issue as gay rights. As an observant, Orthodox woman, I was pleased to observe the moral leadership of the committee’s rabbis, and I was impressed with their deep commitment to Jewish law. How well they take care of Judaism, I noted, and yet, I also wondered to myself, how well are they taking care of the Jews?
Perhaps the Conservative Movement’s rabbis can learn a lesson about responding to people’s need for modernity from Yisrael Meir Lau, Israel’s former Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi and my esteemed friend, who held a press conference this morning in Tel Aviv to promote a new Kosher McDonalds chain in Israel. The new restaurants will have blue signs, not the usual red, making it easier for those of us who keep kosher and are starved for new attractions to locate these safe dens in Israel’s malls. Rabbi Lau said: “Blue is the sky, blue is the prayer shawl. Blue is the flag of Israel. Blue is not red. There must be a clear difference, a sharp difference.”
I too love blue, and am deeply moved by the rabbi’s poetry and conviction, as well as his dedication to focusing on the important issues – meeting the people where they are and with what they want – McDonalds, sadly, in this case. But the bigger picture here is what matters to me – the insistence on the fundamentals of Judaism while being flexible to the needs of the times. Perhaps the Conservative rabbis can take an example from these blue signs and look for creative solutions to their halachic challenges?
Not that I am comparing Kosher McBurgers to gay Conservative rabbis, of course, but I am struck with these two stories, how “sharply different” they are while also very similar. In your bed or on your plate – what is “in” and what is “out”? Red or blue, kosher or treif, heterosexual and queer, Prada or Gucci – everyone is obsessed with labels. Certainly there is a time to honor labels and boundaries – but there is also a time to peel away the label and reveal the surprises that cannot be labeled, or that do not fit snugly into “small,” “medium,” or “large.” Purim night is upon us – the perfect opportunity to lose the labels, let loose, and put the fun back in fundamentalism – in strict accordance with Jewish law! This holiday is, in my opinion, the holiest one of the year. Although often neglected, Purim is dedicated to the courageous peeling away of labels, unmasking the safety of the familiar and entering the delicious territory of the unknown. Oh, how I love Purim!
I want to encourage each and every one of you – saint or sinner – to piously observe the important laws of Purim – especially the ones that ask us to go beyond the law, peel the label, turn the table, and drink the night away. Yes. Drink, kinderlach, or whatever it takes to blur the differences until you don’t know the difference between blue or red, Mordechai or Haman, Jew or Gentile, man or woman, straight or gay, meshugena or mentsch. From this upside-down folly, taken seriously, much redemption is born to the soul! Some Kabbalists (my third and fourth husbands, for example) taught that in the future days, the only two holidays to remain on the Jewish calendar will be Yom Kippur and Purim – two days that are complete opposites but are both days of sacred transformation. Our ancestors understood that the only way to live with laws is to break them from time to time – or nothing will ever change.
Purim is also my birthday. Named after Queen Esther (whose real name is Hadassah), I was taught early on in life to honor my inner queen, glamorous and proud, bold and loud. This Purim, I want to encourage you too to come out of your skin, your closet, and your familiar face, and to walk in someone else’s shoes for the night. This is the lesson of Purim. Imagine wearing a cross. Or cross-dressing. So many opportunities for creative role-play! Discover your inner queen, or policeman, or geisha, or even your inner gay cowboy, or Conservative rabbi! And of course – lubricate. The Purim law is – everything in moderation, including moderation.
I am planning to dance in the streets of Manhattan this Purim, and to crash the party at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. Why not? The Conservative Movement needs some style, and a kick in the tuchis, and I have the perfect heels, Prada of course.
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, Y. Gavriel A. Levi Ansara finds deep spiritual meaning in the instructions given to Moses for building the Tabernacle.
Parashat Terumah opens with G-d speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai and commanding him in meticulous detail regarding the construction of the Mishkan, or “tabernacle,” the portable dwelling place of G-d’s presence that the Israelites could promptly assemble, dismantle, transport, and then reassemble during their sojourn in the desert.
G-d tells Moses: “Daber el Bnai Yisrael veyikchu li terumah me’et kol ish asher yidvenu libo tikchu et terumati./ Speak to the Children of Israel and have them bring Me an offering. Take My offering from everyone whose heart impels him to give.” (Exodus 25:2) Hashem continues by commanding Moses to acquire fifteen materials for the construction of the Mishkan — each item a gift or offering (terumah), and each to be brought by someone “whose heart impels him.” The offerings include gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and red-dyed wool; flax, goat hair, and animal skins; acacia wood, olive oil, spices, and gems. This lengthy description of the offerings necessary for the Mishkan emphasizes the multiplicity and diversity of color and material, a symbolic acknowledgment that sacred community cannot exist without embracing the unique experiences and identities of all Jews.
The glaring contrast between the luxurious aesthetics describing the Mishkan and the profound displacement of our people is intentional. It is at precisely this juncture in our history that our people achieved what many Jewish sages characterize as the height of human achievement. The Mishkan becomes the standard from which melachah, (constructive activities prohibited on Shabbat and holidays) and thereby major halachot (Jewish laws) concerning Shabbat, are derived.
Why does the construction of the Mishkan occur during this period of strife and disaffection? What motivating force drives the desire to give offering to Hashem at the height of exile? It is the same drive that propels gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, genderqueer, and intersex (GLB/TGI) Jewish refugees from oppressive communal environments to renew the empty realms of their hearts by turning to Hashem, transforming derelict emotional landscapes into the Binyan Adei Ad (everlasting home) that their souls crave.
While a superficial glance at Parashat Terumah may give us the misleading impression that it is simply a verbose list of materials and building instructions, these lavish descriptions serve a profound purpose: to remind us that even in the midst of the most severe and abiding wilderness, we not only continue to be bound by G-d’s commandments, but often find ourselves in greater need of them than before. Two of the most powerful verses in this parasha are G-d telling Moses “Ve’asu li mikdash veshachanti betocham/ They shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8) and “Veno’adeti lecha sham/ I will commune with you there.” (Exodus 25:22) This entire parasha is a prescription for allowing the Jewish people to receive Hashem’s tender loving presence during hard times!
The weekly maqaam (a type of melody) we use in several Mizrahi (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) traditions provides us with melodies and tunes to express the main theme and emotional state of each parasha. The maqaam for Parashat Terumah, Maqaam Hoseni, (hosn, meaning beauty or splendor) focuses on the expression of beauty. This maqaam allows us to transcend the often bleak situations of our physical realities by evoking the lush qualities of the Mishkan, thereby emphasizing the rich possibilities of our spiritual lives. This message of transcendence resonates powerfully with many Jews who struggle to reconcile traditional Jewish observance with self-affirmation as GLB/TGI people.
In my outreach work as an observant Jew, I receive frequent phone calls from people who feel abandoned by G-d, whose inner emotional landscapes invoke images of that same wilderness in which the Israelites found themselves. The psychological “homes” of these callers have been devastated by the rejections and aspersions they have received from their communities. While other callers report unexpected, positive responses and affirmation from their rabbis, loved ones, and community members, it is the former group, whose spiritual needs seem most dire, with which I am most concerned.
Cast out of familiar territory, these Jews often find themselves wandering in a spiritual desert. More liberal religious environments fail to satisfy many of them, because they crave the intensity and lifestyle immersion of traditional Jewish experience. Yet returning to their previous religious environments would require negation of self, disconnection from the very spiritual nakedness and sincerity that form the basis for a meaningful relationship with G-d. So these Jews find themselves adrift, traveling far from past sources of religious nourishment in search of a place in which they can integrate their psychosocial and spiritual selves toward the achievement of wholeness and well-being.
Many of the GLB/TGI Jews who contact me have renounced religious observance altogether, expressing anger at G-d for the bigotry they have experienced in Jewish communities. Yet in Parashat Terumah, Hashem makes the potent assertion that it is precisely during moments of rejection and despair that prayer, relationship with the Divine, and spiritual observances are essential to restoring our dignity. The rage and pain that so many people express often deepens their sense of isolation. Yet it is not Hashem who has spurned them; it is not Hashem who has cruelly propelled them from the sheltering warmth of their social networks. The harmful actions of other people are not direct statements of Divine Will, regardless of assertions to that effect by those who inflict emotional and spiritual damage upon others in the guise of religiosity. In Parashat Terumah, G-d offers these embittered outcasts the gift of a safe space, filled with luxurious beauty and sustenance, to nourish them as they journey in search of places where their values as GLB/TGI people are not pitted against their devotion to Jewish observance.
This crossing is arduous enough that we cannot afford to take any opportunities for spiritual enrichment for granted. Parashat Terumah provides us with an empowered model for survival precisely because both our traditional observance and our GLB/TGI experiences are integral to our existence. It may be a Friday night Shabbat gathering in a small living room containing a handful of similarly devoted friends, or the quiet peace of lighting candles alone in your kitchen with your same-gender bashert. It may be laying tefillin at home in the morning as a trans man who finds himself unable to pass in a small community where everyone knows his history, or lighting candles to welcome the Shabbat Queen as a trans woman carrying on the legacy of her foremothers. These simple acts of affirmation define us in the same way that the Mishkan defined our spiritual ancestors in the desert. To my fellow travelers in this struggle for spiritual affirmation, I urge you to turn toward Hashem, to allow yourselves to receive the awaiting bounty of your own private Mishkan.