Engaging New Torah Queeries
-- Rabbi Goldie Milgram
New ideas and ideals in Jewish and secular life tend to develop on a creative periphery and move into mainstream acceptance over time. Usually, this ideological shift occurs in response to real or perceived oppression or inequities. We have seen this with regard to labor laws, kashrut, women and children, as well as the ordination and growing acceptance of female, gay and lesbian clergy. All along the remarkably diverse spectrum of gender we are seeing new books and social action initiatives in Jewish life.
These trends are underscored by two recent sets of work, the carefully researched and wonderfully imaginative historical fiction of Rashi's Daughters (Book I: Yocheved; Book II: Miriam; Book III: Rachel; by Maggie Anton and the poignant non-fiction lament and solidarity of Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, Edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer with a Foreword by Judith Plaskow. I review them together because Rashi's Daughters beautifully contextualizes the historic struggles for inclusion so well documented in Torah Queeries.
Reclaiming “herstory” as well as a wide range of engendered Jewish experience is a major part of the mission of Rashi's Daughters. Maggie Anton employs the power of storytelling to envision the lives of three medieval French Jewish sisters, their families, and famous father, the great commentator and vintner Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki. The author's simple approach to narrative writing facilitates the readers' learning a great deal of Talmud, Torah and Jewish history, particularly regarding Shabbat, gender, Judaism's spiritual practices around sexuality, wine-making, contact between men and men in the yeshivot, and the culture and times leading up into the Crusades. By way of example, let's enter Rashi's Daughters in Book III, where one daughter, Rachel, is filling her sister Miriam in on her trip to Tunis:
“You can imagine my surprise when I learned that both he [her husband's business associate] and the Nubian housekeeper, Dhabi, were slaves who now belonged to Elizer [Rachel's husband]. And then I realized that Dhabi was actually my father-in-law's concubine.”
“Eliezer's father had a second wife in Tunis?” Miriam's voice rose in dismay....So, besides owning slaves, what else was different between Tunis and Troyes? How did you spend your days?”
“Visiting other women.” Rachel sighed. A major disparity, one that irritated her the longer they stayed, was that Tunisian women seldom left their homes except to visit other women. They rarely saw men outside their families.
Experiencing medieval life through women's eyes includes aspects few may have pondered in our time, such as what it might have felt like to be targeted by a non-Jewish noble under the rules of “courtly love.” This is “where a knight devotes himself to a married noblewoman who feigns indifference to preserve her reputation...The code requires that, should the lady accept him as her lover, he must remain discreet and faithful despite all obstacles....And Frankish Jews have the status of knights.” As one of Rashi's married daughters is assailed by such a one, we learn intricacies of Talmud and the nobility of leniency in interpretation that our tradition attributes to truly great teachers.
If there is too much of anything in Rashi's Daughters, it's steamy sex scenes; not much is left to the reader's imagination. There is also an element missing. Somehow, regardless of their sexual orientation, the major characters do manage to reproduce with their wives. As a reader I wondered if Anton is in denial that some humans simply cannot deal with the opposite sex at all and that some remain barren for life. With all the choices she presents, these too deserve a prominent place in the script.
How my generation yearned for lively material like Rashi's Daughters in rabbinical school. And on occasion, some did emerge. I well recall Dr. Jacob Staub, then Dean of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, introducing us to courtier times, when men would write wine poetry as an expression of the beauty of gorgeous boys serving them at all male parties. He revealed to us how the Shabbat prayer L'cha Dodi came from this genre, reinterpreted in Jewish liturgy as the Shabbos bride wedding the masculine dimension of God. Anton brings not only the courtier class salon to our attention, but also those she terms ganymedes, men whose natural attraction is to men, not women.
Ganymede in Greek mythology was a Trojan boy of great beauty whom Zeus carried away to be his lover and cupbearer to the gods. We read of the sorrows of young men attempting to control not only their yetzer ha-rah, sexual energy, for each other, but also the love that not infrequently blossoms in the intimacy of study partner relationships. Anton doesn't shy away from details, including the loopholes that still exist in Jewish law for males to go off to a prostitute or another town to satisfy a compulsion in secret, away from his community.
There is often a brilliance to the Torah commentary of those who have been oppressed just for who they are. Such individuals often have an ability to see from a different angle, termed “bent” in this volume. Queer Theory, for the uninitiated, is an approach to literary analysis that, as Plaskow explains, “challenges norms, upends hierarchies, and trains people to read against the grain.” Some entries offer a clever reinterpretation of the Hebrew, as in Yoel Kahn's take on the Torah portion titled Vayeitzei as meaning “And Jacob Came Out.” Others offer a rereading so plausible as to awaken and astonish us all, such as Sarra Lev's very careful reading of the Hebrew in parshat [each weekly Torah reading is termed a parsha] Toldot helps us see Esau's choices as not those of a macho man, but rather as one more “classically female.”
Isaac, she shows us, can be read as being the one who hungers for meat from the hunt and expects his first born to be a leader of men. Isaac the father projects onto Esau the type of man he wants to see. But Lev documents how Esau is not Mr. Macho in the text, how Esau tires of the hunt and eagerly sells his birthright for a pot of lentil stew. Leadership schemes and family politics are not Esau's mettle, but rather that of his smooth skinned brother. Lev reads Isaac as a parent blind to the true nature of his sons. She shows us an emotional Esau, a son who is more like a disempowered woman. In fact, his words echo those of Hagar-the-outsider who “lifted up her voice and cried” (Gen. 21:16) as does Esau (Gen. 27:38).
As in Rashi's Daughters, many of the commentary authors in Torah Queeries have carefully excavated any and all traditional Jewish commentaries that address or highlight the gender issues under consideration. Gwynn Kessler's entry on parshat Vayera reveals: “A tradition in the Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 64a-b) that states, “R. Ammi said, 'Abraham and Sara were tumtumim [of indeterminate sex/gender]'...” She goes on to write: “I imagine Abraham as a genderqueer kid in his father's little shop of horrors, smashing the idols, the false ideals, of heterosexism and gender normativity with as much fervor as he smashed the wood and stone images of false gods.”
Though some commentary from straight allies is included in the volume, Torah Queeries is primarily a volume where parsha (Torah portion) by parsha, those who are not heterosexuals find ways to locate something of their lives within the text. It is as Judith Plaskow states in her introduction, “Torah Queeries builds on ..[the] history of feminist commentary by enlarging the circle of former outsiders who now claim the authority to participate in the process of expounding on Torah.” She explains this is part of “a countertrend” to the Marxian view of religion as the “opiate of the masses,” where leaders such as the Reverand Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel “saw social justice and religion as intimately linked and the Bible as a text of liberation, not oppression.”
In light of the controversy of retaining homosexuals in the military under debate here in America and the arrest of women attempting to hold Torah services and wear tallitot during prayer at the Kotel, Dawn Rose's piece on parshat Miketz is a springboard to awareness. She illuminates something fascinating that is really hidden in plain sight within Judaism. “...Mystical Judaism teaches that man should have desire for God and “cleave” to him in mystical and ecstatic union. This state of human-Divine union is often called yihud, which is also the name in the Jewish tradition of the first quiet and secluded moments a newly married couple spends together...Even in non-mystical Judaism, the daily ritual of tefillin or phylacteries is performed while reciting the Hebrew liturgical formula for betrothal.”
Rose gives a number of reasons why Jewish men might put themselves into the female position vis-a-vis a masculine Godsense by talking about an
“'old gay' designation of soft butch.... a woman who sometimes likes to look butch (masculine) but does not always want to behave that way...
might want to experience behaving more passively...than aggressively....” So by analogy, she suggests this balance of masculine and feminine is also desired by
“a whole lot of other people apparently, particularly in their relationship with God.” Which leads one to wonder, if this subliminal gender balancing that is
so difficult to face might be the self-homophobic force behind opposition to women in
tallitot? While Dr. Rose doesn't specifically make this leap, her feminist approach leads one to wonder if this could undergird the violent responses to the Women of the Wall.
Religious violence and derision of gay males is often rooted in biblical interpretation. AIDS, for example, is viewed by some religious fundamentalists as a punishment by God, an explanation derived by analogy from the longstanding belief that God inflicted leprosy for wrongdoing. It is most unfortunate that Jay Michaelson's commentary in Torah Queeries lends a hand in perpetuating the mistranslation of the biblical term tza'ra-at as leprosy. A summary of research on tza'ra-at was reported in Koroth (Vol. 9 No. 11-12, 1991, published by the Department of History of Medicine, Hebrew University) and also in a 1993 letter to the New York Times. The report stated that tza-ra’at was erroneously rendered as “leprosy” when the bible was translated from Greek into English. Lepros actually means a skin reaction in Greek, whereas elephantiasis was the Greek term in its time for leprosy. Even more striking is that Hanson’s Disease, a.k.a. leprosy, bears no common manifestations with those listed in the Torah and, in fact, anthropologists and epidemiologists maintain that leprosy did not appear until the time of the Greeks.
It is critical that Jewish scholars, teachers and rabbis do not to perpetuate this mistranslation any further, as it has facilitated so much cruelty to date. Correcting mistranslations that yield what the bible scholar Phyllis Trible termed "texts of terror" is something allies for the equal and honorable inclusion of GBLTQ Jews must include in our work and teachings.
Regarding Aharei Mot, the Torah portion central to the issue of homosexuality, Elliot Dorf of the Conservative Movement lets us know that to his regret even he, an accomplished Jewish bioethicist, could not find a way to endorse anal sex within a halachic paradigm. Perhaps by way of response Steven Greenberg, best known perhaps for the groundbreaking film on homosexuality in Orthodoxy, Trembling before God, points to the possibility of “a unique vision of queer love that lives at the margins of a much larger divine plan and that, being at the margins, can rightly claim to obey a different set of rules.”
In an important joint essay on parshat Re'eh, Gregg Drinkwater and David Shneer issue a call for ethics in the GBLTQ relationship to Judaism as an evolving tradition. They cite the Chief Rabbi of England, Sir Jonathan Sacks: “Judaism never changes but halachah does.” They urge social change that is “Godly and not written on one's own account; the wellspring of change must allow us to celebrate the core values given at Sinai.” They also cite the medieval Jewish philosopher Albo teaching that Torah cannot possibly be understood as static for how can one “prevent God's self from adding or diminishing.”
The Reform Movement's Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion ordained Elliot Kukla, the first rabbi admitted as a woman and ordained as a man, in 2006. He wrote in his commentary on parshat Shemot probably the most memorable lines in Torah Queeries. As a youth on a family retreat with the Buddhist scholar Rimpoche, Kukla was caught repeatedly ringing a gong during silent meditation. He recalls Rimpoche first telling him that nothing is inherently wrong with ringing a gong, but there was a lesson to learn. Kukla learned from Rimpoche that “The key in growing...would be to figure out the right moments to ring the gong and when I needed to respect the silence.” This commentary, like many in the volume, helps us understand what sexual repression and societal oppression of those who are different sounds like and feels like. He urges us to, like the title of his commentary, be “Making Noise for Social Change” on gender matters.
The palpable yearning of most of the commentators is to be accepted as they are. They do not seek interventions to help them change as speech pathologists eliminate lisps or surgeons remove diseased or inconvenient tissues. Ihos Singer joins Kukla and many of the authors who recognize that acceptance will not come from silence in the face of oppression, but rather from vocal visibility. Like Moses going “back to Egypt” to free the slaves, “We go back to Egypt every time we show up at a PTA meeting as a queer family, every time we introduce our partner, every time we push for unisex bathrooms, every time we reveal our truth. Each time we come out, we are taking on the daunting task of reshaping the hearts and minds of everyone we touch.”
In some ways the volume feels like a visit to a gay bar. In Torah Queeries it becomes clear that one is a guest witnessing a different culture with its own vocabulary and behaviors. The GBLTQ authors and those they represent are a distinct “we” and not an “us” that includes the heterosexual reader. The volume reads as a gathering of essays by and primarily for those who have been gender oppressed. Although in her commentary on Balak, Dr. Lori Lefkowitz tries to say that we are all of us queer “because each of us improvises a Self, the Self is queer, by definition, it doesn't resonate as true in the face of the acute suffering of those oppressed for their non-heterosexual orientation."
Torah Queeries makes a great gift for GBLTQ friends, colleagues and family members, Jewish and non-Jewish, because it provides fascinating “bent” perspectives on the parshiot and urges GBLTQ persons to speak up for the justice and respect they deserve. As a long-time ally to this cause, my primary disappointment with the endeavor is that it does not speak to all of us by presenting alternate gender interpretations in a way that would make it a must have Torah commentary for those of us who regularly study Torah and give talks about Torah. Since most all of us have GBLTQ family members, whether we know it or not, as an act of solidarity and support there is a place for this volume in every home library.
The editorial decision to give full voice to GBLTQ concerns through the lens of Torah commentary ultimately does confront us with the challenge of whether the tent of Judaism has, or will make, room for all.
Both Rashi's Daughters and Torah Queeries succeed at expanding our understanding of human experience. While eloquently articulating the pain of gender and religious oppression, they also show how Jewish texts and tradition can be interpreted to enfranchise, engage and uplift the voices of all. The appearance of these works via mainstream publishers attests to society's growing willingness to listen.
Susannah Heschel, despite rumors to the contrary, reports she chose to place an orange on her seder plate as a symbol of inclusion of gays and lesbians and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. When last year I led a cruise ship seder, imagine my surprise to find oranges on each table's seder plate and a room full of Jews - secular through modern Orthodox - who joyfully accepted facilitation by a woman rabbi.
As Purim approaches, may we all be inspired by all our Queen Esthers to take risks for justice and to practice inclusiveness in fulfillment of the mitzvah of ahavat yisrael, love of our people. For as our tradition teaches, it is only when we can respectfully include each other that the messianic potential for peace among the nations comes ever closer to being realized.
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