At the very end of our parashat hashavua this week we find this instruction about the altar we are making for a way to focus communication with HaShem:
לֹא־תַעֲל֥וּ עָלָ֛יו קְטֹ֥רֶת זָרָ֖ה וְעֹלָ֣ה וּמִנְחָ֑ה וְנֵ֕סֶךְ לֹ֥א תִסְּכ֖וּ עָלָֽיו׃
You shall not offer alien incense on it, or a burnt offering or a meal offering; neither shall you pour a libation on it. (Exodus 30.9)
“Alien” is not defined, but that doesn’t stop every organized religion, and every other coherent system of human belonging, to spend a great deal of time determining the boundaries between what’s in and out – and who is in, and who is out.
To our great detriment as a species, influences on our makeup beyond our conscious control have led us to violate the greatest of all mitzvot – that of honoring the Other as equally made in the divine Image – in ways that embarrass and confound us, once the scales fall from our eyes.
“It’s written in the Torah” is, as every learning Jew knows, not a basis for Jewish ethical behavior. The Torah is more correctly seen as part of a much larger conversation that the Jewish people has been having, and will continue to have, as a people that follows a particular spiritual path.
If we go no further than the surface meaning of the Torah, our understanding of what is Jewish and who we are is terribly narrowed down and impoverished. We are left believing that our tradition is shallow and inhumane, when in truth there is nothing more passionate and courageous than good deep Torah Study.
And there is no group more willing to ask questions of our own assumptions and truths than learning Jews, neither today nor in the past. We see indications of this throughout the Talmud. For example, many of us assume that the notion of a spectrum of gender identity is a new idea; in reality, it is an idea that is being re-discovered, rather like the works of the ancient Greeks had to be rediscovered in medieval Al Andalus after being lost in the ignorance fostered by European Christianity’s animus toward anything alien to its teachings.
Indeed: our Talmud is aware of and has terminology for eight separate genders, and deals at length with how each exists as part of Jewish society. None are considered alien, or, worse, morally wrong. Rather, our tradition regards each kind of human being as equally precious and equally to be respected:
“There are many with me” (Psalm 55.19) and who are they? They are the angels that watch over people. Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi said: an entourage of angels always walks in front of people, with messengers calling out “make way for the Image of the blessed holy One!” (Devarim Rabbah, Re’eh 4)
The xenophobia currently rampant in U.S. discourse demonstrates the danger of defining too much that one encounters as “alien” and therefore wrong or bad; much is being lost in the ignorance fostered in our own day, including our own sense of safety. Torah leaves the term alien undefined here, and everywhere else the term exists; it’s up to us to join the rich learning conversation that explores the intersection of textual encounter and living teachings.