Shabbat Naso: Queering Your Torah Study

Shir Tikvah’s greatest contribution to the Portland Jewish community is our vibrant, provocative weekly Torah study. As scholar Judith Plaskow put it:

 

Given the centrality of Torah study and interpretation to Jewish self-understanding, it is not surprising that many contemporary Jews continue to grapple with Torah as a way of defining their Jewish identities. Whether they turn to Torah out of a simple desire to learn, deep commitment, puzzlement, or passionate anger and dissent, they continue to understand the acts of reading and interpretation as crucial to who they are.[1]

 

This is the way we see Torah study at Shir Tikvah. Women and LGBTQIA+ Jews are examples of  the marginalized communities within Judaism which have felt distanced by Torah in one way or another. Walking away is one answer, but it is a spiritual dead end. It was only when we took the altar by the horns and insisted on our ability to read more deeply, using the traditional tools themselves, that we began to see the traditional interpretation of any given verse as only one possible aspect of a Torah that can truly belong to all of us.

 

Feminists began to insist on our right to center existing teachings that had been, like us, marginalized. Queer perspectives on Torah uncover new meanings by “insisting on the fluidity of all seemingly fixed boundaries.”[2] When we engage and struggle to find meaning within this central text of our people, the gift we give to the entire Jewish community is that of renewal, a refreshing of well-known stories with new depths of meaning, of relevance, and of exciting inspiration.

 

This Shabbat’s parashah is called Naso, from the Hebrew idiom naso et rosh, which means “lift up the head.” The meaning in this context is to count the people, but look at the richness of perspective in the actual wording: to lift up the head is to look each individual person in the face, to see them and to account for them. It is the essential act of loving kindness we can offer each other, and in so doing, to welcome each other at our Torah study table. Welcome to you, and to your questions and thoughts, and to the unique, holy and absolutely necessary sense of meaning that you bring when you are known, and named, and seen in your face for who and what you are. In this way we lift up the Torah’s face as well, and look for the place where we can hold on to it, that the words of Proverbs may be true for us:

עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר

Torah is a tree of life to those who hold on to her,

whoever holds on to her is enriched

– Proverbs 3.18

We give thanks on this Pride Shabbat for all those over many years of Shir Tikvah Torah study who have helped us queer our learning, and in so doing bring marvels of meaning and relevance to all of us, at the table we share and beyond.

 

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

 

On being an orthodox Jew who believes queer people deserve complete equality:  https://hevria.com/elad/not-waiting-halacha-queer-rights/

 

 

[1] Judith Plaskow, “Foreward” Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible (2009) xi

[2] ibid, xii

Advertisements

Shabbat Mishpatim: Equality Before the Law – For All of Us

Last week in parashat Yitro we stood together at Sinai, and entered into the covenant with our G-d as a community, all equally necessary, equally precious. The text itself expresses this in unspecific language:

And Moses brought forth the people [et ha’am] out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. (Ex.19.17)

Et ha’am, “the people”, can as easily refer to the men, representing each household, as to all the adults, or even all the Israelites, of all ages and genders. It may also be fair to simply note that the Sinai experience was so overwhelming that it could not be communicated in detail. This is hinted at by the text itself, since we are only told of nine (or ten, depending upon your interpretation) laws incumbent upon Israelites through the Covenant relationship

The details of the laws are the subject of our parashah this week – the “fine print”, if you will, of the Covenant relationship. While you will not find in this parashah all 613 of the mitzvot as they are traditionally counted, there are fifty three, covering both moral and ritual obligations. The question we are left with from the Sinai account of the Covenant moment is this: if only the men stood at Sinai, then, as Judith Plaskow once famously observed, are only men Jews?

Not only is G-d in the details, as it has been said, but so, apparently, is our own identity. To whom do the laws apply? How? When?

When we compare what scholars call “a second Covenant ceremony” on the steppes of Moab in parashat Nitzavim, we find more explicit language to help us answer the question of who stands before G-d in Covenant relationship:

You are standing this day, all of you, before YHVH your G-d: your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers – all the men of Israel; the little ones, women, strangers that are among you, even the wood choppers and the water drawers, to enter into the Covenant of YHVH your G-d, and into G-d’s oath, which YHVH your G-d makes with you today. (Deuteronomy 29.9)

Here, it is explicitly stated that all of us are counted; all of us count. Social class? an aside, gender and age? unimportant, elites and masses? all alike. This Covenant moment takes place, by the way, forty years after the Sinai moment.

It’s a growing, developing revelation. So is our own modern sense of community. It takes a while to realize that all social classes and all forms of humanity are equally created in G-d’s image. It takes a while, perhaps, for the men to realize that they can’t do it alone; it takes forty years of wandering to come to understand that we are all more alike than different, no matter what seems to separate us.

It is appropriate that we celebrate Equality Shabbat this week, along with all the Community of Welcoming Congregations in Oregon, because this week is all about the details of our Covenant with G-d and each other, details of mitzvot that demand the best we have from all of us, not just some of us acting on behalf of others of us.

We are neither at Sinai, in the first shock of the moment, nor at Nitzavim toward the end of the Torah’s narrative; we are in the middle, in the fine print, in the ongoing, confusing, foggy midst of a revelation that has not entirely unfolded. We are still learning what is true and right and righteous, from learning and from experience. From knowledge to understanding, and then, perhaps, to wisdom, as the mystical sefirot show us, is a long and uncertain road.

Equality Shabbat is our moment to recognize that, no matter what our tradition believed about women in the past, they do stand equally with men before G-d; no matter what we thought we knew, when we look at the Torah it does not say “all of you who are straight men” stand before G-d, nor even “all of you who are Israelites”, but all Jews, no matter gender, sexual orientation, age, or origin, stand together, nitzavim, as the text says, “firmly rooted” in our standing. It does not say that at the Sinai moment; there, we trembled and fell down. Only when we stand respectful of the image of G-d in each and all of us equally can we stand firmly.

For more of Rabbi Ariel’s teachings on the relevance of ancient sacred text to your life, get her book – available in paperback and on Kindle: Because All Is One