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

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Shabbat Sh’lakh L’kha: Don’t Be Afraid, Together We Can Do This

We are learning, as a human family and as Jews, the price of fear, and of second-hand information. It’s a long road, stretching all the way back to our parashat hashavua. In Sh’lakh L’kha, we have crossed the wilderness, we are camped on the edge of the Land of Promise. Perhaps it’s only human that we do not go immediately forward, trusting in G*d to support us into this final form of the unknown. Instead, Moshe our leader sends twelve scouts ahead of us, to travel the length and breadth of the land, and to bring back a report to the People Israel, waiting breathlessly, excited and, yes, also afraid. There is, after all, something about the final moment of truth from which we quail.

Why is the language of lovemaking so hard to learn?
Why is the body so often dumb flesh?
Why does the mind so often choose to fly away
at the moment the word waited for all one’s life is about to be spoken?

– Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar

The scouts complete their mission and return. They all agree that the land is beautiful and fertile. Then one of them begins to relate the size of the fortified cities and their inhabitants. “Really?” I can imagine the response. “How big are they?” asks one. “Are they fierce?” another anxiously inquires. “Do they eat people? I heard they eat people!” And before long Moshe has a full-fledged panic on his hands. Fear is electric, and it can bond us all together in a syngergistic current that makes of a casual remark a trigger for all the terrors an active imagination can create.

What makes the final step, that move from almost to arrival so terribly difficult that we begin to imagine all the ways that it cannot possibly succeed?
The entry into the Land of Promise is not only a geographical move. Viewed from the mythical perspective, we can feel the resonance to anything that is longed for, anything that is promised in some wonderful perfect future. It is no accident that in many stories of the journey to fulfillment, monsters must be battled. In Judaism those terrors are sometimes in the world around us, as we can see in the form of those who fight against change even when it is manifestly for the better, for themselves and for the world.
But the terror are also that which we conjure up inside us, and that urge, which our tradition names the yetzer hara’, the “evil impulse,” is often our most significant challenge. The yetzer, we are taught, is not only an impulse to do evil; it is also that impulse which keeps us from believing in ourselves and in our ability to reach our Promise.
Why would the Israelites hesitate to enter the fulfillment of the Promise they lived for?
Why do people vote against their own interests?
Why do we so often run away from the love and wholeness
that is so close to our grasp,
and for which we so long?
On this Shabbat, Pride Shabbat, we celebrate the power of love in all its forms. Judaism teaches that love is the highest human expression, and Jewish mysticism promises that when we reach understanding, judgement and mercy will merge into compassion.
Don’t misunderstand me: there is evil, and there are real dangers. That’s why we have to always remember to stick together. There are real monsters out there. But the Israelites didn’t check on that report; didn’t consider the effect they might be experiencing, of the fear of the unknown. They panicked – without ever verifying if there really was anything to fear. That second-hand information cost them forty years more of wandering before another chance would come to reach the Promise.
Look inside: is there a magnifier there, enlarging every fear until they seem like monsters? The answer is to reach out of yourself. Get a new perspective: check what you think you know. Question your doubts as well as your beliefs. Ask someone you trust for another opinion – and not someone who will only agree with you. Get a second opinion about that which most terrifies you – there’s no need to add to the real monsters with those we construct out of fear, second hand.
Don’t be afraid, said Joshua and Caleb, the only two scouts who disagreed with the rest. Together we can do this. The Israelites did not hear them. Can we, so much further (we hope) down the road of learning about letting fear control us, hear them? When we support each other, we will find a way to let go of those fierce, people-eating monsters that appear between us and our wholeness when we are nearly, almost there. When we defeat the mirage of terror created by our own yetzer hara’ we will see it: the Land of the Promise we all long for.