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Torah Queeries

Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible

With a Foreword by JUDITH PLASKOW
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 349
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  • Book Info
    Torah Queeries
    Book Description:

    In the Jewish tradition, reading of the Torah follows a calendar cycle, with a specific portion assigned each week. These weekly portions, read aloud in synagogues around the world, have been subject to interpretation and commentary for centuries. Following on this ancient tradition, Torah Queeries brings together some of the world's leading rabbis, scholars, and writers to interpret the Torah through a "bent lens". With commentaries on the fifty-four weekly Torah portions and six major Jewish holidays, the concise yet substantive writings collected here open up stimulating new insights and highlight previously neglected perspectives.This incredibly rich collection unites the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight-allied writers, including some of the most central figures in contemporary American Judaism. All bring to the table unique methods of reading and interpreting that allow the Torah to speak to modern concerns of sexuality, identity, gender, and LGBT life. Torah Queeries offers cultural critique, social commentary, and a vision of community transformation, all done through biblical interpretation. Written to engage readers, draw them in, and, at times, provoke them, Torah Queeries examines topics as divergent as the Levitical sexual prohibitions, the experience of the Exodus, the rape of Dinah, the life of Joseph, and the ritual practices of the ancient Israelites. Most powerfully, the commentaries here chart a future of inclusion and social justice deeply rooted in the Jewish textual tradition.A labor of intellectual rigor, social justice, and personal passions, Torah Queeries is an exciting and important contribution to the project of democratizing Jewish communities, and an essential guide to understanding the intersection of queerness and Jewishness.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8524-9
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xii)

    “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” This Mishnaic statement about the Torah (Pirke Avot, 5: 25) captures a fundamental Jewish attitude toward the first five books of the Bible, an attitude that has been elaborated over time: The Torah is eternally fruitful, a source of wisdom that is worthy of study in every generation. Its meanings are inexhaustible; there is no aspect of human experience that can’t be illuminated by it. Just as each of the six hundred thousand souls who stood at Mount Sinai heard something distinctive in the Torah, so Jews of succeeding...

  4. Introduction: Interpreting the Bible through a Bent Lens
    (pp. 1-8)

    It is the world’s longest running rerun, the best-selling book of all time, the foundational text of Western culture and the core of the Jewish religion. The Hebrew Bible, sacred to nearly half the world’s population, infuses the myths, politics, literature, art, and daily language of billions of people across the globe.

    Jews throughout the world gather in synagogues every Saturday, as they have been doing for two thousand years, to read together from the Hebrew Bible, what most Christians call the Old Testament. Indeed, reading the Hebrew Bible is one of the longest continuously running ritualized reading and performance...

  5. PART I Bereshit, The Book of Genesis

    • ONE Male and Female God Created Them: Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1: 1–6: 8)
      (pp. 11-18)

      “And God created the human beingb’tzalmoin . . . [God’s own] image” (Genesis 1: 27a).¹ Perhaps no Biblical verse has meant more to gay people than this one. It con-firms what LGBT people know in their hearts to be true: We too have been created in God’s image. We too deserve respect as God’s own handiwork. Our sexual orientation is part of creation’s original design. We are as much a reflection of God as any straight person may claim to be. We are entitled to as much dignity, as many rights, and as much happiness as any other...

    • TWO From Delight to Destruction: The Double-Faced Power of Sex Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9–11:32)
      (pp. 19-23)

      The book of Genesis offers two very distinct portrayals of sex. The first is glorious and creative, and the second is frightful and destructive. It is perhaps this double evaluation of sexuality—its ability to express profound love, union, and care and its simultaneous capacity for degradation of self and other—that marks the particular Jewish ethical stance on sex. Sex is fully wondrous in the first chapters of Genesis, but sadly, after its early spring awakening, its darker and more troubling sides appear.

      Every step of the creation is followed by an affirmation of its goodness. When finally the...

    • THREE Going to and Becoming Ourselves: Transformation and Covenants in Parashat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1–17:27)
      (pp. 24-28)

      ThroughoutParashat Lech Lecha,people’s bodies, names, and relationships change profoundly to signal transformation and covenantal belonging. Even the name of the parasha, “Go to Yourself,” implies change and risk, a simultaneous movement from one figurative place to another, as well as a metaphorical homecoming. These significant themes emerge several times throughout the multilayered text, offering a potentially resonant narrative for queer people to understand afresh the transformations in their own histories, identities, and covenantal relationships.

      The text begins with the patriarch Abram’s journey from the land of his birth into Egypt, where he risks everything to travel to an...

    • FOUR Looking Back to Look Forward: Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1–22:24)
      (pp. 29-33)

      The first word of Genesis 18:1,vayera,which connotes both seeing and appearing, alerts the reader to the importance of vision throughout Genesis 18–22. Indeed,Parashat Vayeraas a whole presents a virtual feast for the eyes. Casting our gaze across the whole picture, we are first brought into the circle, or at least right outside the tent, of Abraham and Sarah. We then peer far beyond this location to the blinding plains of Sodom. And finally, toward the end of the parasha, we are perched on a mountaintop, calledYHWH Yireh(God sees) in the land ofMoriah...

    • FIVE When Gender Varies: A Curious Case of Kere and Ketiv: Parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1–25:18)
      (pp. 34-37)

      “In the Bible, women are rarely born, they almost never die and when they give birth it is usually to a boy.” With that caveat, Yair Zakovitch, legendary Bible professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, began a series of provocative lectures on women in the Bible that continues to influence my thinking about the subject more than ten years later.

      Even though Rebekah, who is introduced inParashat Chayei Sarah, is one of the Bible’s most celebrated female figures, she seems to qualify under Zakovitch’s rubric. Consider: When Abraham is sent an updated family tree from his brother Nahor’s branch...

    • SIX Esau’s Gender Crossing: Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19–28:9)
      (pp. 38-42)

      The story of Jacob and Esau, Rebekah’s twin sons, is filled with deception and vulnerability, power and betrayal. The story opens with the twins’ birth, the first—large and hairy—“emerged entirely red like a cape of hair and they named him Esau” (Gen.25:25).¹ The second, we discover later, is “a smooth-skinned” man (27:11). But the story quickly reveals that the depiction of the firstborn, Esau, as stereotypically more masculine is only half the story, for the hairy hunter is also characterized as a stereotypically feminine character: emotional, kindly, and subservient. This feminine Esau continually approaches life with innocence, only...

    • SEVEN And Jacob Came Out: Parashat Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10–32:3)
      (pp. 43-46)

      Sometimes, we find meaning or significance in Torah by striving to understand its “big ideas”: all humans are created “in the Divine Image,” or “know the heart of the other, because you were others in Egypt.” Often, we consider Torah at the scale of a weekly Torah portion, whether looking at the story as a whole or even at an individual verse. But our tradition teaches that every aspect of Torah is a potential source of meaning, from the accent marks to the shapes of the letters or even the layout of the columns of the scroll (as Rachel Brodie...

    • EIGHT Biblical Sex: Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4–36:43)
      (pp. 47-52)

      People in premodern societies understood the world in fundamentally different ways from those of us living in contemporary Western cultures. As philosopher Michel Foucault and others have shown, these variations in worldview are often rooted in changes in the meaning of language or in the very lack of a word or concept in the premodern world. Language is not just the mode by which we express ourselves to others; it is also the way we formulate our thoughts to ourselves. A language’s lack of a term for a concept, therefore, may be indicative of more than just the difficulty in...

    • NINE Joseph’s Fabulous Technicolor Dreamcoat: Parashat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1–40:23)
      (pp. 53-59)

      The story of Joseph, the longest continuous narrative in the book of Genesis, offers one of the richest and most detailed portraits of a single character in the entire Hebrew Bible. The Bible offers such an emotionally complex narrative about Joseph’s life that both ancient and modern commentators feel drawn to analyzing and interpreting his every move and identifying with his many trials and triumphs. The Nobel Prize–winning German writer Thomas Mann even wrote a novel in four parts based on the life of Joseph calledJoseph and His Brothers.Scholars, rabbis, and LGBT activists looking for “queer” openings...

    • TEN Yusuf Come Home: Parashat Miketz (Genesis 41:1–44:17)
      (pp. 60-63)

      Miketzis part two of the continuing story of the boy who was different. As Gregg Drinkwater demonstrates in his essay onParashat Vayeshev, Joseph is a child with a decidedly queer set of sensibilities. He dreams of things bowing over for him and wears Technicolor robes. Not fitting into the rough-and-tumble sphere of his many brothers, he instead arouses their jealousy and their ire. Like many boys who are different, he is treated brutally by his own siblings and cast out from his home and his family. Alone in the world, he becomes a slave, is pursued for sex,...

    • ELEVEN Forgiveness as a Queer Response: Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18–47:27)
      (pp. 64-67)

      Parashat Vayigashis the pinnacle of the Joseph cycle of stories in the book of Genesis. Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, has risen to a position of power and prestige in Egypt second only to the Pharaoh himself. During a famine, Joseph’s brothers make their way to Egypt to seek food. Joseph engineers for them to meet. They do not recognize their brother because many years have passed, but Joseph recognizes them. Joseph has assumed a new name—an Egyptian name—and wears Egyptian clothes. He has transformed himself from beloved child of his father, Jacob, who once...

    • TWELVE Uncovering Joseph’s Bones: Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28–50:26)
      (pp. 68-72)

      The beginning of Genesis promises us a story. It begins with the birth of the world and the blessings that the Holy One bestows on creation. The end of Genesis is about the memory of the story.Parashat Vayechi, the final parasha of Genesis, focuses on Jacob’s deathbed blessings and the burial of Joseph. As the Israelites prepare for their long stay in Egypt, the tribe is sustained by the memories and teachings of the elders as they leave from the world of the living. The “beginning of all things” has become a steady progression of generations, and as one...

  6. PART II Shemot, The Book of Exodus

    • THIRTEEN Making Noise for Social Change: Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1–6:1)
      (pp. 75-79)

      I was raised in a culturally Jewish family that practiced Buddhism. When I was a small child we lived in Hawaii, and my family was involved with a Tibetan Buddhist temple housed in a beautiful wooden building painted orange, red, gold, and green. It was located in the midst of a lush rain forest, ringed by a rolling lawn that had been carved out of the trees. Inside the temple there was a dimly lit, barefooted, hushed atmosphere. An altar was filled with photographs of Tibetan monks, bowls of fragrant fruit offerings, and curling tendrils of incense.

      In the middle...

    • FOURTEEN Uncircumcized Lips: Parashat Vaeira (Exodus 6:2–9:35)
      (pp. 80-84)

      What a provocative image—uncircumcised lips. What could it possibly mean? To my imagination, this verse both sexualizes and constrains Moses. He is poised to speak, to deliver a message that could change the world, and he falters. He is either going to remain silent, be misunderstood, or have to slice away the foreskin of his mouth. I imagine him holding still, unspeaking, keeping his truth inside, eyes darting, heart racing, breath shallow. I imagine him mumbling, straining to be heard, but met with furrowed and confused brows. I imagine him with a ruby wound around his freed lips, speaking...

    • FIFTEEN The Ritual of Storytelling: Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:1–13:16)
      (pp. 85-88)

      “When did you come out?” This is a common question among queer-identified people who are getting to know one another. For queer Jews, the answer may begin withParashat Bo, which opens with the final three plagues and continues through the beginning of the physical exodus from Egypt.Parashat Bonot only tells of a one-time liberation in Jewish mythic history; it is also a tale of the future, setting the stage for a ritualized storytelling in every generation. This ritualized story has particular significance for queer Jews.

      Three times in this portion God commands the Israelites to tell their...

    • SIXTEEN Into Life: The Humanism of the Exodus Parashat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17–17:16)
      (pp. 89-92)

      The exodus from Egypt, told in part inParashat Beshalach, has symbolized the movement from servitude to freedom for generations. Whether for African American slaves or for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender elders, the story resonates far beyond its Israelite particularity to any struggle for liberation. Witness the “Stonewall Seder,” commemorated in some LGBT-outreach congregations every June, or the long tradition of Negro spirituals in which “Let My People Go” took on poignant, immediate meaning.

      Yet there is another, deeper aspect toyetziat mitzraim(the exodus from Egypt) beyond the move from bondage to freedom. As many Jewish scholars have...

    • SEVENTEEN The Necessity of Windows: Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1–20:26)
      (pp. 93-97)

      Most mornings, in order to help me decide what to wear, I look out the window, thus engaging with the world as it is, grounding my decision in the context of the outside world.

      I remember learning during a midrash class at the Jewish Theological Seminary that, if I were a “real” rabbi, I would not have looked out the window to help me make a crucial decision. Instead of drawing on the world around me, I would have taken a volume of Jewish text from the shelf and poured over its pages in order to know truly what was...

    • EIGHTEEN Laws and Judgments as a “Bridge to a Better World”: Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1–24:18)
      (pp. 98-101)

      In Judaism, as in every religion, teachings collide with one another. Yet it would seem that the Jewish attitude toward homosexuality, on the basis of two passages found in Leviticus as well as later Jewish exegesis on these passages, is unequivocally negative. The first passage, Leviticus 18:22, states, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman—it is an abomination,” and the second, contained in Leviticus 20:13, asserts, “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing. They shall be put to death.”...

    • NINETEEN Building an Inclusive Social Space: Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1–27:19)
      (pp. 102-105)

      Parashat Terumahprovides the initial instructions for building themishkan, Israel’s wilderness Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary in which the Israelites carried the Ark of the Covenant during their journey through the desert. The Tabernacle’s sacred space created a meeting point between the Israelites and God, but it also helped de-fine the boundedness of the people Israel.

      Parashat Terumahis characterized by an institutional rhetoric, focusing on structure, design, and ritual more than the social space the Tabernacle would provide. The parasha is filled with descriptions of furnishings and structures, along with details about dimensions and materials. There are promises of...

    • TWENTY When the Fabulous Is Holy: Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20–30:10)
      (pp. 106-108)

      How many times have I heard queers sneer some version of “those texts just don’t speak to me” or “there is nothing recognizable” or “there isn’t anything in the Bible that relates to the world as I know it.” YetParashat Tetzaveh, in its exquisite attention to detail and ritualizing of the beautiful, is a queer text that speaks tome. One might say that its resonance to queer life for me is based on stereotype, given the text’s flamboyance. Yet the flamboyant is a slice of queer life that is real to me, and much beloved. Thoughflamboyanceis...

    • TWENTY–ONE Mounting Sinai: Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11–34:35)
      (pp. 109-112)

      Friday night on a Tel Aviv dance floor: I am surrounded by hundreds of shirtless men, a pulsing mass of dancers, the air thick with sweat, lust, and—for me, eighteen years old, my first time out at a gay club—excitement mixed with a heavy dose of guilt. The club is only twenty minutes away from the Israeli Orthodox neighborhood where I grew up, but also thousands of light years away from childhood. I close my eyes, and for a moment I am reminded of dancing at the Yeshiva, surrounded by young men in white shirts, faces glistening with...

    • TWENTY-TWO Listening to Heart-Wisdom: Parashat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1–38:20)
      (pp. 113-116)

      There are two modes of revelation in the Torah. One mode is that of Sinai; revelation comes from a mountaintop, in the form of laws and principles. The law treats everyone equally. It is a transcendent law, Divine in origin, and descends to touch every member of the covenant with its truths. The other mode is that of themishkan, the Tabernacle or Sanctuary. As the Israelite people build themishkan, the shrine they will carry through the wilderness, they rely on their inner wisdom and individual gifts. Although the pattern of themishkancomes from the Eternal, the gifts...

    • TWENTY-THREE A Knack for Design: Parashat Pekudei (Exodus 38:21–40:38)
      (pp. 117-120)

      Parashat Pekudeiseems a gay man’s paradise. It concludes the book of Exodus with a detailed account not only of the fabrication—piece by intricate piece, including thefabulous!fabrics, furnishings, and window treatments—of themishkan(Tabernacle) in the wilderness but also of the design and creation of the garments worn by the high priests who were to tend the altar of themishkan. It also reminds us that God appointed two lead designers, Betzalel and “with him” Oholiab, “carver and designer, and embroiderer in blue, purple, and crimson yarns and in fine linen” (Ex. 38:23).¹ They are not...

  7. PART III Vayikra, The Book of Leviticus

    • TWENTY-FOUR Bodily Perfection in the Sanctuary: Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1–5:26)
      (pp. 123-128)

      The concluding chapters of the book of Exodus focus on the construction of the Tent of Meeting, also known as the Tabernacle, ormishkan.Parashat Vayikraopens the book of Leviticus with a survey of the sacrifices to be conducted in that sanctuary. With the exception of Leviticus², which deals with the grain offering—theminhah, consisting of fine flour, oil, and frankincense—the sacrifices listed and expounded on in this parasha consist of animal sacrifices: the burnt offering of either bull, ram, male goat, or birds (Lev. 1:3–17); the sacrifice of the “well-being” offering (often translated as “peace”...

    • TWENTY-FIVE HaNer Tamid, dos Pintele Yid v’ha Zohar Muzar: The Eternal Flame, the Jewish Spark, and the Flaming Queer Parashat Tsav (Leviticus 6:1–8:36)
      (pp. 129-134)

      Symbols transform over time. Their life span consists of a birth, a coming-of-age, and then a long slow fade into obsolescence during which we repeat the symbol endlessly with little or no comprehension of its original meaning. Throughout this process, symbols are adorned with new meaning, while retaining some vestige of the old, layer upon layer. Because the shifting meanings instilled in symbols broadcast cultural identities, we can begin to understand how cultures change— and how people themselves change—by tracing a culture’s most powerful symbols as they transform through the telling and retelling of stories. Like most religions, Judaism...

    • TWENTY-SIX Nadav and Avihu and Dietary Laws: A Case of Action and Reaction: Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47)
      (pp. 135-139)

      Parashat Sheminiembraces and rejects the human impulse to recognize homoerotic passion as a holy act.¹ The story of Nadav and Avihu offers a glimpse into the human impulse to break through a range of restrictions that societies place on individuals regarding gender-defined emotions and behavior. The rest of the Torah portion, which details the dietary laws, may be understood as an attempt to redirect human activity from fluid and passion-driven to regulated and staid. As we progress through the parasha, human behavior becomes increasingly regulated by the content of the text.

      Thus, although on the surface it may seem...

    • TWENTY-SEVEN Naguʾa: Touched by the Divine: Parashat Tazri’a (Leviticus 12:1–13:59)
      (pp. 140-144)

      These are the opening words of an unusual monologue at the beginning of Amos Gutman’sNagu’a,² a daring film made in Israel in 1983. The actor playing the main character gazes at the spectator straight in the eye, not allowing him or her to look away. This is probably the first time the wordhomo(as a slang word for homosexual) is uttered in an Israeli film with full meaning and not just as a careless curse. This is the first feature film made in Israel whose main character, as well as its director, relates to his sexual orientation openly....

    • TWENTY-EIGHT It’s the Purity, Stupid: Reading Leviticus in Context: Parashat Metzora (Leviticus 14:1–15:33)
      (pp. 145-150)

      For gay and lesbian Jews and their allies,Parashat Acharei Motcontains some of the most infamous passages of the Torah, condemning as they do at least some forms of male homosexual behavior. Often these verses are read completely without context, and sometimes they are read only in the context of the other sexual prohibitions of Leviticus 18 and 20. Yet the wider context of the Levitical prohibitions within the Holiness Code and related portions of Biblical text is essential to understanding their meaning and significance. In fact, although today one hears all sorts of “explanations” of why “homosexuality” is...

    • TWENTY-NINE How Flexible Can Jewish Law Be? Parashat Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1–18:30)
      (pp. 151-156)

      This section of the Torah stings more than any other. One verse in it has been the source of immense pain for gay men for literally thousands of years: “You shall not lie with a man as a man lies with a woman; it is an abomination” (Lev. 18:22). Although lesbians are not mentioned here or, for that matter, anywhere else in the Bible, the classical Rabbis on their own authority later forbade lesbian sex as well.¹

      What shall we make of this verse in our time? The Jewish tradition has interpreted and narrowed many other morally problematic verses in...

    • THIRTY Sex in the Talmud: How to Understand Leviticus 18 and 20: Parashat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1–20:27)
      (pp. 157-169)

      The Holiness Code, of whichParashat Kedoshimis a part, contains the only exhortation against same-sex intercourse in the Hebrew Bible.¹ Leviticus 18:22 states, “Do not lie with a man the ‘lyings’² of women; it is an abhorrence (to‘evah).” As with the other sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18, the prohibition against same-sex intercourse is reiterated in Leviticus 20. Leviticus 20:13 states, “If a man lies with a male the ‘lyings’ of women, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall both be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them.”

      This prohibition has often been mischaracterized as...

    • THIRTY-ONE Fear Factor: Lesbian Sex and Gay Men: Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1–24:23)
      (pp. 170-173)

      There was an audible buzz of excitement in the room when I entered bearing homemade brownies. There were nearly a dozen of us in Kirsta’s humble New Orleans apartment for the screening, and I was the only man allowed in. I knew some of these women from engaging in LGBT and AIDS activism together. Most of them were lesbians or bisexual women. As I passed my plate of brownies around, I checked to see if the women were comfortable with my presence as the sole male. Even Justin, Kirsta’s boyfriend, had been banished, since absolutely no straight men were permitted....

    • THIRTY-TWO Neither Oppress nor Allow Others to Oppress You: Parashat Behar (Leviticus 25:1–26:2)
      (pp. 174-178)

      The queer perspective questions all norms—not only norms of gender role and definition or sexual orientation butallnorms. From a queer perspective, norms are human attempts to simplify, classify, and regulate the complexities of reality. Reality, however, is inevitably messier than the categories we impose. There are always exceptions that do not conform to our classifications. The establishment of norms of any kind, therefore, is a process that essentially and inevitably excludes and pushes difference to the periphery, forcing diversity to mold itself into preset categories and condemning that which does not fit in. It is inherently oppressive....

    • THIRTY-THREE “Less Is More” and the Gift of Rain: The Value of Devaluation in Behukotai and Cixous’s Desire-That-Gives: Parashat Behukotai (Leviticus 26:3–27:34)
      (pp. 179-184)

      “God, if you do X for me, I will repay my debt to you with a donation in the amount equivalent to the value of . . . myself (or my daughter or my nephew or my wife).” It is this sort of divine-deal-making thatParashat Behukotaihas in mind with its reference to the “vow of persons,” and it is in the spirit of helping us properly play this odd version of “Let’s Make a Deal” that we are given an actual “fee schedule”—a list of monetary worth of men (equals high value) and women (equals you guessed...

  8. PART IV Bemidbar, The Book of Numbers

    • THIRTY-FOUR How to Construct a Community: Parashat Bemidbar (Numbers 1:1–4:20)
      (pp. 187-191)

      Parashat Bemidbar(“in the wilderness”) opens the fourth book of the Torah and gives us a record of God’s Word to Moses “in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting” (Num. 1:1). This juxtaposition of the open wilderness with the enclosed Tent signals that in this parasha, we will experience a series of seeming opposites—exposure and sheltering safety, openness and consolidation, precariousness and strength. Thirteen months have passed since the Exodus from Egypt, and as the Israelites continue their journey to the Promised Land, God serves as their guide and protector, addressing their many fears and desires....

    • THIRTY-FIVE From Impurity to Blessing: Parashat Naso (Numbers 4:21–7:89)
      (pp. 192-196)

      A number of years ago, LGBT Pride Weekend in Boston fell on the Shabbat ofParashat Naso. Preparing myd’var Torahfor Shabbat morning services that week, I wondered, what might this portion have to teach about LGBT pride?

      At first glance, there was not much.Nasoseemed to consist of a series of wholly unrelated themes. Sandwiched between a census of Levite clans and a repetitive listing of tribal gifts for the dedication of the wilderness Sanctuary, we read about the following:

      The removal from the Israelite camp of anyone in a state oftum’ah, ritual impurity, caused by...

    • THIRTY-SIX Setting the Stage for Pluralistic Judaism: Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1–12:16)
      (pp. 197-198)

      The Torah is not a text that generally extols and promotes “the power of the people” over the established hierarchy. G-d usually wins arguments. When G-d is not involved, Moses and his chosen few are generally the ones whose power rules over the Israelites. However, this is not always the case. The religious and political control of the Torah establishment and its hierarchy of G-d, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and the priests is not static. Sometimes those in power create a more populist power arrangement. As rare as that occurs, when the hierarchy actually desires populist change, it tends to be...

    • THIRTY-SEVEN Ruach Acheret—Ruach Hakodesh/Different Spirit—Sacred Spirit: Parashat Shelach (Numbers 13:1–15:41)
      (pp. 199-201)

      Parashat Shelachtells the story of twelve scouts, one man from each ancestral tribe, who were sent forth to survey the land of Canaan, the land God promised to the Israelite people. The scouts return with a mixed message. While they are enraptured by the possibilities that the land holds for them, “it does indeed flow with milk and honey,” they are also terrified by the seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

      Ten of the twelve spies describe the land as a place that devours its settlers and its people. The Anakites, often translated as “giants,” appear enormously threatening. “V’chen hayinu b’eneichem”—“and...

    • THIRTY-EIGHT Torah and Its Discontents: Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1–18:32)
      (pp. 202-205)

      I sit in the retro-modern kitchen of a suburban Los Angeles home, the off-avocado appliances proclaiming distress in almost equal volume to that of my twelve-year-old cousin Adam struggling to master tropes and write his drash as he prepares for his bar mitzvah. According to my aunt, he needs some help, and I, the family rabbi, have been summoned to the rescue. This is pretty funny, because it is a well-known family “fact” that I cannot carry a tune or sing on key. But the rabbinic mojo is powerful, and it is hoped that perhaps my general familiarity with the...

    • THIRTY-NINE The Healing Serpent: Recovering Long Lost Jewish Fragments: Parashat Hukkat (Numbers 19:1–22:1)
      (pp. 206-211)

      When Ezra returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile, he brought a version of the Torah virtually identical to the one we have today. All subsequent Jewish reflection on the text was recorded as commentary. Ezra and the scribes who edited the final version of the Torah out of other texts, however, did not preserve earlier versions. They intentionally sought to create the impression that the Torah has always spoken with one, normative voice. They did a masterful but imperfect job of editing out diverse strands of the tradition. Queering the Torah thus involves more than questioning the received text;...

    • FORTY Between Beast and Angel: The Queer, Fabulous Self: Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2–25:10)
      (pp. 212-215)

      Parashat Balakis replete with boundary crossing and ambiguous identity categories: a beast talks; angels walk among us; the protagonist-prophet Balaam, who ultimately blesses the people Israel, is himself a gentile and in the Bible and later commenting tradition, he is characterized as both friend and foe, an ambiguous hero. Interrupting the well-ordered regulations of Temple worship and stories of Moses, Aaron, and the priesthood, which are more typical of the book of Numbers, this narrative intrudes and is distinctive in its failure to observe the conventions of Biblical realism. Instead, we are treated to a fabulous story—indeed, a...

    • FORTY-ONE Pinchas, Zimri and the Channels of Divine Will: Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10–30:1)
      (pp. 216-219)

      After forty years of circling the desert, the Israelites are a stone’s throw from Jericho. They arrive at the Transjordan and are thrown together with their future neighbors, the Midianites and the Moabites. Social introduction leads to shared celebration and, very quickly we are told, to sex with the local women and idolatrous rites with their pagan god, Baal of Peor. This is the setting that introduces us to a bold and potentially rebellious prince of Israel and a zealous priest who acts on his impulses. The story actually begins in the previous week’s portion and then introduces the portion...

    • FORTY-TWO Going Ahead: Parashat Matot (Numbers 30:2–32:42)
      (pp. 220-223)

      In the early years of resettlement in prestate Palestine,khalutzim,“pioneers,” founded the first kibbutz, Degania, in 1912 just east of the Jordan River.¹ They borrowed the wordkhalutzimfrom ourParashat Matot(Num. 32) and, more significant to them, from its reappearance in the book of Joshua. In Joshua, thekhalutzim—men of fighting age belonging to the tribe of Reuben, the tribe of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh—make good on the promises they had made to Moses at the end of the book of Numbers: to be the vanguard troops, who go in front into...

    • FORTY-THREE Hearing Ancient, Courageous Voices for Justice and Change: Parashat Masei (Numbers 33:1–36:13)
      (pp. 224-228)

      Parashat Masei,the final portion in the book of Numbers, begins with an extensive summary of the travels of the People Israel after their redemption from Egypt. As their forty years of wandering draws to a close, they stand at the Jordan River near Jericho, and Moses instructs them about the boundaries of the Promised Land and how the land will be divided among the tribes.

      Parashat Maseiincludes an important postscript to a narrative told in the book’s twenty-seventh chapter, the story of the daughters of Zelophekhad and their challenge to the Jewish inheritance laws, which follow male hereditary...

  9. PART V Devarim, The Book of Deuteronomy

    • FORTY-FOUR From Whom Do We Learn History? Why Queer Community Needs Texts More Than Other Communities: Parashat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22)
      (pp. 231-234)

      In this portion the Israelites and the now very elderly Moses have reached the Jordan River, the physical and metaphorical boundary between before and after, between wandering in the desert and being a Jewish nation, between a generation marked by the scars of slavery and one that only knows slavery as a memory told through the stories of the community’s elders—what some people in the context of the Holocaust would call the “second generation.” The Jordan River, mentioned no fewer than six times in this portion, serves as the political and military boundary between Jewish sovereignty and power, on...

    • FORTY-FIVE Rethinking the Wicked “Son”: Parashat Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11)
      (pp. 235-239)

      When I was sixteen years old, I made an appointment with my rabbi to ask about the Jewish tradition’s seemingly cruel response to homosexuality, an identity, I argued, not within the control of the individual to alter. My rabbi, not knowing my reasons for asking this question or pausing to reconsider his own biases, replied that resisting homosexual urges “is like choosing not to eat a cheeseburger. I may want to eat a cheeseburger, but I know that it is forbidden.” I was stunned. Even as a young teenager, I knew him to be wrong. I later told a friend...

    • FORTY-SIX Bind These Words: Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25)
      (pp. 240-245)

      Chest Binder: an undergarment worn by female-to-male (FTM),¹ transgender,² genderqueer,³ and gender-variant⁴ people, and by anyone else who chooses to flatten the appearance of their chest.

      Tallit Katan: An undergarment traditionally worn daily by observant Jewish men that has knotted fringes tied to its four corners as a reminder of the 613 mitzvot.

      There are four knotted strings that hang from the corners of my chest binder. “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments” (Num. 15:38). Standing in front of the full-length mirror in...

    • FORTY-SEVEN Neither Adding nor Taking Away: Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17)
      (pp. 246-249)

      In the opening lines ofParashat Re’eh,Moses shares both a blessing and a curse with the Israelites. “The blessing: if you obey the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I command you today. And the curse: if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord, your God, and you stray from the path that I command you today” (Deut. 11:26–28).

      But what does “obey the commandments” actually mean? Who is blessed and who is cursed? For Orthodox Jews, to “obey the commandments” means keeping all of the 613 mitzvot found in the Torah,¹ following halacha essentially...

    • FORTY-EIGHT Setting Ourselves Judges: Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9)
      (pp. 250-253)

      One of the most stirring calls for justice-seeking in the Torah comes near the beginning ofParashat Shoftim: “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20). A longstanding rallying cry for socially engaged Jews, this verse has been an important buttress for queer folk and allies who call for the creation of a Jewish community that includes and celebrates queer experience, as well as Jewish activism for LGBT justice in the wider world. Yet just before this classic phrase, the Torah offers a verse that is just as resonant for queer Jews, but often overshadowed.Parashat Shoftimopens, “Judges and officers...

    • FORTY-NINE To Wear Is Human, to Live—Divine: Parashat Ki Tetse (Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19)
      (pp. 254-258)

      For all of us who have ever struggled with how to discipline unruly children,Parashat Ki-Tetseoffers an easy answer—stone them to death.

      We read in the Torah: “[Parents of a stubborn and rebellious son]¹ should say to the elders of the town: ‘This child of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon the people of the town shall stone him to death” (Deut. 21:20–21). Thankfully, Jews today do not follow this verse literally. Indeed, if we did, rather few of us would have survived the occasional...

    • FIFTY In a New Country: Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8)
      (pp. 259-262)

      Indeed, I am grateful—for I belong to a generation that has entered a new land where many of us were, not so long ago, excluded. Within the liberal Jewish world today, many of us in the LGBT community find ourselves for the first time in history able to participate openly in synagogues, seminaries, schools, organizations, and communities accessible in the past only to those who hid their identity. We have gained powerful Jewish institutional allies in our battle for healthcare and adoption rights, and though civil marriage rights are not yet broadly won, marriagerites—religious recognition of our...

    • FIFTY-ONE Embodied Jews: Parashat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20)
      (pp. 263-266)

      Parashat Nitzavim,like many parshiyot, is named for the first verb in the portion:nitzavim, “stand” (Deut. 29:9). As we approach the conclusion of both the book of Deuteronomy and the Torah, we read Moses’s sense of urgency as he reframes and recasts his message to the Israelite people. This portion, which is read both as part of the yearly cycle of readings on the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Hashana and as the Torah reading on Yom Kippur morning, has particular power and nuance when read through LGBT eyes, from the opening challenge to stand to the concluding verses that...

    • FIFTY-TWO “Be Strong and Resolute”: Parashat Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31:1–30)
      (pp. 267-270)

      The Covenant of the Dishwasher is forever written on my heart. Water glasses can only be placed on the right half of the upper rack, and mugs can only be placed on the left half, wine glasses in the second row from the left, champagne flutes in the silverware compartment. All plates must face toward the center. Pots are not to be placed in a manner that minimizes the number of plates that can be fit in the dishwasher. Once the dishwasher is full, all dishes that do not fit are to be washed by hand immediately.

      These are only...

    • FIFTY-THREE Dor l’Dor: Parashat Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1–52)
      (pp. 271-276)

      Ha’azinu,the Torah’s penultimate parasha, brings us to the end of the Israelites’ forty-year journey in the wilderness. Those who tasted the bitterness of slavery in Egypt have all but died out (Num. 14:26–35). A nomadic generation born in freedom is on the verge of leaving the desert to settle down in the land they have been promised. The degradation of slavery and their parents’ bones will be left in the sands behind them. This new breed will cross the river Jordan to enter the Promised Land with only two living remnants of their past: the spy Caleb and...

    • FIFTY-FOUR This Is the Blessing: The “First Openly Gay Rabbi” Reminisces: Parashat Zot Ha’bracha (Deuteronomy 33:1–34:12)
      (pp. 277-282)

      The thing about being a social pioneer is that when you are young, you are the “first,” but when you are old, you are the last. This thought came to me as I squeezed in around a very large and crowded table of queer rabbis at a convention dinner. Putting aside the future shock of sitting with dozens of LGBT rabbis and their spouses, the strangeness of meeting in a public restaurant as an official body of the rabbinical organization (back in the old days, all of us could easily fit in someone’s small hotel room at a secret late-night...

  10. PART VI Holiday Portions

    • FIFTY-FIVE The Parade of Families: Rosh Hashanah
      (pp. 285-289)

      My family tended to arrive at Rosh Hashanah services early. We usually were not early enough for the red velvet cushioned seats, which were probably held for major donors anyway, but we were always in time to snag prime seats for the Rosh Hashanah catwalk. I used to call it the “Parade of Families.” We did not belong to one of the more posh synagogues in Atlanta, but we still had what seemed like a fashion show every year on this one day when every family in the community would be in attendance. Contrary to the spirit of the holiday,...

    • FIFTY-SIX What Is Atonement? Yom Kippur
      (pp. 290-293)

      Traditionally, the annual cycle of Torah readings in the Jewish world operates according to two principles. The main organizing structure is the continuous reading (in one or three years’ time) of the entire Torah from start to finish, and then back to start again. This system is all-inclusive, omitting nothing from the sacred text, with no concern for applicability or relevance to the season.

      The other principle is the opposite of the first. It is selective, noncontinuous, and primarily determined by the timely relevance of the text chosen, even if that relevance is not immediately apparent. That principle is put...

    • FIFTY-SEVEN Strength through Diversity: Sukkot
      (pp. 294-296)

      It was 1979. I had just graduated from rabbinical school and moved to the small town where I would serve as rabbi. For Sukkot, I had decided to build a sukkah (for the first time) and invite my congregation to have Kiddush in it following Shabbat morning services. I was thrilled. As a closeted lesbian, I rarely gave my congregation glimpses into my personal life, and this felt like an important opportunity. I decorated; I baked; I prepared every detail. I went to sleep on Friday night looking forward to the next morning. When I awoke and looked outside, I...

    • FIFTY-EIGHT Ad de’lo Yada: Until We Don’t Know the Difference: The Book of Esther and Purim
      (pp. 297-300)

      Why does the book of Esther—the source of the Purim story and the text read aloud on the holiday—warrant such special status that it figures in the rabbinic dream of a perfect Messianic future?² After all, it is the most secular Biblical book, with no reference to prayer, Jewish rituals, the Temple, or even God’s name.³ And why will the significance of Esther, an uppity intermarried Jewish woman, last in an era when the writings of the mighty prophets— including Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah—will have faded away into irrelevance?

      These questions ask us to look beneath the...

    • FIFTY-NINE Liberation and Transgender Jews: Passover
      (pp. 301-305)

      Jews prepare for the holiday of Passover in their kitchens and in their liturgy like little else in the Jewish year. The holiday is preceded by weeks of special Shabbat readings, building up to the festival, and the traditional dietary requirements of the holiday require intensive spring cleaning. Yet ironically, all the Passover preparation that Jews do is intended to help them remember the last-minute rush that was the Exodus from Egypt.

      The Israelites left Egypt in such tremendous haste that the Torah had to create a word for it. Nothing before had ever happened in such a hurry, with...

    • SIXTY Trance and Trans at Har Sinai: Shavu’ot
      (pp. 306-310)

      Shavu’ot is consecrated in the Torah as a pilgrimage festival, the offering of the first fruit of the wheat harvest at the Temple: “And a Festival of Weeks you shall make for yourself, first fruits of the harvest of wheat. . . . Three times in the year all your males shall appear in the presence of the Master, the Lord God of Israel” (Ex. 34:22–23).¹ The first reference to Shavu’ot asHag Matan Torah—the Holiday of the Giving of the Torah—appears in the book of Jubilees (2nd century BCE). The association is based on the rather...

    • The New Rabbis: A Postscript
      (pp. 311-314)

      The visionaries who picked up the pieces of a shattered Judaism two thousand years ago, after the destruction of the Second Temple and the crashing of Biblical Judaism, were courageous, creative, out-of-the-box-thinking, fringy radicals. Queer, if you will. Not in the sense of sexuality or gender, perhaps, but in whatbeingthose very kinds of people usually makes you: courageous, creative, out-of-the-box-thinking, fringy, and radical. And deeply attuned to that still, small voice inside and confident of the truth it is telling you even when the whole world is telling you something else. These guys called themselves Rabbis. Teachers. They...

  11. Contributors
    (pp. 315-322)
  12. Index
    (pp. 323-337)