Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
21-24 March 2019
25th Jewish LGBT+ World Congress, Sydney, Australia
Friends, it’s wonderful to be here at this 25th conference of the International Congress of LGBT+ Jews. The first conference I attended was held in Amsterdam in July 1987. I then went to the one in Chicago in July 1989, just after my ordination. Subsequently I was part of the organising committee for the 13th conference held in London in 1993. Since then, the demands of my rabbinic work have meant that I’ve not had a chance to participate in World Congress conferences, so I am delighted to be here with you all in Sydney and want to take this opportunity to thank Dayenu for inviting me to give the opening address.
The journey so far
We are about to embark on our four-day journey together, exploring kol koleinu, ‘all our voices’. I’d like to begin with where we are right now. A short while ago we visited the Jewish Museum and the Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial. Jewish communities the world over – not just the remnant that survived on the continent of Europe – still live in the shadow of the smoking crematoria. My decision to study for the rabbinate was driven in large part by the force of the additional commandment articulated by the Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim: ‘Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory.’1 My maternal grandparents had fled pogroms in the Russian pale of settlement in 1905. My paternal grandparents were refugees from Nazism. My Grossvati was torn from his home in Vienna on the night of 13 November 1938, four days after Kristallnacht, and deported to Dachau. He was one of 30,000 Jewish men torn from their homes and incarcerated in concentration camps after ‘the night of broken glass’ and burning synagogues that saw thousands wounded and 91 Jews murdered across Germany and Austria.2 My Grossvati was one of the lucky ones. After being beaten up and tortured, he was released on 19 January 1939 on condition that he and his family left Austria. Fortunately, my father had gone to South Africa in 1936 – if he hadn’t already left, he would also have been deported – and he was able to organise domestic permits for his parents to travel to England to work as servants. They subsequently decided to go to the United States, where they settled in Chicago. My Grossvati never recovered from his ordeal, and he died in 1955 a few months after I was born. Most of the wider family were murdered.
One third of the world Jewish population was murdered and tens of thousands of Jewish communities across Europe were destroyed in the Sho’ah. The Nazis also persecuted and murdered the Roma people, disabled people, gay men, lesbians and nonconforming women, as well as communists and socialists. However powerful the imperative not to give Hitler a posthumous victory, a vibrant Jewish life and a vibrant LGBT+ life cannot be forged out of the horrors of the Sho’ah. It became blatantly obvious to me that I needed positive reasons for being Jewish when, in the aftermath of Israel’s first Lebanon War in 1982, the media reacted with anti-Semitic tropes that included depicting Prime Minister Begin as Hitler. And so, rather than be defined by anti-Semitism, I decided to explore what it means to me to be a Jew. Having left my husband and come out as a lesbian, I had already spent the late autumn through early summer of 1978-79 picking citrus fruits and avocados on a small socialist ha- shomer ha-tza’ir kibbutz in Western Galilee, just over a kilometre from the Lebanese border. After that terrible summer of 1982 which saw the horrifying massacre of refugees in Lebanese refugee camps by Christian militia forces that supported Israel, the sense of needing to live positively as a Jew was overwhelming. When I returned to Israel for three-weeks to see my kibbutz friends in the summer of 1983, I seriously considered going on aliyah. But then I was forced to confront the fact that at that time if you were out as a lesbian or gay man, the Law of Return did not apply.3 Engaged as I was in lesbian community and activism in the UK, I was not prepared to go back into the closet. That realisation coalesced with the other major impetus in my decision to study for the rabbinate: my refusal to be excluded and marginalised from the Jewish community on the basis of my gender and sexual orientation. Having left cheder, aged 8 1⁄2, when my brother was bar mitzvah, I decided to go to Liberal Judaism’s Montagu Centre in central London and learn to read Hebrew. That was the beginning of my rabbinic journey. Very quickly, I went from novice Hebrew reader to applicant for the Leo Baeck College rabbinic programme, starting in autumn 1984.
It was just as well that in the course of that transformative year of 1983-84 I became absolutely determined to do what I could to contribute to making Jewish life more egalitarian and inclusive because the next five years were almost impossibly challenging. But I wasn’t alone. Another lesbian, Sheila Shulman, also decided to embark on the rabbinate at that time. We both belonged to the same Jewish Lesbian group, but hadn’t said a word to one another about it. Clearly, it was meant to be. Except that the Jewish world, even the progressive Jewish world, wasn’t quite ready for two ‘out’ lesbians. We were both put on probation for the full five years of the programme – the usual probation period is one year – and were told that we could be asked to leave at any time if the two progressive movements that sponsored the college felt that their constituent congregations were not prepared to accommodate us. Fortunately, the first gay rabbi in Britain, Lionel Blue, became my tutor, and he and other key teachers offered both Sheila and I enormous support. I was very honoured to be ordained by Lionel on 9 July 1989. He brought a very special spiritual presence to Progressive Judaism and was an inspiration. Sadly, after suffering deteriorating health over several years and then experiencing the loss of his beloved long-term partner, Jim in 2014, Lionel died on 19 December 2016. Zichrono livrachah – May his memory be for blessing.
And sadly, Sheila Shulman is also no longer with us. She died on 25 October 2014, just a few months after we celebrated the 25th anniversary of our ordinations. Zichronah livrachah – May her memory be for blessing. By that time, so much had changed – to the extent that Leo Baeck College held a special day of celebration to mark 25 years of LGBT+ inclusion. Indeed, as of 2014, over 20% of the combined Liberal and Reform rabbinate in Britain was LGBT+.
Back in 1989, it was just Lionel, Sheila and me. Following ordination, Sheila co-founded with a group of other lesbians, Beit Klal Yisrael, a synagogue which has been a beacon of inclusivity in the Jewish community ever since. Meanwhile, I became rabbi of the mainstream Reform synagogue that I had served as a rabbinic student in my fifth year. I’m not going to recite the litany of homophobia and persecution I have experienced in the early years of my rabbinate – which included a small group lobbying to oust me from that first post. The good news is that during the past 21 years since I became part of Liberal Judaism, beginning with a two-year stint at Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation and then going on to the 18 years so far that I have spent as rabbi of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, the involvement of LGBT+ rabbis has generated a major transformation in Jewish life. In 2000 Liberal Judaism established a rabbinic working party on same-sex relationships, including two LGBT+ rabbis: Rabbi Mark Solomon, who grew up in Sydney and left the orthodox rabbinate for Liberal Judaism in the early 1990s – and me. Liberal Judaism has been championing the rights of LGBT+ people ever since. In December 2005, LJ published the first fruits of the working party, a booklet of commitment ceremonies to coincide with the Civil Partnership Act coming into force.4 LJ then went on to support the campaign for equal marriage. In the past few years, LJ has also provided a home for a series of LGBT+ projects: ‘Rainbow Jews’, exploring the heritage of LGBT+ Jews; ‘Rituals Reconstructed’, creating opportunities for LGBT+ Jews to develop our own rituals; ‘Twilight People’, a multifaith transgender initiative; and ‘Rainbow Pilgrims’, which focuses on the lives of LGBT+ migrants and asylum seekers who come to the UK.5
I’ve shared with you a little about my journey. My own personal experience and the experience of being a rabbi for the past 30 years, has taught me that despite all the emphasis on the community in Jewish life, everything begins with the individual and with the particular journey of each and every individual Jew. The French Revolution of 1789 that signalled the end of a feudal social order in Europe in which the life of the individual was determined entirely by communal expectations and by one’s place in the pyramid, over the course of the 19th century led to a new social and political system in which individuals had rights as well as responsibilities. Confined to a ghetto existence for millennia, Jewish individuals also benefited from this massive social upheaval. It was also in this climate that new forms of Judaism emerged. At one end of the spectrum, Orthodox Judaism, which responded to modernity by building a fence of communal demands around the Torah in an effort maintain Jewish life. At the other end of the spectrum, Progressive Judaism, which embraced the new freedoms, and attempted to develop Jewish life for the modern world. And so, the major contribution of Progressive Judaism since its inception at the dawn of the 19th century has been the empowerment of the individual. Rather than being subject to non-negotiable commandments, each individual has a responsibility to make informed choices about how they will live their lives.
Each one of us here today is challenged with that responsibility. When I decided to embark on a journey into the rabbinate, spurred on by the need to make informed choices about how I would live my life, my task as I saw it was twin-fold. First, I was challenged to embrace all of who I am as a nonconforming female and a lesbian and a Jew, to integrate all of who I am, and do what I could to ensure that all of who I am could live and make a healing contribution to life of the world. Second, I was challenged to do what I could to enable others to embrace themselves, to integrate all the parts of themselves, to live fully and make healing contributions to the life of the world.
Hinneinu. Here we are: LGBT+ Jews – and in the course of this conference we will have an opportunity to explore kol koleinu – ‘all our voices’. As we do so, I’d like to suggest that we might find food for thought by exploring the Hebrew Bible, and in particular, by engaging with those biblical narratives that specifically raise questions about gender and sexuality.6
Jacob and Esau A fascinating place to begin is with Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Rebekah and Isaac.7 Like Isaac and Ishmael before them, 8 their relationship was disrupted, and the firstborn was displaced by the second born. But the story of Jacob and Esau also raises the issue of the meaning of maleness. After the birth of the twins, the narrative moves on immediately to present two young men; two very different young men. We read:9
- The boys grew; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents / Now Isaac loved Esau, because he ate his venison; and Rebecca love Jacob.
Parental favouritism is always a problem. But there is much more going on here. Esau is an alpha male, a rugged, hairy hunter of a man. Jacob likes to stay at home. There is not one single way of being a man.
As it happens, quite apart from the story of Jacob and Esau, events in the course of Jewish history have also had an impact on the way maleness is expressed in Jewish life. When the last Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE and our ancestors ceased to be farmers, men of the field were replaced by scholars poring over texts in study houses. In his book, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, 10 Daniel Boyarin challenges the gentile male gaze and the disdain for the ‘feminized’ male Jew and his circumcised penis, and recovers the gentle, receptive, ‘feminized’ studious Jewish male we find in the Talmud – and in the study houses, in which the pages of the Talmud are studied in minute detail to this day.
Boyarin argues that rather than the ‘feminized’ Jewish male being a pathological result of life in the diaspora and of the experience of living in societies dominated by the warrior model of masculinity, diaspora Jewish life offered and offers another way of being male. Nevertheless, from the time that the first rabbis gathered in all-male academies to reconstruct Jewish life after the destruction of the Temple, the entire halachic enterprise has been predicated on a binary gender culture, involving the subordination of women. All the scholarly tomes, from the Mishnah, the first code of rabbinic law, edited around 200 CE, onwards treat the male as the subject and the female as other. There’s even a tractate of the Talmud, entitled, Nashim, ‘Women’ that is devoted to defining women’s place. Yes, in a patriarchal society, studious men are patriarchs, too. At the same time, in the context of the modern Israeli reinvention of the macho man of action, Boyarin reminds us to acknowledge a Jewish way of being male that does not fulfil the dominant masculine stereotype.
Joseph Interestingly, the Torah doesn’t only present two binary versions of being male in the characters of Jacob and Esau. In the story of Joseph, we find the presentation of the central character that confounds gender expectations altogether.11 Forget ‘the coat of many colours.’ The Hebrew expression k’tonet passim, means a ‘garment reaching to the palms [of the hand and feet]’. There are only two references to such a garment in the whole of the Hebrew Bible: Joseph was dressed in a k’tonnet passim12 – and so was Tamar, the daughter of King David. In fact, when Tamar was sexually assaulted by her half-brother Amnon, the text explicitly explains: ‘She was wearing a k’tonet passim; for virgin princesses were dressed thus in olden times.’13 We already know that Joseph’s garment, a gift from his doting father, Jacob, singled him out as the favourite son.14 By linking Joseph’s garment with Tamar’s, the gender of Joseph is called into question.
And there is more. Joseph paid a heavy price for his singular position as his father’s favourite, when his envious brothers sold him into slavery.15 The account of Joseph’s experience as a slave in the house of Potiphar in Egypt also raises further questions about his gender – and also about his sexuality. When Potiphar’s wife attempted to seduce him, he resisted her attentions, and fled.16 On the one hand, the tale at this point simply conveys the vulnerability of Joseph the ‘Hebrew slave’ in the house of his Egyptian master – and mistress. And so, the reader understands why Joseph ran away, when she kept pleading with him on successive occasions to ‘lie’ with her. On the other hand, this story within a story, opens by saying how ‘beautiful’ Joseph was – literally, ‘beautiful’. We read:17
- Va-y’hi Yosef y’feih to’ar vifeih mareh. Now, Joseph was beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance.
At first glance, the reference to Joseph’s ‘beauty’ simply acts as a preamble, explaining why ‘his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph’.18 But this phrase is more than a statement about Joseph; it links Joseph directly with his mother, Rachel. The Torah relates that when as a young man Jacob took flight from his brother Esau’s wrath after stealing Esau’s blessing as the firstborn son and went to his maternal uncle Laban for refuge, he encountered Rachel herding her father’s flock, and promptly fell in love with her.19 Laban wanted his nephew to marry his older daughter, but Jacob told Laban, boldly, that he would serve him for seven years for his younger daughter. Immediately prior to this offer, the Torah briefly explains Joseph’s choice:20
- V’einei Leah rakot; v’rachel hay’tah y’fat to’ar vifat mareh. While Leah had weak eyes, Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance.
Hebrew is an entirely gendered language. The only difference between this phrase about Rachel and the one about Joseph is that the verbs, nouns and adjectives associated with Rachel are in the ‘feminine’ gender and those associated with Joseph are in the ‘masculine’ gender. But the difference in gender only serves to underline the similarity between the two phrases. There is no getting away from it, the Hebrew root, Yud Pei Hei means to be ‘beautiful.’ So, Joseph was ‘beautiful’ as his mother Rachel was ‘beautiful’. Overwhelmingly, the adjective yafeh, ‘beautiful’ is used to describe a woman. Much less frequently yafeh is used of a boy or a young man – for example, of King David’s son, Absalom,21 and of the young man in the Song of Songs – as described by his female lover.22 There is an obvious comparison between young women and young men when it comes to youthful beauty. But the particular context of the Joseph narrative makes Joseph’s beauty, both a direct reflection of his mother’s beauty – like mother, like son – and also another way of presenting Joseph as a gender- confounding dreamer, who wore a special ‘princesses’ garment’ that set him apart.
So, what do we make of Joseph? So far, I have used the standard gender pronouns ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘his’ when referring to Joseph. Perhaps, it would be more appropriate to adopt the gender-neutral pronoun, their. In one sense, as we read in Va-y’chi, the last portion of the Book of Genesis, Joseph’s story has a conventional happy ending that serves to normalise and integrate ‘him’: the first ‘diaspora’ Jew to make it, Joseph not only got to be Pharaoh’s right-hand-man, ‘he’ was also reunited with ‘his’ family. But at the same time, the happy ending also conveys other messages: ‘beautiful’ Joseph, utterly different from their shepherding brothers, ultimately survived by becoming an Egyptian and assuming a new identity. Indeed, as with Joseph’s ‘princess’s garment’ identity, this new identity was expressed in the way Joseph looked: dressed as an Egyptian overlord, Joseph’s brothers failed to recognise Joseph at every encounter with the dreamer who had provoked their rage, and so, finally, Joseph had to reveal their identity to them.23 As an Egyptian overlord, Joseph’s transformation was complete. Indeed, Pharaoh gave Joseph a new name, Tzaf’nat Pa’nei’ach, and also ‘gave’ the newly named Tzaf’nat Pa’nei’ach, As’nat, the daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, as a wife.24 Further, although Joseph made their brothers promise that they would carry up their bones, when God brought the Israelites out of the land to the land promised to their ancestors,25 the Book of Genesis nevertheless closes with an image of Joseph’s body being embalmed in the Egyptian manner.26
Joseph wore many guises, transcending a simplistic understanding of ‘who’ ‘Joseph’ was. Joseph: an exception that proves the rule – and yet, also a model and exemplar of another, gender-fluid way of being human; which brings me to Joseph’s name: Yoseph – based on the Hebrew root, Yud Sameich Pei, meaning, to ‘add’. As we try to make sense of Joseph, binary gender categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ just don’t work. Perhaps, what we need to do in order to encompass the complexity of Joseph and acknowledge fully Joseph’s female/male qualities is add an expression and dimension of humanity that transcends conventional binary gender.
Miriam For many years, I was preoccupied with the complete marginalisation of Miriam in the Torah. Miriam was the elder sister of Moses and Aaron and co-leader of the Exodus, but all the verses about Miriam taken together fill up less than one side of a sheet of paper.27 And yet, Miriam was responsible for saving the baby Moses,28 and at the time of the Exodus is described in the Torah as a prophet, n’vi’ah, who led the women in song and dance as they crossed the divided Sea of Reeds.29 Significantly, Miriam did not marry. The longest text about her is at Numbers chapter 12 – a short chapter of 16 verses that are totally devoted to an incident that Miriam was responsible for instigating. The chapter begins:
- Then Miriam spoke – and Aaron – against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. / And they said: has the Eternal indeed spoken only with Moses? Hasn’t he also spoken with us?
Understandably, both Miriam and Aaron took exception at their baby brother’s special relationship with God. But clearly, unlike Aaron, who was assigned a special status as High Priest, Miriam had much more reason to feel aggrieved. Indeed, the Hebrew makes it clear that she initiated the challenge against Moses. The verse says Va-t’dabbeir, ‘She spoke’, rather than using a plural form. Hence the translation: ‘Then Miriam spoke – and Aaron – against Moses.’
As a lesbian reading this chapter, I am prompted to ask questions about the Cushite woman from Miriam’s perspective. Who was she to Miriam? Why might Miriam have objected to Moses marrying her? In chapter 2 of my book, Trouble-Making Judaism, taking my cue from the inventiveness of rabbinic commentary where concern that Miriam was unmarried led the sages to marry her off to Joshua or Caleb,30 I present a new story of Miriam through a lesbian lens. In my account, the Cushite woman is Miriam’s woman, whom Moses married in order to break up their relationship. So, Miriam, the eldest of the Exodus leaders could well have been a lesbian.
Deborah Interestingly, on the Shabbat when in the annual Torah reading cycle we read the portion B’shallach, which relates the final instalment of the story of the Exodus that includes the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the songs of triumph of Moses and Miriam,31 our second scriptural reading, known as the haftarah, ‘conclusion’, is the story of Deborah found in the Book of Judges chapters 4 and 5.32 The narrative there opens by telling the reader that Deborah was ‘the wife of Lapidot.’33 However, Deborah was not the ‘wife of Lapidot.’ Certainly, the Hebrew says, eishet Lapidot, and eishet means ‘wife of’ or ‘woman of’. But there is no one called ‘Lapidot’ in the whole of the Bible, and the biblical convention is that when someone is designated as the wife of a certain man, there must be other references to him. Significantly, however, the word, lapidot means ‘torches’ – singular, lapid. So, the Hebrew may be describing Deborah as a ‘woman of torches’ or ‘torch-like woman’. Such a description fits well with what the text says next about Deborah: that she was a prophet – n’vi’ah – who was ‘judging’ – that is, leading – ‘Israel at that time’: Hi shof’tah et-Yisrael ba-eit ha-hi. The story then goes on to tell us that in her role as a leader, she also accompanied her general, Barak into battle and sang a song of triumph when they were victorious.34 Clearly, Deborah, the unmarried leader of the people, in no way conformed to the expectations for a woman of her time. And the portrayal of Deborah as gender nonconforming is further reinforced by the more stereotypical presentation of the other two women in the story: Yael, the wife of Hever the Kenite, who enticed Sisera, the captain of Canaanite King Yavin’s army into her tent and then drove a tent-peg into his head when he fell asleep,35 and the unnamed mother of Sisera, who is portrayed looking through the lattice as she waited at home for her son’s return.36
There is an obvious parallel between the songs of triumph of Moses and Miriam in the Exodus story and the song of triumph sung by Deborah and Barak. But there is an even more important connection between Miriam and Deborah – what their stories tell us about two non conforming women. Unfortunately, unlike Deborah, Miriam had two brothers, who inevitably upstaged her – or at least, the Torah account diminishes her leadership role in favour of her younger brothers. The rabbis, by contrast taking seriously Miriam’s role as a prophet, attempted to redress the balance. They achieved this, in part, by selecting the story of Deborah to accompany the reading of the account of the Exodus in B’shallach, and in part, by elaborating the legend of ‘Miriam’s Well’ that accompanied the Israelites on their journeys through the wilderness until Miriam died in the fortieth year of their wanderings.37 The image of ‘Miriam’s Well’ forms an interesting juxtaposition with the image of Deborah the Torch-like Woman: water and fire; two powerful forces / elements that are essential to life. Miriam and Deborah: two powerful women who did not conform to the conventional feminine gender stereotype.
David and Jonathan You may have noticed that, so far, I have talked about biblical characters that connect with the ‘T’ and ‘L’ in LGBT. So, what about the ‘G’ and ‘B’? Turning, first, to ‘B’, let us consider King David. A poet and a musician, King David was also an adulterer, who had the captain of his army killed in battle, just so that he could take his wife, Bathsheba.38 But that’s not all. As a young man, David loved Jonathan, son of King Saul – and Jonathan loved him. We read in the First Book of Samuel: ‘Now it came about when he had finished speaking to Saul that the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself.’39 And then, later when Jonathan died in battle, we learn in the Second Book of Samuel that David sang a song of lament for him:40 ‘I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan, very pleasant have you been to me, your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women.’
Jesus So, is there a gay character in the Hebrew Bible? It’s hard to say, since in ancient times the majority of men and women entered heterosexual marriage regardless of their sexuality. I realise that I am wandering into the territory of the Christian Gospels, but since Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew, and his teachings suggest that he was also a rabbi, I would like to mention him here. Like other rabbis of that era, Jesus spent most of the time with other men. But other rabbis were married. It was simply unheard of for a Jewish man of Jesus’ age – he was around 32 when he was crucified by the Romans – not to have a wife. Perhaps, it was his gay sensibility that enabled Jesus to relate to Mary Magdalene as a person, rather than as a woman of ill-repute.41 And yet, according to the Gospels, Jesus insisted that people should be married – and not get divorced.42 Is it possible that Jesus was diverting attention away from his non-normative sexuality and marital status through his pronouncements on marriage?
Some of you may be thinking that my efforts to identify the LGBT figures in the Bible are outlandish. As it happens, my musings are very much in the tradition of rabbinic aggadic midrash, that is, rabbinic commentary on the narrative parts of the Bible. The rabbinic sages were very happy to spin yarns about our ancestors. One of these is the well-known story that when looking after his father’s idol-making shop one day, Abraham smashed the idols.43 This is pure invention – but like all rabbinic invention it serves a purpose. The sages were trying to understand how it was that Abraham heeded God’s call and decided to leave his land, his kindred, and the house of his father to go on a journey to a distant land. When we read the Bible as LGBT+ Jews, we bring our questions and our preoccupations, and so we see possibilities that the heteronormative male-dominated tradition did not see. My exploration is an invitation to read the texts of Jewish tradition through the lens of our experience as LGBT+ Jews.
Finding a framework in Torah teachings for our lives as LGBT+ Jews
Identifying LGBT+ characters in the Bible is an affirming experience for us as LGBT+ Jews. I have also been inspired on my journey towards self-affirmation by seven particular Torah teachings. Seven, the number of the days of the week, is the number of completeness in Jewish teaching. In my view, everything we need to construct a framework for living fulfilled lives as Jews and as LGBT+ Jews is contained in these teachings. Before I explore each one of them separately, let me enumerate them for you.
1. ‘God created the Human … in the image of God’ (B’reishit, Genesis 1:27).
2. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Eternal’ (K’doshim, Leviticus 19:18).
3. ‘You shall not oppress the stranger for you know the nefesh – the inner being – of the stranger seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Mishpatim, Exodus 23:9).
4. ‘The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Eternal your God’ (K’doshim, Leviticus 19:34).
5. ‘Justice, justice, you shall pursue’ (Shof’tim, Deuteronomy 16:20).
6. ‘For this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too wonderful for you nor too remote… For the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it’ (N’tzavim, Deuteronomy 30:11; 14).
7. ‘You shall choose in Life’ (N’tzavim, Deuteronomy 30:19).
I’m now going to unpack each one of these teachings and demonstrate how each one relates to our lives as LGBT+ Jews.
The first teaching: ‘God created the Human … in the image of God’
In the first narrative of creation recounted in the Book of Genesis, we read that God created the human – ha-adam, the singular undifferentiated human – b’tzelem Elohim, ‘in the image of God’. What does it mean to say that the human is an image of God? There is a lovely passage in the Mishnah that draws out the meaning:44
- One stamps out many coins with one die, and they are alike, but the Sovereign above the Sovereign of Sovereigns, the Holy One, who is Blessed, stamped each person with the seal of the first human – adam ha-rishon – and not one of them is alike.
Each and every human, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, colour, ethnicity, class, ability is an image of God. Each and every human being is equal to each and every other human being. God created One humanity in myriad forms. In the late 1960s and early 70s, with the emergence of gay liberation, the pink triangle that gay men were forced to wear in the concentration camps became a symbol of defiant gay pride.45 Since the late 1970s, as increasingly diverse queer folk came out of the closet, LGBT+ people have been flying the rainbow flag.46 The rainbow flag, celebrates the diversity of LGBT+ existence. It is also an emblem for humanity; the rainbow spectrum of colours embracing us all. Another rabbinic teaching emphasises the essential equality of all human beings. We read in the same paragraph in the Mishnah:47
- It was for the sake of peace among us that creation began with a single human being: so that none might say to another: my ancestor was greater than your ancestor.
The second teaching: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Eternal’
We find this teaching at the heart of the Torah, in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 19, in the parashah – portion – K’doshim, which sets out rules for ethical behaviour, known as ‘the Holiness Code’.48 ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ In order to love our neighbour as ourselves, we must first love ourselves. This teaching, which can be applied to every arena of engagement in life, may also be applied, specifically, to our intimate relationships. The Holiness Code is sandwiched between two chapters that focus on sexual prohibitions.49 Most of the sexual prohibitions are expressed with an opening statement, ‘you shall not uncover the nakedness of’, and then go on to specify whom a man may not have sex with. Apart from the example of bestiality,50 it is the male alone, who is regarded as the sexual actor. These two chapters also include two versions of the notorious teaching proscribing sex between men: ‘You shall not lie with a man, as with a woman it is an abomination.’ The penalty, as Leviticus chapter 20 makes it clear, was death.51 This particular teaching has been responsible for the marginalisation and oppression of gay men. It is irredeemable. Of course, like several of the teachings of the Torah it reflects its time and its place. Other examples would include, forcing a woman accused of adultery to endure the ordeal of consuming poisonous bitter waters,52 and stoning to death a rebellious son.53 But there is something else about this notorious teaching prohibiting sex between men that tends to get ignored. Interestingly, it’s the only teaching in the list of sexual prohibitions that assumes as its starting point that two male sexual actors are by definition equals. What it seems to be saying is that it is prohibited for an autonomous male to treat another autonomous male as he would treat a female – that is to dominate his sexual partner. Again: ‘You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.’ The concern of the sexual prohibitions in Leviticus is not so much with ethical behaviour, as with setting apart the people Israel from the other nations that practised idolatry at that time,54 and with maintaining order within a patriarchal system that is rooted in the enforcement of binary gender, predicated on male domination.
There’s also something very interesting to learn from the placing of the Holiness Code between two lists of sexual prohibitions. So, what do we discover when instead of treating Leviticus chapter 19 separately we read the sexual prohibitions set out in Leviticus chapters 18 and 20 through the lens of ethical conduct? When we do this, the prohibition against ‘uncovering nakedness’ ceases to be a descriptive statement and takes on an ethical tone as a prohibition against exploiting another’s vulnerability in their nakedness. The juxtaposition of the chapters invites us to devise an inclusive, egalitarian sexual ethic for ourselves within the parameters of not exploiting another person’s vulnerability on the one hand, and loving one’s sexual partner as ourselves, on the other.
The third teaching: ‘You shall not oppress the stranger for you know the nefesh – the inner being – of the stranger seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt’
Before I decided to study for the rabbinate, I was a Jewish lesbian. Before that, after discovering the Women’s Liberation Movement in 1978, I became a lesbian feminist separatist. Before that, when I was an undergraduate sociology student at the London School of Economics, I was a Trotskyite Marxist and member of the International Marxist Group. My political awakening began at 17 years old, and at that time I expressed my convictions by being vehemently anti-racist and reading everything I could about the black experience in the Americas and apartheid in South Africa. I have sketched the development of my consciousness in reverse order because the stages I went through say a lot about the way in which an individual with a complex identity attempts to negotiate their personal challenges in the context of negotiating their connections with others. I began by paying very little attention to my personal experience and identifying with the experience of other particular oppressed groups. Stage by stage, I began to integrate my personal experience of marginalisation as a Jew and as a lesbian into my commitment to challenging oppression in all its forms.
And then, the encounter with the Jewish textual sources that became available to me when I began my rabbinic studies gave me a language that spoke to my quest for integration. There are several verses in the Torah that focus on how we treat the stranger.55 This particular verse, both, reminds us of our past experience of being strangers ourselves, and also appeals to the very heart of each one of us. Again: ‘You shall not oppress the stranger for you know the nefesh of the stranger ….’ Under the influence of Greek thought, nefesh came to be translated as ‘soul’. In the biblical worldview however, there is no division between ‘body’ and ‘soul’, so nefesh is best translated as ‘inner being’. As LGBT+ Jews we are at the sharp end of that internalised experience of being other. We know what it feels like to be othered as LGBT+ people in a heteronormative society – both within the Jewish community and within the wider world. We know what it feels like to be Jews with a history – including a very recent history – of vicious persecution, and to live in a society that remains dominated by Christian cultural assumptions. And so, as LGBT+ Jews, knowing ‘the nefesh – the inner being – of the stranger’ so intimately and intensely, it is incumbent upon us to be at the forefront of the struggle to challenge the persecution of refugees and asylum seekers and to do what we can to help them find a home – not least, LGBT+ asylum seekers who are fleeing regimes that persecute them, and in some cases kill them.56
The fourth teaching: ‘The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Eternal your God’
When the Holiness Code Leviticus 19 exhorts us to love our neighbour, the Hebrew word for neighbour – rei’a – suggests that a neighbour is a fellow Israelite; someone who is part of our community, who is like us. And so, the code adds the command, ‘You shall love the stranger as yourself.’ It’s one thing to do what we can to ensure that strangers are not mistreated and oppressed, but can we really be commanded to love the stranger? As LGBT+ Jews, knowing so very intimately the nefesh, the inner being of the stranger, that deep and palpable awareness is a pathway to love. ‘You shall love the stranger as yourself.’ As LGBT+ Jews, in order to live as fully integrated human beings, we are challenged to love our difference, our strangeness; we are challenged to embrace our otherness. If we find ways of loving ourselves as the strangers that we are, we will also be able to love other strangers, whoever they are.
The fifth teaching: ‘Justice, justice, you shall pursue’
This is such a powerful statement. Very terse – even more so in the Hebrew – it says so much: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. In Hebrew, a sentence usually begins with the verb. But here, the noun ‘justice’, tzedek, comes first. And it is repeated. The emphasis, literally, quite emphatically, is on justice. The repetition also conveys a central aspect of any system of justice: equity. This verse is part of a section of laws in the Torah dealing with the administration of justice that make it clear that there can be no partiality in justice; no favouring of one party over another in a dispute. Justice for the one, must also be justice for the other. But the verb is very interesting, too. We are exhorted: ‘Justice, Justice you shall pursue’. Justice is never a given. We have to chase after it and unless we do this, it may elude us. As LGBT+ Jews, we are called upon to pursue justice for ourselves and others. And more than this, to do justice, equally, to the different aspects of ourselves: to our Jewish selves as well as to our LGBT+ selves. We live in such a binary world. When I first came out as a lesbian, I didn’t know that I could be a lesbian and be Jewish. So, I immersed myself, as I mentioned, in lesbian separatism. And then I discovered that a huge part of myself was missing; that I was marginalising my Jewish self, my Jewish past and present, in order to fit in to life within a lesbian feminist community that turned out to be based on very narrow white Anglo-Saxon Protestant cultural norms that othered me as a Jew. We must pursue justice for all of who we are. And we must pursue justice on behalf of and in solidarity with others.
The sixth teaching: ‘For this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too wonderful for you nor too remote… For the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it’
This is one of my favourite Torah teachings. One of the reasons I love it so much is because it is expressed so beautifully. I’m going to quote the passage from Deuteronomy chapter 30 in full:57
- For this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too wonderful for you, nor too remote. / It is not in heaven that you need to say: ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and fetch it for us, that we may hear it and do it?’ / Neither is it across the sea that you need to say: ‘Who will cross the sea for us and fetch it for us, that we may hear it and do it?’ For the matter is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it.
The opening verse of this passage does not specify any particular commandment. According to the medieval 13th century commentator, Nachmanides58 ‘this commandment’ is a specific reference to the command to repent, since the previous passage begins with the exhortation to return to God59. For Ya’akov Tzvi Mecklenburg, born in 1785, on the eve of the Enlightenment, on the other hand, ‘this commandment’ refers to the whole of the Torah – and most commentators up to the present day agree. But the emphasis of the passage lies elsewhere. The point is ‘For this commandment… is not too wonderful for you, nor too remote…. For the matter is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it.’ As LGBT+ Jews, we are not just faced with the challenge of integrating our gender and sexual orientation with being Jewish, what being Jewish means for each one of us can be hugely complex, difficult and troubling. I think one of the main reasons for this is that we seem to be grappling with something out there that can feel like a burden – the burden of the expectations of our families, the burden of a past drenched in blood, the burden of the weight of scholarly works packed with rules and regulations bearing down on us. But this passage is saying something else. It teaches that ‘the matter is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it.’ Significantly, the Hebrew for ‘the matter’ is ha- davar. The noun davar, means ‘word’ or ‘thing’. Hence the translation, ‘the matter’. But the Hebrew conveys so much more: forget millions and millions of scholarly Jewish words; the word, the matter is in the mouth and in the heart of each one of us to do it. Ultimately, each one of us is the arbiter of the Jew we want to be. Each one of us is by definition an authentic Jew by virtue of our own personal sense of what it means for us to be a Jew. But the essential thing is that to be a Jew is to do. Again: ‘It is in your mouth and in your heart to do it.’ It is not enough to feel Jewish. It is not enough to talk about being Jewish. To be Jewish is to act as a Jew in the context of our own lives, in relation to those around us and in relation to the wider world.
The seventh teaching: ‘You shall choose in life’
The Jewish toast is L’Chayyim! To Life! Chayyim is a plural word. Life is plural. It includes joy and sorrow. Our lives are plural – each one of us encompasses so many different dimensions. L’Chayyim! The toast is an optimistic celebration of life, whatever life brings. How astonishing that L’Chayyim! Is the Jewish toast. In the face of murder and destruction: L’Chayyim! To Life! The exhortation, ‘You shall choose in life’ – u’vacharta ba-chayyim – concludes a verse in Deuteronomy chapter 30, a little further on from the passage I’ve just explored. Let me quote the verse in full:60
- I call heaven and earth to witness against you today: I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore you shall choose in Life, that you may live, you and your descendants.
Life includes all these dimensions, life and death, blessing and curse: U’vacharta ba-chayyim – Therefore you shall choose in Life. As LGBT+ Jews, we are all too familiar with these stark choices. How many LGBT+ people have chosen death; have chosen to kill themselves in response to their experience of persecution and exclusion, or in fear of rejection – not least from their own families? We are exhorted not to choose life in some abstract way, but rather to choose in life – ba-chayyim; we are exhorted to plunge into life, body, heart and soul. As LGBT+ Jews, in the face of bigotry and hatred and our own internalised homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, we are challenged to choose to live. We are challenged to choose in our embodied lives; to consciously choose with confidence and commitment all the dimensions of ourselves, so that we can then wholeheartedly choose to participate in the life of the community, the wider society and the world in which we live.
The journey ahead
In this address, I have suggested that our Jewish teachings and stories may serve as resources as we grapple with the challenge of embracing ourselves as LGBT+ Jews. I would like to draw my address to a close by offering two questions for you to explore in the remaining minutes of this session, and also to take with you on your journeys through this conference and in the year ahead. The questions are:
- Which of these seven Torah teachings speak(s) to me most – and why? And:
Inspired by these teachings, what steps can I take to support myself to live a fulfilled life as an LGBT+ Jew?
You will find on your seat a sheet with the teachings on one side, and the questions on the other.
In a few moments, I will invite you to turn to your neighbour and respond to these questions, but first, I would like to end with two short passages from Pirkei Avot, the Chapters of the Sages, a collection of the wise aphorisms of the first generations of rabbis that is appended to the Mishnah. I offer these passages as words of encouragement for our journeys – and for our efforts to contribute to the great task of tikkun olam, repair of the world that begins with the repair of our LGBT+ Jewish selves. We read:61
- Lo alecha ha-m’lachah ligmor, v’lo attah ben-chorin l’hibatteil mimennah. It is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.
Finally, the words of the sage Hillel span over 2000 years to challenge us still:62
- Im ein ani li, mi li? U’ch’she’ani l’atzmi, mah ani? V’im lo achshav, eimatai? If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? But if I’m only for myself what am I? And if not now, when?
1 ‘The 614th Commandment’ in The Jewish Return Into History. Reflections on the Age of Auschwitz and the New Jerusalem. Schocken Books, New York 1978, pp. 19-24.
2 For an authoritative and accessible history of the Sho’ah, see: The War Against the Jews 1933-1945 by Lucy S. Dawidowicz, Penguin Books, 1975.
3 When I lived in Israel in 1978-79, the Law of Return, which was enacted by the government of Israel in 1950 to establish the right of all Jews living in the diaspora to immigrate to Israel, was being interpreted in such a way that lesbian and gay Jews were excluded.
4 Covenant of Love. Service of Commitment for Same-Sex Couples. Liberal Judaism, London, 2005.
5 See: https://www.liberaljudaism.org/what-we-do/lgbtqi-projects/
6 In this address I present my own commentaries on the biblical text. The title of this section quotes the title of the book: Queering the Text: Biblical, Medieval and Modern Jewish Stories by Andrew Ramer and Jay Michaelson – with Afterword by Camille Shira Angel 2010. For an extensive treatment of the Torah from an LGBT+ perspective, I recommend Torah Queeries. Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer – with a Foreword by Judith Plaskow (New York University Press, 2009). I also recommend the ground-breaking work, Like Bread on the Seder Plate. Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition by Rebecca Alpert (Columbia University Press, 1997).
7 The narrative of Jacob and Esau begins at Tol’dot, Genesis 25:19-23.
8 See Va-yeira, Genesis chapter 21.
9 Gen. 25:27-28.
10 University of California Press, 1997.
11 The Joseph story begins at Genesis 37 and continues to the end of the Book of Genesis.
12 Gen. 37:3.
13 2 Samuel 13:18
14 Va-yeishev, Gen. 37:3.
15 Gen. 37:
16 Va-yeishev, Gen. 39:7ff.
17 Gen. 39:6.
18 Gen. 39:7.
19 Va-yeitzei, Gen. 29:10-11.
20 Gen. 29:17.
21 2 Samuel 14:25.
22 Song of Songs 1:16. But the adjective ‘beautiful’ is not only used to refer to people. As it happens, in the Joseph story, the seven healthy looking cows of Pharaoh’s first dream, are also described as ‘beautiful’. In her article, ‘The Song of Solomon’s Wife’ (in Hear Our Voice. Women Rabbis Tell Their Stories edited by Sybil Sheridan. SCM Press, 1994, pp. 64-71), Rabbi Sybil Sheridan argues that the Song of Songs, which treats the lovers in such an egalitarian way, may well have had a female author.
23 Va-yiggash, Gen. 45:1.
24 Mikkeitz, Gen. 41:45. Tzaph’nat Panei’ach is Egyptian for ‘God speaks; he lives’, or ‘creator of life’, according to the Jewish Publication Society translation JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh (1999, footnote, d, p.88).
25 Va-y’chi, Gen. 50:25.
26 Gen. 50:26.
27 The Bible on Miriam: Exodus 2:1-10, Ex. 15:20-21, Numbers 12:1-16, Num. 20:1, Deuteronomy 24:8-9, Numbers 26:58-59, Micah 6:4, I Chronicles 6:3.
28 See the story of the birth of Moses: Sh’mot, Exodus 2:1-10.
29 B’shallach, Exodus 15:20.
30 Midrash Sh’mot Rabbah 1:17.
31 See B’shallach, Exodus 13:17-15:21.
32 Starting at Judges 4:4.
33 Judges 4:4.
34 Judges 4:6-10.
35 Judges 4:17-22; 5:24-27.
36 Jud. 4:28-30.
37 ‘Israel had a well in the desert in Miriam’s merit’ (Talmud Ta’anit 9a). Another tractate in the Talmud, Shabbat 35a, has this: If one wishes to see Miriam’s well, one should go up Mount Carmel and look toward the sea where one will witness something that looks like a sieve amid the sea and that is Miriam’s well. Rashi comments: Miriam’s well: This is the well that would follow Israel through the desert by virtue of Miriam’s merit, as it is written, ‘And Miriam died there.’ The very next verse says, ‘And there was no water for the community. See also Legends of the Jews, Vol. III edited by Louis Ginzberg (Jewish Publications Society of America, Philadelphia, 1968) for a compilation of all the midrashim related to Miriam’s Well (pp. 50-54). The notes (119-135), with the references are in Vol. VI, pp. 20-22.
38 2 Samuel 11:2-27.
39 1 Samuel 18:1.
40 2 Samuel 1:26.
41 New Testament, Gospel of Luke 8:1-3.
42 See Matthew 19:1-12.
43 Midrash B’reishit [Genesis] Rabbah, chapter 38.
44 Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.
45 See: The Men with the Pink Triangle: The True Life-and-Death Story of Homosexuals in the Nazi Death Camps by Heinz Heger, Klaus Muller (Introduction), David Fernbach (Translation), 2010 (first published in 1980); The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals by Richard Plant, 2011 (first published in 1987).
48 At the 13th conference of the International Congress in 1993, I explored this verse in the sermon I gave on Erev Shabbat. Subsequently, it became an article, and then a chapter in my book, Trouble-Making Judaism, entitled, Towards an Inclusive Jewish Sexual Ethic (David Paul Books, London, 2012).
49 Leviticus chapters 18 (Acharei Mot) and 20 (K’doshim)
50 Lev. 18:23,
51 Lev. 20:13.
52 Naso, Numbers 5:12-31.
53 Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:18-21.
54 See: Acharei Mot, Leviticus 18:1-5, the opening preamble of the sexual prohibitions.
55 See, for example: Mishpatim, Exodus 22:20; K’doshim, Leviticus 19: 33-34.
57 Nitzavim, Deut. 30: 11-14.
58 Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, who was born in Gerona in Spain in 1194. Also known as the Ramban. He was a Talmudic jurist, and also very interested in Kabbalah – the mystical dimension of Judaism, and so his comments frequently offer mystical insights.
59 Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 30:2.
60 Deut. 30:19.
61 Mishnah Pirkei Avot 2:16.
62 Ibid. 1:14.
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