An unusual Torah 'outing'

An unusual Torah outing

By ANDREW SACKS
December 17, 2009 12:43

 
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As I was growing up I knew no gay people. At least I was not aware of anyone around me who was gay. This was true concerning my classmates in high school, college and even in rabbinical school. The idea of a gay Torah scholar or a lesbian rabbi was not a part of the discussion of the times. This was not so much because there was an "anti" in the air. It was more because such a thing had never occurred to anybody I knew. If it did, it may have been considered subversive, and even radical, to broach as a subject worthy of consideration. But that was then and this is now. The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, has never been a book read on its own. The written Torah gave rise to the Oral Torah which included the midrash. In essence midrash was the sermon of its day. It was the way rabbis were able to convey the meaning of the weekly Torah reading, and the holiday reading, to the "Jew in the pew" who may have been more, or less, literate. Before too long Torah scholars added learned commentaries. The most widely found compilation is Mikraot Gedolot, which includes the interpretations of Rashi, Ibn Ezra and many more. But these commentaries, found on the shelf of most observant, Hebrew-literate Jews did not end the search for meaning in these sacred texts. The Talmud says of the Torah, "Turn it over and over, for everything is in it." The last decade has spawned many additions, perhaps more in English than in Hebrew, of creative and exciting ways to see the text through an alternative lens. There have been Torah commentaries written from a feminist perspective. Where once women were outsiders in the world of Torah, today they are taking their rightful place. The Jewish community is all the richer for this. Some time ago I discovered a Web site with a unique Torah commentary. It was the site of Jewish mosaic where each week a commentary on the Torah reading, or an interpretation of the week's reading, was presented through a queer eye. This site, and now this volume, free the imagination from norms that have been accepted for thousands of years. The very word "queer" is used in a number of ways. Without going into the meaning of the word too deeply, one may say that it relates to matters important to the LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer/questioning) community and those who feel close to this community. This is a group that has been deep in the closet, certainly in the observant Jewish world, until recently. Today things are changing. Each of the major denominations, Orthodox being the only exception, now ordains out/gays as rabbis and as cantors. And now, for the first time, along comes a volume that provides queer insights and thoughts on the weekly Torah readings. THE EDITORS of Torah Queeries, Gregg Drinkwater, David Shneer and Joshua Lesser, have gathered together many leading rabbis and scholars to provide a perspective through what they call a "bent lens." This exceptional collection brings together the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gay-friendly writers, including some of the best-known names in the Jewish world, from all of the major denominations, including Orthodox. To name just a few (and I do an injustice to most that I leave out), the contributors include the likes of Amichai Lau-Lavie, the founder of Storahtelling; Elliot Dorff, rector and professor at the American Jewish University; Judith Plaskow, professor at Manhattan College and a leading Jewish feminist theologian; David Ellison, president of Hebrew Union College; and Steven Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi, who has served as a senior educator for CLAL. All of the 54 Torah portions, not simply those with a more visible connection, and six major holidays are covered in the volume. Many new insights are offered, sometimes (perhaps too often) in a way that provokes the reader and shakes traditional ideas to their core. Jewish tradition teaches that there "are 70 faces to the Torah," and "both these and these [views] are the words of the living God." Every Jew stood at Mount Sinai but only now, when the issues of social justice have moved front and center in the Jewish world, has the face that for too long remained in the closet been given a voice. The book is not without its shortcomings, although I think they are few in number. Some (but not many) of the essays are weaker than I would have hoped. Some seem to peg an idea that the author wishes to convey on a seemingly ever so minor event or verse rather than letting the idea flow from the text. So many biblical figures, and situations, are portrayed as possibly gay or gender-queer that at times it may seem the author is stretching the bounds of interpretation. Yet, at the same time, this is one aspect of the book that makes it fun and challenging to read. The essay on Nitzavim identifies the parasha, in addition to its place in the weekly cycle, as the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning. Unless there is an alternative reading in some communities with which I am not familiar, the reading for Yom Kippur morning is taken from Parashat Aharei Mot. Torah Queeries offers new ideas about what constitutes rape in the Torah and how it is to be understood. The normal ideas of what constitutes masculine and feminine behavior is often turned on its head. There will be biblical stories and motifs that you may never read the same way after completing this book. The view of figures such as Balaam, Zimri and the daughters of Zelophehad may move the reader outside of his and/or her comfort zone. I will never again read these stories as I have all along. The term gerim - often translated into English as "stranger," "convert" or "resident alien" - is understood in a new way that renders queer Jews as gerim. The author of the essay on Vayelech suggests that as soon as queer Jews take on the status of gerim, they gain the freedom to "make something else of those [problematic] passages in the tradition and find themselves back in the tradition once more." This, in essence, is at the heart of much of Torah Queeries. The contention in the book's postscript states that svara is a rabbinic concept so threatening (as it allows "any change even to the point of uprooting the Torah itself'") that it has been "kept secret for 1,500 years and never mentioned in rabbinical seminaries" strikes me as conspiratorial and silly. But the book itself is far from silly. With Torah Queeries, no longer is the LGBT community an outsider in the Bible. In each parasha, in every holiday, gender bending exists. Until Torah Queeries came along very few, myself included, were able to see this face of Torah. While the "queering of the Torah" may not find favor with every reader, it should appeal to those who wish to read the Torah with an open mind and the willingness to look at the words from 3,000 years ago with new, and often jarring, perspectives. Without sounding overly Pollyannaish, this is a volume that I would describe as a must for the Jewish bookshelf. The writer directs the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.

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