Opening Kavanah for Keshet Leadership Summit — LA Collaborative, November 17, 2014
By Rabbi Lisa Edwards
As a lesbian and a rabbi who has lived in community for decades with and for LGBTQ Jews, I want to offer a personal thank you to each of you for taking part in this Leadership Summit.
The piece was first published on MyJewishLearning.com titled Hints of “Queerness” from Our Ancestors, Our Sages, and Our God
We come together today in the midst of our annual study of the Book of Genesis, with its many examples of the presence of QUEER people — of alternative family structures and gender non-conformity. As you begin your learning day, I thought to mention a few examples, in the hopes you’ll take opportunities to study these and others later on.
First, consider Sarai, matriarch of our people, who while unable to get pregnant, suggests that her husband Avram have a child with a surrogate (her handmaid Hagar). Our first alternative family structure — not only surrogacy, but one dad and two moms.
By the way, one of our Talmud sages, without a hint of irony or distress, amidst a discussion of the mitzvah of parenting, takes note of the long years of infertility of Sarah and Abraham, and suggests that our matriarch and patriarch appear to be tumtumim (people of indeterminate gender).1
Later, and again without criticism, the Torah and our tradition show us there has always been gender non-conformity. Consider Rebekah when first we meet her in last week’s Parashah, Chayei Sarah — how “butch” is Rebekah! — strong enough to hoist bucketful after bucketful of water to water many camels.
And then Rebekah and Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau, whom we meet in this week’s portion, Toldot, remind us that there have always been boys who present more “macho” and boys who present more “sissy” — consider the rough and tumble hairy hunter Esau — “a man of the outdoors” (25:27) — twin but certainly not an identical one, to his smooth, mild brother Jacob, who prefers to stay at home and try vegetarian recipes (red lentil stew, for example, 25:29).
Or in the Genesis stories still to come, consider the children of Jacob:
How Dina, Jacob’s only daughter, “went out to see the daughters of the land” [34:1]. Did she “go out” to see the “daughters” or did she “come out”? We know nothing of what Dinah thought or felt or intended or did on her visit. She never a speaks a word in Torah, and we don’t know what eventually became of her. We do know that when she ventured forth, away from home, to visit other women, Shechem, the Hittite prince, “saw her, took her, lay her down and raped her.” [34:2] How many women and LGBTQ people today find themselves unsafe to venture forth alone anywhere in the world? And how many lesbians have been rudely told or violently “shown” that their attraction to women is only because they need a man to show them “how it’s done”?
Why does Joseph’s coat of many colors make his brothers so angry? Were they simply jealous that Jacob favored their little brother? What if something else was going on?
What if Joseph himself favored the coat because he was drawn to different colors? Because he liked its length or it felt like a dress to him?
What if his brothers bullied him for being too feminine and his father’s favor of the coat was a way of telling Joseph that, whoever he chose to be, Jacob would love him always?
It shouldn’t be surprising that in our tradition we find hints and even discussion that “queerness”existed, as well as a certain comfort level with it on the part of our ancestors, of our sages and of God.
What should be surprising is that so many of us are still taken by surprise at these suggestions.
Last night I sat around a table with 7 other gay men and lesbians between the ages of 55 and 71, and told them about today’s seminar. They all join me in thanking you for being here today, for already understanding, already knowing, that a leadership summit like this one is necessary. We speculated a bit on what our younger years might have been like — how much better those years might have been (and later ones as well) — had our teachers and schools — especially religious schools — set LGBTQ inclusion as a priority.
“Do not oppress the stranger,” one of them said, we’re taught that over and over again but it doesn’t always register with people that a stranger could be your own child or your own parent or sibling.
“Do not hide yourself from your own kin,” we read in the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning, and when will everyone come to understand that hiding yourself isn’t only what a person who is “in the closet” does, it’s also what people do when they sense someone is in the closet but don’t open the door and invite that person to come out into open arms and open minds and open hearts.
We are told, said another of my friends last night, DO NOT harvest all the way to the corner of the fields, but leave some there so that the vulnerable ones among us might come and find sustenance, might share in the fields of plenty, might glean nourishment for themselves and not just “depend on the kindness of strangers.” This mitzvah is not only about physical sustenance, she said, though that’s vital; it’s also about spiritual sustenance — that’s why there are Jewish Day schools; and it’s also about emotional sustenance — if you are asked (either subtly or outright) to deny or ignore a core part of yourself each time you enter your home or shul or school, how long before you’d stop trying to come in at all, much less stay in?
“Diversity is what we all have in common,” someone said last night. Diversity is what God created and delighted in from the first week of creation and ever since, saying gleefully over and over — ki tov — how good is this, and even tov ma’od — how very good indeed! So shouldn’t we, created in God’s image, also embrace diversity and delight in it just like God does?
Indeed we should. And your presence here today suggests that many more Jews in Los Angeles will soon also learn to do so.
So we thank you — my friends and I and my whole congregation and community and family — thank you for being here and being willing, for having already begun the work, for being ready to find delight in all God’s wondrous and diverse creations…and in our own.
Have a wonderful day together.
Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Ph.D.
Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC)
1 “Rabbi Ammi stated: ‘Abraham and Sarah were originally of doubtful sex [tumtumim they are called in the Talmud — persons whose gender cannot be determined]. . .(Yevamot 64b)