Queering the Torah

 My sweetheart frequently reminds me that everyone is queer. She will point to a woman who chose as a teenager to be part of a beauty pageant in a lefty, hippy family where that kind of thing was frowned upon. Or the Jew whose Jewish identity does not rely on Torah, prayer, or Israel. Or the “straight” couple where the Dad stays at home and takes care of the kids while the wife goes out of the house to earn money. In Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible edited by Gregg Drinkwater, David Shneer and Joshua Lesser, it’s the Torah’s turn to be queer.

Though some use queer as an umbrella term to refer to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex people, intentionally reclaimed from its previous derogatory usage, queer is also about questioning and challenging norms. As Rabbi Jacob Staub notes, queerness challenges “not only norms of gender role and definition or sexual orientation but all norms .” For some, simply picking up the Torah is challenging norms—as it was when women started to unravel the scrolls. As Judith Plaskow, the preeminent Jewish feminist theologian, notes in her forward to the book that “just as feminist perspectives on Jewish texts opened to the whole Jewish community a new world of questions and categories for understanding, so queer perspectives do the same. ”

As scholars and rabbis, queer and straight, the contributors to this book successfully fuse innovative and traditional hermeneutics yielding durable, profound commentaries about each weekly parasha, or portion. As queers have been doing for generations, the commentaries found in this volume teach us how to reclaim, liberate and celebrate amidst imperfection—whether it is a fearful society or a flawed text. The various authors in Torah Queeries offer decidedly queer readings of Torah—they are at once challenging and reasonable. Readers learn in Torah Queeries about queer theory and biblical interpretation in equal parts and often, as the book promises, producing brand new insights into the text.

Take for example, Dr. Tamar Kamionkowski’s reading of Parshat Shemini . Kamionkowski finds a relationship between the two sections of this parsha —the story of Nadav and Avihu and the laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws)—often read as completely unrelated to one another. Kamionkowski reads Nadav and Avihu’s risk-taking act of making a non-prescribed offering in the Temple as a challenge to the cultural norms of their generation. Motivated by their own passion and desire, Kamionkowski sees this text as “an example of homoerotic attraction between human males and the male God of the Bible” . Responding unfavorably to the transgression of boundaries and to acts of passion, Kamionkowski reads the biblical response as containing “both a benefit and a loss”. According to Kamionkowski, “the loss is an erasure of the story of passion, and the benefit is the establishment of necessary boundaries ”.

Drawing from the work of Mary Douglas, Kamionkowski claims the parsha “proceeds in great detail with lists and categories, with prohibition after prohibition, the acts of passion by Nadav and Avihu are lost, and the importance of maintaining clear boundaries with regard to flesh emerges victorious .” A queer theorist herself, Kamionkowski sees in the Biblical text the deliberate erasure of queer experience and themes, the construction of rigid rules and binaries to control people and retain hierarchies, and the fear of eroticism, desire, and passion that mark queer discourse. Revealing how the story has been spun by rabbinic and medieval commentators from one of “unbridled love and longing into one of willful sin and divine punishment”, she offers contemporary queers a way back into the text. Kamionkowski breaths new life into this parsha, and stimulates curiosity for those of us who care about liberation and Torah.

Drawing upon Biblical Scholar Robert Alter’s translation of the word khalutzim as “vanguard” (as compared to “pioneers”), Rabbi Lisa Edwards reads these khalutzim in Parashat Matot as people who lead society in the new direction it needs to go in, who push boundaries, as queers do, just simply by being who we are. She goes on to explain the thinking behind establishing October 11th as National Coming Out Day—“the theory is simple: if all queer people declare themselves queer on one day, every homophobe in the world would discover they know someone queer. And as we encounter over and over again, often all it takes for someone to overcome homophobia is to discover that someone they know or love or like or respect is queer. It can be world changing, and most especially if everyone—the whole vanguard—takes part. ” What Rabbi Edwards does is reinvent the biblical rolemodel—beyond Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—a contribution to all those study Torah from any lens—queer, feminist, socialist, agnostic, and beyond. Her queer reading brings us ways to reflect our contemporary struggles for visibility, inclusion and acceptance, through a biblical, militaristic text.

In her piece on Parashat Toldot, Sarra Lev reads the biblical Esau as a gender-crosser who boldly chooses passion over detachment. Lev points to both the Torah as well as rabbinic midrash that “contain gender inversions in which Esau rejects his overtly male description and legacy in favor of what in contemporary terms we might think of as more ‘classically female’ choices ”. Lev’s exploration of the parsha raises the important issues of conformity, of parental/societal expectation and of gender assignments, some of the typical preoccupations of queer theorists. This reading adds another layer of meaning often not discussed as part of this parsha, and is instructive also for understanding the values that shape our society as well as the attitudes and beliefs that are used to repress queers today. Lev points out that in “both the Biblical and rabbinic traditions, Esau’s gender-crossing comes to bite him in the back in the end. In the Biblical text, Esau cannot both at the role of male (patriarch in the family) and despise the trappings that come with that role. So too, in the rabbinic text, Esau cannot both be the dominant (male) nation and also act the role of (female) penetrated. Something must give—and in the end he will be punished ”. As it was for Esau, so it is today for many gender non-conforming , gender queer , and transgender people who are punished for being who they are through lack of non-discrimination protection, lack of visibility in education and media, and more. This reading challenges us to think more critically about our own gender and the way we participate in the gender binary.

I am grateful for these authors’ willingness to read Torah in way that elevates marginalized peoples’ experiences. For some queer Jews, the Torah is seen as a text of oppression—forbidding them from their desires and passions, silencing their voices, and delegitimizing their experiences. For some secular Jews, the Torah has had the same effect. What Torah Queeries demonstrates is that by bringing who we are to bear on the Torah, a text so widely studied and revered, we are doing the critical work of role modeling and legitimizing otherness, courage, desire, integrity, and honesty and inching our way toward justice and liberation for everyone. This book, an indispensable resource for all teachers and learners of Torah, in the best way possible, makes queers of us all.

-Rabbi Alissa Wise 

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