Ki Tetzei: A Trans-gression?

Clothes line https://pixabay.com/en/clothes-line-laundry-colorful-wash-615962/

A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 22:5

Historically, this commandment has mostly been used to reinforce the status quo around gender. It guards against the danger that women will cross-dress and usurp men’s power, or that men will cross-dress as a way to trespass in the harem. In other words, it safeguards patriarchal inheritance rights.

Fast-forward to the gender anxieties of the 20th century, when some of us have been very worried that women were trying to “wear the pants” or that men were “being castrated” by women. Back in the 1960’s I remember a lot of fuss about women and slacks; this verse was always a popular proof-text. Today it is handy for those who wish to buttress transphobic feelings with Biblical texts.

In fact, Jewish tradition has not always seen gender in a binary way. The sages of the Talmud recognized and discussed six genders:

  • zachar – male
  • nekevah – female
  • androgynos – one having both male and female characteristics
  • tumtum – one whose gender characteristics are unclear or unformed
  • ay’lonit – one who is identified as female at birth but develops male characteristics and is infertile
  • saris – one who is identified as male at birth but develops female characteristics and/or is lacking male genitalia

Notice that some of these categories are mutable and change over the course of a lifetime.

Some readers may think that this is a wild Reform reading of the texts.  (I am certainly a Reform rabbi!) If you are interested in following up, I recommend Terms for Jewish Diversity from Classical Jewish Texts by Rabbi Elliot Kukla. He gives citations and a count of the time these terms appear in the texts. The Religious Action Center offers a readable article on the subject, Gender Diversity in Jewish Tradition.

So now, in the present day, what might we do with the commandment that seems to say “no crossdressing?”

What if we were to make a new interpretation of this verse? Try this:

Do not disguise yourself as something that you are not, unless it is necessary for the preservation of life. Do not oppress someone on account of gender, because we are all made in the image and likeness of the Holy One.

What do you think? I have no idea if I have any trans readers, but if so, I’d be particularly interested in hearing from you.

Coming or Going? Exodus and Elul

snake

One of the odd things about being a writer is that often you do have to do things out of season, because of a publishing schedule. I just finished writing a d’var Torah on Parashat Bo, a section of the Book of Exodus. However, the materials I reviewed for it made me think it was very appropriate for Elul.

Torah portions gets their names from the first distinctive word of the portion. In this case, “Bo,” which is usually translated “Come,” isn’t translated that way. Here’s the opening verse of the portion:

And the Eternal said unto Moses: ‘Go in unto Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these My signs in the midst of them. – Exodus 10:1

So here most translations say “Go” instead of “Come.” It makes more immediate sense, so that’s what they do. However, if you read Hebrew, or you start looking in the commentaries, it stands out as a very interesting situation indeed.

The Kotzker Rebbe took a very simple approach to the Come/Go question. He said that things were getting scary, and God said “Come” to reassure Moses that God would there with him in the throne room of Pharaoh.

The Zohar, a mystical work, takes almost the opposite tack. It says that really God was calling to Moses from the throne room of Pharaoh, and that the throne room was a dark tunnel in which there lived an evil snake. (I don’t recommend the Zohar at bedtime, unless you like nightmares.) Like all mystical works, the Zohar is full of metaphor and clouded language, but the message in this passage is loud and clear: “Danger, Moses!”

We are in a season of the year when our task is to plumb the depths of our own souls. Sometimes that requires confronting ugly aspects of ourselves: our selfishness, our cowardice, or our defensiveness. It can be like following an ugly snake down into a dark hole, and then, when we are down there with it, wrestling the thing.

The good news is the Kotzker Rebbe’s interpretation: we may be down there in the hole with our worst inclinations, but we don’t have to go there alone. God goes with us into those dark places. I find it reassuring to remember that Jews all over the world are with me in this struggle, too, each of us wrestling our own private demons.

Whatever we wrestle this Elul, may we never forget that we are not alone!

What Makes the Pig So Special?

Pigs from pixabay.com

But the following, which do bring up the cud or have true hoofs which are cleft through, you may not eat: the camel, the hare, and the hyrax — for although they bring up the cud, they have no true hoofs — they are unclean for you;  also the swine — for although it has true hoofs, it does not bring up the cud — is unclean for you. You shall not eat of their flesh or touch their carcasses. – Deuteronomy 14:7-8

Have you ever wondered why the pig has become such a primary symbol for Jewish dietary laws? People who know little else about Jews will tell you that Jews don’t eat pork. Jews who are not concerned about cheeseburgers or shrimp sushi will still feel a twinge (or frisson?) of transgression when they eat a slice of bacon.

How did the pig, which is listed almost as an afterthought in this passage from Deuteronomy, become so important a symbol of all that is not-Jewish?

Richard Redding, an archaeologist at the University of Michigan, has made a serious study of the role of the pig in the ancient Near Eastern diet. Wild pigs were indigenous to the ancient Near East, and we know from archaeological remains that they were domesticated and eaten in Egypt in the Old Kingdom period, (2700-2055 BCE.) His research suggests that pigs gradually declined in use wherever water was scarce, because chickens provided more efficient sources of protein. This has led some Jewish thinkers to ask, is THIS the real reason that pig was prohibited in the Torah? We’ll never get the definitive answer to that, but it adds another theory for those who are interested in such theories.

(In case you are wondering: there’s no evidence in the Bible text itself that pork is forbidden for being unhealthy, because of trichinosis, or because refrigeration hadn’t been invented. The only reason for the dietary prohibitions in the Bible is that old standby of deities and parents over the centuries: “Because I said so.”)

However, the question stands: why did pork take on so much more significance than any other of the forbidden foods?

Redding mentions in his article that the consumption of pig meat began to increase in the region starting in the 2nd century BCE, with the growth in Hellenistic populations. Greeks brought pigs with them and cultivated them. Romans loved their pork. So just as rabbinic Judaism was beginning to take shape, the foreigners most despised by the Jews, the upstart rulers who profaned the Temple and imposed ruinous taxes also made that particular forbidden meat fashionable! So there’s one thing: Pork was the meat of choice of Rome and Greece. No wonder the ancient rabbis regarded it as particularly nasty.

Secondly, as Christianity separated from Judaism sometime around the end of the first century CE, it embraced the Gentile world and its diet. Among the attractions Christianity had to offer was the fact that one did not need to be circumcised or eschew pork to be one of the elect. Later, when it became the established religion of the Empire and later of Europe, the fact that Jews avoided eating pork became a “tell,” a hallmark of Jewishness.

During the Middle Ages, pork became not only a way to identify a Jew, but a way to humiliate and torture Jews. Jews were starved, then offered pork to eat. In Spain, those suspected of being hidden Jews were called Marranos (“pigs.”) In the 20th century, we know that in at least one camp the Nazis fed Jews dried pigs’ feet (Elie Weisel, Night.) Centuries of this association forged a strong connection between the non-consumption of pork and Jewish identity.

Many American and Israeli Jews today choose not to keep kosher, and they consume pork as well. However, even the most secular will attach a certain angst to pork consumption that they don’t attach to shrimp cocktail. Pig meat, an afterthought in Deuteronomy, became a potent symbol for Jewish identity. The reason? History.

Va’etchannan: Moses’ Mistake

Old man's hand

If we take it seriously, Parashat Va’etchannan (“And I pleaded…”) is full of love so tough that it breaks the heart.

The parashah begins with Moses pleading to enter the Land. God answers roughly, “Enough!” then directs him to go up Mount Pisgah (aka Mt. Nebo)  and take a good look at the Land, because he will not be allowed to enter. This passage troubles many who read it; on first reading it seems to be a punishment that far outstrips the crime.

After all, one of God’s early commands to Moses had to do with striking the Nile, and then striking a rock:

The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. – Exodus 17:5-6

Then, much later, during another water crisis, God gave Moses a slightly different command:

“Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.”

 So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” – Numbers 20: 8-12

Every sage has some commentary to offer, and none of them agree. When I look at it, I see Moses making at least two serious mistakes: he doesn’t listen (strike vs talk to the rock) and he appears to take credit for God’s work (“must we bring you water?”) I also see God saying, “You did not trust me enough to honor me as holy.” A literal translation of verse 12 is tough to make: depending on what one does with the prepositions, either Moses did not give God enough credit before the Israelites, or something was lacking in Moses’ faith.

What if the two are really the same problem? Moses was accustomed to doing things the way he had always done them. God used to say, “hit the rock” and Moses hit the rock. When God commanded “Talk to the rock” Moses failed to register the change.

Also, Moses was cranky with the people and he did take rather much credit for what was about to happen. The humility for which he was rightly famous slipped a bit. What I see is an aging man who is really not up to adapting to new circumstances, exactly the situation as they enter the Land.

As we age, we get used to things being the way they “always were.” Whether we remember them accurately or not, we can become very stubborn about our way of doing things. And sometimes, out of pride, anxiety, or maybe a bit of hearing loss, we don’t listen very well.

At that point, when we’ve quit listening, and we’re set in our ways, we are no longer fit for leadership. God delivers the news to Moses very sharply; there is to be no discussion. While it seems unkind, maybe God knew that this was the only way Moses would hear it at all.

I think about Moses, sitting on Mt. Nebo, looking at the land he would never enter, and I feel very sad for him. It must have been bitter to hear that his time of leadership was nearly done. But it must have been bitterer still that he had to be told, instead of figuring it out for himself. Surely he knew that he would not live forever: after all, he had groomed Joshua for leadership. But apparently, at the crucial moment, he could not see it; he wanted to continue leading into the Land.

Lives were at stake. There were wars ahead, and a group of people to hold together despite the attractions of a seductive land and its strange gods. Joshua son of Nun was better equipped for the next phase of the journey; indeed, he had spent most of his life preparing for that role.

After this short passage, things seem to go back to normal: Moses resumes teaching the people his final lessons, a recounting of their journey. Then, in chapter 34 of Deuteronomy, the story on Mt. Pisgah resumes: God shows Moses the Land again, tenderly this time, the whole land. The text says “He buried him,” suggesting that God personally buries Moses in a secret grave on that mountain in Moab overlooking the Land of Israel.  It’s clear, from the conclusion, that God holds Moses in high esteem.

What can we learn from this? We can learn that even the greatest people who ever lived have their flaws, because they are human. We can treat a leader with honor and still say, respectfully, “It’s time for new leadership.” We can learn that only God or a very close friend should deliver a message like, “Enough!”

And if I am that leader, I can make way for new leadership before someone has to tell me.

Moses our leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher, was certainly one of the greatest men who ever lived. Some of his greatest teaching follows later in this same parashah: the 10 Commandments, the Shema. Still, that one day at the spring, when he struck the rock, he taught us a very important lesson: even the best and the brightest can make crucial mistakes.

Texts for Father’s Day

Here in the U.S., today is Father’s Day. Some texts from the Bible:

Honor your father and your mother – Exodus 20:12

Hear, my son, the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the teaching of your mother; For they shall be a chaplet of grace upon your head, and chains about your neck. – Proverbs 1:8-9

He who fears Adonai has a secure fortress, and for his children it will be a refuge. – Proverbs 14:26

As a father has compassion on his children, so Adonai has compassion on those who fear him. – Psalm 103:13

And from the Talmud:

Our Rabbis taught: A father has the following obligations towards his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him, if he is a firstborn, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a craft or a trade. And there are some who say that he must also teach him how to swim.– Kiddushin 29a

Our Rabbis taught: What is reverence and what is honor? Reverence means that the child must neither stand nor sit in the parent’s place, may not contradict a parent’s words, nor do anything that harms a parent’s interests. Honor means that a child must give a parent food, drink, and clothing, and provide transport. – Kiddushin 31b

The folk saying goes: What the child says out in the street comes either from his father or his mother. – Sukkah 56b

Do you have a favorite text about fathering or parenthood?

Don’t Give Up – Even on Korach!

This week we read about Korach and his followers in Numbers 16-18, one of the grimmest stories in the Torah. Korach, a Levite, challenges the leadership of Moses. Moses refers the dispute to God. God blasts Korach and his followers, causing some to be consumed by fire and some to be swallowed by a huge opening in the earth. Frankly, it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:3 offers us a list of those “who have no portion in the world to come:” the Flood generation. the Babel generation, the men of Sodom, and the Spies who rejected the land of Israel. Then it offers us an additional list about which the sages disagreed: according to Rabbi Akiva, the generation of the Wilderness, the congregation of Korach, and the Ten Tribes also have no place in the world to come. Rabbi Eliezer disagrees. For each of those, he cites a text suggesting that redemption is possible. For the people of Korach, he cites a line from the prayer of Hannah: “The LORD kills, and makes alive; He brings down to the grave, and brings up.” (1 Samuel 2:6)

The Torah text seems unequivocal in its condemnation of Korach: all is lost, the men offering incense are burnt up like Nadav and Abihu, and God commands Moses to order Eleazar remove the fire pans and have them made into plating for the altar, as a warning.

But our sages were not content to give up on the followers of Korach. From the time of the Mishnah, the rabbis persist in a hope that they will yet be found, like “a lost object that is still being sought,” in the words of R. Yehudah ben Betera (Sanhedrin 109b.) Shall we not follow their example, then, and refuse to give up on our fellow Jews, even when we think they are utterly wrong about something?

A version of this drash appeared earlier this year in the CCAR Newsletter.

Shelach-Lecha: Another Year Older

Mikveh, Oakland, CA

I’m celebrating an anniversary this week.

There are various ways of keeping track of things in Jewish time. One can celebrate the exact date of something in the Jewish calendar (say, 11 Sivan, 5774) or the Gregorian calendar (June 8, 2014.) My way of keeping track of this anniversary is to celebrate when a particular Torah portion comes up in the calendar: this week’s portion, Shelach-Lecha, the story of the scouts (Numbers 31:1 – 15:41.)

Shelach-Lecha was the Torah portion the week I became a Jew. I think of this week (whenever it falls, depending on the year) as my Jewish birthday, and it’s a big deal to me, in a quiet sort of way. I don’t give a party, but I do attend services and spend some time reflecting on my life as a Jew.

The story in the portion is pivotal for the Israelites in the wilderness. God tells Moses to send scouts into the Promised Land, as they are camped just outside it. God even tells Moses which men to send. Twelve scouts go into the land. Ten of them report that it is totally scary, the people are giants, and we’ll all die there. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, come back and say, hey, it’s fine. The people are so frightened by the account of the ten, however, that they panic. God is disgusted by their reaction, and says that clearly these people are not ready for the Promised Land – the next generation will get to go, but not them. And that’s how the 40 years in the desert happened.

What I took from the story at the time of my conversion was simple: “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” There were things about Judaism and the Jewish community at Temple Sinai that I loved. But I knew that there was lots I didn’t know; I was more ignorant than many of the children. I’d taken an “Intro” class, I’d studied for a year, but I found Hebrew very difficult and some of the social stuff very challenging. For instance, I wasn’t a “huggy” person – I never touched strangers – and at that synagogue, people were constantly hugging and kissing (and for the record, they still do.) I wanted to fit in, but I still had a lot of fears.

Years later, I know that it was reasonable to have some fears. But I am so very glad that I took the risk of “entering the Land.”

The story in the Torah is full of people taking risks. Some were very well-calculated risks, but others were true leaps of faith. At Sinai, as they are offered the Torah, the people say, “We will do and we will hear.”  In other words, they agreed to the Torah before they knew what was in it. Becoming a Jew is something like that: you learn what you can, you hang with the community and see what it’s like, and then the day comes when it’s time to commit.

There has been some discussion of late in the Jewish press, wondering if the process of conversion is too long and too involved. “Should we be more welcoming?” some wonder, meaning by that, “Should conversion be an easier, shorter process?”

My take on it is that a year is the least it can take in most circumstances. Becoming a Jew is a shift of identity, and it has many aspects. Candidates for conversion often encounter surprises. Some discover that the parents they thought would be horrified, weren’t. Others discover that their relatives are antisemites. Some discover that it really hurts not to have Christmas, and others are surprised when they hardly miss it. Some find that the more they go to synagogue, the happier they are – and others find that they don’t enjoy being part of the community. Some think about Israel for the first time, and have to get used to the idea that as a Jew, they will be connected to it whether they like it or not.

It takes time to have these experiences. It takes time and support to process them. And some of those experiences may be deal-breakers. It’s easy to focus on the intellectual tasks: learning prayers and vocabulary. However, the emotional work of this transition is very serious business. It involves letting go of some aspects of the self, and adopting new aspects of identity. I am still the person who showed up at the rabbi’s office, all those years ago – I still have memories of Catholic school, and my Catholic school handwriting. I had to let go of some things: my habit of crossing myself whenever I heard a siren, for instance. It was a reflex left over from years before, but it took time to fade away. It took time and effort to figure out how I might respond as a Jew to a sign that someone was in trouble.

After a year of study, that process was well underway, but I can’t imagine being “ready” any sooner.

The ten scouts were scared. They weren’t ready. I suspect that even though Joshua and Caleb are celebrated as “good” scouts, they weren’t really ready either. They talked as if going into the Land was no big deal.

It takes time to change, and change is an uncomfortable process. The midbar, the wilderness, is a frustrating place. It’s big and formless and full of scary things. But sometimes it is only by passing through the wilderness that we can become our truest selves.