Oft Quoted, Oft Misunderstood

Image: Ruth and Naomi, painting, Walker Art Gallery. Artist: Philip Hermogenes Calderon, 1833-1898.

Oft quoted, oft misunderstood: I’m talking about Leviticus 18:22. It’s one of the passages recited so often that just about anyone will recognize it, even if the Bible isn’t a book they read:

וְאֶ֨ת־זָכָ֔ר לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֑ה תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה הִֽוא׃

Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is a to’evah.

Leviticus 18:22

This line is often translated into English in ways that make it “obvious” that this is about male homosexuality. The Hebrew, however, isn’t nearly so clear. If you are curious about that, see Leviticus 18:22 in Queer Bible Hermeneutics, from the Perkins School of Theology of Southern Methodist University.

Language that suggests love relationships between same-sex individuals appears in the Tanakh. The best example is David and Jonathan, who were passionate about each other. (1 Samuel 18) The passionate vow that Ruth makes to Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17) sounds like a modern marriage vow. Granted, both David and Ruth went on to marry people of the opposite sex, but they did not express love for them.

So if this passage isn’t about homosexuality in the modern sense, what am I to learn from it, since it must mean something?

V’et zakhar lo tishkav – And (to) a male (you) do not lie-down

mish’k’vei isha – from/like the lyings-down of the wife

to’evah hu. – It is a bad-thing.

Zakhar designates something as male, whether it is a human, an animal, or a bit of grammar. Its opposite is nikevah (“female” or “feminine.”) It’s a binary: everything is one or the other. Zakhar overrides nikevah in grammar when both are present. If I put one male horse (sus) in a paddock with 15 mares (susot) the plural changes to male (susim.)

Ishah designates a woman, or more often, a wife. This, too, has power implications, but in this case it is the absence of power. This is a person who is acquired by others who have more power. The first verse of Kiddushin, the tractate of the Talmud devoted to marriage, states:

האשה נקנית בשלוש דרכים

A wife is acquired in three ways…

BT Kiddushin 2a

I’m willing to read tishkav and mis’k’vei as having a sexual meaning, given the context of the surrounding verses. The first is a negative command: don’t be sexual this way. The second is a description of the forbidden sort of sex: having sex as one would with a lower-powered individual.

I think this is a verse about power, and especially about power differentials. I read it as saying that it is forbidden to have an intimate relationship in which one person holds the power, and the other is subordinate. To put it more positively, sexual intimacy is permitted only between equals. Coming as it does on the heels of a set of verses about incest, it makes sense that this is a passage about relationship and power.

One could make the argument that in the ancient world, and in much of the present-day world, most sex takes place between partners of unequal standing. However, that isn’t how it’s supposed to be: here in Parashat Acharei Mot, Leviticus holds up many ideals for us to pursue, whether or not we manage to reach them.

We strive for a world in which strangers are welcomed, and the vulnerable are protected. We strive for a world in which there is no incest and no abuse of animals. In the following chapter, we will be commanded to pursue justice, respect elders, share with the poor, deal kindly with the disabled, and to eschew revenge. We strive for those ideals, too, even though after millennia we still fall short.

We’re still working to live up to those. I read verse 22 to say that we are supposed to be trying to live up to the ideal of consensual sexual intimacy, whoever we’re having it with.

What do you think? How do you deal with Leviticus 18:22?

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Lives At Risk: Time to Stand Up for Transgender Americans

Image: A figure wearing a shirt and a name tag: “Transgender.” (Shutterstock)

The Trump administration is considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth, the most drastic move yet in a governmentwide effort to roll back recognition and protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law. – NYT, 10/21/2018

I read this last night and my blood ran cold. I am writing to beg you, dear readers, to act today to let our lawmakers know that this re-definition of gender is evil, is not in the best interests of the United States, and that it must not happen.

If such a rule goes forward, it would be permission for physical attacks on people whose gender doesn’t fit into a tidy male-female paradigm. It will be encouragement for bullies to beat them up, and it will prevent many of them access to appropriate health care. It will create vast, horrible legal messes for those who have already corrected their legal papers to reflect who they actually are.

That includes a lot of people in my life, beloved to me.

THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT HURTING ANYONE. They are good citizens. They pay taxes, they vote, they do the best they can to pay their own way in the world (quite a trick, when one faces so much discrimination.) They are American troops, they are veterans of foreign wars, they are contributing members of our society.

Even if they weren’t all those things, they are human beings, made in the image of God, children of God, and they deserve to be treated with dignity.

No one will be better off if our government decides to put them all in the straightjacket of a strict binary gender system. It will not improve your life, and it sure as heck won’t improve mine. It will just torment people who haven’t done anything wrong. It will please some ignorant bigots, and it will give joy to some who think cruelty is fun.

What to do?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Contact your elected representatives and let them know you think that anti-trans legislation or executive orders are NOT the American way.
  2. Give money to trans rights organizations.
    1. Transgender Law Center
    2. Freedom for All Americans 
    3. National Center for Transgender Equality
    4. Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund
    5. Trans Life Line (a hotline on which trans people help trans people)
    6. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project
    7. The TransWomen of Color Collective
    8. Gender Spectrum
    9. Trans-Tech Social Enterprise
    10. The Trans Justice Funding Project
    11. National Center for Lesbian Rights (working for trans civil rights since 2001)
    12. Trans Youth (TRUTH) Program
    13. TGI Justice Project
    14. Trans Student Educational Resources
    15. Immigration Equality and Action Fund
  3. Learn about the organizations above, and encourage your friends to support them.
  4. Write letters to the editor of your local paper.
  5. Write an op-ed for a publication you read.
  6. Contact state officials to push for state-level protections for vulnerable trans people
  7. Read books by trans authors. (Here’s where you can find some. Also another list.)
  8. If there is a trans person in your life, reach out, listen to them, ask how you can support them.

By the way, if you are thinking that fifteen organizations means that transgender people don’t need your support, you are mistaken. Most of those outfits run on shoestrings and provide legal and other support without which people will die.

If you are thinking, “But bathrooms! Rabbi, danger!” please read my post on that subject.

Please, please, choose at least a few of the action items above and do what you can.

Thank you, for whatever you do.

 

 

 

 

June is LGBTQ Pride Month, 2018

Image: “We are ALL made in God’s Image” in Hebrew and English, on a poster identifying the group from Temple Sinai, Oakland in the Oakland Pride Parade in 2016. For full picture, see the end of this article. All rights reserved, Linda Burnett.

When I think of “Pride Month” I think of stories:

I think of the queer folk at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, fighting back and starting what would come to be known as the Stonewall Riots. Click the link, or Google them, and learn your history, fellow LGBTQs. They weren’t respectable. They weren’t nice. But all the rest of us owe them for the progress we’ve made since. I was 14 and hadn’t heard the word “lesbian” yet, but my life had changed for the better, even though I didn’t know it yet.

I think of my first SF Gay Pride, in maybe 1987 . I was not yet “out,” and was terrified to come out, because as the mother of two small children I knew that there was a lot at stake. Women like me lost children to homophobic relatives all the time in those days. One court wasn’t deterred by the fact that dad was a convicted murderer: he was still seen as a better parent than the lesbian.

I think of the next Pride in SF, when I was out, and I took the kids. It was a defining moment for our family – we were not going back in any closets. Jim asked me why the guys on the Folsom Street float were dressed in leather. I told him, “They like to play dress up.” He nodded his five year old head and promptly lost interest in them, but the bear float guys throwing teddy bears into the crowd won his heart.

I think about the next few Pride marches in SF; the AIDS epidemic was raging. ACT-UP was re-teaching the lesson from Stonewall: fighting for our rights could not be “nice” because we were fighting for our very lives. I wasn’t at much risk for AIDS, but I saw what was happening to the guys, and I saw what the courts were doing to LGBTQ parents, and I knew that we were all fighting for our lives.

I think about how times have changed, and how people haven’t changed. We’re in the middle of backlash now: certain folks are trying to roll back the advances made by people of color, LGBTQ people, women, disabled people.

We must remember that we are all in this together. We must not let the  social conservatives roll back the calendar to the bad old days. “Social conservatives” sounds so nice, like sociable jam or something – but relative to us, they aren’t nice, not one bit. You may not have my rights, social conservatives. I will fight you every step of the way.

Celebrate! because they don’t want us to. Be proud! because if we aren’t, who will? And fight back, in the primaries, in the general election, whenever you have a shot at a voting booth, vote!

Judaism is unequivocal on the necessity of speaking up when something is wrong. Leviticus 19 commands that we not stand by while another human being bleeds. Hillel speaks of the necessity of speaking up for ourselves and for others:

If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when? – Pirkei Avot 1:14

This Pride month, let us be for ourselves and for one another and against hatred in all its disguises.

Pride Parade Sinai Group
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin,far right, with 4 members of Temple Sinai of Oakland, including me. Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved.

National Coming Out Day, 2017

It’s National Coming Out Day (NCOD), 2017.  Things have changed a lot since 1988, the first one. A few years ago, I wrote about my memories of that day:

I remember the first National Coming Out Day, in 1988.  I had my last foot surgery that day, to repair the damages from a series of bungled surgeries.  It was at the old Foot Hospital in San Francisco (where the Jewish High School is today).  I have a vivid memory of taking two Valium tablets I was offered, and as they were wheeling me off to the operating room, full to the gills of Valium, I delightedly came out to everyone I passed. “Hi! I’m a lesbian! Happy coming out day!” …

The surgery was a salvage job on a poor little foot that was never going to work right or quit hurting, but that ride to the operating room ROCKED.
Back in the day, there were festivities for NCOD, because it was truly dangerous for many to come out. One way we fought the fear was to celebrate. That’s something that’s hard to communicate to the people who object to “Pride” in such movements: we were Proud because if we stopped to be anything else, we’d be terrified.
Today coming out is less terrifying for most white cisgender gay men and lesbians. Same sex couples can get married in any state in the US. Federally, we have a long way to go: in most states we can be fired for being queer, and we can lose our housing on account of it, too.
That’s not too bad, though, compared to what our transgender siblings are up against. Transgender people face pervasive discrimination and violence. They are targets for the kind of reflexive rage that all of us faced back in the 80’s and 90’s, the kind where eye contact can land you in the hospital or the morgue. Transwomen of color, particularly, face outright hatred.
We need not only to come out ourselves, those of us who are able, but we need to come out as supporters of transgender folks, because we are the best equipped to understand. Just as God told the Hebrews that they had to love the stranger because they had been strangers in the land of Egypt, we must stand up for LGBTQI folks of ALL stripes because we’ve lived in that particular Egypt.
We need to be sure that no one is left behind – and most importantly, that we are not trampling on the rights of others. When we make a catty comment about someone who comes out as bisexual, we have just made it harder for them to function in the world (lashon harah, anyone?) When we gloss over the concerns of LGBT people of color. when we tell our national organizations that we’re only worried (and will only fundraise) about issues that concern People Like Me, we are leaving folks behind. When we refuse to recognize someone’s gender, when we inform all our acquaintances that so-and-so isn’t a “real” man or woman we are just as bad as the folks throwing Leviticus in our teeth. When we somehow have another appointment when it’s time to stand up for a queer person of color, it’s a shameful thing.
Now, in the age of Trump, we all have to have one another’s backs. Truly living up to that is another kind of coming out, isn’t it?
What does National Coming Out Day mean to you?
A note to allies: You can “come out” too, when you speak up for us. When someone makes a joke that makes gay-hatred ok, just say, “Do you know you’re talking about my friend?” Or “Stop talking about my sister.” (I’ll be your sister, if you need one for the occasion.) Or just say, “That’s not cool” when someone says or does something mean to an LGBTQI person who needs a friend. Everyone is welcome at this coming out party.

LGBTQ Rights – If Not Now, When?

Image: Gay Pride March, with rainbow flags. Photo by naeimasgary/pixabay.

June has become known in the US as LGBTQ Pride Month. For the last eight years, the White House has acknowledged it as such, and made a greeting to LGBTQ Americans. This year there is silence.

Last year the most vulnerable among us had access to health care through the Affordable Care Act. This year, the ACA is under attack from both the legislative and executive branches of government.

Last year our government spoke up for LGBTQ rights – human rights – abroad. This year there is a gay genocide in Chechnya, and Washington is utterly silent.

The battles we were still fighting last year are still raging. Kris Hayashi of the the Transgender Law Center reported on May 10, 2017:

The news this weekend from New York that another transgender woman, Brenda Bostick, has died after being viciously assaulted is a bleak reminder of the crisis of violence against transgender people… That crisis, fueled by hateful rhetoric and public policy, has for too long gone unseen and unacknowledged.” Brenda Bostick was the 10th transgender woman of color – and 9th Black transgender woman – murdered in 2017 that we know of.

The Department of Education announced on Feb 27 that it would no longer enforce Title IX to protect transgender students equally in all school facilities, including restrooms, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

I could go on and on – if there’s a statistic or situation you think readers should know, I hope you’ll add it in the Comments.

But this is not a year to panic, or to hide our heads in the sand.

This is a year for LGBTQ people and straight allies to mobilize whatever privilege we have in defense of human rights and in resistance to the Trump Administration. Each of us have different degrees and kinds of privilege or talents, be it economic privilege, racial privilege, health privilege, gender privilege, ability privilege, a talent for written or other expression, or other things we can bring to the cause.

This year, celebrate Pride with ACTIONS:

  1. IDENTIFY YOUR GIFTS – Ask yourself, what talents or privilege do I have to offer? Do I have disposable income? Am I physically able to show up at rallies? Am I good at mobilizing people or at using social media? Does my race allow me to go or do or say things that would be much riskier for a person of color? How can I mobilize my privilege and talents in the service of others?
  2. DONATE – If you are able, support the organizations that defend us by sending a donation. Public interest law firms such as the Transgender Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Lambda Legal are on the front lines in the courts, currently our sole defense against a conservative Congress and a mean-spirited administration. Support organizations that serve vulnerable populations as well.
  3. PESTER ELECTED OFFICIALS – Email, tweet, write, and call your elected officials about LGBTQ issues, such as America’s refusal to issue US visas to Chechen men fleeing persecution. Keep an eye on state and local news for opportunities to speak out to the elected officials who work for you about local issues of discrimination.
  4. SHOW UP to marches and peaceful demonstrations if you are able.
  5. BOOST THE SIGNAL of LGBTQ voices and organizations in social media. Use your social media to spread legitimate information (consider your sources!) and to Share, Retweet, and otherwise add to the messages of LGBTQ organizations.
  6. REACH OUT to one another in kindness in these difficult times. The news is stressful, the unfriendly voices we hear in public spaces are painful, and all of it is downright scary. The world is mean enough right now – let’s practice the Jewish value of chesed, kindness in dealing with other LGBTQ folks.
  7. SHARE PRIVILEGE with others. Team up to make things happen. For instance, I’m disabled and marches, etc, are difficult for me on my scooter. I appreciate it when family and friends have stayed beside me, so that I feel less vulnerable. Do you know someone who could SHOW UP if only they had a little friendly support? Do you know an LGBTQ activist who could use a word of support, a meal, a RT?

Judaism is unequivocal on the necessity of speaking up when something is wrong. Leviticus 19 commands that we not stand by while another human being bleeds. Hillel speaks of the necessity of speaking up for ourselves and for others:

If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when? – Pirkei Avot 1:14

This Pride month, let us be for ourselves and for one another. Now.

Respect Without Prejudice

Image:  On Friday, December 2, a fire engulfed a warehouse in Oakland, California leaving more than 30 people dead. Among the deceased were Cash Askew, 22, Em Bohlka, 33, and Feral Pines, 29 – all of whom were transgender.  Photo credit: NBC News, via GLAAD.

Imagine that someone you loved died in a terrible disaster. (If you really do this, it will hurt. but try.) Imagine then that the media accounts of that person’s death mangled their name and gave the wrong gender.

Just stay with that for a moment. Adds insult to injury, doesn’t it?

 

Yesterday, GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) issued a call to the media to get its act together and treat the dead with respect.  Every person has a right to their name. (Do we really have to debate that?) Every person has a right to have their gender reported accurately. (Again, imagine that a news story reported that you were a gender you are not.)

Transgender people are not that different than you and me. I had to get glasses before I could focus six inches beyond my nose. No one comes up to me and rips my glasses off my face shrieking, “Fake! You are really blind, you should act blind!” No, polite people let me wear my glasses, and they do not comment upon my glasses or act as if my glasses are some sort of freak show. My glasses are a minor part of my identity. But no, I was not born with glasses and I cannot “pass” as someone with 20/20 vision.

The GLAAD press release outlines some rules for the media which are also good general rules for talking to and about trans individuals:

  1. Follow the lead of the person (every person, trans or not) in using pronouns and gender identifiers. If you don’t know or are confused, ask, “What pronouns do you prefer?” No further investigations are necessary or appropriate.
  2. Call people by the name they prefer. President Jimmy Carter wanted to be called Jimmy, and way back in the seventies, we didn’t have trouble adjusting. I know people with horrible names their parents gave them, and they prefer to go by a different name. Some make a legal change, some don’t, but the custom is to call them what they want to be called. Trans folks deserve the same respect.
  3. When there is conflicting information, go with the individual’s wishes. I knew a woman who was divorced, and for her children, she chose to keep her married name. Her father didn’t like it; he kept calling her bank and other places and telling them she was using her maiden name again. When she went to the bank and said, no, THIS is my name, everyone agreed that her father was misbehaving and they used the name she preferred.
  4. Questions about “legal name” and anatomy are not appropriate unless there are actual legal reasons to ask them. (OK, this wasn’t in the GLAAD release, but I’m teaching about social behavior.) If a random person came up to you and asked you questions about your genitalia, you would likely be too shocked to speak. This happens to trans folks all the time, and they feel the same way any of us would. When someone comes up to me and introduces themselves as “Debbie” it would be rude for me to say, “But is that the name on your birth certificate?”  Add to this the sad fact that for some transgender individuals, they’d like to have a legal name change or some sort of medical intervention but they cannot afford it. Then those “curious” questions are really shaming questions about money as well as gender.

Jewish tradition is very firm on the idea of respect for persons and respect for the dead:

One who embarrasses another in public, it is as if that person shed blood. – Bava Metzia 58b

Respect for the dead informs every aspect of Jewish funeral arrangements. We guard the modesty of a dead body, not even looking on it unnecessarily. (That’s why you will never see an open casket at a Jewish funeral.) We don’t embalm the dead unless it is required by law, because it is disrespectful, and so on.

Respect the living and the dead. This is not complicated unless our prejudices make it so.

San Francisco Pride Memories

Image: LGBTQA Jews marching in the San Francisco Pride Parade, 2014. Note the Israeli flag under the arch in the background. Photo by Sarah Stierch (CC BY 4.0.)

 

The famous LGBTQA Pride March in San Francisco takes place the last weekend in June. It’s not the great-grandaddy of Pride parades (that’s New York) but it’s the one that usually makes it onto the news in the “red” states because it has the most colorful visuals. There are the Dykes on Bikes, of course, the Folsom Street Fair float, and the obligatory (almost) naked people marching down the street, along with some Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. All make it onto teaser film for the Ten O’Clock News because face it, that’s ratings gold, right down to the phone calls complaining that someone should Think Of The Children.

Around my house, we no longer attend Pride because I’ve grown uncomfortable with crowds and mobility is an issue. However, every June we reminisce about Pride past. There was a time when they were a very big deal for our family, because that’s when all the other people we referred to as “family” would come out and be counted.

I think our first Pride was in 1988 or 89. AIDS was still ravaging the community, mysteriously sickening and killing gay men. Lesbian organizations were crumbling all over the place because many women were putting our time into AIDS support or activism. Bisexual and transgender people and issues were still largely invisible; there was very little room for anything in the collective psyche but AIDS.

SF Pride was much smaller then, and much more subdued. There was a float for ACT-UP, and contingents from the various legal and political organizing groups, and a group of people carrying a huge section of the NAMES Memorial Quilt. We were angry, sad, and determined to survive. Even in those days, though, there was a celebratory aspect to Pride, because celebration has always been a form of defiance for us LGBTQ folk. The Dykes on Bikes led the parade, and there were two floats I’ll never forget.

The first was the Bears float. “Bears” are round, hairy gay men. They and the people who are attracted to them celebrate that roundness and hairiness. (I don’t get it, but face it, I’m a lesbian – I’m not wired to understand it.) I will always be grateful to that float of Bears, because they were throwing little teddy bears into the crowd and my young son caught one. He was thrilled; he was still little enough that a new toy was a very big deal. We didn’t realize then that he was going to grow up to be a big round hairy guy himself, albeit a heterosexual one. However, along with the teddy bear he caught the message that it was cool to be a big round hairy guy. I will always be grateful to those men for the happy body image they bequeathed to my little one.

Immediately after it, there was another float, this one the Folsom Street Fair float. The Folsom Street Fair bills itself as “the world’s biggest leather event.” (That’s “leather” as in “leather fetish.”) That float was covered with scantily dressed people wearing a lot of leather straps and chains. Before I could cover his eyes with his new teddy bear, my son piped up, “Why are those men dressed up, Mama?” I answered with the first thing that came into my head: “Because they like to play dress up, sweetie.” Satisfied, he said, “I need to think of a really good name for my bear.” And that was all.

I think my last Pride was in about 2000 when the GLSen group (Gay/Lesbian/Straight Alliance) at my son’s high school wanted to march. I marched with three kids and the faculty advisor. As the only “out” queer parent at the school, I felt I really had to support them. The little boy who caught the bear had grown; he was the straight member of our contingent.

The change over the years in between those two parades was dramatic. By 2000 AIDS was no longer “the gay disease” although it was still a problem. By 2000 our congregation was marching in the Parade, too. I remember explaining to my rabbi that I needed to be with the high school group because it was so much smaller. By 2000 I was thinking about rabbinical school and I knew a lesbian who’d been accepted to the program at Hebrew Union College. 

Now I’m a rabbi. Now there are many LGBTQ Jewish clergy in all movements, so many that I don’t know them all. Linda and I are married, something we could never have imagined in 1988. The kids I marched with in 2000 came back to the Bay Area to attend my son’s wedding in 2016.

Much has changed, but much still needs to change. Transwomen of color live in dreadful danger, and transmen have it very rough, too. Gender fluid folk, and others under the “trans” umbrella, still have to explain too much and too often.  LGBTQ Americans may be able to get married, but our jobs and homes are still at risk in many states. AIDS is more manageable, but it’s still with us. Too many people still want to kill us.

Want to help? Support an organization like the Transgender Law Center, or the National Center for Lesbian Rights.  When you meet an LGBTQ person, don’t tell them what or whom you know, just be present to them as a person. If you meet a young person who identifies as LGBT or Q, don’t argue with them about it being too soon for labels. Just accept them for whom they are. Remember:

God saw everything that God had made, and indeed it was very good. So there was evening, and there was morning, a sixth day. – Genesis 1:31