liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
[personal profile] liv
This weekend was one of my Saturday morning services, so it wasn't entirely sensible to go home for a truncated weekend of barely 24 hours. I'm glad I made the decision to do so anyway, cos I had an excellent time. I was able to join [personal profile] hilarita briefly for birthday drinks, and to help [personal profile] jack acquire and assemble a proper barbecue grill, and [personal profile] cjwatson came over for supper and Agricola. And on Sunday [personal profile] jack and I actually hosted a barbecue party, which is something we'd been talking about doing since we first started househunting. The excuse was to celebrate [ profile] ghoti and Judith's karate grading, and amazingly, for a long-planned summer Sunday event, the weather was perfect.

So there was sunshine and Pimms and grilled halloumi and [ profile] ghoti's homemade icecream. And [ profile] alextfish and [ profile] woodpijn brought bubble mix, and [personal profile] ptc24 brought his camera which prints out instant photos like the old Polaroids used to. And relaxing in the sunshine with lots of people I really like. I really really didn't want to leave to catch my train, especially as [personal profile] pseudomonas and [personal profile] hairyears arrived just as I was leaving.

Anyway, I am quite proud of my sermon on last week's Torah portion, Behaalotecha. It's Numbers 8-12, and as you can see from the link it has a lot of different stuff in it, including some very obvious sermon fodder, and I was quite pleased to find a moderately original angle on it. I decided to use the parshe as a spring-board to talk about gender and sexuality. Partly because certain people in my community have developed an annoying habit of interrupting at any random moment to rant about same sex marriage, and I wanted to address that. In fact the worst offender was not present, which is good in that I wouldn't have wanted her to feel passively-aggressively attacked, but less good in that, you know, she did kind of need to hear my points.

Now, I appreciate that a great many people have real trauma around the way that religious communities deal with gender and sexuality, so I want to offer the opportunity to decide not to read further. But some people have encouraged me to post my sermons, so I think at least a few of you might be interested. I've annotated this a bit because it might not make total sense out of context; my comments to you here on DW are in square brackets, some vague approximation of what I actually said to the community is under the cut.

So Behaalotecha covers a whole range of different things, and I'm going to pick out some of them to talk about. The first is the idea of the second Passover [9:1-14]. Here the people who were prevented from celebrating Passover at the right time were given permission to celebrate a month later instead. It's quite pragmatic, it's adapting religion to include as many people as possible, a tradition that began even before Torah itself was completed. But note that it's only available for people who were genuinely unable to celebrate Passover at the right time; if they just didn't feel like it, they would be punished.

We're in a similar position in this community: most of us drive to shul [this is something that the community feel a bit insecure about], because none of us live within walking distance, and many of us can't walk far at all, whether that's due to old age or pain and illness. And I'm the worst, because I not only drive to synagogue, I spend most of my shabbat travelling back and forth across the country. We're being pragmatic, because if we didn't drive on shabbat, there would be no synagogue (and I would never see my husband). But equally, we're not just ignoring tradition, we don't say, oh well, we drive on shabbat so there's no point bothering, we still try to keep shabbat and the festivals as properly as we can, we keep sight of what's important and don't just do whatever we feel like.

Another adaptation we've made for pragmatic reasons, and to include as many people as possible, is that we have started counting women in the minyan [quorum], and we have women leading services and reading Torah, as in fact I'm doing right now. [This is another thing the community feel conflicted about; those who identify as Orthodox don't really like the idea of egal prayer, and it's not how they remember things from their childhood, but at the same time people feel slightly guilty about feeling like that, because basically they believe in women's equality.] If we only counted men, there would be no services because we simply don't have ten adult men. If we only let men read Torah there would be no Torah reading, because we don't have any men who know how. Equally we live in a very different world from the context in which much of halacha developed: we expect women to be literate and educated, in general society women have public-facing and leadership roles.

[Here an interruption for lots of people to have feels about egalitarian liturgy, including such gems as: I'm an unreconstructed 60-something man, and even I feel weird about blessing God for not making me a woman. I had to shut this down, because I can teach the whole story about women leading prayer and reading Torah within a halachic framework, and it's clearly something that would be good for the community at this point, but I had a different point to make and I wouldn't do it justice if I just launched into it at a moment's notice. But I did set up the context I'd been hoping to establish, which is that we're all broadly on board with gender inclusivity.]

Anyway, not only do we mostly accept that women can have public roles, we also accept that men can be gentle, men can be nurturing, men can be involved parents or primary parents or full-time parents. Indeed, we are starting to understand that some men can get pregnant and give birth, just because someone has certain body parts we don't assume what their gender is going to be. And in some ways that's quite a recent thing, it was only a few years ago that sort of thing would have been considered a joke, like that terrible film with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and even in 20 years our understanding has moved on. [I am not entirely convinced that this is actually the view of everybody in the community, but I'm sort of buttering them up by assuming that they are in fact on board with modern understandings of gender, and indeed nobody tried to raise the argument that gender is in fact strictly binary.]

Why am I bringing up this slightly off-the-wall example? Well, because it's not a new thing after all, it's right there in the Torah reading: when the Israelites are complaining about how they miss being back in Egypt where they had fish and garlic to eat, instead of this rubbish manna, never mind that they were slaves back in Egypt [11:4-9] and Moses is feeling like he can't cope with the responsibility of 600,000 whining Israelites. What language does Moses use? The language of pregnancy and childbirth and nursing: I was pregnant with this people, I gave birth to them, I held them in my bosom as a nursing-father [11:10-15; the Revised Version translation kind of covers up just how embodied the language is; הָאֹמֵן֙ is literally a male wetnurse or even a male mother]. So the idea that men can be pregnant perhaps isn't so new after all, Moses and Torah understand that maybe gender isn't that simple.

Fine, but many of our laws come from a really gender segregated context, the Mediaeval law codes especially. So now we have the question of how to apply those laws in a reality where we don't assume that everybody is definitively male or female based on their plumbing, or that men and women have almost entirely parallel lives and fixed roles and personalities because of their gender. We don't want to just throw everything out because it's inconvenient in modern times, like the people who just didn't feel like celebrating Passover at the right time, we don't want to be like the Israelites whining because manna wasn't good enough and they wanted onions and cucumbers as well, but we need to work out how to adapt to this different context while still keeping the spirit and the important aspects of our tradition.

One issue we have to deal with in a world where we make fewer assumptions based on gender is that of same-sex marriage. I'm not going to tell you what to think about it, it is a tricky question. After all, nearly all the rabbinic laws about marriage were created in a gender-segregated context, the whole structure is based on the idea of protecting women who would otherwise be vulnerable, it assumes that the husband promises security and financial and material support, and the wife promises to be sexually faithful. It's quite difficult to adapt that to a symmetrical situation of two men or two women wanting to get married to eachother, let alone to people who don't fit the gender binary. [Here I attempt to provide a semi-valid, though easily challengeable especially by people I've primed by talking about flexible gender roles and identities, argument against Jewish same-sex marriage, in order to steer people away from terrible anti-SSM arguments like "it says in Leviticus that men with men is an abomination" or "surely it must be forbidden somewhere, it's disgusting" which is the last straw comment that prompted me to needing to give this sermon.]

The point is, no matter how we might feel about adapting our heterosexual marriage laws to a same sex couple, whether that's a pragmatic adaptation that allows more people to be included in keeping Torah, or whether it's just throwing out an important principle for the sake of convenience, it's imperative that we find a way to have the discussion that's respectful. We have to stop assuming that everybody in this community, everybody who comes into the synagogue, is straight. I mean, I know we're very gossippy, we think we know everyone's business, but we really don't, and anyway, all kinds of visitors come through the door and we don't know their history or their gender stories. [I considered coming out directly at this point, but decided against it, partly because I was scared, partly because I wasn't sure it would help, and partly because what I don't need is for people to decide that I don't count cos they like me, and anyway I'm only a bi woman and I'm known to be married to a man, so I didn't want people accepting me because the real problem is exclusively gay men or scary butch lesbians or hypothetical strangers or whatever. Anyway, I got a pretty positive reaction, even the people I was thinking of as the somewhat homophobic were nodding and smiling and appearing to take to heart the reminder that we shouldn't assume everybody's straight and binary.]

We have to have this discussion, we can't bury our heads in the sand, because in the society we live in it's only a matter of time before it's a live issue, before someone comes to this synagogue and asks us to marry them to their same sex or non-binary-gendered partner. And I can't decide for you what conclusion we're going to come to, but we have to be able to have that conversation in a respectful way and not be hurtful or exclude anyone. Today's reading is very clear on that too: look what happens right at the end of the parshe, Moses' brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, all of a sudden start complaining about how they don't like Ethiopians, or Black people, or however you want to translate it. They decide it's a good time to make racist comments, targeting even Moses' own wife. And that's what happens if you just repeat prejudiced views unthinkingly, you hurt people, and that's why God punishes Miriam with leprosy, here, if you think being white is so great, you can have a disease that makes your entire body extra-white [12:1-14].

Aaron and Miriam are pretty important people, not only the brother and sister of Moses, but Aaron is the High Priest and Miriam is a prophet and leader in her own right. And they just get this horribly wrong. So we have to be careful whose example we follow, and not repeat things because someone important said them, perhaps a celebrity or a popular newspaper said something homophobic, but that doesn't make it ok. We have to think for ourselves and express our views about such a delicate issue in a moral and compassionate way. We also have a much more positive example in the parshe, that of Eldad and Medad, just random people, we don't even know who their ancestors are, who suddenly start prophesying along with the seventy elders. And Joshua thinks this is a problem, but Moses reassures him, he only wishes everybody could be a prophet [11: 24-30]. What does it mean to be a prophet? Part of it is finding ways to interpret and explain the law so that it's adapted to circumstances and so that we include people in our communities.

[At this point everybody started expressing opinions about same sex marriage, which was not ideal. But I could see they were making an effort with "I'm not homophobic but" and "I have gay friends" and so on, rather than just mouthing off unthinkingly which has been going on a lot recently. I wasn't expecting an instant transformation in attitudes based on a 10-minute sermon, so at least getting people trying to claim the identity of being not-homophobic felt like progress. It's not enough to fix the problem, but I hope it will help a bit.]

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-08 05:18 pm (UTC)
angelofthenorth: Sooffocles with me in background (Default)
From: [personal profile] angelofthenorth
Good sermon with lots of things to think about

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-08 06:45 pm (UTC)
watersword: A closed patriarchy tag (Geek: code)
From: [personal profile] watersword
I have one question of vocabulary -- what does "unreconstructed" mean in this context? I think I know, but I'm not 100% sure.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-08 07:22 pm (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
I like the idea of understanding Pesach Sheni as being about trying to find a place in the ritual for those who do not easily fit into the traditional ritual. That's a thought that will stay with me.

I have mixed feelings about your definition of prophecy, and mixed feelings in general about how Torah expects me to understand prophecy. I mean, there are plenty of places in Tanakh where the only reasonable interpretation is "Person who says what God tells them to say"... Bilaam, Jonah, Yitzhak blessing Yaakov, etc... And there are equally many places in Tanakh where the only reasonable interpretation is "Person who says what they personally think is right, in the name of God"... Moshe blessing the tribes, among other times, Elisha and the bear, Yirmiyahu in Eicha, Avraham at Sodom, etc... I don't know what kind of navua Eldad and Medad represent, but I tend to see them, I think, as representing an extension of the divine into the heart of the people, rather than as an extension of Jewish wisdom toward God. Maybe that is overly chasidish of me.

I don't have much to say about the same sex marriage part of it because my heart is so torn on the issue. This tends to be the closest Jewish statement to how I see the halacha lining up, but I am equally aware that this is not a statement that is good enough for my queer friends, and that is tough to deal with.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-09 01:35 pm (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
I'm stuck trying to respect principles I'm not sure they really hold, but not make them feel like I'm imposing my Reform baggage on them.

Only you can make the right judgement about how much of your 'Reform baggage' it's appropriate to impose on them. Presumably they invited you to provide divrei Torah because they respect your opinions and perspectives, so to some degree they're inviting you to bring what you have to the table. And needless to say, some portion of what you could say isn't only Reform baggage but also Modern Orthodox/Open Orthodox baggage. All of Klal Yisrael needs to figure this out together, even if we don't all arrive at the same answers.

What I did was a compromise and I feel cowardly for making it, honestly.

Yeah, it's hard to make choices like this. We had to do it several times during our Balticon Tikkun Leil, because there were opinions expressed that I wanted to object vociferously to, but the ensuing conversation would have been too derailing and tangential, especially in such a diverse crowd. I think it'd be good if you can choose to see the sermon you did give as an important step toward the conversation you want to have, rather than as an end in itself. Being part of a community means being continually engaged in the dialogue, even when it's not getting where you need it to get yet.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-09 03:37 am (UTC)
forestofglory: E. H. Shepard drawing of Christopher Robin reading a book to Pooh (Default)
From: [personal profile] forestofglory
Thanks for sharing this.

Have you read Engendering Judaism Rachel Adler? I've only read the chapter on marriage but I thought it had some interesting points about making the ritual more egalitarian.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-09 11:27 am (UTC)
merrythebard: (Default)
From: [personal profile] merrythebard
This was really interesting. I'm afraid I have nothing intelligent to say other than, thank you so much for sharing it. :-)

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-09 11:30 am (UTC)
merrythebard: (Default)
From: [personal profile] merrythebard
Oh, actually, I do have one further thing to say: I really love the fact that Moses uses imagery of motherhood and nursing in that context, and I'm predictably chuffed by the concept of him as non-binary. This is (probably unsurprisingly!) something that has never come across to me through Christian readings, and I really warm to it. :-)

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-09 04:14 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] ewt
One of these days I will write something along the lines of "Is Jesus cis?"

I'm not entirely convinced that the answer is "yes".

(There is certainly motherhood imagery used for God in the Christian scriptures, too, plus the Holy Spirit -- pneuma in Greek -- is technically feminine, so I am not sure what that says about how Jesus was conceived...)

Also: I really liked this sermon, and agree with an earlier comment about engaging people in a constructive dialogue even if that means you don't always come right out and say "this is who I am".

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-10 04:53 am (UTC)
metaphortunate: (Default)
From: [personal profile] metaphortunate
This is fascinating, thank you for sharing it!

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-11 10:53 am (UTC)
sfred: (quaker)
From: [personal profile] sfred
Thank you for sharing this - I was really glad to read it.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-06-15 01:41 pm (UTC)
lethargic_man: "Happy the person that finds wisdom, and the person that gets understanding."—Prov. 3:13. Icon by Tamara Rigg (limmud)
From: [personal profile] lethargic_man
Moses is feeling like he can't cope with the responsibility of 600,000 whining Israelites. What language does Moses use? The language of pregnancy and childbirth and nursing: I was pregnant with this people, I gave birth to them, I held them in my bosom as a nursing-father

<looks text up> Wait, that's not what he says at all! It's "Have I been pregnant with this people?", etc (assuming הֶ־ is הֲ־ modified before אָ), to which the answer is "no"! (This only dilutes your point, it doesn't destroy it completely, but I think your translation misrepresents what Moses meant to say.)

That's why God punishes Miriam with leprosy, here, if you think being white is so great, you can have a disease that makes your entire body extra-white

Oh, that's very cool; why did I never spot that before? (Answer: probably because this passage makes me think of too many other things, such as the Girls In Trouble song about it, or the proto-midrash of Moses' war against the Ethiopians, or the liturgical significance of this first petitionary prayer in the Torah...)
Edited Date: 2015-06-15 01:46 pm (UTC)


Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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