An Update & Some Thoughts on the Torah Portion

I sincerely apologize for not keeping this blog updated. I have, however, been writing. If you want to keep up with my writing, you can read my pieces on the Huffington Post Teen, or follow me on Twitter find out when I post pieces on other sites. In the meantime, here are some musics on this week’s Torah portion that we will read in synagogue tomorrow:

 

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, we see the introduction of Sabbath, immediately followed by the listing of all of the materials used to build the Tabernacle. The two are read continuously, and the implication seems to be that one idea flows right into the other. What does one have to do with the other?

To me, Biblical Judaism seems to place a large emphasis on location. We read extensively about the land of Israel and the commandments that pertain to it. We read about the Tabernacle and how it stood at the metaphorical and literal heart of the Jewish encampment in the desert, and then about the role that the Holy Temple played once it was constructed several hundred years later. The discussion of the construction of the Tabernacle occupies several full portions, and what the priests and the Levites are supposed to do inside the Tabernacle (and, later, the Holy Temple) occupy the majority of Leviticus, the book that we will begin next week. The Tabernacle and the Holy Temple were not just communal gathering places, but were also places were religion was at integral.

Today, however, Judaism looks remarkably different. In an age where we do not have the Holy Temple or the Tabernacle at the center of our religious lives, something else has replaced sacred places: sacred time. Today, practices such as the Sabbath seem to be at the center of our observance, as do other, more ritualistic practices. Tefilin (phylacteries) is laid at a certain point every day, and there are certain times by which we have to pray every day — Shacharit (the morning service) can only be said until midday, Minchah (the afternoon service) until the late afternoon, and so on. Our practices, as opposed to being relegated to a specific place that is central the Jewish community, have been adapted to relegated to certain times, but can be performed virtually anywhere. While it might be seen as better to pray with a minyan, it is certainly not required. In a world where the Jewish community is far less concentrated than it was during its encampment in the desert or its settlement in the land of Israel, times have taken on much more important roles in religion. Now, instead of gathering together in central locations to perform religious rites, we all perform them at the same, regardless of where we are.

This brings us back to this week’s parashah. I think that Moses is trying to incorporate both sacred times and places. The Torah is meant to be a timeless document: even though it was written at a specific time, and given to a specific group of people with very specific circumstances, we are challenged with finding meaning in it today, as Jews living in the twenty-first century.

Here, it seems, the Torah is helping us find the balance between the generation that received the Torah and today, and it seems to be showing us that our connection with Judaism and the Jewish people is no less because we do not have the Tabernacle or the Holy Temple, and practice Judaism in a way that would be foreign to the Dor Ha’Midbar, the Generation of the Desert that received the Torah. How we connect to religion may be different, but the strength of that connection is not. Perhaps the Torah, more than being a book of laws or history or a historical document, is meant to act as a connection between a time when Judaism was a religion of sacred place and a religion of sacred time.

On Leprosy, Hair, and Yom ha’Atzmaut

Although I don’t generally post things like this, I think this is an idea that merits sharing outside of my school’s Torah publication. Enjoy! -A

As part of the process of re-purification of a metzora (a person who was stricken with tzaraat, leprosy), the metzora must shave all of his/her hair off before rejoining society and B’nei Yisrael’s encampment. Such an act is not, however, unique to the purification of the metzora — this idea is mentioned in other places, too. For example, when a nazir completes the time that he promised to be a nazir, his hair is also shaved off One can ask: why is hair so significant that it should be such an important part of the process of purification?

Last September, Lady Gaga dedicated a song from her latest album, entitled “Hair,” to Jamie Rodemeyer, a high school freshman who took his own life as the result of being mercilessly bullied. She explained that “Hair” was meant to be a metaphor for high school — in high school, she said, all you have is your identity, your own hair. Once you are stripped of that, you have nothing. Perhaps Lady Gaga, known for her eccentric clothing and hair, is right: one’s hair does seem to play a role in shaping a person’s identity. In literature, for example, hair (especially facial hair) is often used to symbolize masculinity. In Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, facial hair is used to symbolize masculinity, and the gruffness and subhuman nature often stereotypically associated with masculinity. When Rose, one of the female protagonists in the book, shaves her fiancee’s beard off, we draw a connection between his beard and masculinity, a defining part (up until that point) in his identity.

So we see how hair can be considered important to our identities. How does this, in turn, relate to the metzora? Perhaps, if we looked at this from a literary perspective, this is meant to be something to humiliate the metzora by, quite literally, “shaving” him of his masculinity.

However, I would like to look at this from a different perspective. In seventh grade, my Chumash teacher explained that the reason the halakhot of birth and the metzora are juxtaposed in the Torah is to emphasize the fact that one who is purified from tzaraat is considered to have been born anew, just like a newborn baby. The former metzora now is tasked with entering society as a new person, like a baby is to fashion a new life for him- or herself.

Perhaps the aspect of shaving a metzora‘s hair furthers this idea of renewal. In a way, it seems to be a physical manifestation of the metzora‘s rebirth and his or her reentering society as a new person, a baby. By shaving off the metzora‘s hair — his identity — we give the metzora a fresh start, a rebirth, of sorts. We allow the metzora to fashion a whole new identity for him- or herself, and allow the metzora to shed his old identity and whatever gave him or her tzaraat in the first place. We allow the metzora to reenter society, to continue the metaphor, with a completely new “hairstyle,” a new identity.

Today, Jews around the world celebreated Yom ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. On May 5th, 1948, the Jewish people collectively “shaved their hair” and started anew, in a new land of their own. Despite the hardships that the 1930s and 40s brought upon European Jewry, these Jewish communities were able to find shelter in Israel after its establishment, developing new “hair,” a new society, in the process.

The Attempt to Queer Jewish Religious Spaces

An article published in the Huffington Post last week shed light on a new program led by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles which involves synagogues across denominations to take part in a pilot program that lasts for one year. The program involves members of the synagogue to participate in workshops that open up the synagogue in question to openly queer members, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression, with the help of an outside representative from HUC-JIR.

While there do exist synagogues that are specifically created by and for queer Jews, such as Congregation Beth Simhat Torah in New York, Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta or Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, there exist very few Orthodox synagogues that are LGBT-affirming. Indeed, many say that they are open and accepting, but those who (like me) identify as both LGBT and Orthodox often feel uncomfortable in an Orthodox setting because, even the most liberal accepted approaches, such as in the Statement of Princples from last year, employ the “love the sinner; hate the sin” policy: queer members should be accepted, but the act of homosexuality should be condemned.

With declining membership rates in synagogues — a phenomenon that is not unique to one denomination of Judaism — this seems, to me, not only to be an excellent way to boost membership, but to help include a community that has long felt on the fringe. However, I should point out that the article does not once mention an Orthodox synagogue (although the program is designed for all denominations); in fact, the article makes nary a mention of Orthodoxy with the exception of the beginning of the article, which portrays Orthodox synagogues as supporters of reparative therapy and woefully unwelcoming and to say that many Orthodox synagogues are actively not welcoming to LGBT members.

While this seems somewhat — well, okay, mostly — true, the article does not really reflect Orthodoxy or its movement to accept the LGBT movement. For example, Congregation Darkhei Noam in New York is an Orthodox-affiliated synagogue on the Upper West Side that has fully accepted the LGBT community, and has even allowed an openly gay couple to convert and name their baby. That having been said, there are no other fully-LGBT-affirming Orthodox synagogues that I know of personally (although I’ve been told that more exist), this still represents a significant shift in the Orthodox movement to accept the LGBT community in a way that’s not “love the sinner; hate the sin.” Additionally, the organizers of the program do not believe that the Orthodox movement will sign on to the new program, since the change has to come from the community; this is because most of the Orthodox movement still has yet to fully accept — or even want to accept — the LGBT community.

Well, that’s disappointing to hear, now, isn’t it?

One thing, though, that’s comforting (for me, at least) is that I’m not the only one who reads a mission statement for a synagogue that identifies as “open and accepting,” and interpret it as “open to everyone except gays.” Additionally, it’s high time that few congregations offer programming specifically geared toward LGBT members and couples or actively working to attract LGBT members and couples.

Fewer, still, are actively trying to engage LGBT teens, which is what probably hurts me the most.

That having all been said, this program is still a pilot, so it’s entirely within the realm of possibility than an Orthodox synagogue will join and create their own task force and partake in the program, although it seems highly unlikely, if even possible. Several synagogues are scheduled to complete the pilot program within the coming months, so we’ll have to see how exactly this plays out. Stay tuned!

Where are the LGBTQ Jews?

In an article by Mark Segal in LGBTQNation, Segal, the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, pondered the noted absence of LGBTQ Jews within the world of Jewish history. He writes:

Here’s the rub. Many of the most prominent pioneers of the LGBT community were Jewish; perhaps the most well known, Harvey Milk, does not even get a mention. In fact, in what might look like a backhanded insult to the LGBT community, there are two gay men in the museum’s Hall of Fame gallery — Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein — who are both closeted thanks to the [National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia], as neither of their displayed bios mentions it.

Not only is this discrimination by censorship, it reminds me of a time when, in the Jewish tradition, if you discovered something about a member of the family that was shameful, you didn’t talk about it.

It think that it’s important here to note that I do, also, fault the museum for not mentioning leaders in the LGBTQ movement through the twentieth century — Harvey Milk, as perhaps the most famous of these people is a prime example.

However, I do also think that Segal is slightly one-sided in his writing. While the museum is indeed at fault for never mentioning Milk or mentioning Sondheim’s or Bernstein’s connections to the queer community, this is a relic of the past era, like Segal dutifully notes.

While the museum in Philadelphia might be stuck in the past, the Jewish community itself — and, of course, the rest of the world — are warming up to the idea of Jewish LGBTQ heroes. Indeed, however, you can see all of the collaboration (collab, for short) channels of queer YoutTubers, and yet none of them, it seems, are openly Jewish. This was one of the reasons that I began and created my YouTube channel (the first video of the aforementioned channel was posted earlier today).

Regardless, however, there are organizations that exist today that serve to help LGBTQ Jews, organizations that are no doubt not mentioned within the aforementioned museum. These organizations — Keshet and Nehirim — are actively working to promote and advocate for LGBTQ Jews. Keshet recently launched a poster campaign that promotes the lives and legacies of Jewish LGBTQ figures, such as Harvey Milk and Kate Bronshtein.

The world — the Orthodox world — is changing, and changing rapidly. There are new articles, new petitions every week that advocate for both the expulsion of the queer Jews from the Jewish community and the inclusion by others. While the museum is a relic of an era where gay, lesbian, and bisexual Jews were shunned and ignored, that is something that is rapidly changing.

And so, I implore you, my readers, to understand that this museum is not representative of the Jewish world as a whole, nor is it representative of the Orthodox world as a whole. The facts are true, yes, but the implications are not. Orthodoxy is becoming more and more open, more and more accepting.