Hello everyone and thank you for inviting me to address you this evening. I’ve been asked to speak to you about LGBTQ Pride from a Jewish perspective. As we gather here together at this Village MCC Church, I’m sure we are very conscious that our identity encompasses, both, being LGBTQ and our sense of being part of a religious tradition. Historically, these identities have been seen as being in complete conflict with one another: it was impossible to be LGBTQ and Jewish or Christian. The infamous verses we find in the Bible in Leviticus chapters 18 and 20 which teach that two men lying with one another as a man would lie with a woman is an ‘abomination’ put paid to that. Consequently, LGBTQ Jews and Christians have, historically, been confronted with an impossible choice: either, be involved in one’s Jewish or Christian community, or, live out one’s LGBTQ identity.
For years that impossible choice led LGBTQ people, either, to abandon their religious tradition, or to suppress their sexual and/or gender identity. Some people still make that impossible choice. But times have moved on. Importantly, the phenomenon of LGBTQ people coming out during the last 50 years has generated the changes needed for us to embrace all of who we are. We could chart the history of the past 50 years in Britain in terms of changes in the law, starting with the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised sex between two men over the age of 21 in private, followed by a series of legal developments, resulting in an equal age of consent, equal marriage and the possibility of transgender people altering their birth certificates to reflect their new name and gender identity. But these legal changes only happened because LGBTQ people engaged in a struggle for acknowledgement of our full human rights.
As it happens, I was a pioneer in the pursuit of equal marriage, raising the issue within the Jewish community back in 1996. It was a very hard struggle, but from 2000, Liberal Judaism began to grapple with the issue, resulting in full support for equal marriage, both civil and religious. But I haven’t come here this evening to talk about our campaigns to change the law in this country. Orthodox strands of Judaism and many Christian denominations, including the Church of England and the evangelical churches, still haven’t endorsed equality. Many people continue to take those ancient levitical verses as their guide. There are parts of the world where LGBTQ People are persecuted – and in some places put to death – in the name of fundamentalist religious teachings. We have a responsibility to campaign together with and on behalf of LGBTQ people who still face vicious discrimination. We also have a responsibility to ourselves and to those who would come after us to transform our traditions. So, as LGBTQ people committed to being part of a Jewish or Christian tradition, we are challenged to reinterpret, reframe and reclaim sacred text – not just those infamous verses – so that the Bible speaks to our lives.
During the past 30 to 40 years, this is exactly what LGBTQ Jews have been doing: re-engaging with the Jewish textual sources. Back in 1993, for example, I developed an inclusive and egalitarian approach to sexual ethics based on reading the sexual prohibitions in Leviticus chapters 18 and 20 through the lens of the ethical teachings we find in Leviticus chapter 19, in particular, verse 18: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Eternal’ – in Hebrew: V’ahavta l’rei’akha kamokha. Ani Adonai. What a difference it might make to our approach to sexuality, if instead of focusing on whether sex is between a man and woman, between two men, between two women, or between two gender-fluid or queer people, we developed an inclusive and egalitarian sexual ethic based on the notion that sex between people, whatever their sexual or gender identity, should be mutual and reciprocal – which, of course, by definition, excludes sex between adults and children. Such an inclusive and egalitarian sexual ethic based on the principle of mutuality and reciprocity, would lead us to reinterpret the repeated prohibition against ‘uncovering nakedness’ that we find in Leviticus chapters 18 and 20 as a prohibition against exploiting one’s sexual partner in their vulnerability, which is completely relevant to our own lives as LGBTQ people. Importantly, when we engage with the biblical texts that exclude and marginalise us, we move from being in the position of being sexual ‘outlaws’ to participating in an ethical framework of behaviour on equal terms. If you’re interested in reading more extensive account of this inclusive approach to sexual ethics, you will find it in my book, Trouble-Making Judaism, published in 2012.
When engaging with the Bible so that it becomes meaningful and relevant to our own lives as LGBTQ people, it seems obvious to tackle those chapters in Leviticus. But our quest for meaning shouldn’t be confined to the passages about sex. On the contrary, we need to go right back to the beginning, to the creation stories we find in the Book of Genesis. These narratives, used throughout history to justify the subjugation of women to men, continue to be used by Christian campaigners against equality for LGBTQ people to argue in crude populist terms that ‘God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’ Unfortunately, I don’t have the time this evening to present a detailed rereading of those Genesis chapters from a feminist and LGBTQ perspective. I’m going to refer to some key things to note – and again, if you’re interested in finding out more, do take a look at Trouble-Making Judaism.
So, the first thing to note in both creation narratives is that the creation of humanity begins with the single human – ha-adam – not ‘the man’, as traditional translations have it, with the proper name, ‘Adam’! In the second creation story, we read that the human – ha-adam – is formed from the dust of ha-adamah – the ground. Ha-adam is one with the earth. In the first creation story, ha-adam, the human quickly becomes ‘male and female’: the Hebrew words, zachar, ‘male’ and n’keivah, ‘female’, denoting biological sexual difference for the purposes of reproduction. In the second creation story the process of differentiation of one human being into two is much slower, and is motivated not by the reproductive impulse, but rather by the need for companionship.
Throughout the first creation story, each day is marked by the repetition of the words, ‘and God saw that it was good’ – Va-yar Elohim ki-tov. Finally, when the work of creation is completed, we find ‘and God saw that it was very good’ – tov m’od. Given this repetition, the negative statement we find in the second creation story is quite startling: ‘It is not good for the human being to be alone.’ The verses that follow focus on finding a suitable companion for the lone human being. In the first attempt, the animals are created, but as soon as the human names them, and thereby exerts power over them, they are deemed unsuitable companionship material.
What follows next is familiar to most of us: the infamous rib to woman story. But the Hebrew makes it clear that a ‘rib’ wasn’t involved. The Hebrew word, tzeilah, means ‘side: the ‘side’ of the human was taken from the human in a deep sleep, resulting in two humans, ishah and ish. For the moment, I don’t want to translate these two Hebrew words, but rather invite us to reflect on their similarity: ishah; ish. In Hebrew, each verb, noun and adjective is based on three Hebrew letters, known as the root of the word. The root of ishah and ish is Alef Nun Shin – to be human. Unfortunately, Hebrew is a completely gendered language. So, for example, to say, ‘you’ in Hebrew – a non-gendered word in English –we are presented with four options: att, feminine singular; attah, masculine singular; atten, feminine plural; attem, masculine plural. So: ishah is the word for ‘woman’ and ish is the word for ‘man’. But the important thing is that unlike, the words ‘male and female’ in the first creation narrative, which are utterly different words, as I’ve indicated ishah and ish derive from the same root: to be human. The binary gender split is unavoidable in Hebrew, but understanding the Hebrew enables us to see the essential oneness of humanity. The philosophical position we encounter in the second creation story: ‘it is not good for the human to be alone’ is one which by definition, applies to all humans, regardless of sexuality and gender. If we then go back to the first creation story, we find the statements that present us with the clinching argument: “Then God said: ‘Let us make the human – ha-adam – in our image according to our likeness’…” “So God created the human in the Divine image…”
Every human being is an image of God. That is our starting point as LGBTQ Jews and Christians. Forget ‘God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’; God created all of us, in our different ways in the Divine image. There is a lovely rabbinic comment in the first rabbinic code of Jewish law, the Mishnah, edited around 200 CE, that conveys beautifully the sense of this unity in diversity:
One stamps out many coins with one die, and they are alike, but the Sovereign above the Sovereign of Sovereigns, the Holy One, who is Blessed, stamped each person with the seal of the first human – adam ha-rishon – and not one of them is alike.
So, we have our starting point as Jewish and Christian LGBTQ people: we are all the same; we are all different. To develop a sense of pride in ourselves, it’s also helpful to have role models – and there are a number we can draw on in the Bible.
First, there is Joseph. Forget ‘the coat of many colours’. The Hebrew expression k’tonet passim, means a ‘garment reaching to the palms [of the hand and feet]’. There are only two references to such a garment in the whole of the Hebrew Bible: Joseph is dressed in a k’tonnet passim – and so it is Tamar, the daughter of King David. In fact, in the reference to her wearing such a garment, the text explicitly explains that k’tonnet passim is a garment worn by royal princesses! We already know that Joseph’s garment, a gift from his doting father, Jacob, singled him out as the favourite son. By linking Joseph’s garment with Tamar’s, from an LGBTQ perspective, Joseph may be perceived as transgender. In the book, I’m currently writing, I examine the Joseph narrative – also pointing out that while Joseph is described exactly the way in which his mother, Rachel, before him was described – as ‘beautiful and shapely’ – the usual translation concerning Joseph, is ‘handsome and well-built’.
For many years, I was preoccupied with Miriam, the elder sister of Moses and Aaron, and co-leader of the Exodus. If you were to take all the verses about Miriam together they would fill up less than one side of A4 paper. And yet, she was responsible for saving the baby Moses, and at the time of the Exodus is described as a prophet, n’vi’ah. Significantly, Miriam did not marry. The longest text about her is at Numbers chapter 12 – a short chapter of 16 verses that are totally devoted to an incident that Miriam was responsible for instigating. The chapter begins: ‘Then Miriam spoke – and Aaron – against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. / And they said: has the Eternal indeed spoken only with Moses? Hasn’t he also spoken with us?’ Understandably, both Miriam and Aaron take exception at their baby brother’s special relationship with God. Resorting to superficial interpretations, you will find commentaries on the Internet, arguing that Miriam’s objection to the Cushite woman, whom Moses had married, was racist, a reading that seems reinforced by the passage relating that God punished her with a temporary dose of the white scales of leprosy.
As a lesbian reading the text, I ask different questions. Who was this Cushite woman? Who was she to Miriam? What might have been the reason for Miriam’s objection to Moses marrying her? In chapter 2 of Trouble-Making Judaism, taking my cue from the inventiveness of rabbinic commentary, where concern that Miriam was unmarried, led the sages to marry her off to Joshua or Caleb, I write a new story of Miriam from a lesbian perspective. In my account, the Cushite woman is Miriam’s woman, whom Moses married to break up their relationship. So, Miriam, the eldest of the Exodus leaders could well have been a lesbian.
Interestingly, on the Sabbath when in the annual Torah reading cycle, we read the final instalment of the story of the Exodus, including the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the songs of triumph of Moses and Miriam, our second scriptural reading, known as the haftarah, ‘conclusion’, is the story of Deborah related in Judges chapter 4, verse 4 through chapter 5. The narrative opens by telling the reader that that Deborah was a ‘prophet’ and ‘judge’. Contrary to the standard translation, however, Deborah was not the ‘wife of Lapidot.’ Certainly, the Hebrew says, eishet Lapidot, and eishet means ‘wife of’ or ‘woman of’, but there is no one called Lapidot in the whole of the Bible, and the biblical convention is that when someone is designated as the wife of a certain man, there must be other references to him. Significantly, however, the word, lapidot means ‘torches’ – singular, lapid. So, the Hebrew may be describing Deborah as a ‘woman of torches’ or ‘torch-like woman’. Such a description fits well with her role as a prophet and judge – and then as the story reveals, the commander, who accompanies her general, Barak into battle. Clearly, Deborah the unmarried leader of the people, in no way conforms to the expectations for a woman of her time. We might regard her from our LGBTQ perspective as gender queer.
So, we have lesbian, transgender and queer biblical role models, but what about the ‘G’ and ‘B’ in LGBTQ? I would like to leave the ‘G’ for a moment, and look for our bisexual role model. For this I turn to the story of David, who became King David. A poet and a musician, David was also an adulterer, who had the captain of his army killed in battle, just so that he could take his wife, Bathsheba. But that’s not all. David loved Jonathan, son of King Saul – and Jonathan loved him. We read in the First Book of Samuel, chapter 18, verse 1: ‘Now it came about when he had finished speaking to Saul that the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself.’ And then, later when Jonathan dies in battle, we learn in the Second Book of Samuel, chapter 1, verse 26 that David sings a song of lament for him: ‘I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan, very pleasant have you been to me, your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women.’
Finally, we come to a gay role model. In my view, it must be Jesus. I realise that here I am wandering into the territory of the Christian Gospels, but since Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew, I would like to include him in our Jewish and Christian LGBTQ biblical pantheon. Like other rabbis of the time, Jesus spent a lot of time with other men. But other rabbis were married. It was simply unheard of for a Jewish man of Jesus’ age – he was around 32 when he died – not to have a wife. Perhaps, it was his gay sensibility that enabled Jesus to relate to Mary Magdalene as a person, rather than as a woman of ill-repute. Yes, according to the Gospels, Jesus insisted that people should be married – and not get divorced – but perhaps, Jesus was diverting attention away from his own lack of a normative marital status through his pronouncements on marriage.
I have offered you some LGBTQ biblical role models. Of course, there is no question that the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible, and Christian Bible known as the New Testament, is written from the perspective of heterosexual men and reflects the patriarchal social reality of ancient Near Eastern times. Nevertheless, in those ancient times, there were, there must have been, LGBTQ people. As it happens, the early rabbis were very aware of this. Interestingly, in a rabbinic comment on the opening verses of Leviticus chapter 18 that prohibit the Israelite people from copying the practices of Egypt and Canaan, we find this explanation for the prohibition: [In Egypt and Canaan]‘A man would marry (nosei) a man, and a woman a woman’ – a clear reference not only to same-sex intimate acts, but also to on-going relationships between same-sex partners, both male and female. Further, considerable sections of the G’mara, the fifth century rabbinic commentary on the second century rabbinic code of law, the Mishnah are devoted to discussions of what today we would call the phenomenon of intersex people – mainly because the reality of intersex presented quite a challenge to rabbinic binary assumptions about male and female roles.
Some LGBTQ people do not see the point of trying to reclaim biblical texts that exclude us and reread them in terms of our own lives. In contrast to this view, I would argue – and I imagine that you would concur – that if we don’t interrogate the Bible through the prism of our experiences and perspectives as LGBTQ people, then the Bible will continue to render LGBTQ lives invisible. And just as important, oppressive texts left unchallenged, will continue to have the power to deny our reality and diminish and dismiss the integrity of our lives. Ultimately, for Jewish and Christian LGBTQ people, celebrating ourselves with pride means embracing all of who we are. As Jews say, when we raise the sacred scroll after the completion of each book of the Torah: Chazak, chazak v’nitchazeik, Be strong! Be strong! And may we strengthen ourselves and one another. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Village MCC Church, Brighton
27th August 2017 – 5th Elul 5777
- Leviticus 18:2 and 20:13. Another oppressive biblical text concerns the prohibition against cross-dressing: Deuteronomy 22:5. ↑
- http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1967/60/pdfs/ukpga_19670060_en.pdf ↑
- http://www.youngstonewall.org.uk/lgbtq-info/legal-equality ↑
- http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2013/30/contents/enacted/data.htm ↑
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_Recognition_Act_2004 ↑
- http://www.liberaljudaism.org/lifecycle/marriage/ ↑
- In 75 countries, homosexuality is still illegal – http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/sexual-offences-act/ and LGBT people face discrimination and persecution. Indeed, in Mauritania, Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, those found guilty of homosexual acts face the death penalty, while in Nigeria and Iraq, LGBT people are executed even though the law does not require it – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/where-is-it-illegal-to-be-homosexual-and-which-is-the-most-deadly-country-to-be-gay-10355338.html ↑
- See, for example, Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible edited by David Shneer, Gregg Drinkwater and Rabbi Joshua Lesser (2009). See: https://www.keshetonline.org/resource/torah-queeries-book/ ↑
- In Hebrew: gillui ervah ↑
- Chapter 9. Published by David Paul Books. ↑
- Ibid. Chapter 1. ↑
- Genesis 2:7 ↑
- Gen. 1:27. ↑
- See: Gen. 1: 4; 12; 18; 21; 25. The only exception is the second day: Gen. 1:6-8. ↑
- Gen. 1:31. ↑
- Gen. 2:18. ↑
- Gen. 2:19-20. ↑
- Gen. 2:21-23. ↑
- Gen. 1:26. ↑
- Gen. 1:27 ↑
- Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5. ↑
- The Joseph story begins at Genesis 37 and continues to the end of the Book of Genesis. ↑
- Gen. 37:3. ↑
- 2 Samuel 13:18. ↑
- Gen. 37:3. ↑
- Compare Genesis 39:6 re: Joseph, with Genesis 29:17 re: Rachel. The Hebrew is gendered male for Joseph and female for Rachel, but the description is identical: Va-y’hi Yosef y’feih-to’ar vifeih mareh (Joseph); V’Racheil hay’tah y’fat-to’ar vifat mareh (Rachel. ↑
- The Bible on Miriam: Exodus 2:1-10, Ex. 15:20-21, Numbers 12:1-16, Num. 20:1, Deuteronomy 24:8-9, Numbers 26:58-59, Micah 6:4, I Chronicles 6:3. ↑
- See the story of the birth of Moses: Exodus 2:1-10. ↑
- Exodus 15:20. ↑
- Numbers 12:10. See, for example: http://www.sdjewishworld.com/2014/06/07/hashem-dealt-miriams-racism/ ↑
- Midrash Sh’mot Rabbah 1:17. ↑
- See Exodus 13:17-15:21. ↑
- Judges 4:4. ↑
- Judges 4:6-10. ↑
- 2 Samuel 11:2-27. ↑
- See Matthew 19:1-12. ↑
- Sifra, Acharei Mot 9:8. ↑
- See ‘Gender Identity in Halakhic Discourse’ by Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/gender-identity-in-halakhic-discourse ↑