The Lilith Blog

December 2, 2019 by

A Torah of Tears: Reflecting on Torah Informed by the Lens of Queer Experience

Hadar's Queer Colloquium.  Trent Campbell, Picture This Productions

Hadar’s Queer Colloquium.
Trent Campbell, Picture This Productions

I didn’t think I needed Queer Torah in my life. I had a narrow vision of what Queer Torah was, which was limited to queering the characters of the Torah, essentially imposing gayness onto our ancestors, for the sake of seeing myself represented in our narratives. While I don’t underestimate how for many people it is not only powerful but even necessary to see ourselves represented in Torah, for me this notion held little appeal. This is why, even as a queer rabbi, I didn’t have any of the good Queer Torah books* I was supposed to have on my bookshelf. I never sought them out, and if I’m honest, I’d say I even felt a bit turned off by them. 

And yet, in my role as faculty for Hadar, which empowers Jews to create and sustain vibrant, practicing, egalitarian communities, I found myself organizing an entire afternoon of Queer Torah. Six months earlier, at our annual Alumni Shabbaton, over 50 of our queer alumni came together to talk about the experience of being Jewish and queer. Afterwards, I sat with fellow Hadar Alum Laynie Soloman, the Director of National Learning for Svara, a traditionally radical yeshiva, and a vision for an afternoon of Queer Torah was born.

We wondered: what could we do if we all came together as a community––trans folks, gender non-conforming folks, non-binary people, cis people––to spend a day exploring Torah informed through the lens of queer experience? What if all the Hadar faculty were present that day not as teachers but rather as students, turning to our queer alumni as our teachers? Last month, on Sunday, October 27th, our Beit Midrash in New York City was filled with the energy of people who showed up for each other, who showed up for inclusion and diversity,for Torah and for queerness. We kicked off the program by turning to three leaders, Rabbi Sarra Lev, Rabbi Emily Aviva Kapor-Mater and Rabbi Steven Greenberg, who have made the lives of so many queer Jews better through their work. We asked them questions like “What do you do when the Torah lets you down?” and “What does Queer Torah mean to you?” In breakout sessions that followed, we explored topics like “How Do We Talk About Sex in the Yeshiva?” and “Declaring the Pure to be Impure and Other Queer Superpowers.” Our learning was interwoven with singing, and we gathered at the end to stand together and daven Mincha, the afternoon prayer service.

I didn’t think I needed Queer Torah in my life, but it turns out I was wrong. From Lily Solochek, I learned that Rabbi Meir, whose name literally means the one who enlightens, was perhaps able to so skillfully argue both sides of a debate, holding the pure with the impure, because he was equally committed to holding all parts of people as well, even those who had been cast aside. From Rabbi Sarra Lev I learned that the work of queering the Torah is to make the invisible visible and that the rabbis have been doing this thing called queering the Torah for centuries. This is the very same work behind the rabbinic project of midrash, of looking at the Torah and, instead of seeing just the literal plain sense of the word, attempting to give voice to that which is unsaid. 

Lastly, I learned the many ways in which one might respond when one feels let down by Torah. In Vayikra, in Leviticus, we are commanded to be holy because God is holy. In our opening session, Rabbi Sarra Lev taught, “Holiness is the process of confronting those edges, confronting the stuff I don’t like. To be holy is to push against the edges and grow. Torah is not about telling us what we should be, it’s telling us what is. Giving us the opportunity to engage with what is to make what should be.”

As in any relationship, there will be moments when Torah disappoints me. There will be times when I’ll encounter a text that attempts to make me small, to erase me, or to ignore me altogether. These are the moments when I am called to engage in the holy work of queering the Torah, of confronting the edges, of transforming what is into what should be. 

My bookshelves both literally and figuratively are richer now with the Torah that I learned at the Queer Colloquium. There is no one type of Queer Torah and Queer Torah does not exist only for queer audiences. Rather, what can be contained by the words Queer Torah is as expansive as the diverse identities of the many who attempt to read the Torah with new eyes, whose queerness reveals new meanings in our ancient text. Queer Torah has the potential to make all of us, queer, trans, straight, and cis folks alike, kinder people seeking to work toward a more inclusive vision of what Torah could be. 

Rebbe Nachman teaches that the creation of new Torah brings forth rivers. But, before those rivers can flow, before we can be m’hadesh b’torah, before we can make the Torah anew, we have to cry. We have to start from a place of tears. My blessing for us is that we transform springs into rivers. That we choose to lean into the difficult parts of our tradition rather than away, moving from what is to what should be. And, that together we can create a Torah from which all may drink, a Torah that lifts up new perspectives, that asks new questions, that raises up diversity, vulnerability, inclusion, and compassion, a Torah born from our tears. 

*Some of those famous Queer Torah books are Torah Queeries and Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s Wrestling with God and Men.

Here you can listen to the plenary panel with Rabbi Steven Greenberg, Rabbi Sarra Lev, and Rabbi Emily Aviva Kapor-Mater on the nature of Queer Torah, as well as the closing Dvar Torah by Rabbi Avi Strausberg.

Rabbi Avi Strausberg is the Director of National Learning Initiatives for Hadar and is based in DC where she lives with her wife and two little ones.