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Posing Some Queries to Find Out Just What's 'Queer' About Torah

November 25, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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According to one local rabbi, Sukkot might just be the ultimate "queer" holiday.

"Being queer means bringing a sense of celebration, a spark" to Judaism, and Sukkot, what with the unusual lulav and etrog and all manner of diversity, "is the ultimate holiday, because it is the queer embodiment of Torah," said Rabbi Linda Holtzman of the Reconstructionist Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia.

Sukkot is just one of the holidays to be tackled from a queer perspective in the recently released Torah Queeries. The book, published by New York University Press, claims to be the first book to collect queer commentary on the weekly Torah portions.

A number of the book's contributors have ties to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, so it was fitting that the school helped celebrate the book's release by hosting a panel discussion that included five of the collection's contributors. The event was held in conjunction with the LGBT Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where it was hosted.

According to RRC professor Jacob Staub, a Torah Queeries contributor, claiming the Hebrew Bible as a queer document helps free it from thousands of years of established norms, making it a more inclusive text.

Said Staub: "To queer the Torah is, as I see it, to read it as it was originally intended" -- that is, before it was loaded with the baggage of more than two millennia worth of commentary, nearly all of it from a heterosexual perspective.

Rabbi Joshua Lesser, an RRC grad and one of the book's three editors, noted during the discussion at Penn that the book could have easily been written with just contributions from Reconstructionist rabbis and scholars.

But in the book's spirit of all-inclusiveness, editors pulled in voices from the Reform and Conservative movements, as well as the unaffiliated and even a non-Jew. The work also includes a commentary by Orthodox rabbi Steven Greenberg, as well as a few Traditional scholars.

Lesser said in a phone interview that while the Orthodox community was in the midst of its own conversation about the place of LGBT individuals in Jewish life, much of what's being discussed from their point of view was covered years ago by more liberal sects of the faith.

"I think at this point, there's more for them to learn on this topic than there is for them to teach," said Lesser.

While a number of earlier titles have discussed the intersection between being gay and Jewish, many of those books, according to Lesser, focus more on general Jewish life than on Jewish texts. Torah Queeries attempts to be a broader study of the Five Books of Moses, with discussion of every Torah portion, rather than just those that might be particularly difficult or inspiring to LGBT Jews.

According to the book's forward, though this might be the first book with this kind of scope aimed at the queer audience, a related precedent exists, such as the rise of feminist Torah commentary in the late 1960s and '70s.

In fact, Lesser said, it's surprising that it's taken so long for such a book to be published.

He added that today, "there's not just a community, but a supra-community of LGBT folks, and we're such a part of the larger fabric of Jewish life right now that it was inevitable."

Lesser pointed out during the discussion that the book is more than just "a gay male commentary," and that the editors pushed to include diverse voices, regardless of sexuality, gender, age, physical ability or even faith.

Royalties Toward Resources

The book grew out of an online project by Jewish Mosaic: The National Center for Sexual & Gender Diversity that collects queer Torah commentaries.

While most of the pieces included in the book are new, those that come from the Web site have been revised and expanded.

Royalties from the book will go toward a pair of organizational resources for LGBT Jews: Atlanta's Rainbow Center and Denver's Jewish Mosaic. Two of the books editors, Lesser and Gregg Drinkwater, are principals in those organizations.

Lesser noted that some in the Jewish world might not yet be ready for this type of material, though he believed that a good deal are.

Concurring, Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell said during the panel discussion that the book is no less than an attempt to reinvent Judaism "at a time when we must" do just that.

Added Elwell: "Hopefully, the entire book will jolt and bother and trouble folks, even as others delight in its existence."


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