So there was sunshine and Pimms and grilled halloumi and ghoti's homemade icecream. And alextfish and woodpijn brought bubble mix, and 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 pseudomonas and 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.]
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