The queering of Leviticus, or how a rabbi permits gay sex
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The queering of Leviticus, or how a rabbi permits gay sex

The national LGBTQI group Nehirim is hosting a three-day conference in San Francisco on how to 'queer the text'

Illustrative photo of a 2009 Jewish marriage ceremony of a lesbian couple in Germany. (Maartje Wildemann)
Illustrative photo of a 2009 Jewish marriage ceremony of a lesbian couple in Germany. (Maartje Wildemann)

That whole thing about Leviticus clearly forbidding sexual relations between two men? Open to interpretation.

At least that’s what Oregon-based Rabbi Debra Kolodny, Executive Director of Nehirim, the national LGBTQI group, says, based on the idea of “queering the text.”

“Queering the text,” Kolodny says, “looks for the chidush [a new idea or way of understanding a text], the innovation, the insight that’s never been imagined before because the lens we’re looking for today never existed before.”

Kolodny says contemporary liberal Judaism is at an historical moment in which it can combine its knowledge of history, sociology and sexuality to thousands of years of Jewish tradition to reveal “something that couldn’t be revealed even 20 years ago because we didn’t have the experience under our belt.”

“Queering the text” refers to any number of paths for looking at scripture and is “the lens through which we look at our text,” says Kolodny.

She cites Leviticus: “A man should not lie with a man.”

Oregon-based Rabbi Debra Kolodny, the head of Nehirim, the national LGBTQI group. (Brio Howard)
Oregon-based Rabbi Debra Kolodny, the head of Nehirim, the national LGBTQI group. (Brio Howard)

“How are we to be in relationships with these texts that are difficult?” asks Kolodny. “In that way queer theology is no different than any other way of looking at the text. That’s what Jews do.”

An example of “queering” is in how Leviticus, the text authoritatively cited when discussing traditional Judaism’s prohibition against homosexual relations between men, can be reexamined.

Kolodny describes one way in which the text can be seen through a chidush in which the text would not forbid homosexual relations or unions.

First, she explains, the Hebrew word “toevah,” used in Leviticus, has been mistranslated as “abomination.”

Rather than abomination, she says, “It’s a ritual practice prohibited to a people. It comes up when Joseph’s brothers come up and the Egyptians won’t eat because the food is toevah to the Egyptians.”

Leviticus, she says, is merely describing a pagan ritual practice prohibited to Jews.

“In those days there were pagan cults who did fertility rite that were prohibited: a fertility rite that involves two men having sex with each other.”

So today, she explains, if someone asks if it’s ok for two men to engage in homosexual relations, as a rabbi she responds, “Are you engaging with pagan ritual? If not, it’s not prohibited — the Torah doesn’t speak to it.”

The first Nehirim LGBTQI Jewish clergy retreat

On December 7-10, queer Jewish history, tradition and ritual will be extensively explored as over 60 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rabbis, cantors and students gather in San Francisco for the first Nehirim LGBTQI Jewish clergy retreat. (the “I” is a recent addition to the “LGBTQ” acronym, and stands for intersex, the term used to describe those formerly referred to as hermaphroditic).

The three-day event will be the largest gathering of its kind to date. Participants will study queer theology, celebrate LGBTQI Jewish life and create new rituals for the Jewish LGBTQI community.

‘We have come to a point where people are accepting of sexual orientation and diversity and we have become part of the mainstream of the Jewish world’

The retreat, Kolodny says, is “not a moment when people are meekly coming out of the closet. We have come to a point where people are accepting of sexual orientation and diversity and we have become part of the mainstream of the Jewish world.”

The group’s San Francisco conference will focus on historical, theological and traditional aspects of queer Jewish life and explore how “queer theology” can be used to assist LGBTQI Jews in their ritualistic and traditional lives.

Participants will examine from a historical perspective “where we’ve come, where are we going,” she says, noting that once-hidden communities are now creating new and unique rituals for marriages, bar mitzvahs and other Jewish occasions. Attendees will also explore theology, including Midrash, Talmud, scripture and Kabbalah.

“That is one portion of the conference where queer theology will be front and center,” she adds.

The annual Jerusalem Gay Pride, September 18, 2014 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
The annual Jerusalem Gay Pride, September 18, 2014 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Nehirim stated goals include providing “vibrant, pluralistic, egalitarian and accessible programming that cultivates and empowers LGBTQI Jewish souls.” It also aims to create a supportive network and hopes to “impassion” participants.

“Queer is contextual,” she says. “It’s an umbrella term that means pretty much everybody that isn’t heterosexual or anyone that isn’t cisgender – born into a gender that feels right as opposed to feeling some disconnection.”

Creating new rituals and traditions and understanding Jewish texts in a way that allows the queer community to live full Jewish lives is a primary goal of the conference.

The conference will explore topics including: What rituals have people created for same-sex marriage or a bar/bat mitzvah where both parents are of the same gender, or how do you sensitively and appropriately handle the mikveh (ritual bath) for the conversion for a transgender person. There will be panels on topics such as theology, ritual and liturgy and pastoral care, followed by cooperative learning workshops.

‘What I do is open spaces people never before knew are there’

“It will be a mix of sharing and creating new forms, so we can learn from one another and explore the ways we are all taking leadership to the Jewish world,” says Kolodny.

Cantor Jalda Rebling, spiritual leader of Berlin’s Ohel HaChidush congregation, has assisted in creating and overseeing rituals for LGBTQI services.

“I helped the different families and people create (the rituals). What we do is have a deep conversation about why people want a Jewish ritual, what do they expect from it and then the ritual creates itself.

“What I do is open spaces people never before knew are there. The first LGBTQI ritual I created in 2007 was during Sukkot so we created a Sukkah as the first house for a married LGBTQI couple.”

(Gay marriage image via Shutterstock)
(Gay marriage image via Shutterstock)

As more LGBTQI Jews are married, “queering the text” also requires the creation of texts for divorce.

Kolodny provides the example of a get (Jewish divorce) for a lesbian couple and a Passover “Supreme Court Seder” that celebrates the emancipation of American slaves, gay rights and Jewish freedom, both created by Rabbi Margaret Moes Wenig of Hebrew Union College, as new rituals that are consistent with Jewish thought.

The international fight for LGBTQI rights

In Germany, as in the United States, LGBTQI clergy not only create rituals and work within queer theology, but fight for LGBTQI rights as well.

Nehirim has partnered with organizations in pursuit of equal marriage legislation in the United States. German LGBTQI clergy fight for the legalization of same-sex marriage as well.

“Here in Germany,” Rebling said, “we have had a long fight for equal rights behind us and we are still not where we want to be. It was my generation that has had to be very creative with the help of creative lawyers to make daily life as normal as possible. It was a long way. Legally a same-sex marriage is still not totally equal. But step-by-step we are getting there.”

‘To be here in Europe as a renewal Jewish clergy is a very lonely place’

Regarding Nehirim’s upcoming conference, Rebling had praise and enthusiasm.

“I am excited. To be here in Europe as a renewal Jewish clergy is a very lonely place. Thanks to the ALEPH network [the Alliance for Jewish Renewal] we have become more in numbers. I could never do the pioneering work I do here without the strong ALEPH and OHALAH [The Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal] network in this world,” says Rebling.

“And thanks to modern electronic media I am closely connected to my chevre [Hebrew for friends] with questions and all the little steps we do here to make our world a better place for every single Jew in all our diversity,” says Rebling.

And that’s exactly what Nehirim is hoping for.

“Our goal is to support the total integration and empowerment of LGBTQI Jews, enriching klal Yisrael and all of our lives in the process,” says Kolodny.

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