Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible
Publication Year: 2009
In the Jewish tradition, reading of the Torah follows a calendar cycle, with a specific portion assigned each week. These weekly portions, read aloud in synagogues around the world, have been subject to interpretation and commentary for centuries. Following on this ancient tradition, Torah Queeries brings together some of the world’s leading rabbis, scholars, and writers to interpret the Torah through a "bent lens". With commentaries on the fifty-four weekly Torah portions and six major Jewish holidays, the concise yet substantive writings collected here open up stimulating new insights and highlight previously neglected perspectives.
This incredibly rich collection unites the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight-allied writers, including some of the most central figures in contemporary American Judaism. All bring to the table unique methods of reading and interpreting that allow the Torah to speak to modern concerns of sexuality, identity, gender, and LGBT life. Torah Queeries offers cultural critique, social commentary, and a vision of community transformation, all done through biblical interpretation. Written to engage readers, draw them in, and, at times, provoke them, Torah Queeries examines topics as divergent as the Levitical sexual prohibitions, the experience of the Exodus, the rape of Dinah, the life of Joseph, and the ritual practices of the ancient Israelites. Most powerfully, the commentaries here chart a future of inclusion and social justice deeply rooted in the Jewish textual tradition.
A labor of intellectual rigor, social justice, and personal passions, Torah Queeries is an exciting and important contribution to the project of democratizing Jewish communities, and an essential guide to understanding the intersection of queerness and Jewishness.
Published by: NYU Press
Title Page, Copyright
“Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” This Mishnaic statement about the Torah (Pirke Avot, 5:25) captures a fundamental Jewish attitude toward the first five books of the Bible, an attitude that has been elaborated over time: The Torah is eternally fruitful, a source of wisdom ...
Introduction: Interpreting the Bible through a Bent Lens
It is the world’s longest running rerun, the best-selling book of all time, the foundational text of Western culture and the core of the Jewish religion. The Hebrew Bible, sacred to nearly half the world’s population, infuses the myths, politics, literature, art, and daily language of billions of people across the globe. ...
Part I Bereshit, The Book of Genesis
1. Male and Female God Created Them: Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1–6:8)
“And God created the human being b’tzalmo in . . . [God’s own] image” (Genesis 1:27a).1 Perhaps no Biblical verse has meant more to gay people than this one. It confirms what LGBT people know in their hearts to be true: We too have been created in God’s image. We too deserve respect as God’s own handiwork. ...
2. From Delight to Destruction: The Double-Faced Power of Sex: Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9–11:32)
The book of Genesis offers two very distinct portrayals of sex. The first is glorious and creative, and the second is frightful and destructive. It is perhaps this double evaluation of sexuality—its ability to express profound love, union, and care and its simultaneous capacity for degradation of self ...
3. Going to and Becoming Ourselves: Transformation and Covenants in Parashat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1–17:27)
Throughout Parashat Lech Lecha, people’s bodies, names, and relationships change profoundly to signal transformation and covenantal belonging. Even the name of the parasha, “Go to Yourself,” implies change and risk, a simultaneous movement from one figurative place to another, as well as a ...
4. Looking Back to Look Forward: Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1–22:24)
The first word of Genesis 18:1, vayera, which connotes both seeing and appearing, alerts the reader to the importance of vision throughout Genesis 18–22. Indeed,
5. When Gender Varies: A Curious Case of Kere and Ketiv Parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1–25:18)
“In the Bible, women are rarely born, they almost never die and when they give birth it is usually to a boy.” With that caveat, Yair Zakovitch, legendary Bible professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, began a series of provocative lectures on women in the Bible that continues to influence my thinking ...
6. Esau’s Gender Crossing: Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19–28:9)
The story of Jacob and Esau, Rebekah’s twin sons, is filled with deception and vulnerability, power and betrayal. The story opens with the twins’ birth, the first—large and hairy—“emerged entirely red like a cape of hair and they named him Esau” (Gen. 25:25).1 The second, we discover later, is “a smooth-skinned” ...
7. And Jacob Came Out: Parashat Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10–32:3)
Sometimes, we find meaning or significance in Torah by striving to understand its “big ideas”: all humans are created “in the Divine Image,” or “know the heart of the other, because you were others in Egypt.” Often, we consider Torah at the scale of a weekly Torah portion, whether looking at the story ...
8. Biblical Sex: Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4–36:43)
People in premodern societies understood the world in fundamentally different ways from those of us living in contemporary Western cultures. As philosopher Michel Foucault and others have shown, these variations in worldview are often rooted in changes in the meaning of language or in the very ...
9. Joseph’s Fabulous Technicolor Dreamcoat: Parashat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1–40:23)
The story of Joseph, the longest continuous narrative in the book of Genesis, offers one of the richest and most detailed portraits of a single character in the entire Hebrew Bible. The Bible offers such an emotionally complex narrative about Joseph’s life that both ancient and modern commentators ...
10. Yusuf Come Home: Parashat Miketz (Genesis 41:1–44:17)
Miketz is part two of the continuing story of the boy who was different. As Gregg Drinkwater demonstrates in his essay on Parashat Vayeshev, Joseph is a child with a decidedly queer set of sensibilities. He dreams of things bowing over for him and wears Technicolor robes. Not fitting into the ...
11. Forgiveness as a Queer Response: Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18–47:27)
Parashat Vayigash is the pinnacle of the Joseph cycle of stories in the book of Genesis. Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, has risen to a position of power and prestige in Egypt second only to the Pharaoh himself. During a famine, Joseph’s brothers make their way to Egypt to seek food. ...
12. Uncovering Joseph’s Bones: Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28–50:26)
The beginning of Genesis promises us a story. It begins with the birth of the world and the blessings that the Holy One bestows on creation. The end of Genesis is about the memory of the story. Parashat Vayechi, the final parasha of Genesis, focuses on Jacob’s deathbed blessings and the burial of Joseph. ...
Part II Shemot, The Book of Exodus
13. Making Noise for Social Change: Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1–6:1)
I was raised in a culturally Jewish family that practiced Buddhism. When I was a small child we lived in Hawaii, and my family was involved with a Tibetan Buddhist temple housed in a beautiful wooden building painted orange, red, gold, and green. It was located in the midst of a lush rain forest, ...
14. Uncircumcized Lips: Parashat Vaeira (Exodus 6:2–9:35)
What a provocative image—uncircumcised lips. What could it possibly mean? To my imagination, this verse both sexualizes and constrains Moses. He is poised to speak, to deliver a message that could change the world, and he falters. He is either going to remain silent, be misunderstood, ...
15. The Ritual of Storytelling: Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:1–13:16)
“When did you come out?” This is a common question among queer-identified people who are getting to know one another. For queer Jews, the answer may begin with Parashat Bo, which opens with the final three plagues and continues through the beginning of the physical exodus from Egypt. ...
16. Into Life: The Humanism of the Exodus: Parashat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17–17:16)
The exodus from Egypt, told in part in Parashat Beshalach0, has symbolized the movement from servitude to freedom for generations. Whether for African American slaves or for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender elders, the story resonates far beyond its Israelite particularity to any struggle ...
17. The Necessity of Windows: Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1–20:26)
I remember learning during a midrash class at the Jewish Theological Seminary that, if I were a “real” rabbi, I would not have looked out the window to help me make a crucial decision. Instead of drawing on the world around me, I would have taken a volume of Jewish text from the shelf and poured ...
18. Laws and Judgments as a “Bridge to a Better World”: Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1–24:18)
In Judaism, as in every religion, teachings collide with one another. Yet it would seem that the Jewish attitude toward homosexuality, on the basis of two passages found in Leviticus as well as later Jewish exegesis on these passages, is unequivocally negative. The first passage, Leviticus 18:22, states, ...
19. Building an Inclusive Social Space: Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1–27:19)
Parashat Terumah provides the initial instructions for building the mishkan, Israel’s wilderness Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary in which the Israelites carried the Ark of the Covenant during their journey through the desert. The Tabernacle’s sacred space created a meeting point between the Israelites ...
20. When the Fabulous Is Holy: Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20—30:10)
How many times have I heard queers sneer some version of “those texts just don’t speak to me” or “there is nothing recognizable” or “there isn’t anything in the Bible that relates to the world as I know it.” Yet Parashat Tetzaveh, in its exquisite attention to detail and ritualizing of the beautiful, ...
21. Mounting Sinai: Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11–34:35)
Friday night on a Tel Aviv dance floor: I am surrounded by hundreds of shirtless men, a pulsing mass of dancers, the air thick with sweat, lust, and—for me, eighteen years old, my first time out at a gay club—excitement mixed with a heavy dose of guilt. The club is only twenty minutes away from the Israeli Orthodox ...
22. Listening to Heart-Wisdom: Parashat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1–38:20)
There are two modes of revelation in the Torah. One mode is that of Sinai; revelation comes from a mountaintop, in the form of laws and principles. The law treats everyone equally. It is a transcendent law, Divine in origin, and descends to touch every member of the covenant with its truths. ...
23. A Knack for Design: Parashat Pekudei (Exodus 38:21–40:38)
Parashat Pekudei seems a gay man’s paradise. It concludes the book of Exodus with a detailed account not only of the fabrication—piece by intricate piece, including the fabulous! fabrics, furnishings, and window treatments—of the mishkan (Tabernacle) in the wilderness but also of the design and creation ...
Part III Vayikra, The Book of Leviticus
24. Bodily Perfection in the Sanctuary: Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1–5:26)
The concluding chapters of the book of Exodus focus on the construction of the Tent of Meeting, also known as the Tabernacle, or mishkan. Parashat Vayikra opens the book of Leviticus with a survey of the sacrifices to be conducted in that sanctuary. With the exception of Leviticus 2, ...
25. HaNer Tamid, dos Pintele Yid v’ha Zohar Muzar: The Eternal Flame, the Jewish Spark, and the Flaming Queer: Parashat Tsav (Leviticus 6:1–8:36)
Symbols transform over time. Their life span consists of a birth, a coming-of-age, and then a long slow fade into obsolescence during which we repeat the symbol endlessly with little or no comprehension of its original meaning. Throughout this process, symbols are adorned with new meaning, ...
26. Nadav and Avihu and Dietary Laws: A Case of Action and Reaction: Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47)
Parashat Shemini embraces and rejects the human impulse to recognize homoerotic passion as a holy act.1 The story of Nadav and Avihu offers a glimpse into the human impulse to break through a range of restrictions that societies place on individuals regarding gender-defined emotions and behavior. ...
27. Nagu’a: Touched by the Divine: Parashat Tazri’a (Leviticus 12:1–13:59)
These are the opening words of an unusual monologue at the beginning of Amos Gutman’s Nagu’a,2 a daring film made in Israel in 1983. The actor playing the main character gazes at the spectator straight in the eye, not allowing him or her to look away. This is probably the first time the word ...
28. It’s the Purity, Stupid: Reading Leviticus in Context: Parashat Metzora (Leviticus 14:1–15:33)
For gay and lesbian Jews and their allies, Parashat Acharei Mot contains some of the most infamous passages of the Torah, condemning as they do at least some forms of male homosexual behavior. Often these verses are read completely without context, and sometimes they are read only in the context ...
29. How Flexible Can Jewish Law Be? Parashat Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1–18:30)
This section of the Torah stings more than any other. One verse in it has been the source of immense pain for gay men for literally thousands of years: “You shall not lie with a man as a man lies with a woman; it is an abomination” (Lev. 18:22). Although lesbians are not mentioned here or, ...
30. Sex in the Talmud: How to Understand Leviticus 18 and 20: Parashat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1–20:27)
The Holiness Code, of which Parashat Kedoshimis a part, contains the only exhortation against same-sex intercourse in the Hebrew Bible.1 Leviticus 18:22 states, “Do not lie with a man the ‘lyings’2 of women; it is an abhorrence (to‘evah).” As with the other sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18, ...
31. Fear Factor: Lesbian Sex and Gay Men: Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1–24:23)
There was an audible buzz of excitement in the room when I entered bearing homemade brownies. There were nearly a dozen of us in Kirsta’s humble New Orleans apartment for the screening, and I was the only man allowed in. I knew some of these women from engaging in LGBT and AIDS ...
32. Neither Oppress nor Allow Others to Oppress You: Parashat Behar (Leviticus 25:1–26:2)
The queer perspective questions all norms—not only norms of gender role and definition or sexual orientation but all norms. From a queer perspective, norms are human attempts to simplify, classify, and regulate the complexities of reality. Reality, however, is inevitably messier than the categories ...
33. “Less Is More” and the Gift of Rain: The Value of Devaluation in Behukotai and Cixous’s Desire-That-Gives: Parashat Behukotai (Leviticus 26:3–27:34)
“God, if you do X for me, I will repay my debt to you with a donation in the amount equivalent to the value of . . . myself (or my daughter or my nephew or my wife).” It is this sort of divine-deal-making that ;em:Parashat Behukotai;-em: has in mind with its reference to the “vow of persons,” and it is in the spirit ...
Part IV Bemidbar, The Book of Numbers
34. How to Construct a Community: Parashat Bemidbar (Numbers 1:1–4:20)
Parashat Bemidbar (“in the wilderness”) opens the fourth book of the Torah and gives us a record of God’s Word to Moses “in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting” (Num. 1:1). This juxtaposition of the open wilderness with the enclosed Tent signals that in this parasha, we will experience ...
35. From Impurity to Blessing: Parashat Naso (Numbers 4:21–7:89)
What could ritual impurity, unintentional theft, the suspected adulteress, and the laws of the Nazirite possibly have to say about gay pride? So I asked again. The first words of the portion were promising: “Naso et rosh,” “Lift up the head” (Num. 4:22)—as good a euphemism for pride as any! ...
36. Setting the Stage for Pluralistic Judaism: Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1–12:16)
The Torah is not a text that generally extols and promotes “the power of the people” over the established hierarchy. G-d usually wins arguments. When G-d is not involved, Moses and his chosen few are generally the ones whose power rules over the Israelites. However, this is not always the case. ...
37. Ruach Acheret—Ruach Hakodesh/Different Spirit—Sacred Spirit: Parashat Shelach (Numbers 13:1–15:41)
Parashat Shelach tells the story of twelve scouts, one man from each ancestral tribe, who were sent forth to survey the land of Canaan, the land God promised to the Israelite people. The scouts return with a mixed message. While they are enraptured by the possibilities that the land holds for them, ...
38. Torah and Its Discontents: Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1–18:32)
I sit in the retro-modern kitchen of a suburban Los Angeles home, the off-avocado appliances proclaiming distress in almost equal volume to that of my twelve-year-old cousin Adam struggling to master tropes and write his drash as he prepares for his bar mitzvah. According to my aunt, he needs some help, ...
39. The Healing Serpent: Recovering Long Lost Jewish Fragments: Parashat Hukkat (Numbers 19:1–22:1)
When Ezra returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile, he brought a version of the Torah virtually identical to the one we have today. All subsequent Jewish reflection on the text was recorded as commentary. Ezra and the scribes who edited the final version of the Torah out of other texts, ...
40. Between Beast and Angel: The Queer, Fabulous Self: Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2–25:10)
Parashat Balak is replete with boundary crossing and ambiguous identity categories: a beast talks; angels walk among us; the protagonist-prophet Balaam, who ultimately blesses the people Israel, is himself a gentile and in the Bible and later commenting tradition, he is characterized as both friend and foe, ...
41. Pinchas, Zimri, and the Channels of Divine Will: Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10–30:1)
After forty years of circling the desert, the Israelites are a stone’s throw from Jericho. They arrive at the Transjordan and are thrown together with their future neighbors, the Midianites and the Moabites. Social introduction leads to shared celebration and, very quickly we are told, to sex with the local women ...
42. Going Ahead: Parashat Matot (Numbers 30:2–32:42)
In the early years of resettlement in prestate Palestine, khalutzim, “pioneers,” founded the first kibbutz, Degania, in 1912 just east of the Jordan River.1 They borrowed the word khalutzim from our Parashat Matot (Num. 32) and, more significant to them, from its reappearance in the book of Joshua. ...
43. Hearing Ancient, Courageous Voices for Justice and Change: Parashat Masei (Numbers 33:1–36:13)
Parashat Masei, the final portion in the book of Numbers, begins with an extensive summary of the travels of the People Israel after their redemption from Egypt. As their forty years of wandering draws to a close, they stand at the Jordan River near Jericho, and Moses instructs them about the boundaries ...
Part V Devarim, The Book of Deuteronomy
44 From Whom Do We Learn History? Why Queer Community Needs Texts More Than Other Communities: Parashat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1–3:22)
In this portion the Israelites and the now very elderly Moses have reached the Jordan River, the physical and metaphorical boundary between before and after, between wandering in the desert and being a Jewish nation, between a generation marked by the scars of slavery and one that only knows slavery ...
45. Rethinking the Wicked “Son”: Parashat Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11)
When I was sixteen years old, I made an appointment with my rabbi to ask about the Jewish tradition’s seemingly cruel response to homosexuality, an identity, I argued, not within the control of the individual to alter. My rabbi, not knowing my reasons for asking this question or pausing ...
46. Bind These Words: Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12–11:25)
There are four knotted strings that hang from the corners of my chest binder. “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments” (Num. 15:38). Standing in front of the full-length mirror in my room, ...
47. Neither Adding nor Taking Away: Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17)
In the opening lines of Parashat Re’eh, Moses shares both a blessing and a curse with the Israelites. “The blessing: if you obey the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I command you today. And the curse: if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord, your God, and you stray from ...
48. Setting Ourselves Judges: Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9)
One of the most stirring calls for justice-seeking in the Torah comes near the beginning of Parashat Shoftim: “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20). A longstanding rallying cry for socially engaged Jews, this verse has been an important buttress for queer folk and allies who call for the ...
49. To Wear Is Human, to Live—Divine: Parashat Ki Tetse (Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19)
We read in the Torah: “[Parents of a stubborn and rebellious son]1 should say to the elders of the town: ‘This child of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon the people of the town shall stone him to death” (Deut. 21:20–21). Thankfully, Jews today do not ...
50. In a New Country: Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8)
Indeed, I am grateful—for I belong to a generation that has entered a new land where many of us were, not so long ago, excluded. Within the liberal Jewish world today, many of us in the LGBT community find ourselves for the first time in history able to participate openly in synagogues, seminaries, ...
51. Embodied Jews: Parashat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20)
Parashat Nitzavim, like many parshiyot, is named for the first verb in the portion: nitzavim, “stand” (Deut. 29:9). As we approach the conclusion of both the book of Deuteronomy and the Torah, we read Moses’s sense of urgency as he reframes and recasts his message to the Israelite people. ...
52. “Be Strong and Resolute”: Parashat Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31:1–30)
The Covenant of the Dishwasher is forever written on my heart. Water glasses can only be placed on the right half of the upper rack, and mugs can only be placed on the left half, wine glasses in the second row from the left, champagne flutes in the silverware compartment. All plates must face ...
53. Dor l’Dor: Parashat Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1–52) 271
Ha’azinu, the Torah’s penultimate parasha, brings us to the end of the Israelites’ forty-year journey in the wilderness. Those who tasted the bitterness of slavery in Egypt have all but died out (Num. 14:26–35). A nomadic generation born in freedom is on the verge of leaving the desert to settle down ...
54. This Is the Blessing: The “First Openly Gay Rabbi” Reminisces: Parashat Zot Ha’bracha (Deuteronomy 33:1–34:12)
The thing about being a social pioneer is that when you are young, you are the “first,” but when you are old, you are the last. This thought came to me as I squeezed in around a very large and crowded table of queer rabbis at a convention dinner. Putting aside the future shock of sitting with ...
Part VI Holiday Portions
55. The Parade of Families: Rosh Hashanah
My family tended to arrive at Rosh Hashanah services early. We usually were not early enough for the red velvet cushioned seats, which were probably held for major donors anyway, but we were always in time to snag prime seats for the Rosh Hashanah catwalk. I used to call it the “Parade of Families.” ...
56. What Is Atonement? Yom Kippur
Traditionally, the annual cycle of Torah readings in the Jewish world operates according to two principles. The main organizing structure is the continuous reading (in one or three years’ time) of the entire Torah from start to finish, and then back to start again. This system is all-inclusive, omitting ...
57. Strength through Diversity: Sukkot
It was 1979. I had just graduated from rabbinical school and moved to the small town where I would serve as rabbi. For Sukkot, I had decided to build a sukkah (for the first time) and invite my congregation to have Kiddush in it following Shabbat morning services. I was thrilled. As a closeted lesbian, ...
58. Ad de’lo Yada: Until We Don’t Know the Difference: The Book of Esther and Purim
Why does the book of Esther—the source of the Purim story and the text read aloud on the holiday—warrant such special status that it figures in the rabbinic dream of a perfect Messianic future?2 After all, it is the most secular Biblical book, with no reference to prayer, Jewish rituals, the Temple, ...
59. Liberation and Transgender Jews: Passover
Jews prepare for the holiday of Passover in their kitchens and in their liturgy like little else in the Jewish year. The holiday is preceded by weeks of special Shabbat readings, building up to the festival, and the traditional dietary requirements of the holiday require intensive spring cleaning. ...
60. Trance and Trans at Har Sinai: Shavu’ot
Shavu’ot is consecrated in the Torah as a pilgrimage festival, the offering of the first fruit of the wheat harvest at the Temple: “And a Festival of Weeks you shall make for yourself, first fruits of the harvest of wheat. . . . Three times in the year all your males shall appear in the presence of the Master, ...
The New Rabbis: A Postscript
The visionaries who picked up the pieces of a shattered Judaism two thousand years ago, after the destruction of the Second Temple and the crashing of Biblical Judaism, were courageous, creative, out-of-the-box-thinking, fringy radicals. Queer, if you will. Not in the sense of sexuality or gender, ...
Camille Shira Angel has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco’s all-inclusive LGBT synagogue, since 2000. She is author of Intimate Connections: Integrating Human Love with God’s Love, a curriculum that sensitizes students to the lesbian/gay experience using Jewish values. ...
Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2009
OCLC Number: 488583351
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Torah Queeries