By Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael
The other day a friend asked, “If your sacred text requires you to struggle, why don’t you just . . . get a better sacred text? You could write one—a text that was antiracist, trans affirming, pro-LGBTQ+, and did not make you struggle to find those things. What is the value of being part of a tradition that does not unambiguously say those things to begin with?”
As a queer and transgender rabbi, I have heard versions of that question for as long as I can remember. I have heard it from people challenging the value of Jewish texts and traditions as well as from people challenging my queer and trans identities. I have heard it from people struggling with their own sense of ownership and dignity in Jewish spaces. On more difficult days I have even asked these questions of myself.
So why don’t I “just get a better text?”
Because I reject the premise of the question. Why on earth should I be expected to write off my history and tradition? I believe fundamentally that not only is there room in the Jewish tradition for me, but that Jewish tradition only thrives when I, and people like me, bring our full selves to the table, ask our questions, and push the tradition a little further along.
For centuries the interpretation of Jewish laws and traditions have changed and grown. For me, part of the stunning wisdom of the Jewish tradition is that it is about responding to, sanctifying, and working within the realities that are in front of us. I have found teachers and colleagues who have shown me that this is not even a radical “rereading” of the tradition—our sages have always brought their lived realities to the text and challenged, questioned, and deepened the tradition. I believe my identities and my ethics do not place me at odds with Jewish tradition, but root me firmly in it. I believe my queer and trans ancestors have always been a part of my Jewish community, and continue to shape that community today.
Jewish tradition pushes us to always strive to be better, to learn more, and to do the hard inner work of unlearning biases and creating justice. The tradition teaches these lessons explicitly by reminding us that each person is created in the Divine image (Genesis 1:27), demanding that we behave with holiness by “loving our fellows as ourselves” (Leviticus 19:18), and exhorting us to “pursue justice” (Deuteronomy 16:20). The Torah holds our communal history out as a reminder to always interact with empathy and to work against oppression (Deuteronomy 23:9).
And it teaches these lessons more implicitly through complex and multi-layered stories of those who came before me who moved the work for justice and equity to where it is today. I see the Jewish tradition—maybe even the Divine self, whatever that means—growing, learning, making mistakes, and most of all, striving.
The Torah tells the story (Numbers 27:1-11) of the five daughters of Zelophehad: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. When Zelophehad died with no sons, his daughters were disenfranchised under a system in which only men could inherit. The five of them approached Moses and the entire leadership of the People of Israel, and made the case that they should inherit land from their father. Rather than dismiss their case out of hand, Moses turned to the Divine. The Divine told him, “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s family.”
I am struck in this story by the boldness of these five sisters and by the humility and openness of Moses and the Divine. As a result of this story, the laws of inheritance are changed, allowing women to inherit if (and only if) a person died with no sons to pass on property to. This legal change was far from complete to those of us who take for granted that people of all genders are fundamentally equal. And yet, for me, it can serve as a model of a tradition always striving to get a little bit better, to respond to calls for justice, and to be unafraid of growth, humility, relationship, and change.
I have the phenomenal gift of working as a rabbi in the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Jewish world. I work for Keshet, a nonprofit organization that works for the full equality of all LGBTQ+ Jews and our families in Jewish life. In my role as the director of our education and training team, I and my colleagues help Jewish communities learn about the beautiful variety of LGBTQ+ people in our world and learn about ways that their organizations can affirm, celebrate, and be transformed by our presence. I answer questions from the technical (how can our forms and sign-in sheets be more accessible to LGBTQ+ members and families? What do our greeters need to know about respectful language?) to the profound (where are there barriers to access our programs and facilities? Where have unspoken expectations or biases left some LGBTQ+ people on the margins? Where do our LGBTQ+ youth get to see their joyful and thriving futures reflected in our classrooms? Where do they get to see their history reflected in our texts?). I get to see the steady and sustained force of change in our communities. As we have always been, we are still striving to live up to our best values—we are getting closer every day.
To answer my friend’s challenge in another way: I hold on to and challenge my tradition because I believe that my tradition is designed to challenge me and to be challenged by me. I believe that my tradition teaches that all of us—including the Divine—should be striving to be better and to do better. Because I and my beautiful LGBTQ+ community deserve the wisdom and love and celebration of our tradition, and because our tradition deserves the fullness of our identities, our questions, and our stories.