Queer Authority (Parashat Nitzavim)

The author argues all people were included in the Covenent by God, including LGBTQ people.

September 24, 2010

By Amy Soule

Torah Queeries logo

Parashat Nitzavim
Queer Authority
by Amy Soule on Friday September 24, 2010
16 Tishrei 5771
Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20

Coming to Parashiyot Nitzavim and Vayeilech means we have almost come full circle in our annual Torah readings. Throughout these portions many surprising affirmations surface for anyone who might describe themselves as “different.”

All of you are standing today in the presence of the Eternal your God—your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives and the aliens living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water. You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the Eternal your God, a covenant God is making with you this day and sealing with an oath, to confirm you this day as God’s people, as was promised to you and as sworn to your ancestors (Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

One reading of the above text might suggest that, according to the accord set out by God to our ancestors all those years ago, no one was to be excluded for any difference they had. Sex, socio-economic position, age, citizenship (and on an unspoken level sexual orientation and gender identity) didn’t prevent anyone’s inclusion.

Today we might look at these verses and think, “Why was God enumerating each different group rather than simply saying ‘everyone,’” since we don’t necessarily want to always be viewed as members of any specific group due to stereotypes, discrimination and other negative actions.

I’m tempted to believe God’s motives were positive. Maybe listing each distinct group was God’s means to communicate that different kinds of people contribute toward creating the greater whole and recognize each group’s distinct contribution. Also, listing each group separately demonstrates the significance of the accord God is making. All people, even if they are referred to in stereotypical groups, are responsible for making their own commitment; no one can be forced into acceptance of God’s accord due to fear of anyone in a higher social position.

Now what I’m commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

Looking at this second set of verses can help affirm us also. According to my reading of these verses, Torah Queeries is completely kosher. They also make it clear that anyone, no matter their education level, can analyze Scripture and come to their own conclusions about it; it was never intended to be accessible to the élite alone. Torah may have been given, according to some, by God to our people millennia ago but interpretations are supposed to be supplied by humankind rather than by an elite priesthood.

One Talmudic story (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59b) that highlights human interpretive authority concerns the Oven of Acre. It recounts the incidents that transpired when legal scholar and sage R. Eliezer, a recognized authority in matters of Jewish law, gave every possible argument to explain why he was right in a disagreement over an oven composed of separate clay coils. Eliezer said the oven wasn’t vulnerable to defilement though all of his peers claimed it was. Eliezer wanted to demonstrate his authority, and to suggest why the other scholars should switch their opinions to agree with his. His halachic authority was so powerful that even a carob tree recognized his authority by uprooting itself and planting itself in another location. A river recognized his authority by flowing in the opposite direction. The walls of a study house even curved inward to proclaim Elizer’s authority. And finally, a voice from heaven called down to proclaim that Eliezer was correct and the other sages were wrong. But his peers would not be moved.

R. Joshua stood up and protested: “The Torah is not in heaven!” (Deut. 30:12). We pay no attention to a divine voice because long ago at Mount Sinai You wrote in your Torah at Mount Sinai, `After the majority must one incline’. (Ex. 23:2)”

While this story seems to be saying that the majority has the right to make the rules, even when the majority is wrong, we know that ‘majority rule’ can also make mistakes. (For example, the passage of Proposition 8 in California that precluded gay men and lesbians from marriage was due to majority rule.) But the deeper meaning is that authority in matters of Jewish law comes from many voices-the voices of all of the people, and not just from an elite voice (or a majority voice) specifically trained for the task.

Some other Midrashim that help prove Torah is supposed to be accessible to everyone, although they are associated with Exodus rather than Deuteronomy, state that the Torah was given in the wilderness, rather than within any specific nation, to remain open to all people (Mechilta Bachodesh 5) and that Mount Sinai was picked as the locale for the revelation of Torah due to its lower height (Mechilta Bachodesh 4). Torah analysis is like trying to climb a mountain; it’s realistic although effort is necessary.

Moving away from Nitzavim, the Haftorah from Parashat Vayeilech (in this two-portion week), is home to a single sentence that reads like an advertisement for an affirming place of worship: My home shall be a home of prayer for all people (Isaiah 56:7). Tradition reads this to mean people who had turned away from Judaism were destined to return to the Temple and some feel it indicates Judaism actively encouraged conversion many years ago, but today it seems like an affirmation that all people, no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other difference, deserve to have a safe space to worship in.

Some years ago, when someone told me about Torah Queeries, it was a bit hard for me to believe such an initiative had been started. I was astounded that it was even possible to look at Scripture as having any affirmations for GLBT people. Today, I’m extremely grateful to the site for giving me and others a different view about it and its explicit permission (confirmed in our Torah portions) that it’s alright to look at everything from our own queer perspective