Speaking Truth in This World (Parashat Matot and Parashat Masei)

A Torah Queery reflecting on the the difficulties faced by prophets, the challenges that God brings to them.

August 1, 2008

By Rabbi Seth Goren

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Parashat Matot and Parashat Masei
Speaking Truth in This World
by Rabbi Seth Goren on Friday August 01, 2008
1 Av 5768 [Reprint]
Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

This essay was first printed in Torah Queeries on July 21, 2006.

Biblical prophets typically have a rough time. Elijah is effectively chased out of the Kingdom of Israel after being threatened with a death sentence. After attempting to avoid his mission, Jonah is swallowed by a large fish, regurgitated and forced to prophecy against Nineveh. Hulda foresees and forecasts the future destruction of Judah, while Moses’ regular encounters with rebellion and objections epitomize the challenges prophets face.

The prophet Jeremiah is no exception to this rule. G-d directs him to warn Jerusalem that its inhabitants’ immoral and unlawful behavior will lead to the city’s destruction. In the course of speaking out on G-d’s behalf, he is arrested and imprisoned. After languishing in a mud-filled cistern, he watches as Jerusalem is destroyed and goes into exile in Egypt. All in all, Jeremiah’s life as a messenger in G-d’s service is not one that most would envy.

We have a window onto Jeremiah’s experience in the two Haftarot of Admonition, paired with last week’s and this week’s Torah portions. These two haftarot, both drawn from the Book of Jeremiah, retell G-d’s initial message of Jerusalem’s impending destruction that the prophet is compelled to deliver. Although we will read only the second of these prophetic selections this Shabbat, the first describes Jeremiah’s aversion to acting as G-d’s envoy. It is not until G-d promises to be with him and to deliver him that Jeremiah sets forth on his divine mission to publicize the difficult truth that the people of Jerusalem surely cannot wish to hear.

While we might like to think that we’ve come quite a distance since biblical times, inviting people to glimpse the truth in the 21st century can be similarly challenging. Many modern religious figures take pains to render invisible the existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. For example, too many religious leaders ignore or are unaware of the nearly two-thousand-year history in Jewish texts of the gender categories “tumtum” and “androgynos,” types of gender variant people recognized in the Mishnah and Talmud (these categories refer to individuals who we would today consider to be “intersex” – born with anatomy that is neither explicitly male nor female – see “note” below for more details). We often do not want to hear about the immutable nature of sexual orientation or gender identity, as evidenced by the proliferation and ongoing existence of ex-gay groups, including the Jewish organization JONAH. Pointing out inaccuracies and fictions in these contexts is often met with bewilderment, disgust or even violence.

Nevertheless, we are obliged to speak truth on these issues. Lest we believe that the commandment to speak out applies to only Jeremiah and similarly situated prophets, we find a directive targeted at all of us in Leviticus 19:17, which instructs: “You shall not hate your kinfolk in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor so that you do not incur guilt because of him or her.” In the Mishneh Torah, Rambam clarified this passage, instructing that we have an obligation to admonish and correct others who act in error. Moreover, the last part of the verse especially holds true: all of us bear the consequences of failing to confront the homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and misandry around us. That we may be confronted with anger, rejection and denials does not refute the truth and validity of our words and experiences, nor does it relieve us of our obligation to speak out to the benefit of ourselves and others.

Certainly, there are limits on how this verse should be applied, as it would be inappropriate for us to spew tokhechah (rebuke) incessantly and omnidirectionally. Drawing on the Talmud, Rashi instructs us that we should not shame a person in public, while Shmuel bar Nachman draws a connection between reprimand and love. Along the same lines, the medieval compendium of biblical commandments, the Sefer HaChinukh (or “Book of Education”), suggests that we probe to discover the way that a particular person we are correcting is most likely to hear and comprehend our words. And of course, we continue to keep in mind the wisdom expressed by Rabbi Tarfon in the Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of Our Fathers”): “It is not our responsibility to finish the task [of repairing the world], but neither are we free to leave the status quo alone.” (Pirkei Avot 2:15)

With these caveats, we embrace our obligation to share the truth of how G-d created each of us and all of humanity. We do this with the hope that everyone will come to appreciate the full range of human identity and sexuality that G-d has gifted to human beings and that cannot be confined to narrow dichotomous definitions.

Ultimately, Jeremiah was unsuccessful in his task. The people of Jerusalem were unable to hear the truth of his words, and the city was destroyed. All the same, the words G-d spoke to Jeremiah apply to us as well:

Before I created you in the womb, I selected you
Before you were born, I consecrated you
I appointed you as a prophet for the nations. (Jeremiah 1:4)

May the way that G-d formed each of us guide us and inspire us to speak truth in this world.

NOTE: In Mishnah and Talmud, the term tumtum refers to a person with sexual organs that are neither explicitly male nor explicitly female. The term androgynos refers to a person who appears to have both male and female sexual organs. For references to these categories, see: M Bik 4:1-5, M Hag 1:1, M Naz 2:7, M Ara 1:1, B RH 29b, B BB 140b, B San 85b, MT Avod Kokh

12:1, MT Ishut 4:11, Mish Ber 38:3. For more on contemporary understandings of intersex people, go to the Web site of the  Intersex Society of North America.