by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom, Chaverim—
I don’t think I could have chosen a better Torah portion for tonight’s Pride Shabbat than this week’s reading, Shelach L’cha. It describes the episode of Moses sending spies to go scope out the promised land of Canaan. Twelve scouts are chosen, one from each tribe, and off they go. They find abundant and humongous produce and describe the land as “flowing with milk and honey.” Alas, they also see that there are lots of big, powerful tribes living in the land. In reaction to the large, scary nature of the locals, ten of the spies report that despite the fecundity of the land, the mission is doomed; that in the presence of the folks already living there they felt like grasshoppers in their own eyes and in the eyes of the inhabitants. This freaks out the Israelites, who cry out, “Surely it is better for us to go back to Egypt!” However, two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, step forward and say, “Calm down people, we’ve got this.”
I see Joshua and Caleb in every queer pioneer who refused to let fear and dread rule their life, who refused to go back into the closet once they had gotten free of it, and who, through their faith and courage, strode boldly into spaces that were loaded with both promises and potholes. I think of Gertrude Stein, z’’l, and Alice B. Toklas, z’’l, who managed to live life on their own terms in the midst of both avant garde Paris and the Nazi occupation of France; I remember the fed up drag queens who took on the the NYC vice squad on June 28 ,1969; I think of Leslie Feinberg, z’’l, who took matters of gender into her/hir/his hands, while always making the connection to race, class and Jewishness; I think of Harvey Milk, z’’l, who made history by being an out elected official; I honor Jason Collins, the first openly gay professional American team sport athlete. Like Joshua and Caleb there have always been a small number of queer folks who have held on fiercely to the unpopular belief that despite the dangers it is better to strive towards a life of abundance than to choose the closet.
This week I have spent a few days in the promised land of SVARA’s Queer Talmud Camp, where a most delightful group of seekers convene every year to immerse ourselves in words of Torah. We are multi-generational, presenting different kinds of bodies, identities and abilities, coming from diverse backgrounds, cultures and classes—what we all share is a desire to own Jewish tradition, to enter and inhabit its textual promised land. Many of us had previously scouted out this world, coming back from a range of traditional yeshivot or batei midrash feeling that we were a pestilence, an unwanted intrusion there. But with vision and love, a few optimistic and persistent visionaries have manifested a yeshiva suitable for all who want a place at the study table. It is hardcore and dignified, spiritual and grounded, challenging and encouraging, and most of all respectful of the gifts each quirky, inquisitive, queer person brings to the collective wisdom that is unfolding in Judaism.
May we all share a taste of the world to come this Pride Shabbat. And may we put our trust in courage, vision, and love—the navigational tools that help us stay on the course towards a healthy, just, and abundant world. Let freedom ring!