In honor of Pride Month, this drash was originally delivered at the Friday Night Shabbat service on June 10th. Entitled “Judaism Is Kinda Gay,” Rabbi Steven shares three queer Jewish stories from our tradition. Mishkan invites you to our upcoming Pride programming, including a Pre-Shabbat Pride Happy Hour and Pride-Themed Friday Night Shabbat on June 24th. We will also be in the Chicago Pride Parade on June 26th — march with us!
So Judaism is kind of gay.
This might surprise you, given the ways in which certain verses of the Torah have been used to justify persecution of the LGBTQ+ community. (We can have a conversation about how poorly understood these sections of the Hebrew Bible are another time). Because today I want to focus on something a bit more fun: when our sacred texts get really queer.
Here’s the thing. We don’t notice what we’re not looking for. So if you don’t EXPECT to find gay stuff in the Torah or Talmud, you won’t find it. But if you look at these texts through — let’s call it — a rainbow lens, you’ll be surprised how much is there waiting to be discovered. Rabbi Benay Lappe (who some of you may know, and has been an amazing ally and friend to our community) calls these “donkey stories.” Can you tell me how many donkeys there are in the Torah? A LOT. But we don’t notice them, because we’re not donkeys. However, if a donkey sat down to read the Torah they would immediately recognize each and every donkey in the story (even the donkeys not explicitly mentioned!). It’s not that the donkey is inserting donkeys where no donkey was before. It’s just that they are more attuned to all the donkeys that exist within and at the edge of the narrative. In the same way, queer folks are not reading themselves into the text — we are just aware of the fact that we are in the text, and always have been.
There are lots of queer Jewish stories out there, but here are my three favorite gay moments in our tradition.
1. Adam = Eve
The first is at the very beginning. “And God created adam – the first human – in the divine image, in the image of God adam was created – male and female god created them.” The rabbis are puzzled by this verse. First, it talks about a single human being created — and then it seems to speak about multiple people (or at least multiple genders). Second, we have a second narrative in the very next chapter that tells us how another human – Chava – was created from the side of this first person. So what’s up? Well clearly, the first human is intersex! The rabbis explain that adam was a diasprospophone: an individual with two faces, and four arms, and four legs, and a penis, and a vagina – and that later, in that second chapter, when God realizes that this human is lonely, decides to split them in half so that they might have a companion.
Although their understanding of sex and gender is different than our own, the rabbis actually conceive of six different identities including intersex folks and individuals who are nonbinary. Pretty gay, right?
2. Dinah = Butch
The second can be found a little later in the Torah. Let’s set the stage. Jacob is married to two women (oh hey, polyamory): Leah and Rachel. They happen to be sisters. And they happen to feel a little tension toward each other, especially as they begin to have children. Now in their race to have the most children, both Leah and Rachel have also given their slaves Bilhah and Ziplah as concubines to Jacob. So here’s the count: Leah has six sons. Bilhah and Zilpah each have two sons. And Rachel has none. Because #patriarchy, sons are a status symbol in the ancient near east. Both Leah and Rachel are pregnant, and Leah – being kinda of prescient – both knows she is about to have a male child AND knows that Jacob is only destined to have 12 sons (the future twelve tribes of Israel). And even though she doesn’t always get along with her sister, she wants to ensure that Rachel is on at least equal footing to Bilhah and Zilpah. So she prays. And the rabbis use her prayer as proof that prayer is effective, that it actually makes a difference in our lives because in utero the sex of the children changes: Leah’s child becomes female, and Rachel’s child becomes male. But here’s the thing. The rabbis say: the souls of the children remain the same. How do we know? Well the rabbis bring proof texts. Dinah, Leah’s daughter, is SUPER butch. She doesn’t want to stay in the camp, with the other women – she wants to explore, she wants to get out and see the world just like her father Jacob. And Joseph, Rachel’s son? Super femme. I mean, have you seen his amazing technicolor dream coat?
So there we go: Dinah, original butch lesbian, and Joseph, momala of drag.
3. R’Yochanan = Bisexual Icon
And here’s the last one I’m going to share. This one comes from the Talmud. We have two main characters. The first is Reish Lakish. He’s a total bad boy, former gladiator turned bandit. The second is Rabbi Yochanan. Besides being one of the greatest Torah scholars of his generation, Yochanan was also beautiful. Like there are entire sections of the Talmud devoted to telling us how stunning he was. So stunning in fact, that he would sit outside the bathhouse so that any pregnant person who saw him would be so affected by his beauty that their children would be just as handsome. Now one day, Rabbi Yochanan was bathing in the river. Reish Lakish, being out and about doing bandit stuff, sees him. And he is INTO him. So much so, that he jumps fully clothed into the river. Rabbi Yochanan looks at Reish Lakish and says, that kind of passion would be well applied to the study of Torah. And Reish Lakish responds, that kind of beauty is one normally reserved for women. Now some folks want to see this story as Reish Lakish mistaking Rabbi Yochanan for a woman – after all, he ends up marrying Rabbi Yochanan’s sister. Yeah, I’m not buying that. Reish Lakish? Bisexual icon.
It might seem a bit indulgent to share these stories, to laugh and find joy at a time when there is so much brokenness in the world around us. It’s true: the LGBTQ+ community is under attack, and those that hate us are coming for our most vulnerable — trans folks, and especially our trans children. But celebration can be an incredible act of resistance against a world that tries to make us smaller, a world that would have us disappear. Pride is loud, and colorful, and sexy, and gay in all sense of the word because it is the refusal to go back in the closet. Of course, our resistance should include advocacy and action. And our resistance also comes in the form of celebrating ourselves, openly and without shame, of finding joy when others would have us despair and give up. So yes, there is work to be done. Yes, there are revolutions to be had. Pride is a riot. But the riot can and should be joyful.
My blessing for all of us this Pride, whether you are LGBTQ+ or an ally, is that when the world tells us to be small we come out — bigger, and bolder, and louder, and more queer, and more lesbian, and more gay, and more trans, and more nonbinary, and more Jewish, and more filled with joy than before.