I'm Jon Spira-Savett, rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. This website and blog is a resource for Jewish learning and Jewish action. It is a way to share my thoughts beyond my classes and weekly Divrei Torah. You'll find blog posts, standing resource pages with links and things to read, and podcasts as well.
This isn’t the absolute center of the issue around abortion and the Supreme Court. But the issues in this article in Slate are important, particularly as the Court has ruled also this week in the Maine school case and potentially will soon rule in the high school coach prayer case. The headline is both spot on and misleading; this isn't only about Jews.
A few things:
1. Just to emphasize the main point, which is that after whatever restricts are ratified by the Supreme Court, whether at 15 weeks or all the way back to six weeks or conception – there are religious people who will be forced to choose between religious dictates that in certain cases don’t just allow but require an abortion and the law of a state that forbids it in those very cases. Will the same Court that has been carving out religious exceptions to laws do so again for this, or say something like “life is different”?
2. The First Amendment uses the language of “free exercise of religion.” Dahlia Lithwick and Micah Schwartzman circle the issue of what “exercise” means. I haven’t done the research into the origin of the term, but it certainly means more than “obligation” or “avoidance of grave sin.” The article they rebut by Professor Josh Blackman suggests that only people who can point to a religious authority from which/from whom/from Whom they get strict commands should be able to claim that they are “exercising” their religion. Incredibly, Professor Blackman suggests that Christian sin and Orthodox Jewish commandedness are the twin paradigms, and other liberal Christianities and Judaisms don’t measure up. Those two are hardly the same. I’m amazed how Christianity, with its original critique of “the law”, could somehow have become equivalent in this way to Orthodox Judaism.
3. But the Constitution doesn’t say “freedom to follow one’s binding religious obligations.” It just says “free exercise.” And as the Supreme Court has repeatedly found, defining what is and isn’t a religion is really hard. The Constitution presumably was protecting people whose religions were not modeled on the dominant paradigms of the time – because they didn’t have the same notions of sin or authority, or the same structure. And of course American conservatives have been arguing that anyone with an individual, sincere belief is protecting when they are following it by the free exercise clause. To his credit, Professor Blackman suggests that is too broad. To his debit, he suggests tests, like whether there is some kind of external reference point that a person’s belief or exercise is valid.
4. I wish we had even one justice who was religious but not theologically conservative, who could bring an insider perspective. Much as I admire my fellows Jews Justices Breyer and Kagan, and much as I admired Justice Ginsburg z”l, they just don’t and didn’t “get” a lot of religion. Obviously they are not writing with great understanding of evangelical or Catholic Christians. But they are not writing with understanding of Jews like me either, even when they are trying to be allies. They get/got the outsider part, but not the religious part. I am not at all arguing that such a Justice would need to be Jewish. A Justice Mario Cuomo, for instance, would have been fascinating.
When the same passage of Torah comes at you from four different sources the same week, you have to pay attention.
I always look forward to Parashat B’haalotcha because it’s the start of the frisky Torah, the Torah of complaining. It’s the beginning of the Torah’s textbook on group dynamics once the community of Israel starts moving out from Sinai toward the promised land. It’s easy to see our groups in these next few Torah readings. That’s the lens I usually bring. But I was thinking particularly this week about Pride Month, and I had said that I’d speak related to that on this Shabbat, since I plan to be away next week. And from some Torah e-mails I subscribe to and podcasts and such, about four times I found myself face-to-face with this from the parasha:
It was the first anniversary of the Exodus and Moshe instructed the people to observe Pesach and to offer the Pesach sacrifice. Then this (Numbers 9:6-8):
"There were people who were ta’meh [usually translated “impure” but we’ll get back to that] -- ta’meh for the human soul." And they were not able to do the Pesach on that day. So they came up close in front of Moshe and in front of Aharon on that day. And these people say to him: We are ta’meh for the human soul. Why are we held back, why are we subtracted, from bring close the close-up offering of the Divine in its time among the Children of Yisrael? And Moshe said to them: Stand, and I will hear what the Divine will command for you."
Lamah ni’gara. Why are we subtracted. Why are we not included.
We, who are in a state of tum’ah for life of a person. This requires some elaboration. At first blush this group seem to be held away from the Sanctuary because they had recently been in contact with a dead body and need to go through a purification ritual and the passage of a certain amount of time.
Tradition broadens the interpretation to all matters of tohora and tum’ah, which are usually translated as “purity” and “impurity.” Better to understand them, however, in terms of our embodied human experience and our attraction to the Divine.
Tum’ah and tohora are all about cycles and blood and child-birth and intimacy. These are intensely spiritual and we experience them through our bodies, our gender, our sexuality, our relationships. How is it, they ask Moshe, that these would take us away from Pesach. Why should we be the ones deprived of the Pesach offering -- the offering of freedom, the sacrifice whose blood is compared to the blood of the covenant. How could our embodied experience cause us to be held back from the Divine Sanctuary, the holiest place.
We aren’t complaining to you, Moshe, like the others who kvetch about the desert food or challenge your leadership. We’re not complaining about you or your religion or your rituals or your teachings. On the contrary, we want in. We want it all, b’moado b’toch b’nai Yisrael --at its proper time, in the midst of all the community of Yisrael. Lamah ni’gara. Why should we be substracted. Why should we not be included.
I think we can see something even in their phrasing -- "we are tam’eh to the soul of a person". Move from seeing us as “impure”, toward seeing us as “the soul of a person.”
Moshe according to one commentary says to them: I am over the moon that you asked this question of me, and that you want this question asked of the Divine. And I too want to hear what the Divine has to say.
And the answer that came back at the time of our ancestors is what we call Pesach Sheni, a second Pesach. The message they understood, as recorded in the Torah written at that time, is that one month later, anyone who was ta’meh come and do the Pesach offering one month later, exactly as would have been done at its scheduled time. Not only they, but anyone who was on a journey too far away or someone who is a ger, a person within the community but who has not yet become a full citizen of the community. Each of you can do Pesach Sheni. This is how you will be included.
The Talmud says that being distant doesn’t mean just far, far away. Even someone who at the time of Pesach is just a step outside the area of the Temple where the sacrifice is done is far enough away for Pesach Sheni. If you’re not quite inside, physically. If you’re not let in, or don’t feel let in by the community, or if you’re not quite ready to come in fully -- you still are entitled to Pesach, to the celebration of the covenant.
I have been mulling over whether this Pesach Sheni is the answer to the question lama ni’gara, why are we not included. Part of me hears this as a bit of separate but equal, or as still “we” insiders who celebrate Pesach together on time and you others who will include with us.
So many of our people who are lesbian or gay or bisexual, transgender or intersex or nonbinary or queer, or any truer description that I still strain to know and understand -- so many have asked nothing more or less than to be b’toch b’nai Yisrael, to be part of the community of Israel full stop. Not to have to frame the matter in terms of lama ni’gara, why are we not included, how can we be included. To have to ask that way means we still are incomplete.
And the Torah recognizes this, because at the end of the teaching of Pesach Sheni the Torah says: chukkah achat yih’yeh lachem. One law there will be for all of you. As if to say -- Whatever you have just read, it is not one Torah for all of us yet. There is work yet to do. Keep working on it, now and in future generations.
This Pesach Sheni is a step forward, a step of inclusion, and it is not the final answer. Somehow, our Sanctuary needs to be spacious enough for all our people, for people who experience in all different ways love and intimacy and longing and connection. Who in all different ways understand ourselves as the image of God in our bodies and genders and sexualities and gender identities.Where no one of those is the norm that others have to be compared to and have to ask to be included around, or justified in terms of.
That part of the Torah reading spoke about people coming close, toward the Sanctuary where the altar and the Ark were. A bit later in the parasha, we read how the Ark with the tablets of the covenant would go out into battle with the people, and then come to rest when battle would pause or end.
The Talmud teaches that the biblical ark had both the broken tablets that Moshe had shattered after the Golden Calf, and the new set of whole tablets Moshe had carved on the mountain. Rabbi Yehudah ben Lakish taught that the whole tablets would stay back in the Holy of Holies, while the broken tablets would go out into battle.
It is so important for Torah to go out with us, as we battle to defend the lives of transgender youth, and all LGBTQ+ young people. As we battle for the rights and reputations of caring adults in schools who listen to them and try to be their mentors and advocates. As we battle against those trying to pit parents against teachers. It is so important for us to carry our religion into this battle, because others battle with theirs and claim to speak for God. So we have to speak in the name of our covenant as well.
It is so important as we do so to recognize that we are marching with broken tablets. That our own Judaism is not yet whole, we have not finished doing teshuvah for the ways we have not seen, for the times we have not stood by queer people of all ages and their family members. We have to carry honestly the broken hearts of our own community, the mourning over opportunities to do better and care better that we missed over the decades. When we work on matters of justice and safety and wellbeing for LGBTQ+ people in our lives, when we battle, we have to hold close the broken times, and our own brokenheartedness about times in the past we’ve each fallen short and our community and Judaism have fallen short.
It is so important to think about the ways the traditions of our past need to be creatively broken and rebuilt. The Talmud in one place praises Moshe for breaking the tablets. Because anything we have written down no matter how inspired is incomplete and could be used to shut down our vision, to say that this much progress is all we need. We need to challenge ourselves to see more like the Divine sees, to see every expression of human love and connection as an image of Divine ahavah v’chesed (love).
The broken tablets go out into battle, because it’s by fighting out of Divine love that we learn how to repair them. It’s by going out and learning from other communities that are full of love, religious and secular communities, that we find the light that helps us see better what is hidden in the crevices of the covenant we already have. It’s by going out with our tablets that we bring them and bring ourselves, who have in the past wondered if our covenant was at war with them. To them, we bring what is broken and ask to work together to refashion them and refashion ourselves together.
Our movement of Conservative Judaism has been confronting our brokenness over sexual orientation and gender identity for the past three decades. Every since possibly the lowest point our movement has ever touched in 1992, when I was a rabbinical student and watched the shameful deliberations on stage in the Seminary auditorium -- which slammed the door on lesbian and gay Jews seeking to live openly in our communities. To fifteen years ago last winter, when our Committee on Jewish Law and Standards made it possible for gay and lesbian Jews to become our rabbis, to have intimacy,to marry.
Even then, we only as a movement could talk about the G and the L. We have been trying to catch up since then, including in our shul and including myself. It’s not only ritual and rabbinical status, but relationships and love and intentionality in every realm. From changing the nomenclature on our membership forms to listening to young people we educate to changing our assumptions about people we meet of any age. I am still learning the language, carrying broken tablets, figuring out which ones to break still and refashion. I am proud, and more than that I am grateful, that we have lay leaders who have taken the intiative to make sure we have a Pride Shabbat as a matter of course, and that this year for the first time we will march and have a table at our city’s Pride Festival next weekend. What a way to carry the ark of our covenant where it needs to be seen, where its power is so needed.
I try to look at my own kids with wonder and openness, and to wait for them each to tell me I’m queer or straight, rather than make assumptions. And indeed I try to look at each of you that way too, not to assume what I don’t know.
Each of us carries Divine love, for us, and through us for others. Each of us, young and old, has our own way, spiritual and embodied all at once, to love and connect, to yearn and commit. We are all in the center. We are all part of the same covenant at the same time. We are all blessed.