AJN Letters: Gays & Celibacy + Purim & Mardi Gras – March 9 2012

9 Mar 2012
The Australian Jewish News Sydney edition

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Adapting the Torah to reflect values

SOME of our rabbis seem to expect celibacy from those who are gay. Is this the compassion we would like from spiritual leaders?

We now know that homosexuality has been found among animal species, so we cannot confidently state that it is a personal choice.

Gays are all part of creation. Can those of us who are not gay comfortably sit back and tell gays, it is forbidden for you to follow your instincts but we, who consider ourselves normal, can enjoy them? After all, is the Torah not full of death sentences for what we nowadays regard as not so serious?

Is it possible to mistake the meaning of the Torah? Perhaps it was constructed for its time, it being assumed that later generations would have the knowledge and skills to read it in a new light.

Or it might it be an inspired manmade work reflecting the values of its time, to be reassessed with every century. Should we be using the Torah to make life barely tolerable for a sub-stantial minority? I know I cannot.

Bentleigh East, Vic

Misrepresenting the meaning of Purim

PROFESSOR David Shneer (“Pride and prejudice ….and Purim” AJN 02/03) woefully distorts the Purim message.

Applying phrases to Judaism like “the holiness of transgression” (sic.) and “revelling in worldly pleasures” do nothing, in my opinion, to enhance his credibility as a serious writer on Jewish themes. Nor for that matter does his risible invocation of the name of the Rambam in spurious support of his views.

To quote the Rambam: “The Torah states (Lev. 18:2) ‘after the actions of Egypt … you shall in no way do’ Our sages commented ‘ what perversions did they do in Egypt? A man would marry a man and a woman a woman.…’”(rambam, Hilchot Isurei Bi’ah 21:8).

The reason for disguising ourselves on Purim is to hide our true identity. Just as Queen Esther was deemed by all to be part of the problem and ended up being part of the solution, so do we masquerade as the opposite of what we truly are. Nothing to do with any “redemptive potential of masquerade” or “see(ing) the infinite possibility … in each experience”. Disguises incidentally also help us carry out optimally the mitzvot of the day, namely gifts to the poor (which the Rambam says is best done anonymously) and giving token food gifts to one’s friends (which one might be embarassed to do ordinarily).

In the English language the word “pride” has two antonyms: “shame” and“modesty”.in Judaism,pride as the opposite of shame is a worthy virtue. However, as the reverse of modesty, pride is viewed negatively. Traditionally, Purim disguises will never leave large areas of body flesh exposed as in a certain other annual carnival.

There is indeed no point of connection between Purim and Mardi Gras.

One can only hope that Professor Shneer’s piece was intended as an early purimshpiel.

Bondi Junction, NSW

Pride and prejudice … and Purim | AJN

2 Mar 2012
The Australian Jewish News Melbourne edition

Pride and prejudice … and Purim

Given our historic struggle against discrimination, as Jews we can relate to the struggle of those who suffer prejudice as a result of their sexual orientation, according to Professor David Shneer. And Purim, he says, provides the perfect opportunity to show our solidarity.

IN the northern hemisphere, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people annually commemorate and celebrate the June 1969 Stonewall Riots, in which patrons at the Stonewall Inn in New York City said “no” to another police raid of a gay bar, and started a three-day pitched street battle, which some call the first open display of gay political street activism.

In 1969, patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York rioted after an unprovoked police raid.

Since 1969, those gays, then gays and lesbians, and now LGBTI people along with their friends, family, and allies commemorate this historic event with parades, festivals, and marches.

It was convenient that those angry people, fed up with police brutality, rebelled against it in the US summer of 1969. Who wants to march in an annual commemoration parade in the middle of winter (although Americans and their Puritanical selves seem to have a fondness for frigid Christmas parades in winter).

In Australia, it proved too much to continue marching to commemorate Stonewall in the winter, so in the early 1980s, the commemoration was moved to February and March and called Mardi Gras, coinciding with the Christian carnival of celebration before the long, hard period of selfabnegation called Lent. Over the last 30 years, Mardi Gras has become, like its cousins up north, perhaps less political and certainly more commercial. (After all, when the Australian Tourism Board supports it, you know it has become commercial.)

In the United States, June has become pride month, even at the federal level, as the Obamas host a Gay Pride Party. As good Americans, Jewish communities began figuring out how to incorporate June’s gay pride month as something significant for Jews as Jews, not simply as gays who happen to be Jewish.

Since the early days of the Stonewall Riots, gay and lesbian synagogues held “Pride Shabbat” events to coincide with local parades in the metropolitan areas that had gay synagogues like New York, London, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. More than 10 years ago, Progressive synagogues began holding their own Pride Shabbats as a way of showing that they were open and welcoming of LGBTI Jews, and the trend has only increased.

In 2012, in Denver, Colorado, no bastion of American progressivism, Keshet, the national LGBTI Jewish organisation, will hold its fourth annual “Pride Seder” over Passover, with more than 150 attendees and cosponsorship from such “radical” organisations as the Anti-defamation League, the august Reform Temple Emanuel, and several Conservative synagogues. In June, it will host a community-wide Pride Shabbat event, again with co-sponsorship from most major Jewish institutions, aside from Orthodox ones, who are still reluctant to be publicly supportive of LGBTI Jewish celebrations even if they are more and more supportive of LGBTI Jews.

June is a tough sell on the Jewish calendar, but an easy sell conceptually to the Jewish community. After all, pride celebrations are primarily about political and civil rights, something that Jews are all too familiar with. In the late 18th century, the United States and the French Republic granted Jewish men citizenship, forever establishing the idea that Jews should be grateful to other citizens for the idea of their political and civil rights. In 1948, a group of countries called the United Nations granted Jews a nation-state, forever establishing the idea that Jews should be grateful to other nation-states for Israel’s creation and potential survival. Jews know something about feeling like guests in other peoples’ countries and, at their best, embrace political and civil rights for other people denied those rights, no matter the denomination of the Jew. Because Pride is generally organised around political and civil rights, it is not challenging for Jewish communities to support these celebrations.

But in Australia, Jewish communities have an opportunity to do something more profound – engage Mardi Gras on Judaism’s terms through the lens of Purim. Purim is, after all, Judaism’s Mardi Gras, its fat holiday of carnivalesque celebration. But unlike Christian Mardi Gras, a day of transgression before the real work of bodily discipline, for Jews, Purim is at its core about the holiness of transgression and, in the words of Rabbi Elliot Kukla, “the redemptive potential of masquerade”. The rabbinic adage that on Purim Jews are commanded to drink “until you do not know (ad delo yada),” is about releasing Jews from their social norms to see the infinite possibility in each person and in each experience.

Like Yom Kippur (or as the rabbis punned on it in Hebrew, yom ha-kippurim, a day like Purim), Jews suspend our daily rituals and our daily realities.

On Yom Kippur, we do this by abstaining, and on Purim we do this by revelling in worldly pleasures. Even the Rambam recognised how important Purim was to the future health of Jews and Judaism as he dreamed about the Messianic age when: “All prophetic books and the Sacred Writings will cease to be recited in public during the Messianic era except the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist just as the five books of the Torah … will never cease.”

This year, Mardi Gras and Purim fall in the same week, a clear sign to take seriously the sages’ call to break down boundaries and celebrate hidden identities. So, no matter your religious background, level of observance, or denominational affiliation, get out and celebrate this Mardi Gras. The Rambam wouldn’t have it any other way.

Professor David Shneer is director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Queer Jews. He recently visited Australia as a keynote speaker for the annual Australian Association for Jewish Studies Conference.

Talk on Judaism and Homosexuality @ Shira Hadasha – Feb 10, 6:30pm

Friday night speakers Feb 10th, 6.30pm On Friday night before Kab Shab, Shira is hosting David Shneer and Gregg Drinkwater for a short talk about Judaism and Homosexuality. David and Gregg, married, are two of the three editors of  Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. David is a Professor of History and the Director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado.  Called “taboo-breaking” by Tikkun magazine, Shneer’s work concentrates on modern Jewish society and culture. There is no charge for this event – join us at 6.30pm.

David Shneer and Gregg Drinkwater are guests of the Monash ACJC Conference, 12th and 13th Feb. Learn more about the conference on their website here.

Contact details for Shira Hadasha at www.shira.org.au.

ACJC @ Monash: Summer Lecture Series – Reading the Bible through a bent lens

ACJC @ Monash: Summer Lecture Series – Reading the Bible through a bent lens.

    • When
      Tuesday, 14 February 2012
    • Time
      19:30 until 21:30
  • Where
    H1.25 H Building, Monash University Caulfield Campus, 900 Dandenong Road
  • Description
    Professor David Shneer and Gregg Drinkwater:
    Reading the Bible Through a Bent Lens – An Evening with the Editors of Torah QueeriesJoin the co-editors of Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible for an interactive presentation inspired by this groundbreaking collection of Torah commentary from NYU Press. What does it mean to ‘queer’ the Torah? What insights might an LGBT perspective bring to the Bible? What can non-LGBT allies learn from the book’s rich perspectives on Judaism’s most sacred text?Professor David Shneer: Holds the chair of Jewish history at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He researches questions of contemporary Jewish identity and his books include Queer Jews, New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora, Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War and the Holocaust.Gregg Drinkwater: Prior to joining Keshet, Gregg was the director of Jewish Mosaic and one of the organisation’s three co-founders. He is the co-editor, with David Shneer and Rabbi Joshua Lesser, of the book Torah Queeries: Weekly commentaries on the Hebrew Bible inspired by the online Torah commentary project launched by Jewish Mosaic in 2006Admission: $10