Counting Until We’re Over the Rainbow
Dorothy’s lucky she went beyond Auntie Em’s advice, refusing simply to find “a place where there isn’t any trouble”; instead, she and her friends, her chosen family, sought and discovered a place to be accepted and celebrated as their full, authentic selves. Avoiding trouble represents the bare minimum. Tolerance is just surviving the tornado, before opening the door to a saturated, rainbow world of going “both ways” and horses of different colors and shoes made of glitter. A place where there isn’t any trouble: That’s preservation of body and breath, provision of basic needs, and protection from harm and discrimination.
It’s what folks mean when they say “tolerance.” I — and most of the other queer folks I know — am not after tolerance. From my own community, I’m after acceptance, and from the broader nation where I live, I’m after justice.
My experience as an out, queer Reform Rabbi and a gender studies scholar has proved over and over again that tolerance falls far short of what LGBTQ+ people need to thrive. Queer Jews who love Torah — in all its permutations and expressions, all its denominational variations — long to know that our lives are not consolation prizes. When LGBTQ lives are tolerated as exceptions, but not celebrated as exemplars of meaningful Jewish lives, our humanity is diminished.
This week, the Jewish community around the world reads Kedoshim, a section of the Torah that includes a verse that has been contorted to justify violence (of all kinds) against queer folks:
וְאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשְׁכַּ֤ב אֶת־זָכָר֙ מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֔ה תּוֹעֵבָ֥ה עָשׂ֖וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֑ם מ֥וֹת יוּמָ֖תוּ דְּמֵיהֶ֥ם בָּֽם׃
“If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death — their bloodguilt is upon them” (Vayikra/Leviticus 20:13).
Much commentary on this passage’s strange grammar, historical context, and interpretation through time, exists; for example, the work of Rabbi Nancy Wiener, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, and scholars cited in Torah Que(e)ries are all excellent places to seek queer-inclusive grapplings with this harsh and troubling verse.
I’d love to go to a place where there isn’t any trouble for us queers. I’d love to have inherited a religious, spiritual, emotional, psychological, and national belonging (or, perhaps, series of belongings) that always and already affirmed the way I live and love.
But even if there is such a place, it turns out that, like Dorothy, I’d rather be somewhere over the rainbow.
This Shabbat, queer folks — closeted, out, hurting, traumatized, happy, supported, dependent, interdependent, disabled, all colors of the rainbow in every single way — in synagogues and Jewish communities will hear that verse. One of them might be the anonymous young adult who authored “A Prayer for Safety,” published recently in Mishkan Ga’avah Where Pride Dwells: A Celebration of LGBTQ Jewish Life and Ritual, which reads, in part: “God, place me in a safe environment where I do not need to fear for my safety when I am with my significant other” (CCAR Press, p 15).
And what will the rabbi, the cantor, the communal leaders, say to that young person in the congregation? What does the parent of the queer child say when they tentatively come out for the first time? What do teachers say when children ask my son, for the dozenth time, “Why don’t you have a dad?”*
In the Jewish calendar, we are in the period of sefirat haomer, the counting of the Omer, a time of introspection and remembrance, a tenuous time leading up to the summer wheat harvest and the holiday of Shavuot, when our people received the Torah at Mount Sinai. The same Torah that contains the words that too many people misuse to cover their responsibility for the hardships and discrimination and rejection and harm the queer community endures. The same Torah that also tells us we must strive to be holy and just and loving:
וְכַרְמְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תְעוֹלֵ֔ל וּפֶ֥רֶט כַּרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֣א תְלַקֵּ֑ט לֶֽעָנִ֤י וְלַגֵּר֙ תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֔ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
“You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Eternal am your God” (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:10).
לֹא־תְקַלֵּ֣ל חֵרֵ֔שׁ וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל וְיָרֵ֥אתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
“You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Eternal” (ibid. v. 14).
כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God” (ibid. v. 34).
All of these are justices we yet await in our contemporary society, no matter where we live on this globe. As my teacher and colleague, Rabbi Dan Smokler, asserts, these holinesses are aspirational.
What is asked of us, as a Jewish community, and I would urge, as human beings, is to constantly worked toward a place beyond the “place where there isn’t any trouble.” What is asked of us is to aspire, always, to head over the rainbow.
How apt a reminder, then, to count the Omer each and every day. Because our practice, in this season, is not to “count down” to that joyous and overwhelming experience of receiving Torah, to that life-sustaining labor of bringing in the wheat harvest. The practice of counting the Omer is one of counting up and looking back. Tonight, after the sun sets on this 6th day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar, we will recite: “Today is twenty-two days, which is three weeks and one day of the Omer.”
Today is April 30th, 2020, the 48th day of our family’s isolation, which is 6 weeks and 5 days of the time of COVID. Here we are. And this is where we have been. We are weary and we are resilient. And we want to get further. We need to make it over the rainbow.
It would be nice if our destination were precisely 49 days from the first step of our journeys: 7 times 7, like the weeks of the Omer. But that’s not how justice is going to work, in these days, in our time. The redemption I await has not happened yet. For the queer community, justice will come only when we all aspire to make it beyond tolerance, over the rainbow.
*For the record, my children’s current school is fairly forward-thinking on LGBTQ+ inclusion, and willing to listen to our concerns and suggestions.