Queer Wisdom for Pandemic Holidays
In the beforetimes, we took the subway everywhere, and one day, weary from walking and playing on the HighLine, my child and I sat on a bench beneath the city, waiting for our train. Suddenly, he reached over to me, crying. “That person touched my hair,” he said, sounding scared and uncertain, pointing to a young woman sitting next to us.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Did you just touch my son’s hair?” The woman smiled and nodded, adding, “It’s gorgeous!”
Everything in my upbringing as a “polite” white Catholic girl told me to smile and brush this off. Yet, next to me, my child sat, confused and crying. This complete stranger had violated his physical boundaries. It didn’t really matter what this individual’s intentions might have been, and it certainly didn’t matter that her unsought-for opinion about my son’s hair was positive. What he felt in that moment was real, true, and unquestionable: nonconsensual touch by a stranger.
“In the future, you should not touch someone’s child, or touch a stranger like that at all,” I said, as gently as I could manage, since social conditioning is hard to overcome.
“I just liked his hair,” she said defensively.
“I hear you, but imagine how you would feel if a complete stranger on the subway started stroking your hair.”
I would have left it there: Boundary drawn. Mistake highlighted. Advice given.
Then a totally different woman, seated far from me on the edge of the bench, shouted, “This is what’s wrong with the world today! No one can be kind anymore!”
As an adult convert, I’m now a Jewish woman with hutzpah (some translate it “audacity”; others, “cheek”; me, “self-confidence that pisses off small-minded people”), so I didn’t leave it there. “I’m the parent. He’s a child. No one touches his body without his consent. This doesn’t require your opinion. I will always defend my child’s boundary.”
Those of us who deeply value consent and bodily autonomy — those of us who refuse to force our children to hug their relatives and who tell strangers in no uncertain terms that their touches and their catcalls are unwanted, unwarranted, and unethical — have long known this kind of criticism. It comes from people on the street and at the grocery store, and it comes from uncles and cousins; it comes around the proverbial water cooler, and it comes at the “Thanksgiving”* table.
As a woman, a feminist, a Jew, and a queer person, I have extensive experience in setting and keeping boundaries that seem to others countercutural and offensive. Disabled folx, trans and nonbinary people, people of color — countless groups whose very existence belies the ways in which society limits freedom and self-acutalization and growth and meaning — also understand this need to set boundaries with others who accuse us of “making a big deal out of nothing” or “being difficult” or “being disloyal to the family and its traditions.”
This so-called “Holiday Season” (for the record, I consider both the period of time between the fall Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Simchat Torah, and the spring festival of Passover, to be my “holiday seasons”), it seems that those who previously thought of yourselves as just plain “people” are beginning to understand the challenge, and the crucial importance, of setting and maintaining boundaries with strangers and family members alike.
Now that we’re all facing the same dilemma, let me say: Setting and maintaining boundaries is hard. I’m not always good at it, especially when it comes to myself. I’ve always found it easier to enforce the boundaries that protect my students and my children. But as a member of many denigrated groups, and after years of therapy, self-development, and discernment of my values, I no longer shy away from this work, even when it’s hard.
Even our ancestors, if we take the Torah as our evidence, had a hard time with family boundaries. In last week’s Torah portion alone, in just one family, we hear of deceptions and crossings of all sorts: A wife and son trick their husband/father into making the younger son the heir, despite societal rules that say it must be the elder son. The elder brother vows to murder the younger. The younger brother avoids negotiating or resolving the boundaries he himself crossed by tricking the father by running away into the wilderness. With an ambiguous kiss (or was it a bite) and a show of military strength, the elder brother forgives the younger, but only when it becomes clear that they’re totally going their separate ways… forever. And, after even more trickery, the trickster younger brother eventually, in this week’s portion, sneaks out of his father-in-law’s place in the middle of the night, taking his wifes and his concubines (sex workers? wives? servants? victims?) and his kids and his flocks with him. Eventually, these two also resolve their conflict by staking separate territory and basically never speaking to one another again. No reunions for Rachel and Leah and their dad, no Thanksgiving dinners or Passover seders.
Suffice it to say that I don’t think Jacob, his parents Isaac and Leah, his brother Esau, his father-in-law Laban, or his wives, official and unofficial, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah, do a great job of articulating and maintaining their boundaries with integrity or honesty. They also, it should not go unsaid, lived in a world where boundaries were strict and the consequences for crossing them life or death.
In many ways, the great challenge of being human, and especially humans created in God’s image (that’s everyone!) with a particular relationship to the experience of moving from hated stranger to beloved community member (in this case, that’s the Jewish people) is to learn to discern, draw, and heed boundaries. It’s why Jews bless God for Their “abundant love” (ahava rabba אהבה רבה) expressed not through affection, but through acts of care an intention and through the giving of Torah.
Some folks like to think of Judaism as a religion of Law, and might refer to Torah as “the Law of Moses” or “God’s law.” But the word “Torah” (תורה) actually comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to instruct,” “to point out.” It’s the same root for the word “parents” (horim הורים), the people who are supposed to teach us the way, point us in the right direction, create safe boundaries within which we can play and learn and grow and fail and fall and get back up again.
We have to do that this year. We have to say the hard things. We have to love ourselves and one another to remember that boundaries are crucial, and loving. They are what enable us to avoid what Jacob and his family come to as solutions to their conflicts: distance, separation, disconnection.
So, this year, set boundaries, not the family table. This year, distance is what will, paradoxically, bring us back together in the future, with healthier boundaries. The Centers for Disease Control urges us to celebrate only with those who live in our household. The stakes are so high: life, with holiday celebrations that leave us feeling sad or lonely or angry or relieved, or infection, long-lasting illness, or death by COVID-19.
The Shulhan Aruch, a 16th-century code of Jewish law, stipulates:
כל פיקוח נפש דוחה שבת והזריז הרי זה משובח אפילו נפלה דליקה בחצר אחרת וירא שתעבור לחצר זו ויבא לידי סכנה מכבין כדי שלא תעבור:
All cases of saving a life supersede Shabbat, and one who hurries in these matters is praised. Even if there is a fire in a different yard and there is concern that it will move to this yard and cause danger, we put it out to ensure that it does not spread.
(Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 329:1)
In other words, even the most important and dearly-held holiday must be overridden for the sake of saving a life. And even a case in which it is not certain that life is indeed in mortal danger, we put out the fire, real or metaphorical, nonetheless. To be on the safe side. The boundary between life and death is one we hold sacred.
Maybe no one in your family has ever asserted their boundaries. Maybe their boundary has never crossed or challenged your sense of connection, your sense of rightness. Maybe you have never been alerted to the fact that you’ve violated a boundary before. It’s sort of hard to believe, because navigating boundaries is part of the human condition. Remember that, this year, when your relatives prudently and responsibly and lovingly stay away from the table. Honor their boundaries. And see how it frees you, in the future.
* I put this holiday’s title in quotes because of the history of violence, land-stealing, and genocide perpetuated against Native Americans by European settlers. Learn more about how the Wampanoag tribe continues to face threat, even today.