Friday, March 31, 2017

Vayikra and Trans Day of Visibility

            Shabbat Shalom. This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayikra, the first reading in the Book of Leviticus (also called Sefer Vayikra in Hebrew). Leviticus is mostly about the laws concerning the priests and Levites (go figure), and this parasha opens us up to the Sefer with the rules regarding the sacrifices that will occur in the Mishkan, and later, the Temple. God tells Moses to tell all the people of Israel when they need to bring which kind of sacrifice, which the priest will slaughter and generally facilitate the ritual for those coming to make obeisance God. There are mandatory sacrifices for personal atonement and sacrifices for communal atonement. There are optional sacrifices of good-will offerings, in case someone just wants to get in good with God. There are different sacrifices for different times of the day. Each sacrifice has a different suggested animal (though there is a sliding scale so that those who cannot afford to sacrifice a bull can still atone for their sins and get in good with God by burning up some grain meal or a dove), and a different blessing to be said with the sacrifice. These sacrifices are called “korbanot,” which comes from the word “karov,” to draw near, as it was believed that sacrifices helped people draw near to God.
            Throughout this list of different types of sacrifice, the Torah uses the word, “If”. If a person sins, if the community sins, if someone wants to make a good-will offering. Toward the end of the parasha, the Torah reads, “When a prince sins … he shall take a kid of his goats. And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the goat, and kill it in the place where they kill the burnt offerings before the Lord; it is a sin offering” (4:22). First, I want to point out that there is no sliding scale option for this one. After all, we’re talking about the prince or otherwise leader of the land, here. He can afford the goat, and he should pay according to his privilege. More importantly, where all the other people get an “if”, the leader gets a “when.” It is inevitable that every person sins at some point in their lives, but the pressure and temptations put onto and in front of a person in power opens up more opportunities to sin, as well as higher visibility for getting caught. The fact that the Torah recognizes this and offers an absolute for this case, shows a wariness toward power, and a responsibility that goes along with leadership. Rashi comments positively one this: “Fortunate is the generation whose leader applies themself to atone for their own sin.” He’s playing with the Hebrew because the word for “when” in this context is “Asher” which sounds like “Ashrei”, meaning happy or fortune. But Rashi is right, and the Torah is right. Leaders are just as prone to mistakes as the rest of us, if not more so, and often their mistakes have larger ramifications. How great it is when leaders see where they have erred in the past and want to atone for it and do better in the future.
            Today is Transgender Day of Visibility. Too often our leaders (political, community, and spiritual) fall short on doing right by the trans community, and the LGBT community as a whole. Just last week, a Queer Jewish student group at Ohio State University was kicked out of the Hillel family for co-sponsoring an event that advocated for LGBT refugees because there were pro-Palestinian organizations involved with the event as well. Now, these LGBT Jews are facing a sudden loss of a major chunk of their funding and a physical space over a pretty minute political detail. Many Jews and leaders of other Jewish institutions have rallied to B’nai Keshet’s side to pressure Hillel to take them back. Some of you know I was dealing with some issues with this at the school where I teach. It was coming from certain families, but I was initially told that I have to “respect everyone’s political opinions.” To me, anti-LGBT sentiment is not a legitimate political opinion, and if it is to be accepted as such by a particular institution, that institution needs to understand that it is no longer a safe space for members of the LGBT community. It is simply not possible for the same space to claim to respect and accept both queer and trans people and the people who think they deserve fewer rights under American law or less access to Jewish ritual. They are completely incompatible. Luckily, this situation has cleared up a bit at the school, and the administration is making efforts to move forward with me next year so that we can make the school safer for students or families that fall under the LGBTPQIA umbrella. Our state of Virginia, despite efforts by some to introduce legislature that stigmatizes queer and trans folks and strips away hopes for equality, has managed to keep some of those laws at bay. Business owners are not allowed to refuse service to people simply for being gay or trans, and the so-called bathroom bill has thankfully not yet come to fruition.
            All this is to say, our communities and our leaders have some atoning to do for the ways queer and trans people have been discriminated against, cut off from resources, silenced, and erased. The good news is, I do believe the majority of the Jewish community is ready to do that atoning, and I hope as part of that atonement many know to look directly to queer and trans leaders to help lead the way forward, so that others do not keep making the same mistakes out of ignorance. It is time for more than just visibility. It is time for us to be sure we are being fully inclusive of LGBT Jews, that we are meeting the needs of our whole communities, that we are drawing nearer to holiness as a welcoming Jewish community.

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