Queer eye on the Torah

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

What if instead of being banished to the desert, Hagar actually ran off, taking Sarah with her, and the two women were free to raise their sons, Isaac and Ishmael, together?

“What if they traveled together and looked up at the sky at night and saw the stars above them and lay together and laughed out loud, laughed that they were free to do as they wished without Abram ordering them about?” says Randy Ellen Blaustein of her own midrash, or interpretation of the biblical story read each year on the High Holy Days.

Blaustein is a member of San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav’s queer Torah study group, the brainchild of Conservative Rabbi Benay Lappe, who visited the queer-friendly synagogue last year.

Actually, Lappe was the first to coin the term “Queer Talmud” some seven years ago when she was living in New York, according to Rabbi Camille Angel, spiritual leader of Sha’ar Zahav.

“She took a bold step,” said Angel, in using the word in a Jewish context “before it was clear whether the Jewish LGBT community was going to get behind that word.”

Before her visit to Sha’ar Zahav, Lappe — who waited until after she was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary to come out of the closet — helped create a Queer Jewish Think Tank in Los Angeles. She will return to Sha’ar Zahav the weekend of Feb. 21 to teach more queer Talmud and Torah.

The group of about 10 to 12 has been meeting weekly, on Tuesday evenings.

So what exactly is a queer Torah study, and how does it differ from Torah study without that defining adjective?

“We’re thinking of two definitions of queer,” said Andrew Ramer, one of the group’s facilitators. “One is simply [thinking] different, and we’re looking at Torah from a different angle. The other is more specifically an LGBT queer definition.”

Just as women revolutionized the study of Torah by seeking out women’s voices, those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender are now doing the same.

“You read the parashah, and everyone can find something that is relevant to them,” said Alan Foss, the other co-facilitator. “But to be a gay man, I wanted to find my voice.”

Foss gave the example of the recent parashah in which Dina was raped, but the portion was “all about her brothers and how they felt about it, how it dishonored their family and how they killed people. She was never mentioned,” said Foss.

“It was very much from a male perspective and a straight male perspective. The other voices are there, but you just have to find them.”

But at the same time, he emphasized, the interpretation of that week’s portion often can be labeled a queer one only because queer people have interpreted it — not because it has anything to do with sexuality.

“I don’t want it to sound like it’s always about sex,” said Foss.

In fact, Ramer said, “if someone was standing in the doorway listening to our conversations, I think three-quarters of the time, they wouldn’t know we were a group of queer people doing queer Torah study.”

Information on queer Torah study group or Feb. 21 weekend visit of Rabbi Benay Lappe: (415) 861-6932, or www.shaarzahav.org.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."