A new Torah cycle begins and its time to reinvent a classic

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I love reinvention. A purse made from old jeans. A tribute album featuring new takes on old songs. A cinematic retelling of a literary classic. There is something equally satisfying and surprising about such interpretation.
So my reporting this week on the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s new exhibit, “As It Is Written,” was a particular delight. It was exciting to see a new and deeper perspective on the Torah, one of our faith’s most ancient sacred objects.
As if that wasn’t enough reinvention, I then heard about “Torah Queeries,” the first published volume of Torah commentary examining the personal, political, intellectual and spiritual themes in the text from a lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer perspective.
The Torah has been reinterpreted countless times before — women’s Torah commentary; Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox Torah commentary; environmental and social justice Torah commentary; Torah commentary on Web sites and in print.
But never before had a volume of Torah commentary examined the text through an LGBT lens.
“This signifies that the question of LGBT inclusion and participation in the Jewish community is essentially settled,” said Gregg Drinkwater, who co-edited “Torah Queeries” with his husband, David Shneer, both former East Bay residents and members of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco.
On Oct. 11, people gathered to celebrate the book’s publication at Sha’ar Zahav. A more formal celebration in the form of a panel discussion and interactive text study is planned for Thursday, Nov. 12 at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Jewish Community Library.
Torah Queeries began three years ago as a weekly Internet update on Jewish Mosaic’s Web site. Jewish Mosaic, of which Drinkwater serves as the director, is the national center for gender and sexual diversity, and since its founding in 2003 it has promoted inclusion of LGBT Jews in Jewish communal life.
The book is not an anthology of the Web essays, though its publication was inspired by the popularity of the online commentary, Drinkwater said.
The book was published by New York University Press in September. It contains essays by a wide range of rabbis, scholars and writers on the 54 weekly portions.
Essays range in topic and scope. Karen Erlichman, Bay Area regional director of Jewish Mosaic, wrote about the theme of the stranger found in Parashat Lech Lecha. Other essays explore cross-dressing, personal liberation, atonement, sex and gender identity, to name just a few.
“A lot of LGBT Jews are members of the tribe but also treated as an outsider at the same time — what does that mean?” Erlichman asked.
Fourteen of the 53 contributors are from the Bay Area — a team of talent rivaled only by New York’s 14 contributors. Writers identify as straight and queer, and also come from Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Tallahassee, Baltimore, Atlanta, Boston, Springfield, Mo., and Israel.
Editors and contributors hope the book reveals new wisdom never before revealed in Torah commentary as educators, rabbis, scholars and students of queer and Judaic studies, and LGBT Jews and their family and friends explore the book.
“I hope this book makes the Torah more accessible and inviting to people,” Erlichman said. “Maybe they’ll say, ‘Oh, this queer rabbi studies Torah, maybe I can study Torah too.’ ”
Why does the book resonate with me? After all, I’m not a member of the LGBT community, nor am I a Torah scholar. But I love the idea of examining ancient ideas/wisdom/traditions and searching for new meanings from different vantage points.
While the CJM invites artists to interpret the week’s Torah portions, “Torah Queeries” invites LGBT individuals and allies to do so. Both should be celebrated and embraced for their creativity, innovation and depth.

 

Stacey Palevsky lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected].

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.