CLGS is an interfaith organization, affirming the importance of religious and cultural diversity. It includes a specifically Jewish Roundtable that serves the needs of Jewish queer people. September marks the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days. This period of religious observance opens with the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShanah; continues with the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur; the harvest festival, Sukkot; and concludes with the restart of the annual cycle of readings from the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), Simchat Torah. On Simchat Torah, Jews rewind the scroll of the Torah and start reading from the beginning of the Bible, Genesis, the Creation of the Universe.
Queer people may be surprised to know that the Jewish understanding of Genesis is very different from that of Christian fundamentalists. Fundamentalists often point to the Creation story as proof of the Divine order of heterosexuality, with supposedly intelligent and conclusive arguments such as “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” However, in Hebrew, the word adam is not a proper name, but means “human.” In Jewish tradition, Adam, the first human, wasn’t male, but rather androgynous. Here is the description from ancient Jewish rabbinic texts on Bible interpretation:
“Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman said: At the time that the Holy One, Blessed Be, created the Human, God created him as an androgynos. Resh Lakish said that at the time that [Adam] was created, Adam was made with two faces, and [God] sliced Adam and gave Adam two backs, a female one and a male one, as it says: ‘And He took from his sides’ [Genesis 2:21, the midrash is playing with the fact that in Hebrew the word ‘sides’ is in the plural form, not the singular form, ‘side’].”
(Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 12:2)
The whole concept of a divinely ordained heterosexual order depends on a very selective reading of Biblical text, a reading that sets out to “prove” a political, rather than a religious, perspective. Another example of this selective reading is in the story of Noah, which weaves together two different ancient narratives. In one narrative, the animals enter the ark in pairs, but in the other narrative, they enter in groups of seven!
The divine heterosexual order depends on there being two and only two genders – male and female – and only one form of grouping, male/female. Alternative readings such as the Jewish view of the androgynous first human, and groupings of seven in the Noah’s Ark story, so disturb the religious politics of compulsory heterosexuality (a term coined by feminist writer Adrienne Rich), that they are often suppressed.
Conservative Christians, even lapsed or ex-Christians, often think that the fundamentalist Christian way of viewing the Bible is the only way. They are surprised when Jews tell them that Judaism has a completely different interpretive tradition. In Jewish tradition, humans are created in the image of a God who is both gender inclusive and gender expansive, a God who is both beyond gender and multi-gendered. Similarly, humans created in that image, embody a broad range of gender identities and orientations toward the gender identity of their partners. Rather than living in the Christian fundamentalist heterosexual order, Judaism envisions a Universe in which every human has unlimited gender potential.
For liberal Christians, the Jewish view supports their efforts to expand and redefine Christian Biblical interpretation. Similarly, the work of liberal Christian scholars helps progressive Jews find new ways to make the ancient tradition relevant to queer Jews. May this New Year continue to be one of partnership and mutual support.
Rabbi Jane Rachel Litman | Coordinator of the CLGS Jewish Roundtable | September 2023