In early July, I sat in a room at a retreat center in Northern California, listening with rapt attention to a group of queer elders telling stories. It was the second to last night of Queer Talmud Camp, a weeklong Talmud-study intensive for LGBTQ people and allies, put on by SVARA, a traditionally radical Yeshiva based in Chicago.
“Elder” was a relative term in this context, with panelists ranging from their 40s to their 70s, but all had lived long enough to see a space like Queer Talmud Camp go from outside the realm of the possible to the very real indeed. They told us about coming out, to themselves and to others. They shared stories of being told they would never succeed as rabbis, as camp directors, as teachers. They spoke about mourning friends during the AIDS crisis and gathering with surviving friends to resist and heal. They spoke of protest marches and the births of their children. They spoke about what it took to create the world that us youngsters have inherited.
I listened to these stories mere weeks after my own rabbinic ordination from Hebrew College, thinking of the first chapter of Pirkei Avot. It begins by telling us that Moses received the Torah at Mount Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua and Yehoshua to the elders and the elders to the prophets and the prophets to the people of the Great Assembly. This shalshelet hakabbalah, this chain of transmission, is said to carry through the years, into the present day. There have been times, both during rabbinical school and beyond it, where I have experienced the chain, understood myself as part of its forging.
At Queer Talmud Camp, that feeling was amplified exponentially—because there, the chain of transmission was immediate in a way I hadn’t experienced before. The people in that room, the stories they had lived, were quite literally part of the reason that I could be the person I am today: a queer, trans, non-binary rabbi. A teacher of Torah, a student of an ancient tradition, a link between the Jewish past and the Jewish future.
After the panel, I sat with my friend, colleague, and former Hebrew College classmate Rabbi Mónica Gomery, and she named what she’d felt during the panel as gratitude and grief. Grief for what’s been lost, for what has been and continues to be hard and painful for queer folks living inside a tradition that so many say doesn’t belong to us. Grief for queer pain and struggle in the wider world. Gratitude for the fact that we get to be part of this work, for the knowledge that our tradition has always been built this way—friend to friend and generation to generation. Gratitude that queer people are fierce and resilient and gorgeous beyond words. Gratitude that we have elders to tell us about their past and wonder at how those stories help us imagine our own future. Because most queer young people are not born into families with queer elders already present. Because LGBTQ communities can be generationally narrow, valorizing youth and beauty as an unconscious attempt to hold at bay the vulnerability and trauma that institutionalized homophobia and transphobia bring about. Because so many people in today’s world are split off from each other along lines of age, making it harder to build meaningful intergenerational relationships.
As we talked, I noticed the bittersweet feeling the stories stirred up and I thought: I’ve heard this teaching before.
In this week’s Torah portion we read: Here’s how it will be: if you listen to My mitzvot that I command you today—to love God your God, and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul—I will give you the rain of the land in its time.
It could just as easily read: If we listen to each other—lovingly, tenderly, with all our hearts and souls—then we will be able to build together. Our tears and our joy will come in their appointed times. We will multiply upon this earth. We will grow in numbers and strength, spreading the truth that you can be exactly who you are and love the Torah and be a part of the Jewish tradition.
This verse, which God taught to Moses and the Israelites as they reached the end of their wandering in the wilderness, might continue: But if we ever lose sight of how much we owe each other, if we are cut off from the generations whose lives made our lives possible, if we worship only the present moment and neglect our elders—then we will not be able to imagine a real future for ourselves. We will not be able to imagine who we could become if we don’t learn who has been here before us.
The night after the panel of queer elders, it was time for the annual camp dance party. We traveled there in flocks. We turned on the rainbow lights. We turned up the music.
Hours later, many of us would go over to the Beit Midrash next door, finding it as full of people at 1am as the dance party had been. We would return to parsing Hebrew and Aramaic words, finding the roots, teasing out the meaning.
The following day, camp would end. We would gather in the Beit Midrash for one final session, hanging on the words of each camper who rose in turn to recite from memory part of the section of Talmud we had been studying. We would cheer uproariously as they finished, as even the newest beginners—who only days before had been puzzling over their Aleph Bet—owned that room, owned those ancient, sacred words.
Rabbi Elliot Kukla would come up to me and say, I was the only out trans rabbi for five whole years. Then, for what seemed like ages, there were two of us. Now there’s this fabulous double handful, more people than I even know. I’m amazed to live in a moment when I could imagine my child growing up in a shul with two nonbinary trans rabbis! It’s more than I could have dreamed of.
My friend Sara Sandmel, about to start rabbinical school, would say to me, Listen. Watching you and the other queer and trans people in our community doing what you do made it possible for me to imagine myself as a rabbi.
And then, we would scatter back into our daily lives. We would gather up the sparks of queer Torah we’d collected at camp and bind them as signs upon our hands, keep them as signs before our eyes. We would speak of them in our homes and when we traveled on the way. They would be with us when we rose in the morning and with us when we lay down at night.
But right then, we danced. Elders and youngsters, Talmud novices and Talmud teachers, rabbis and rebels and seekers. We danced with gratitude and grief filling our every movement. We danced together, as if our collective past and our collective future depended on it.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a Ph.D. in Jewish history from Brandeis University.
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