The Strangest Kiddushin of them all

I’ve been learning a lot about traditional Jewish marriage this semester. In Gemara classes on tractates Kiddushin and Ketubot, we’ve been talking about how a man betroths a woman and what the language of the Ketubah indicates about their rights and obligations. There are also more esoteric topics: A man can encourage a woman to accept his kiddushin by showing her that he possesses a field of a certain value — but if the field has a large ravine in it, how does that change the value of the assessment? If a man’s wife is captured, he is obligated to retrieve her from captivity — but if she’s captured multiple times, does this agreement extend without limit?

On the last day of fall semester Gemara shiur, we read an interesting baraita. We’ve been talking recently about conditional forms of Kiddushin — statements that a man can make when he betroths a woman to delay the betrothal or make it contingent on the fulfillment of some action. Suddenly, in the middle of a section discussing one of these scenarios, a case is brought in which a woman speaks.

שב עמי בצוותא ואקדש לך. שחוק לפני, רקוד לפני, עשה כדימוס לפני. שמין. אם יש בו שוה פרוטה, מקודשת. ואם לאו, אינה מקודשת.
(קידושין סג.)

[A woman says to a man:] “Sit with me in companionship and I will be betrothed to you. Entertain me, dance before me, build me a house.” [This action] is assessed. If it has in it the value of a pruta, she is betrothed. If not, she is not betrothed.

Women’s voices do occasionally appear in the Gemara, but we hadn’t come across any this semester until that last day. My class was excited about this development. We are about 12 people of all genders, and our teacher is a woman. Learning a section of the Talmud in which a woman’s voice appears is hugely validating for Pardes’ egalitarian educational mission, and for us, it was also refreshing to get a glimpse into the life of women at the time the Gemara was composed. Adding to the novelty, this woman seems to care about elements of marriage much more compatible with our modern notion than anything else we’d seen. The men we read about throughout the semester mainly see marriage as a financial arrangement. This anonymous woman is mainly concerned that she enjoys the company of her future husband.

Now, there’s nothing halachically revolutionary about what the woman here is saying. The man is still the active partner in the kiddushin process (she speaks in the passive voice), and it’s implied that he would still make the standard betrothal statement to her after this agreement was arranged. But what’s notable here is the social reality presented that women could, and did, initiate kiddushin arrangements in the time of the Talmud.

Among the predominantly Orthodox faculty at Pardes, the discussion we were having about this baraita is mainstream. Even among the general modern Orthodox world, the idea that ancient Jewish women had more influence than our texts seem to indicate is not as dangerous as it once was. This is a new phenomenon in the past half-century, and my female teacher’s generation was one of the first in which women could be teachers of these texts at all. Nowadays, there even exist Orthodox institutions in which women are trained as leaders in halacha. That’s progress.

In our classes, we recognize the misogyny of our tradition on a daily basis. Recognizing its heteronormativity, however, seems like such an insurmountable challenge that we don’t even talk about it. Regarding queer Jewish teachers of traditional text, there’s a growing number of queer Ph.D.’s in Jewish fields and a formidable cohort of queer rabbis, committed to halacha, who have received their ordinations from JTS, the Ziegler School, or Hebrew College. In the Orthodox world, however, the door to the rabbinate remains closed and might remain so forever. (The few gay Orthodox rabbis have come out after their ordinations, and I’m not sure that this is a solution to advocate in good conscience.)

As a gay man, it’s been strange to learn about kiddushin and ketubot this semester. The kiddushin-like ritual I would do at my wedding, a mutual one between two men, is way crazier in the minds of the rabbis in the Talmud than any of the bizarre kiddushin scenarios they envision. Still, I think I’ve absorbed some of their thinking about the essence of this action and this document. Maybe my wedding ceremony will make use of kiddushin language. Maybe my ketubah will look and read a lot like my grandparents’ do. And when I want to return to Pardes for a sheva berakhot (as an alumnus did this semester), maybe my teachers will help me modify the language of these blessings to reflect the fact that I’ll be marrying a man.

In theory, Pardes has nothing against hiring an LGBT faculty member, someone who would be well suited to the task of helping LGBT students adapt traditional observance to their identities. I have to believe that someday, a queer talmud Ph.D. will sit in a classroom at Pardes and lead a discussion about homoromanticism in the talmudic stories of Resh Lakish and Rav Yochanan or about investing Jewish partnership contracts with the same force as a ketubah. Someday, these discussions will be just as mainstream as the one that we had about this feminist baraita. I have to believe this, because if I don’t, then what am I doing here?


“I am Yours and my Dreams are Yours”

The strangest prayer in the siddur is printed with Birkat Kohanim, the section of the repetition of the amidah in which the descendants of the priestly class bless the congregation. As they say their blessing, the siddur instructs one to speedily say this prayer (Koren translation):

Cohanim Hands - Priestly Blessing

Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours. I have dreamt a dream and I do not know what it means. May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my fathers, that all my dreams be, for me and all Israel, for good, whether I have dreamt about myself, or about others, or others have dreamt about me. If they are good, strengthen and reinforce them, and may they be fulfilled in me and them like the dreams of the righteous Joseph. If, though, they need healing, heal them as You healed Hezekiah King of Judah from his illness, like Miriam the prophetess from her leprosy, like Na’aman from his leprosy, like the waters of Mara by Moses our teacher, and like the waters of Jericho by Elisha. And just as You turned the curses of Balaam the wicked from curse to blessing, so turn all my dreams about me and all Israel to good; protect me, be gracious to me and accept me. Amen.

This is a diaspora practice only, where Birkat Kohanim is said only on holidays and only then during Musaf. The strange part of this prayer, for me, is its focus on dreams, and more broadly, thoughts. Judaism is an action-based religion. Why does this prayer consider other people’s dreams about me a subject requiring my petition to God? Adding to its mystical element, what I’ve been taught about the placement of this prayer is that one says it quickly while the Kohanim are chanting so that one comes to its end as the congregation says “Amen” at the end of the priestly blessing. It’s as if they are saying “Amen” to this private prayer as well, and when else do people say “Amen” to a prayer they haven’t heard? Continue reading

The Value of a “Safe Space” Sticker

Living in a new place surrounded by new people has given me a new appreciation of how great it is to move past the “coming out” stage with Jewish communities. Coming out with subtlety, in individual conversations, is exhausting, and when I’m around large groups of people who don’t know I’m gay I try to simplify the process pretty regularly. I recently found myself in what I believed was an “unsafe” space to come out, risked coming out anyway, and only after doing so realized that my assumptions were wrong.

It takes time to get to know a community’s standards and practices and to find the true “safe spaces.” But something I took for granted in the liberal enclaves in which I’ve found myself are literal labels on safe spaces — stickers on teachers’ offices, classrooms, and Hillel offices indicating that one can identify oneself as LGBT there and be met with support. At this time where changes are happening so rapidly in the observant Jewish community regarding LGBT individuals, I now see the value of labeling those spaces where one knows one can be out and proud.

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The Ḥesed Problem with Internet Anonymity

An anonymous listserv for observant LGBT Jews has lately been having some security issues. Spammers have been emailing out unpleasant words, including the standard diatribes against homosexuality. Some of the content of these messages, however, is funnier—a word-for-word copy of an invitation to the NYC pride march, except with incorrect meeting locations noted. A solicitation for an “orthoprax friend with benefits” (what would this relationship entail, talking to each other?) that came complete with a nude photo. I’m sworn to secrecy about what happens on the listserv, but these emails haven’t actually come through the listserv infrastructure, and that’s why, after talking to the moderator, I feel comfortable revealing their content. This situation illustrates the problem with the quasi-anonymous space that gay Jews have constructed as our “community” online.

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Some Thoughts on Prayer and Playing with Fire

Certain reagents used in chemistry are called “pyrophoric,” for a unique property they possess: spontaneous reaction with oxygen or water vapor to ignite. These reagents are strong bases and are extremely useful in synthesis, but their inherent danger demands an absolute focus on the task at hand whenever they’re being used. When I’m working with pyrophoric materials, I’m thinking of nothing but the pyrophoric material in front of me.

Prayer experiences with this same intensity are rare but incredible. Lately, a major distraction of mine in trying to get to that state are structural issues with prayer that come from being gay. Thinking about my sexual orientation is the main distraction which infringes on my religious life in a way that it doesn’t in my life in the lab, and one of the main things that causes me to think about my sexual orientation while praying is the mechitza. It can cause certain distractions of attraction.

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“No Touching!”

Full integration of queer people into observant Jewish life will require unique restrictions as well as unique leniencies. The presence of one without the other doesn’t seem to align with Jewish thought. In every area where Jews set ourselves apart, privilege comes with restriction. Shabbat is reserved for princely rest, but controlled with a long list of prohibited activities. Observing kashrut while traveling is costly and sometimes difficult, but rewards those who do with community wherever they may find themselves. Heterosexual sex has the potential for holiness, but only if the biological restrictions of niddah are followed.

The idea of fighting for unique leniencies for queer people (loosening restrictions on same-sex sexual contact) without also fighting for special restrictions also opens up queer people to the criticism that we’re just ignoring or denying certain parts of halacha. I can’t think of what I’m doing in that way, and if the most satisfying answer that can be given for the parts of halacha that conflict with a queer identity is to ignore them, then I don’t understand how anyone can claim that it is now possible to live as observant and actively queer. I don’t want to ignore halacha; I want to figure out how halacha applies to this category of people who aren’t addressed in the Hebrew Bible: men who are predominantly attracted to men and women who are predominantly attracted to women.

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Now I am ready for New Student Orientation

I’m back after an end-of-semester hiatus. Some thoughts upon my college graduation one week ago:

On Monday, I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about how I felt during the first weeks of college four years ago. Specifically about NSO, New Student Orientation, the week of activities that precedes the start of the fall semester. People meet their freshman year friends during NSO, go to parties, check out extracurriculars, and start to get their footing where they’ll spend the next four years.

There’s a lot of drinking during NSO, a lot of meaningless socializing, a lot of worrying that time spent alone is unproductive time. I didn’t exactly enjoy NSO–or, I didn’t ever have the impression that I’d experienced freshman NSO in the same way that other people had. The “right” way. My freshman NSO was quiet. I didn’t hang out with a lot of the people I met during NSO for much longer than the first month of freshman year. People who I met anytime during freshman year, even, are rare among the people from Penn whom I consider significant in my life.

So many things have changed since then. Continue reading