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God is in the Details

01/27/2022 02:30:23 PM


I’m excited for Rabbi Zaslow’s visit to our congregation. Our lay-led Search Committee has done its homework in interviewing and checking references, and we now have the opportunity to meet a candidate whom they recommend very highly. As a community, we will make our decision after meeting her firsthand. There has been a lot of enthusiasm and anticipation for her visit. Some members of our community have admitted that they are confused by one aspect of the biography that Roger Panitch forwarded from the Search Committee. What does it even mean to be a “Queer Jew?” Why do some people include pronouns after their names? 


Pirkei Avot 2:5 teaches that “someone who is too ashamed to ask a question will not learn.”  So I’m delighted that people are not embarrassed to seek resolution to their confusion, and hopeful that they will seek out a reliable source. I’m a firm believer that each person should have the opportunity to tell their own story and be judged on their own merits, but in my role as Rabbi and educator, I’ll take this opportunity to try to explain, and perhaps Parashat Mishpatim can help. 


Last week in Yitro we had the spiritual high of the Ten Commandments. In theory, “Thou shalt not steal” is all you need to know, but in practice the Israelites needed a lot more detail. This week, the Torah continues to Parashat Mishpatim, outlining a series of mundane rules regarding civil law: if two people fight and one of them is injured or died, what are the penalties? If my ox gores your ox, or a fire spreads from my property to yours, who is responsible? Mishpatim gives the details that make the highlights make sense. Perhaps I can offer the same here.


The Yitro Version: Rabbi Zaslow and Matthew look like a stereotypical "straight" couple when you meet them.  However, they feel a connection and identification with Jews who do not fit into that box, and the language that they use to describe themselves (Queer, specifying pronouns, and using "spouse" rather than husband) reflects that. If you have read some of Rabbi Zaslow’s writings from different stages of her life, it is obvious that she has been on her own journey in this area. Rabbi Zaslow felt it was important to be transparent as she introduced herself to our community.  


The Mishpatim Version: The word “Queer” can confuse people. At one time, Queer was a pejorative term for a gay person. Today, even people who use it disagree about what it means. Some will use it to describe someone who is gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender. Others will use it to describe someone whose identity defies those categorizations. In the broadest sense, though, it is used to describe a person who does not fit neatly into the stereotypical "straight" box, in one of a myriad ways including thoughts, actions or identity.


In a way, the word “Jewish” is not so different. Different people use the word Jewish to describe themselves and mean very different things. One person might read that word and think of someone who is ultra-observant, another might use it to describe someone who doesn’t observe any commandments but likes eating bagels and Chinese food at Christmas, another might use it to describe their beliefs, or their connection to Israel or to family.


As it should be for a potential Rabbi at B’nai Torah, Judaism, its observance and traditions, are at the center of Rabbi Zaslow’s life. Her Orthodox background means that she is comfortable with our more traditional approach. She is the only one of our candidates so far whose shabbat observance led her to make sure that she could live inside our Eruv. Her connections with the LGBTQ community are also important to her, and her use of the adjective reflects that.


The Search Committee invited Rabbi Zaslow because of her strong skills, in pastoral care, in preaching, creating small groups for engagement, and in creative liturgy, and because she has been successful as a student rabbi in other more traditional Conservative congregations similar to our own. If we decide to invite her to join our community, that is what most members of our congregation will experience. The fact that she has special expertise in issues of gender diversity and can also relate to people for whom those issues are important was not a focus of our search, but will be a gift for those who have those concerns.


I’ve also heard some confusion about pronouns. As our larger society continues to evolve in its understanding of gender and sexuality, it has become very common in some circles that people will begin a conversation or interaction by listing their pronouns, and some will  use “they” or even words that are new to the dictionary, rather than he or she. When someone says (he/they) it often means that they are comfortable being referred to either using male or neutral pronouns. 


While some of us find it confusing, for many people (in particular amongst a younger generation) it is helpful. If you’ve ever been on a Zoom with Rabbi K, you will see that he lists (he/him) after his name in his Zoom name, but we gloss over it because we already know him. I don't feel the need to do it myself, since it’s not hard to guess (though some of our staff appear to use “Rabbi” rather than “he” as my pronoun), but I appreciate when others do because it helps me refer to them in the way that feels most respectful.


It’s worth noting that the Ten Commandments are given at a distance- the Israelites cower at the bottom of the mountain and insist that Moses be the translator. At the end of Mishpatim, though, the Israelites come and eat and drink in God’s presence, and say “Na’aseh V’Nishmah” we will do and we will hear. That is when questions are answered and a true connection and commitment is made. Our Search Committee members are delighted to talk about why they have suggested that we interview Rabbi Zaslow. I’m also willing, when needed, to be like Moses at Mount Sinai and serve as a translator and relationship builder, but there is no substitute for the direct contact found in Mishpatim. I encourage you to meet Rabbi Zaslow and Matthew, whether in person or via Zoom, and find out for yourself. 

Fri, December 1 2023 18 Kislev 5784