Posted on May 19th, 2011 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Featured, Learning, Philosophy, Popular Culture, Social Issues
Tagged with community, Formation, Gay, Gender, God, Homosexuality, identity, Judaism, LGBT, morality, Questions, Religion, Scripture, seminary, tolerance, transformation, women
Our Talmud class this year has been focused on sugyot (sections of Talmud) containing discussions about what the proper language and ritual is for marking a separation between one time and another. Many of the sugyot we have been studying deal with stories and discussions about times of boundary crossings.
For example, in the world of the rabbis and still for many today it is essential to have three meals on Shabbat (Shabbat dinner on Friday night after sunset and Shabbat lunch and dinner on Saturday before sunset). These meals contain particular rituals and blessings that are different from those of a weekday meal and it is important for them to be under the auspices of Shabbat, meaning within the time of Shabbat.
So, one sugya asks, what happens when you’re sitting and eating, hanging out with friends around the table on Friday afternoon? The conversation is good, the snacks delicious, the wine flowing and all of a sudden, you look up and see that the sun is almost set and Shabbat is coming in—in the language of the Talmud “the holiness of the day comes upon you.” What do you do? What is the proper way to mark the entering of Shabbat?
Is Shabbat a natural phenomenon that happens on its own, or do human beings have a necessary role in bringing it in? Do you have to end this meal and start a new one or can this meal retroactively become a Shabbat meal? What ritual is needed to make this transition?
As the sugyot attest to, we are a people both of boundaries and borders and of border-crossings. We have set times to mark the separation between Shabbat time and weekday time, yet we are fascinated by the in-between, un-categorizable time.
The creation of the world comes about through separation: light from dark, waters on high from waters below, ocean from dry land. Yet, almost as soon as the world comes into being these boundaries are blurred. In chapter two of Beresheit the flood gushes and the ocean’s waters run riot through the world, covering the dry land and submerging any lines of distinction.
Both the Talmudic sugya and this passage from Torah attest to the fact that nature has no borders. As we see daily, there is not simply day and night but rather a spectrum of light and dark where one blurs into the other at each sunrise and sunset. We attempt to create clear demarcations to help ourselves see order and structure; this is a natural human tendency. Creating these distinctions is useful, as long as we can acknowledge that they are simply our best guess at categorization, they are not real and they can change at any moment.
Yesterday I was out in the garden with my mom trimming branches of our fruit trees, watering seedlings and (the ever-present task of the gardener) weeding. I get very into weeding. I begin to create a sort of vendetta against the weeds in my mind and become focused on the singular task of eradicating our landscape of this nuisance. In the midst of my sweaty and determined frenzy of pulling up dandelions my mom remarked how lush and healthy these dandelion greens were and what a great salad they would make for our lunch.
In an instant I was forced to change my outlook to encompass more reality. Rather than viewing these plants as destructive invaders penetrating my garden that needed to be removed as quickly as possible, they were still a weed that I wanted to pull up but also an abundant resource that we could benefit from. The “evil invader” label I had put on these weeds was useful for the task of pulling them up so long as I saw this designation as a changeable descriptor rather than the true reality.
Last week I heard Dr. Joy Ladin speak at our local community shul. Dr. Ladin is a professor of English at the orthodox institution Stern College at Yeshiva University and the first out trans professor at a religious institution. In her talk, Dr. Ladin spoke about these categories that humans create. All of us have bodies, she said, some we don’t have words for. The mistake we make is that if we don’t have words for it we say that it is outside of humanness. It is a brilliant feat that the human mind makes meaning out of difference, but the problem, she says, is that whenever we see difference we create meaning and we want this meaning to be the sole reality.
Weeds or plants, day or night, Shabbat or weekday, male or female—based on what traits we see and what system we are working within, we create categories to help ourselves find order in the world. Making and marking these distinctions is in some senses emulating the work Gd did in the creation of the world. Yet at the same time it is incumbent upon us to hold the deeper truth that categories are fluid and insufficient: no thing and no one fits neatly into one box or another.
Taking a lesson from the rabbis of the Talmud, perhaps we are being challenged to notice those aspects of our lives that are in between and to respond with, rather than resistance, new forms of ritual and celebration. Just as Dr. Ladin broke through to joy as Joy, so too may see where the categories we’ve created are no longer serving us and may we break down, reimagine, and blur the lines with joy.
My image (via Wikimedia Commons)