“A Spectrum of Meaningful Human Difference” (Korach/Pride Shabbat)

Thoughts for Pride Shabbat.
By Rabbi Micah Streiffer, Founder of LAASOK.
Cross-posted with micahstreiffer.com.

Judaism is full of blessings. There’s a blessing for bread, a blessing for wine. A blessing for fruits and vegetables and other various foodstuffs. There are blessings for seeing and enjoying a beautiful natural scene – a rainbow, a sunset. There are blessings for doing mitzvot – like lighting candles and putting on a tallit. And blessings for partaking in something wonderful, like smelling or seeing something nice.

All of this is part of a larger theology in Judaism. A way of thinking that essentially says: “The world is a gift from God. Everything here is an expression of God’s wisdom and God’s love, and is something to be thankful for.”

And in Judaism, that idea doesn’t only apply to things. It also applies to people: Look at this passage from the Talmud (Berachot 58a):

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: הָרוֹאֶה חַכְמֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אוֹמֵר ״בָּרוּךְ … שֶׁחָלַק מֵחׇכְמָתוֹ לִירֵאָיו״. חַכְמֵי אוּמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם, אוֹמֵר: ״בָּרוּךְ … שֶׁנָּתַן מֵחׇכְמָתוֹ לְבָשָׂר וָדָם״. הָרוֹאֶה מַלְכֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אוֹמֵר: ״בָּרוּךְ … שֶׁחָלַק מִכְּבוֹדוֹ לִירֵאָיו״. מַלְכֵי אוּמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם, אוֹמֵר: ״בָּרוּךְ … שֶׁנָּתַן מִכְּבוֹדוֹ לְבָשָׂר וָדָם״.

The Sages taught: One who sees the Sages of Israel recites: Blessed…Who has shared of [Your] wisdom with those who revere [You]. One who sees Sages of the nations of the world recites: Blessed…Who has given of [Your] wisdom to flesh and blood…. One who sees kings of nations of the world recites: Blessed…Who has given of [Your] glory to flesh and blood.

So these are blessing for seeing unusually wise or powerful people. It’s like the Rabbinic version of celebrity watching. But then the Talmud takes an unexpected turn:

אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי: הָרוֹאֶה אֶת הַבַּהֲקָנִים, אוֹמֵר: ״בָּרוּךְ … מְשַׁנֶּה הַבְּרִיּוֹת״. מֵיתִיבִי: רָאָה אֶת הַכּוּשִׁי, וְאֶת הַגִּיחוֹר, וְאֶת הַלַּוְוקָן, וְאֶת הַקִּפֵּחַ, וְאֶת הַנַּנָּס, וְאֶת הַדַּרְנִיקוֹס, אוֹמֵר: ״בָּרוּךְ … מְשַׁנֶּה אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת״.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees spotted people recites: Blessed…Who makes your creations different…. One who saw a person with dark skin, a person with red skin, a person with light skin; someone who sees a tall or person pr small person…recites: Blessed…Who makes your creations different.

So now we’re outside the realm of celebrity watching. This is no longer about seeing the most famous or the most powerful or the wisest person. We’ve entered the realm of what we might call human difference. Differences in skin colour, in height, in body shape. And here again, there is a blessing for coming into contact with a person who is different from yourself. And that blessing is:

״בָּרוּךְ אתה ה מְשַׁנֶּה אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת״
Blessed is the One who makes Your creations different from each other.

Built into Judaism is a notion that it’s good when people are different from each other. That it’s good that there’s variety in humanity – that it’s an expression of God’s wisdom. So much so that we bless it, just like we bless our holy acts and our special people and the gifts that we’re grateful for.

In other words, human variety is a gift from God.

That’s a Jewish notion I want to lift up on this Shabbat where we are marking Pride – where we’re celebrating the variety of expressions of human identity and coming together in support of the LGBTQ2S+ community.

We live in a society where we too often look upon difference as disability or aberration – where we say that there’s a way you’re supposed to look, or a way you’re supposed to love, or a way you’re supposed to feel and identify –  and that anything or anyone who is outside of that “supposed to” is at best to be tolerated and at worst to be ostracized or changed.

But Judaism does not teach that idea. Judaism comes to us with a different, much wider understanding of the basic human condition.

This is from Dr. Rachel Adler’s book Engendering Judaism, which is a ground-breaking book of Jewish feminist thought (p. 40):

With its profusion and variety of narratives, codes, and prophecies, Judaism has resources for subtle and multifaceted conceptions of human nature. However, the conceptions of human nature that predominate in Jewish thought, as in Western philosophy and law, are unitary…. It sets up as a norm one particular variant of…human nature [specifically, the male cisgender heterosexual variant] from whom all others are regarded as deviant. Instead, human nature needs to be understood as a spectrum of meaningful human differences.

A “spectrum of meaningful human differences.

In other words, despite what we sometimes think and what we sometimes hear in our Torah classes and sermons, Judaism has the capacity to help us understand humanity as something other than monolithic or binary. It has the capacity to help us understand humanity as a “spectrum of meaningful human differences.”

There is more than one way to be human. Humanity is a variety – a rainbow –  of colours and ethnicities and sexualities and gender identities. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be, because – you might say, using traditional Jewish language – that’s the way God designed us.

Ironically, we learn this lesson in this week’s Torah portion, but from an unexpected source. This week we are reading Korach. Korach is, of course, a rebel. He rises up against Moses, trying to claim the priesthood, and claim power, for himself. And things don’t end well for Korach. Those who know the story know that he and his group are swallowed up by the Earth – God decides decisively against them, and for Aaron and Moses.

But before all that happens, before it becomes clear that Koach is out for power and for selfish reasons, he actually makes a halfway decent argument. Here’s what he says:

וַיִּֽקָּהֲל֞וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֲלֵהֶם֮ רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כׇל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם יְהֹוָ֑ה וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל יְהֹוָֽה׃

They [Korach’s group] combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?”

Numbers 16:3

In other words, who made you – Moses and Aaron – so special? Why are you holier than thou? All of God’s community is holy and God is in their midst.

And that’s the phrase I want to focus on, because I think Korach is saying something really profound here (even though he’s saying it for the wrong reasons). What he’s doing is reminding Moses, and reminding us, that every person is created in God’s image. That every person is a unique expression of God’s wisdom. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

We are the way we are because God made us that way, he says. And God made us that way because God wants a rainbow of humanity. Not a monolith, and not a binary, but a spectrum of meaningful human differences.

When we don’t think this way, when we don’t teach our children this way, the results can be detrimental. Ben M. Freeman, a gay Jewish activist talks, about how important this conception is. He describes himself as a teenager – just figuring out that he was gay – being:

…weighed down by a seemingly insurmountable sense of shame. This shame inflicted immense pain, leading me to self-harm and to even attempt suicide. Regrettably, my story resonates with countless individuals worldwide. Shame, regardless of its source, is a corrosive force that damages those who [are] forced to endure it.[1]

Rabbi David J. Meyer agrees. And he says the Jewish community has often been complicit by failing to create spaces where all are seen as good and holy expressions of God’s image.

… how tragic it is that anyone would walk into a community which carries God’s name and be made to feel that their humanity, their identity, their inner dignity have to be checked at the door. What we see in so many Jewish texts which recognize gender fluidity as part of the human condition is helping society to assure that no one is left out, left behind, or left over.[2]

Ben Freemen agrees. In an article in yesterday’s Jewish Journal, he talks about his now-decades long journey toward self-understanding and self-acceptance. Toward what he calls “mak[ing] peace with my true self.”[3]

Perhaps Judaism’s central teaching – and just about the first teaching in the Torah – is that all human beings are created in God’s image. It’s a powerful idea, because it says that we are good and whole and holy just as we are. As a Jewish community it is our responsibility to ensure that we say those words loud and proud – that we are totally clear that they apply to all: gay or straight, cis or trans, male, female or nonbinary. Regardless of colour, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender expression – we are all created in God’s image, and all are welcome and all are valued in this holy space exactly as we are. Exactly as God made us.

Judaism is full of blessings. That’s how I opened this sermon. But the blessing aren’t only of the reciting kind. Ultimately, the message of Torah is that all of us are blessings. We each bring something unique and special into the world – in a self we all have a task, a contribution that only we can make to making the world a little better.

May we reach out to one another in acceptance and curiosity.

May we strive – however imperfectly – stretch beyond our preconceptions and prejudices and see people for who they are.

And may we embrace the spectrum of meaningful human differences – the diversity that makes humanity beautiful.


[1] https://jewishjournal.com/cover_story/359958/how-pride-saved-my-life/

[2] https://rac.org/blog/what-torah-teaches-us-about-gender-fluidity-and-transgender-justice

[3] https://jewishjournal.com/cover_story/359958/how-pride-saved-my-life/

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