Hello and welcome to the Queer Yeshiva.
My name is Lev. I’m one of the teachers here, with Jo, Hava and Daniel.
A month ago, I was ordained as a rabbi. One of the things that most made me want to be a rabbi was bring gay. I wanted to be part of a religious life that made being queer feel as empowering and magical as it really is.
I love being queer. I love queer people. One of the things I love most about us is that no matter what life throws at us, we always rebuild.
I think about the lives of queer people. Everyone I know has had to struggle with who they are, face down violence, and out of adversity, rebuild themselves as someone stronger than anyone could have imagined.
When I was a kid, I was already too fabulous to be contained. All I wanted in life was to wear dresses and do Spice Girls dance routines. I knew I was different and I didn’t care.
But the rest of the world did. I grew up in a small town with few opportunities. For most of my teens, I was beaten up on a near daily basis. I was attacked at school, walking home, in the shops, and outside my front door. That was only the other kids. The adults were worse: at best they ignored it; at worst they encouraged it. At the school leavers’ assembly, the teachers gave me an award for “most likely to have a sex change.”
But I’m not bitter. I’m proud. I came out of all that knowing who I was and willing to fight for others. That’s why we have parades. That’s why we stand up celebrate our community, because we have withstood discrimination and violence and built out of it fantastic cultures. All that queer art, queer music, and queer innovation- that came out of queer struggle. We are who we are because of who we were.
And that’s not limited just to us here. That’s something queer people have to do in every generation. Think how many times we have been destroyed, and think how many times we have rebuilt.
Consider only the last century. At the beginning of the 1900s, our people were dealing with criminalisation, as many had been imprisoned. Against that backdrop, Magnus Hirschfield created the Institut for Sexualwissenschaft, pioneering the understanding of queer people.
His work was burned by the Nazis. Queers were turned into pariahs and murdered in te death camps. Even once the Second World War was over, many homosexuals were forced to stay in prison to complete their sentences.
In the aftermath, our ancestors picked themselves up again. They built the Gay Power movement. They formed the Lavender Menace. They created the ballroom scene in the nightclubs of New York.
Once again, they were decimated by the AIDS crisis. Government indifference and vengeful homophobia killed a generation of queers.
And still, we could not be destroyed. We came back stronger, demanding legislative changes and pushing for a transformed world. We recreated community to fight for our liberation.
In every generation, people have tried to destroy us. In every generation, they have failed. We will always rebuild. We will always imagine a greater future. We will always reappear.
We are indestructible.
In that sense, we are the heirs to the rabbinic tradition.
Judaism, as we know it, is the product of people who saw their world crash around them repeatedly and, every time, rebuilt it.
Our Judaism was born out of a time of fundamental crisis. At the start of the last millennium, the Jews were a nation. They had their country, the land of Israel. They had their capital, Jerusalem. They had their cultic centre, the Temple. They had their religious leadership, the priests. And they had their religious practices, sacrifices.
Then, they faced catastrophe. The Romans came and waged an aggressive war, killing off the leadership, and starving the people of Jerusalem. They destroyed the Temple and abolished its customs.
Yesterday was the fast of Tish BAv. It was, for many religious Jews, a day of weeping and despair. We recalled the genocide, the disruption, the pain. We remembered the destruction of the Temple in the context of all the times that Jews have been destroyed.
But, in that act of ritualised remembering, we also remember that we have survived. Jews and Judaism have kept going, even two thousand years later.
Let us remember why.
Faced with annihilation, the Jews had three choices. One: they could dig their heels and pretend nothing happened. They could decide that they were going to carry on with the Temple and the priesthood, even though they were gone.
Two: they could abandon their old religion altogether. That was what normally happened to ancient peoples when they were conquered: they gave up their old traditions and gave in to colonisation.
Three, the third option: they could retell their story for the sake of their contemporary situation. They could look at everything they had been, and use their history to reimagine their future.
Our rabbis chose option three.
Put yourself in their position.
Imagine you were there, not just in the aftermath but right in the thick of it. Jerusalem is under seige. Your family are starving. Your people are fighting the Romans, but mostly they’re fighting each other. You can see your world on fire. You don’t even know if you will survive.
What would you do?
That’s how it was for Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakai. He was alive then. That was what he saw.
He told his students to put him in a coffin, pretend he was dead, and smuggle him out of Jerusalem. Once out of the besieged city gates, he got out and demanded to speak to the Roman emperor, Vaspasian.
As it happened, Vaspasian was willing to compromise. He said: “OK, tell me you want.”
Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai said: “Give me Yavne and students of Torah.”
What was Yavne? It was a refugee camp in the middle of nowhere. It was filled with displaced people. Who were the students of Torah? Just a bunch of people who remembered what the old religion used to be like.
Why? Why would you ask for such a thing? If the commander of the imperial Roman army is willing to negotiate, why not find a way to get the troops to leave?
Because a people that knows who they are cannot be destroyed.
Sure, the colonisers might go, and the Jews might live, but Judaism could end. The only way for anyone to live on after facing near annihilation is to look at where they’ve been. They have to take a long look at their story and reimagine it for a new era.
Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai and his students learnt everything. They committed to memory their whole history so that they could recite it by heart.
Then, they revolutionised it. They said: we don’t need the land of Israel or Jerusalem any more. From now on, we’re going to be spread across the whole world. We’re going to make our religion portable so that it can be sustained in any nation.
They looked at their Temple and its sacrifices and said: we’re not going back to that. We’re going to reinvent our practices. We will replace them with prayer and study. As long as people keep our words alive, we won’t need for animals to die.
They looked at the priesthood and said: that’s done. From now on, we have no hierarchy.
From hereon out, we are equals. The measure of Jewishness won’t be who your father was but how imaginative you can be in reexamine your tradition.
They looked over their old systems of justice, and interrogated them. Who is included here, and who is left out? What is justice going to look like for us now? They were so radical that they tried to work out how they could turn the Torah against the Torah.
And that instantly transformed Judaism. Rabbi Yochanan’s disciples weren’t from the elites. They were blacksmiths and peasant farmers and outsiders. They saw, from that vantage point, how their people could creatively rebuild. And that is why we have our Judaism today.
And here’s the thing. Rabbi Yochanan had, maybe, ten students. There were fewer people in his beit midrash than there are in this room.
You only need a handful of visionaries to spark a revolution.
Be in no doubt, that is what could happen here this week.
We are, as always, facing catastrophe. Queer people are under attack once more. The planet is burning. Capitalism is in crisis. The old ways of doing Judaism are floundering.
Do you think that the future of Judaism is going to be secured by happy people in their comfortable homes? No way. They have nothing to lose from the current situation. They don’t have the imagination to see how things could be different.
The future of our people lies with those on its margins. Its the queers. It’s the weirdos. It’s the radicals. It’s you.
That’s why we’re here. We’re going to do what queers and Jews have always done. We’re going to rebuild while our world is on fire.
We’re going to learn everything we can, internalising the words of our ancestors so fully thar they will travel with us everywhere. We’re going to re-analyse them in light of our own circumstances, seeing how these traditions bear on our own lives and struggles. And, out of that, We’re going to completely retell our story.
This is where the future of Judaism starts again.
I love being queer. I love queer people. And I can’t wait to see what we achieve.
This talk was based on the Crash Talk by Rabbi Benay Lappe, used for Queer Yeshiva Summer Intensive 5782 in Essex