The biggest takeaway from this week’s Torah portion, Shelach L’cha is for us to look deeper, beyond outer appearances, and look beyond the surface of people we encounter. It seems fitting that it is coming during the month we celebrate Pride, when we celebrate the freedom of individuals to live in our society and be celebrated, no matter what their sexual orientation or pronoun choice. In Shelach L’cha, Moses sent representatives from the Tribes to scout the land of Israel with every good intention that they would come back telling him constructive things to help them settle in when they arrived there, 11 days later. Instead, except for Joshua and Caleb, he was bombarded with reports of fear, misinformation, and lies simply because the inhabitants looked different, were much larger than average, and had a different way of living. Sound familiar?
I often hear criticisms of people who indicate their preferred pronouns with their names, or who identify with a different gender than they were born with. Some older Americans I interact with often struggle greatly to accept this. It becomes even more challenging in the Orthodox Community, where people who look like men and women on the outside are separated according to outward appearance, despite how they feel deep inside. Ross and I recently returned from France where I was fortunate to have been invited by one of our member families to officiate their daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. While there, we visited the synagogue in Marseilles which Napoleon allowed to be built during his reign. As he only agreed to allow it to be built if it contained some nods to Christianity, its design was unique. There were no crosses, but there was an altar, a hand-washing station resembling the basin with “holy water,” and pews.
Of course, the women were to sit separately, upstairs from the men, who were down on the main floor with the clergy (all men) and leaders (all men) in the center. The woman giving me the tour was very proudly Orthodox and seemed to take comfort in these strict traditions. After telling her who I was and what I did for a living, I very gently and politely told her (in Hebrew, as I spoke little to no French!) that today, many young people are realizing that they do not identify as the gender they present, and that this kind of seating would be next to impossible for them. I told her of children I personally knew who would never be able to feel comfortable being separated or having to wear a dress. She said she knew nothing of this kind of phenomenon, and we went about the business of the tour.
On another night, which happened to be Erev Shavuot, we were staying in Cannes at the Novotel. We had switched hotels at the last minute, and it truly seemed bashert, as though God wanted us there, because the next morning when I went downstairs to try and find coffee, I was excited to see a man in a kippa! Looking further; I saw signs that said, CHAVUOT, which at first glance almost looked like it said Chanukah. Reading further, I realized there were worship services, davening, and there was a night study the previous night right there in the hotel.
I got my coffee and went outside to sit by the pool. On my way, I saw men davening and then saw and heard voices in a small Conference room. I wanted badly to participate; feeling a little like Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she felt when being kept out of saying Kaddish for her mother because she was a woman.
Looking further, I saw yet another room, this time, with all women. I thought about going in, but I decided it is totally against everything I have in me to be forced into praying behind a curtain, being kept out of the action of the service, simply because of the gender I present.
At first, I decided not to go in, but instead, document the experience, which I outlined above. Eventually, I did choose to go in and participate, but still felt torn: Should I go in with the men and pray authentically to me, in the presence of the Torah, or should I just be a good little girl and just go along with the women? Mind you, I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, certainly not at all in fancy clothes like the others, and certainly, the only woman daring to wear pants. I could tell by the looks on the women’s faces that there was indeed judgment about my outward appearance!
But I did not care. I braved it, and went into the women’s room, which was joined to the men’s room, but separated and covered up so that we could not see what was going on, only hear what was going on. While I was not welcomed with open arms, they did allow me to participate and even pointed me to a chair next to another woman who was davening lightly, and she pointed me to the page (even though I knew where they were). She was kind, and I appreciated it.
What I appreciated the most was the common phrase when the women’s voices were allowed to be heard, “Baruch hu u’varuchSh’mo.” Rabbi Cohen always stressed the importance of this phrase in almost all services, and while I knew why intellectually, I never really understood just how important it is. It allows those whose voices are silenced to be heard. It allows us all to agree, as it is saying, “Blessed is God, and Blessed be God’s name.” We are essentially agreeing with what was said in the prayer, and are able to do so, despite the fact that we may not have been the ones to recite it, or in my case that day, even permitted to recite it that day.
It often seems that very little separates us, especially those of us who love God and who choose to live a life dedicated to being Jewish. Hearing that one small phrase, and participating in that one small way, gave some comfort, as it connected us. Yet what a frustration it is, to have such an antiquated sect of our people still today—a sect who keeps me, and my daughter, and anyone who looks different–like the inhabitants of Canaan–from talking to God in the way which is most authentic to us.
I truly felt that these 2 instances in France for me were not a coincidence. I needed to experience that service on Shavuot to fully appreciate my position as a Reform Cantor in the United States, despite my extreme fear of gun violence in our schools. Moses needed to understand that most of his people would not be the mensches that Caleb and Joshua were. Yet he needed to have the faith that it was still where they were meant to ultimately reside.
It is my prayer that during this month of LGBTQ+ Pride, we will be reminded that our Torah teaches that even God does not always identify with the same gender as we read in Genesis 1:27–” So God created the human beings in the divine image, creating them in the image of God, creating them male and female.” Let us be like Caleb and Joshua, who looked beneath the outward appearances of the inhabitants, and instead saw only the goodness of the land. Let us allow the recitation of “Barchuu’varuchSh’mo” to serve as a reminder of our oneness, and connection to the Divine, in whose image we are all created, despite outward or inward appearances.
I recently released an album of my original songs which we do in worship, and of songs we sing in J-Quest, generously underwritten by Harry Major. Please take a listen here to my original setting of Sim Shalom, in which you will hear “Barchuu’varuchSh’mo” at the end, for all to recite.