Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue: Dvar on Shoftim 5775

In my Dvar, or teaching, for this year’s Interfaith Pride Shabbat I look at the commandment to pursue justice and the questions and challenges it raises for those of us in LGBTTQ* / Queer spaces.

This week’s parshat, or Torah reading, Shoftim, is the 48th weekly Torah portion in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading and the fifth in the book of Deuteronomy. It constitutes Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9. Overall this parshat talks about justice and what to do when people break the law, the establishment of cities of refuge, what sort of witnesses are acceptable, how many witnesses, and, perhaps most importantly, the command to pursue justice. “Justice, justice you shall pursue”, (Deut 16:20). But what does this mean, particularly for those of us who fall under the LGBT / Queer umbrellas? Justice can take many forms, and often justice does not result in equality or equity. I am going to look at a few aspects of justice that are discussed in this parshat. Who is eligible to not participate in the army when going to battle, cities of refuge, bearing false witness, and to judge fairly and not take bribes.

This week, the Torah portion talks about how various people are not required to fight in a battle or war due to their circumstances in life. Someone who has just gotten married, built a home, planted an orchard and not redeemed the first fruits, and those who feel their courage may fail in battle and thus destroy the morale of the whole army. For all who fall into the categories described there is an honourable way out of the fight. I relate this to the need for political activism, education, in the struggle for LGBT / Queer rights. We are where we are today because there have been many who have gone before us to fight for recognition of our rights and freedoms. We are also building on those successes in order to fight to make sure that it will indeed get better for the next generation. Sometimes, however, those who are not active politically, or are not visible in their identities are criticized their perceived inaction. To me this is not a fair approach. We all have different skills and abilities. Some are able to be activists, some are able to quietly support others, and many just want to go on with their lives. Activism is not their forte, and they are not suited for it. Like those in Torah who are exempted from fighting, those of us who are not active in “the fight” are still to be respected and their decision honoured. They ought not to be disgraced for their decision. There are many reasons not to be involved, often it comes down to basic survival. For many, even here in Canada, being out about who they are is not an option. They may not have supportive family, workplaces, faith communities, local communities and the list goes on. It is easy to be critical of those who are not involved. It is more difficult to have empathy for people’s situations and the many reasons why they are not involved. Those who have been active and step back ought to be honoured and supported. They may be burnt out and in need of a safe place. A city of refuge if you will.

In Torah the Hebrews are commanded to build cities of refuge for those who inadvertently commit murder, or what we would now call manslaughter, and there are rules about who may seek protection there. For our own protection LGBT / Queer communities have created what are often referred to as “Gay villages” in major cities where it is safe for those of us who do not fit the heteronormative and cisnormative society we live in. These are our cities of refuge. They are where we look for community, support. We celebrate and we mourn, we laugh and we cry in these spaces that have been carved out for us by those who have gone before us.

Like our ancestors who created the cities of refuge as a place where people could find justice and safety, we have done the same. There is a long history of violence against those who identify under the LGBT / Queer umbrellas. Men who are perceived to be gay have been beaten and murdered. With the HIV / AIDS epidemic in the 1980s even more men faced violence because of the fear of the disease. Trans people are all too often the target of violence. Trans women, and especially trans women of colour have faced, and continue to face violence, discrimination, and death. One report I saw today (2015-08-21) put the count of murdered trans women in the United States at 22 so far this calendar year. Most, if not all, being trans women of colour. We need our villages to be open to all people, and most importantly open to those who are most marginalized. Does our village have affordable housing for the trans women living in poverty? One study found 50% of trans women in Canada live on less than $15,000 per year. We need federal human rights legislation. More importantly we need to make sure that those who discriminate against us for who we are get held accountable for their actions. Sadly, proving discrimination in hiring is a monumental task. Our cities of refuge are needed as much now as they were thirty or forty years ago. They are part of our pursuit of justice for all LGBT / Queer people.

Our villages also provide some protection against the false witness that many people still put out against those of us under the LGBT umbrella. How often have we heard that gay people, trans women, and others are really predators. We hear that we are pedophiles, want to attack women in bathrooms etc. Many, if not most of the people making these claims call themselves religious and follow one of the Abrahamic religions. Those of us who have the Torah in our cannon really ought to think twice about this. The information is provably false, yet organizations continue to collude and work to spread lies, false witness, against us. Yet we are called not to testify as a false witness under threat of a punishment, “if he has testified falsely against his fellow, you shall do to him as he schemed to do to his fellow.” (Deut 19:18-19) We have strict penalties in law for those who lie under oath. There are also laws that are supposed to protect against defamation of character, yet we do not hear of many cases where those who have spoken falsely against LGBT / Queer people being sued under these laws.

Within our own communities often there is false witness or shaming of those who are not part of what is deemed to be acceptable. We see people who are part of one aspect of LGBT / Queer expressions act against, or seek to harm those who are under other parts of the umbrella. We have all been hurt by the systemic oppressions we face every day, and it becomes too easy to then take it out on others when we perceive it to be to our own advantage. We must guard against bearing false witness in our words and actions. We have every right to be angry, yet we must channel the anger in order to not harm others. Anger clouds judgement and our ability to judge fairly.

When we judge unfairly, what does it look like? Sometimes it is when we do not look at all aspects of a situation, or a person’s circumstances and rush to judge the person based on what we feel the person should be doing, or how they should behave. Trans people often face this sort of judgement. We face it from those who are the gatekeepers to our health care. We face it from society. Trans people are often deemed to be “not really trans” based on how they express themselves. Lesbians are often told that they do not look lesbian if they don’t fit what people have decided that lesbians should look like. If we are to truly judge fairly we need to look beyond our own preconceptions and ideas of what someone should look like. We must look beyond what is deemed by mainstream society, and mainstream LGBT organizations, to be what is acceptable if one is LGBT / Queer. All too often, this judgement, and decision as to who is acceptable, who is worthy of help is influenced by money. Those with money and power use it to bribe us.

When it comes to LGBT organizations, there has been criticism of those who say that Pride must still be political, and not just a big party. Pride in major centres has become a large event that has an economic impact on the city. Pride organizations receive a lot of money from corporate and other sponsors. Some argue that these sponsorships are essentially bribes to keep a lot of the politics out of Pride. When we are called to seek justice, part of the seeking of justice is to ask what strings are attached to monetary and other support. If a company is participating in Pride, but at the same time still has policies and practices that are harmful to some of the people under the wide LGBT / Queer umbrella are we allowed to challenge them? When political parties chose to participate in events there is often a sense that because they are participating and paying their fee that they should not be called out on their policies. What does justice look like in this situation?

Justice is not as clean as television crime dramas would have us believe. It gets messy. As we have seen over the years, justice for LGBT / Queer people often depends on one’s place under the umbrella. It often feels like those who are most marginalized have been thrown under the bus in order to achieve successes for those with the power. Often the issues most important to lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and others have been put aside and forgotten about in order to achieve results for gay men. Further, there are race issues within pride organizations and pride celebrations. People of colour often feel excluded. People of colour here in Ottawa still do not feel properly represented by the pride organization. I have also noticed this referring to mainstream pride and LGBT spaces as being “blindingly white” on more than one occasion, and even being quoted on it in a mainstream newspaper. If we do not look at the oppressions and intersectionalities of oppressions within our communities are we really pursuing justice?

This Pride weekend, and throughout the year, ask yourself, “What am I doing to follow the commandment to pursue justice?”

Justice, justice, you shall pursue. It is a good commandment, it is a challenging commandment.

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