Spies Like Us: Parshat Shelach Lecha

This is the dvar, the teaching, I delivered during the Kulanu Toronto Pride Shabbat dinner on Friday June 16, 2017 held at The 519 on Church St. in Toronto.

This week’s Parshat, Schelach Lechah (Numbers 13:1-15:41), tells the story of the members of the tribes sent as spies into the land of Canaan, their reports back to Moses with the majority saying the land can’t be conquered. The minority, Joshua and Caleb, say it can be. The ten insist they not invade and God wants to kill them all, but after hearing Moses’s arguments deems that they shall be punished by having to wander the desert until all who left the land of Egypt, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, are dead. They try to invade the land of Canaan after all and are routed. They are then told what sacrifices are expected of them once they enter the promised land. Lastly, the commandments around tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of garments, are received.

This year, the reading of this parshat coincides with an important moment in Canadian LGBT history. The passage of Bill C-16 by the Canadian Senate. The vote on the third reading took place yesterday, and the bill passed. In Ontario, five years ago, we saw Toby’s Act passed by the Province of Ontario. Both of these pieces of legislation added Gender Identity and Gender Expression as protected grounds in federal and provincial law. Truly wonderful events.

What do these pieces of legislation have to do with a parshat that talks about spying, lack of faith, invasion, punishment, sacrifices, and what we are supposed to add to our garments?

On the surface, not much. Particularly if one chooses to take a very literal reading of the text. It’s easy to read it and think, here we go again. Israelites are told to do something, they do some of it, don’t want to do the hardest part, God gets angry, threatens to kill them all, Moses intervenes, and God gives a lesser punishment. A pattern repeated a number of times through the story of the journey through the desert. One might be tempted to yawn and think, “Ah, here we go again.”

This year, I chose to go deeper. To look at this parshat through a queer lens. Through the lens of the struggles that LGBTQ+ people have faced to have our rights acknowledged and protected. The struggle to be recognised. The struggle to not be deemed mentally ill deviants who prey on children.

Fifty years ago in Canada homosexuality was still illegal and there were men serving indefinite sentences for being gay.

We sought our freedom from oppression and bondage forced on us by society. Over time we saw improvements in how we are treated by society as a whole.

There have been times, however, when members of the LGBT community have more resembled the ten spies and the tribes of Isreal who said, “No, we can’t go into the land of Canaan, we’ll be killed.”

The argument was, the struggle is too difficult and we should be grateful for what we have. Don’t rock the boat. We’ll get our asses kicked again.

When the police raided the bath houses in Operation Soap in 1981 the community could have said no, it’s too dangerous to stand up for our rights. No doubt many chose to stay in the closet or go back into the closet at that time. It was, and for many still is, seen as the safer way to be. Like the Israelites in the desert who wanted to go back to Egypt, to what was known, there was, and is a desire for security.

Many, however, decided to fight for our rights and our right to be treated with dignity and has humans. Instead, we followed the model of Joshua and Caleb. Standing up for what was right and moving forward.

Over the next 30 years, we saw rights for gays and lesbians improve, but not without a struggle. The HIV/AIDS epidemic led to increased fear and persecution of gay men. Many of us were touched by the deaths of those we knew. All too often close friends, lovers, and family.

They did not live to see a better land, one where gay and lesbian people could be open.

Yet the community persisted. We saw the right to marry be affirmed by the courts and later by federal legislation. We saw sexual orientation added as protected grounds in human rights legislation.
As Joshua did in the book of Judges, and the haftarah reading for this week we chose to have hope. To have confidence that things could get better and we could have a land where we could live free to be who we are.

It was easy for the majority of the gay and lesbian community to look at where things stood and say, “we’re done.” The right to marry, and later divorce, was secured. Legislation nominally protected against discrimination.

The struggle is not over

The journey through the wilderness, however, wasn’t over. Many of us were still fighting for our rights and to be considered human. Trans and gender diverse people continued to fight, and are still fighting for our rights to be recognised and protections enforced.

I regularly hear people say that the struggle is over. I heard people say that before Toby’s Act was law in Ontario. I heard people say that each time trans human rights went before The Parliament of Canada in multiple private members bills and lastly in Bill C-16, a government bill.

In our communities, we still have tremendous inequities. They are there if we choose to notice them. There are many reasons why we do not notice inequities and oppression.

First, and most simply, if it doesn’t have a direct impact, does not directly affect a person, it is easy to ignore and not notice. We all have things that we do not notice. How often does one partner in a relationship complain that their partner and/or other family members do not see a mess in the house or repairs that are needed?

Second, and perhaps more importantly, we do not notice because of our own internal fears and judgements. We all have them. It is part of being human. Some of us have more of these than others.

In preparing this dvar I explored a few Torah commentaries from the collection at the Toronto Reference Library. One of the more interesting ones was The Kabbalistic Bible commentary on Numbers. What particularly struck me in this commentary was the discussion of the differences between the ten spies, or scouts, that gave a negative report and the reports of Caleb and Joshua.

Before going on the scouting mission Joshua is blessed by Moses so that he would be free of judgement. Caleb, while not blessed by Moses, did lag behind so that he could pray and, like Joshua, be without judgement.

They were to scout the land of Canaan without prior judgement, without an agenda of their own. Open to the hope and promise of the land and the possibilities therein for the Israelites.

The other ten, however, went in with their own fears and prejudices in place. They feared no longer being relevant, they feared not being needed. They had an agenda and thus did not see Canaan as a good place for them. This commentary states that “Only Joshua and Caleb saw what was real because they believed in treating everyone with human dignity.”(Berg, 2009, p.139) The other scouts did not and showed a complete disrespect for other people.

In our own communities, how often do we act more like the ten scouts and less like Joshua and Caleb? How often do we let our own agendas, prejudices, hatreds, and disregard for others guide our actions and views?

It is present in religious arguments against the inclusions of LGBT people in Jewish communities. Those who argue against the inclusion of LGBT people as rabbis and cantors are acting, in part, to protect their position and opinions of what Torah is and what Jewish Law requires, often forgetting that the law has undergone changes over the centuries and millennia.

It is present in LGBT communities and is quite often directly related to where we are in our positions in society. For some uniformed police officers are a source of comfort and feelings of protection. For many others, myself included, there is a discomfort and distrust of police that are a direct result of the harms they continue to perpetrate against marginalised and vulnerable populations. Some members of our community who have experienced violence at the hands of police have flashbacks and are unable to be in a space with uniformed officers. I have seen this first hand and continue to support members of our community who have these experiences.

In the chapter on Shelach Lecha in the book Torah Queeries, Rabbi Camille Shira Angel frames the situation in the context of the dominator vs the dominated. Coming out is a battle for autonomy and self-definition. The dominant culture and mainstream thinking are a very real threat to us.

In the Torah portion, we are told what the Israelites thought of the Canaanites and Anakites. We are not told, however, what the Anakites think of the Israelites. We do not know what would have happened had the Israelites had the confidence to move forward with what God was telling them to do.

Were the ten spies judging themselves through their perception of how others regarded them? How often do we judge ourselves through the perspective that others have of us? This way of examining ourselves leads to problems, particularly when the other has a history and practice of oppression.

The spies gave in to their insecurity and sense of inferiority and were paralysed, not able to move forward. They were unable to see past their insecurity.

Many in the broad and diverse LGBT community continue to struggle with a sense of inferiority. Much like the Israelites who were trying to establish their identity after centuries of slavery, we who are LGBT are continuing to discover who we are in the context of a wider society.

Resistance is not futile. We do not need to be assimilated

Do we choose to assimilate and adopt practices that mimic mainstream cisgender heteronormative society? Or, do we opt for a different path and define who we are for ourselves?

Rabbi Angel comments that in Judaism over the years we have seen some who would try to pass as gentiles by, “’fixing’ their noses, [and] taking on anglicized names” (201) Is this wrong to do? I cannot answer that and it is not for me to judge.

In LGBT communities there is a similar pattern. There is a pressure for gays, lesbians and bisexuals to act like straight people. To pass as normal people so as not to rock the boat and behave like everyone else. This is particularly evident in personal ads where “straight looking” and “straight acting” are seen as desirable because that way others do not know the person is gay or lesbian.

For transgender people, the pressure is for us to pass as cisgender people. The idea is that we must adhere to the stereotypes of what it means to be a man or a woman. This pressure comes from within trans communities, from society, and from medical professionals who decide whether or not one can access medical transition. For many years the norm was that trans people were expected to be ‘stealth’ and hide their transition history. We were required to be ‘straight’ and not gay or bisexual after transition. Meet the cisnormative and heteronormative expectations of the dominant society. If we don’t pass as cisgender, or even try to pass as cisgender we are told that we are “doing it wrong” or “not really trans.”

The narratives of conservatives, and even some “progressives” and liberals, continue to vilify and demonise LGBT people. The Roman Catholic Church still sees us as “intrinsically disordered. The Southern Baptist Convention this year banned Gay people from participating and being present.

Rabbi Angel points out that Joshua and Caleb were able to go beyond all this, beyond the dominant narratives. They had hope. They knew that they could move on and succeed in conquering the Anakites. In addition, Caleb is Other and is still recognised as worthy by God.

What does this mean for us today, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in 2017/5777?

First, and foremost, I think that we need to remember that many of us are still wandering in the wilderness.

Many young people are kicked out of their homes, or their homes are not safe when they come out as LGBT. Among homeless youth 50% are LGBT. They are told that “It gets better.” There’s a whole campaign based on that slogan. Yet, for all too many, it does not. Their lives end in suicide. It does not get better in time for them.

Violence against trans women is still rampant. It doesn’t just happen elsewhere, but not far from this building. I have heard of at least two incidents in the past 6-8 months. One incident where it was reported that a police officer stood by and did nothing. In the United States and around the world trans people are beaten and murdered on almost a daily basis. Most often the violence is against trans women of colour.

Getting out of the wilderness is hindered for many by a life in poverty. The TransPulse survey, now more than 5 years old, found that the MEDIAN income for trans people in Ontario was $15,000. One Five Thousand. Per year. Most of those below this level being trans women.

People who are HIV positive live with the fear that their status may be criminalised and they might face prosecution.

All of that is pretty disheartening, especially in this month, Pride Month in Toronto. For many, this is a time of celebration and should not be a time for depressing or negative discussion.

I say that it is time for both.

As I stated earlier we do have a lot to celebrate. We have come a long way since the days of life in prison in Canada for being gay. We have protections in law that we didn’t have 25 years ago. Although, Quebec included sexual orientation in its human rights code in 1977.

With all of these advances, we still have some way to go. Many of us are still on the fringes of society. We do not have access to employment, health care, medical transition, a stable place to live.

The closing of this week’s parsha is the commandment to make fringes on the corners of our garments. As a trans woman, as someone who is autistic, as someone who has moved to Judaism rather than being born into it, I live on the fringes. When I look at tzitzit I not only think of the commandments I ponder my own place in the world.

What are the fringes you inhabit in your lives? Are you striving to follow the lead of Joshua and Caleb, or are you more like the ten scouts who could not move past their memories of enslavement at the hand of the Egyptians and seeking to maintain their own positions of relative comfort and power? How are you striving to make the world a better place for those who will come after us?

I will end with a Trans Lo Dayenu.

This week as we celebrate successes we also move forward to rectify inequities and discrimination. We recognise that our existence is an act of defiance to mainstream society and especially to social conservatives.

Nevertheless, we persist.
We exist.
We celebrate who we are in all our wonderful, glittery diversity.

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