Kosher Queers

32 — Shavuot: What’s a Jew, Anyway?

May 28, 2020 Jaz Twersky and Lulav Arnow
Kosher Queers
32 — Shavuot: What’s a Jew, Anyway?
Chapters
Kosher Queers
32 — Shavuot: What’s a Jew, Anyway?
May 28, 2020
Jaz Twersky and Lulav Arnow

This week, for Shavuot, we answer a question from Xava De Cordova (from Xai, how are you?) and talk about what it means to be a member of a Jewish community. But that's a big topic, so in particular, we're contrasting our perspectives on Christian beliefs in the context of Jewish communities and what it means to hold an expansive idea of community while also valuing Judaism’s uniqueness. Basically, we argue about what Judaism is, but agree that arguing itself is definitely Jewish. Plus, we read some podcast reviews on air!

Full transcript here.

The reference to seeing the name Huna in a dream being a good omen is in Berakhot 57a. Here's the Jewish summer program, Szarvas, that Jaz went on in high school and argued about what it meant to be Jewish. Here is a summary of Maimonides Thirteen Principles of Faith.

Support us on Patreon! Send us questions or comments at kosherqueers@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter @kosherqueers, and like us on Facebook at Kosher Queers. Our music is by the band Brivele. This week, our audio was edited by Ezra Faust, and our transcript was written by Khesed Bein. Our logo is by Lior Gross, and we are not endorsed by or affiliated with the Orthodox Union.

Support the show (http://patreon.com/kosherqueers)

Show Notes Transcript

This week, for Shavuot, we answer a question from Xava De Cordova (from Xai, how are you?) and talk about what it means to be a member of a Jewish community. But that's a big topic, so in particular, we're contrasting our perspectives on Christian beliefs in the context of Jewish communities and what it means to hold an expansive idea of community while also valuing Judaism’s uniqueness. Basically, we argue about what Judaism is, but agree that arguing itself is definitely Jewish. Plus, we read some podcast reviews on air!

Full transcript here.

The reference to seeing the name Huna in a dream being a good omen is in Berakhot 57a. Here's the Jewish summer program, Szarvas, that Jaz went on in high school and argued about what it meant to be Jewish. Here is a summary of Maimonides Thirteen Principles of Faith.

Support us on Patreon! Send us questions or comments at kosherqueers@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter @kosherqueers, and like us on Facebook at Kosher Queers. Our music is by the band Brivele. This week, our audio was edited by Ezra Faust, and our transcript was written by Khesed Bein. Our logo is by Lior Gross, and we are not endorsed by or affiliated with the Orthodox Union.

Support the show (http://patreon.com/kosherqueers)

Jaz: Hey Kosher Queerlings. Representing the coastal half of our dynamic duo, it's Jaz here to wish you a happy Shavuot! We have an unusual episode for you today. See, the thing is that Shavuot throws off the parsha schedule, because it has its own reading separate from the orderly reading through the Torah that we usually do. The Shavuot reading is something we’ve done before, and we weren’t quite ready to repeat it. 

Traditionally, we stay up all night studying Torah on Shavuot — last year I went to a cool Jewish anti-fascist skill share with Outlive Them in New York until like 4am — and so, we have some extra studying this week, diving in a little deeper. You may remember that way back in episode 17, we talked about proselytizing and conversion. If you don't remember, go back and listen (or read it, if you're a transcript person). Really easy to find either way; it says “Conversion” right there in the title. Anyway, today, we're continuing that conversation. We’re not talking so much about conversion in this one, but more what it means to be Jewish more generally. Lulav and I talk about what it means to hold various meanings of the phrase “I am Jewish,” and we contrast our perspectives on Christian beliefs in the context of Jewish communities and what it means to hold an expansive idea of community while also valuing Judaism’s uniqueness. 

We're also going to be putting out some additional content, in honor of Shavuot, about the six sexes of the Talmud. A patron requested it a while back, and it'll be a Patreon exclusive, out within the next couple weeks, so you've got time to join the Patreon and learn with us about the weird and wobbly world of old-timey Jewish gender notions. 

A note before this episode though; we recorded it a while back, and during the episode I talk about my aunt Lynnie B. At the time we recorded, she was quite sick with ovarian cancer, and on March 13th, she passed away. It was peaceful and painless, and I was able to see her shortly before she died, to spend some time with her. When studying Jewish texts, people often dedicate their learning, and for this episode, I retroactively dedicate my learning to my aunt, Lynn Blair. 

[Brivele intro music]

Lulav: Welcome to Kosher Queers, a podcast with at least two Jews and generally more than three opinions. Each week we bring you queer takes on Torah, and today we’re gonna continue a conversation we started back in episode seventeen.

Jaz: We’re gonna be circling back to discussing conversion and because it was a bit of a longer segment, we actually wanted to just give it its own mini-episode and not throw it in one of the week’s episodes.

Lulav: Yeah, and also not put it behind a paywall because this is part of an important ongoing conversation.

Jaz: Yeah. So we got a comment from a listener and someone who I know and whose opinions I really respect. So Xava is a fellow podcaster.

Lulav: Whoo! 

Jaz: Xava has a podcast called Xai, how are you?, which is delightful and which you should all go listen to and be Patrons of. So Xava wrote to us after listening to that conversation to say
“Hey! I just want to say that I found this segment about Jesus and Judaism super rough. As someone whose teaching work is with incarcerated Jews who are often multifaith themselves, I think that line in the sand is rough and exclusive in a sort of oppressive way, and also very messy when it comes to interfaith families.”

Lulav: Yeah!

Jaz: And I really appreciated Xava reaching out and saying this to us and it prompted me to think about the ways in which maybe our conversation was a little under-nuanced and prompted me to think at least about some of my sort of own life experiences and connections that I didn’t touch on in that episode. I wouldn’t have said the segment was about Jesus and Judaism, but definitely there was a portion of it, like a couple minutes of it that was.

Lulav: And I’ll play that segment as a refresher right here:

Flashback begins

Jaz: You can access Judaism and can be Jewish and can do Jewishly in lots of different ways —

Lulav: Yeah! — 

Jaz: That’s true for people who have lots of different relationships to Judaism even if they’re just discovering those relationships to Judaism.

Lulav: Yeah. I do wanna say, I think that believing that Jesus of Nazareth is the messiah is a disqualification to being Jewish, personally.

Jaz: It’s an interesting line. I would mostly agree with you. I would definitely hold that to be true if you’re converting into Judaism

Lulav: Hmm, kay.

Jaz: But I know that there’s some disagreement, right, related to the fact that if your parents are Jewish, if you grow up in a Jewish home, and then you’re like “I am really into Jesus now,” there are definitely people who’d be like, “well, that person is still Jewish, you’re just wrong.”

Lulav: Okay. And that really gets into the whole ethnic versus racial versus religious aspect of what Judaism is?

Jaz: Which is complicated.

Flashback ends

Lulav: Okay. So how do you wanna start talking about this, Jaz?

Jaz: Well, so I don’t come from an interfaith family, but I do have family members who do. Both of my parents are Jewish, but one of my moms came from a family where her mother was Catholic and her father was Jewish.

Lulav: That’s a mood.

Jaz: Yeah. And while my mom is, like, very strongly Jewish and my family is Jewish, her sister, my Aunt Lynnie B has a more complicated relationship to religion in general, and so when I got this message, it prompted me to be thinking about Lynn and her experience. It was sort of an interesting moment to get that message also, because about two days after Xava wrote to us, I got a call from my family that Lynn was in the hospital. And when we’re recording this, she’s very sick. And I don’t know how long from now this episode will be released, but definitely, um … my aunt who I love very much, and whose religious aspect feels really relevant to this, um… is, uh — 

Lulav: She may not be alive by the time this episode airs? Is that fair to say?

Jaz: It is possible. Yeah. Depending on when this goes up, and I just recently went home to spend some time with her. And so she's the person for whom this comes up for me. She absolutely does believe in Jesus and also she has been part of our Shabbat dinners in meaningful ways and part of our Passover seders.

Lulav: Yeah!

Jaz: And she’s family and she has the same claim to Judaism as my mom who definitely is Jewish, in terms of, like, heritage and stuff like that. And I don’t want a Jewish community that says Lynn can’t be a part of it. 

Lulav: Mm hmm.

Jaz: And when I went to visit her in the hospital, my family’s rabbi came and visited there, you know. And so when I think about the future, that is more of what I want the Jewish communities to look like. Without that kind of gatekeeping. Also I guess listeners you can go back to episode —

Lulav: Eight? Seven? (laughs)

Jaz: There is an episode that clearly involves family. It’s called like “Mothers and Brothers and — ”

Lulav: “Brothers, Mothers, and Angels, Oh My!”

Jaz: Yeah! That features mostly my mothers and brothers but also Lynnie B chimes in near the end. Yeah.

Lulav: She’s great. Jaz, to your knowledge, what does it mean that Lynn believes in Jesus?

Jaz: I don’t know! In the way that it is sometimes hard for me to know what that means to lots of people.

Lulav: (laughs) Right.

Jaz: But I know that what she considers moral and religious teachings there are important to her.

Lulav: Uh-huh

Jaz: And she has some notion of saints from her Catholic mother and that there is some aspect of believing that there was a human person that was also a divine person.

Lulav: Hm. Yeah. Like beyond the sense in that we are all divine people?

Jaz: I believe so. 

Lulav: Yeah. Okay! So, I think to talk about my feelings on this and expand on things that we talked about in the original episode, I want to go into what it means to be a Jew or be Jewish. And we talked about the ethnically being Jew — you said that your mom and Lynnie B have the same claim, heritage-wise, to being Jewish, and I absolutely 100% agree with that, but that’s not the only thing that being Jewish can mean.

Jaz: Obviously not!

Lulav: Yeah. 

Jaz: Because there’s lots of people who are Jewish and don’t have Jewish heritage. Converts are a large part — that’s why we had that conversation in the first place.

Lulav: Yeah, so when you’re talking about religiously Jewish, that’s where I was saying a person who does Jewishly and identifies as Jewish is what it means to be religiously a Jew? Does that make sense?

Jaz: Yeah? But that’s a complicating thing too, right, like —

Lulav: Uh-huh! (laughs) 

Jaz: A person can do things that are Jewish and do things that are not Jewish.

Lulav: Right. So, yeah, just keeping in mind that there are multiple meanings of ‘is Jewish’ and also just because somebody isn’t Jewish doesn’t mean that they’re not a comrade. That’s like, an important part of how I think of people.

Jaz: Say more?

Lulav: So like, somebody who I think is working towards tikkun olam, I consider a comrade. Even if they’re not doing it in a Jewish way or they’re coming from a completely different faith perspective.

Jaz: Mm.

Lulav: Somebody who makes a better world is somebody that I trust and want to be in community with in some way.

Jaz: Sure! 

Lulav: Does that make sense?

Jaz: Yeah!

Lulav: So when you get into syncretism, somebody who is both religiously Jewish and religiously Christian aspects to their faith, it gets a little thorny, but what I will definitely say is that your aunt, as far as I can tell is absolutely a comrade and absolutely part of the Jewish family, religiously speaking. 

Jaz: Mm. 

Lulav: Does that make sense?

Jaz: Maybe. It feels like maybe there’s a distinction that you’re drawing there, between “belongs as part of our community” and “is Jewish.”

Lulav: Yeah I don’t mean ‘our community’ I’m talking specifically about what I recognize as part of the same faith community as myself? And there’s some disagreement about halakha that I feel fits within that, but I think for me personally, a dividing line between like, “in the same faith community as me” and “not in the same faith community as me” would be belief in Jesus as more divine than other humans. Which is, again, isn’t to say that Lynn isn’t Jewish. She absolutely is. According to what you have told me and what I have heard of her on this podcast.

Jaz: I guess I was just thinking about how I am a person whose Jewishness has not been contested, sort of ever and is unlikely to be. And I, from that particular position don’t want to be looking at people and saying “are you Jewish enough to be part of my community or not?” I would like to welcome anybody into my community who feels like they should be there. And even saying “I want to welcome people in” feels like I have the power to do that or not do that, and I don’t know that I do? If you know what I mean?

Lulav: Yeah, no, for sure. When I talk about drawing distinctions about who is in my personal religious community, it’s not about like, “oh, you’re not one of the cool kids — you can’t play with us.” It’s like people who I recognize to be working in the same very general framework, but there’s also like the same religious family, which is a much larger framework.

Jaz: Sure.

Lulav: And there are definitely some people who are in my larger religious community who I absolutely do not consider comrades.

Jaz: For sure

Lulav: Because of pervasive sexism and a whole bunch of other stuff, including racism!

Jaz: Yeah. So the other thing about Xava’s comment when she said it was sort of rough and exclusive in a sort of oppressive way is that there are sort of practical considerations sometimes to who gets what type of resources, who is eligible for Jewish programming or membership or membership in Jewish synagogues or — there is only one rabbinical school that accepts people with non-Jewish partners. 

Lulav: Yeah. 

Jaz: So the dividing line of who counts as Jewish or not has practical implications.

Lulav: Right, so again, I am talking specifically about myself. When it comes to apportioning resources, I want as broad a community as possible.

Jaz: Yeah, I do too, and I think we’re agreed on that but I think it’s worth saying explicitly. (laughs)

Lulav: Yes please! Thank you for doing that. And in case I haven’t said this yet, thank you so much Xava for sending in your take on this.

Jaz: And so then the other part of that comment there was about working with incarcerated Jews and how this plays out there, and — Lulav, I don’t remember if you've done any work in prisons?

Lulav: I have not

Jaz: I haven’t done a lot — Xava’s done more — but I’ve done a little bit. I’ve led a couple song circles in prisons, and it is definitely true that when I go to jails or prisons that many if not most of the people who show up there don’t fit the stereotype or norm of what Jewish community looks like outside of prison.

Lulav: Hmm. Can you elaborate on that a bit more?

Jaz: Which is to say, specifically, what I’m thinking of in reference to Xava’s point, is that they didn’t always grow up Jewish — in fact, often didn’t. Like, they often found it in prison, like they often come from a different faith tradition that they might still be attached to. Prison is just also blacker and browner in terms of the population and so sometimes you go into a synagogue that feels like a very white space and that’s not true when you do services at a prison.

Lulav: Yeah!

Jaz: And also the first time I led a song circle, there was one person there who described himself as Black Israelite and did explicitly include belief in Jesus as part of that and also got a great deal of meaning from being part of this Jewish song circle and was glad that we were there, and I was glad that he was there.

Lulav: And again, when we talk about belief in Jesus we’re talking about belief in the divinity of Jesus.

Jaz: Look, I didn’t press him for details!

Lulav: Right, but like I do want to make that distinction. Christians will use ‘belief in Jesus’ as a shorthand for meaning A) belief in the divinity of Jesus and B) belief that Jesus dying was a sacrifice to wipe away the sins that everybody has.

Jaz: Okay.

Lulav: Yeah, so there’s like a whole bunch of stuff wrapped up in that.

Jaz: I didn’t press anybody for the specifics of their particular belief system, so I can’t speak to it.

Lulav: Very fair. Yeah. I’m just saying that when people say that they believe in Jesus, that’s generally what's included and it’s not just that you believe there was a dude named Jesus who had teachings around 30 CE.

Jaz: Right, yeah.

Lulav: Because that’s a thing I pretty much believe in, maybe not as explicitly recorded by the gospels but I believe that there was a rabbi who had a cult of personality started around him, especially post-death.

Jaz: Sure, sure! I guess I was talking about how some people come to Judaism and find meaning in Judaism and are engaging with Judaism in ways that are like, serious and meaningful and when you talk about living Jewishly and doing Jewishly people can be engaged in that and come from backgrounds that include explicit Christian belief, and can hold both of things inside of themselves. I guess I was just thinking about what it means in terms of when people leave those specific environments, I, you know, would like them to feel able to go to synagogues and stuff. You know, like, even if they’re still in the process of — I just don’t think that many synagogues are set up to accommodate that, that they don’t always know how to meet different people’s needs.

Lulav: Oh! Another thing about being Jewish is that when somebody says that something is a certain way, there is room to push back on that. Like it is kind of expected that a statement about a line in the sand is as permanent as an actual line in the sand. (Jaz laughs) And that it necessarily involved some reshaping by the ocean of other people involved.

Jaz: Right. Yeah, I think that’s a really good point, too. Because when you’re reading the Talmud and they say anything, like I was reading a page that said, “if you see the name Hunah in dream, you will get miracles,” and then another rabbi chimes in and is like, “but only if it is written down,” specifically, like, you know, they get to argue about the minutest of details. (Lulav laughs) And so when you’re defining a question as big as “what does it mean to be Jewish and do Jewish things in the world and who’s part of our community,” like, we get to argue about that one forever. When I was in eleventh grade I went to a program called Szarvas, and they put all of us who were definitely, like, Jewish kids in a room and had us argue about who was Jewish — 

Lulav: Oh, G-d! (laughs very hard) Rough!

Jaz: For like two hours. It was great. I’m still in touch with friends from there.

Lulav: (laughs) That’s really cool.

Jaz: Yeah.

Lulav: So especially since we’re talking about carceral paradigms you can’t say that there is one law and then expect the statement of that law to be interpreted by everyone and enforced the same way by everyone and, like, for it to come out in the same way? There is no such thing as ultimate justice from my perspective. The only thing is people working to make justice within their communities.

Jaz: Mmm! Could you connect that back for me?

Lulav: Yeah, so like deciding who is or isn’t part of one’s community, is like I said, as nebulous and prone to change as a line in the sand. There is no one statement about this person is or isn’t in the community or the family of faith that is permanent and applies to everyone and cannot be argued in some way.

Jaz: Yeah, I mean I think we said that in the episode itself also, that Maimonides had these Thirteen Principles of Faith (Lulav laughs) that everybody believes.

Lulav: (laughing) “Everybody believes.”

Jaz: Right, and the person who taught it to me didn’t believe any of them. 

Lulav: Mm hmm. I think this might have been cut out in the editing process, but I checked on air and was like, “yeah, I don’t believe any of these either!” (both laugh) Amazing.

Jaz: Yeah.

Lulav: And yeah, I can’t remember if it was that episode or another episode but like I said that the way that you know that you are Jewish is when somebody says that you aren’t Jewish and you’re like, “Mm, no, I think I am.”

Jaz: I think that was the same one! Yeah.

Lulav: Okay, good. (laughs)

Jaz: Yeah, I mean arguing over definitions is part of what makes us Jewish and also I met Xava, who set us this comment, through Svara at Queer Talmud Camp and part of what I really love about engaging in a Talmud-style process is that it is this series of debate and conversations over millennia, and we get to be part of that process of asking questions and arguing and helping redefine the text and Judaism and traditions and halacha and — 

Lulav: Yeah!

Jaz: Whatever else. That it is in our hands and we get by virtue of continuing conversations to constantly improve it and develop it and make it stronger.

Lulav: Even in haolam habo there is no final book of Jewish writing.

Jaz: Awww! Have you heard the thing that like in one version of haolam haba that the Sages love is the idea that we’ll all just be studying together? (Lulav giggles) Anyway, I think that’s all for this episode, unless, Lulav, do you have any other points that you wanted to make sure we hit?

Lulav: No, I think we, if not directly, thoroughly talked about all of the points in the scaffold that I drew up.

Jaz: Okay. I want to say again to the rest of our listeners if you have thoughts about things that we’ve said or questions or comments, please send them to us because that way we can continue building conversations, and through conversations continue building our Judaism!

Lulav: Yeah! Speaking of listener input, I just checked the iTunes page for Kosher Queers. And apparently we have nine ratings, two of which have actual reviews.

Jaz: Yes!

Lulav: So thank you if you have rated us, and especially thank you to the two people who reviewed us, because we have exactly five stars, which is wonderful.

Jaz: That’s beautiful! Lulav, can you read both of our reviews on air?

Lulav? Yes. So back when we were starting, I think? Back in September, Tori Burstein said “Jaz and Lulav have great podcast voices! They sound so happy and I thoroughly enjoy learning their perspectives on Torah portions.” And that was such a great thing to, like, start the podcast to, thank you so much Tori. 

Jaz: Thanks, Tori

Lulav: The second review came yesterday on the leap week, and is just titled “can i give this more than 5 stars pls” and it comes from Charlie. So Charlie says “i've downloaded a whole bunch of episodes of this show to listen to while i work, and it's really interesting, engaging, and fun to listen to :D” (which is like a broadly smiling face) “i'm excited to hear more and learn more stuff!!” And, I’m so touched.

Jaz: This is so delightful. Also Tori is a really good friend of mine and Charlie is not someone I know personally, so it’s great.

Lulav: Yeah! I just love that we have touched people’s — maybe not lives? So much as like, Jewish study? 

Jaz: Yeah!

Lulav: Yeah. And I’m trying to round it down as much as possible so I don’t sound incredibly conceited.

Jaz: Yeah.

Lulav: But we've also had people talk to us in person. It’s just great. If you’ve never met a podcaster before, the secret is they’re people like you. (Jaz laughs) We’re just dorks. Who happened to make a podcast.

Jaz: Also it’s been wonderful for me because about being able to say, ‘I have a queer Jewish podcast’ is that people just come up to you and start telling you things about their like, relationship with queerness or Judaism or queer Judaism, which is incredible, like every time that happens.

Lulav: It’s always so good. So, yeah, Jaz, can you take us to the close?

Jaz: Yeah! So as always, thanks for listening to Kosher Queers, if you like what you’ve heard you can support us on Patreon at Patreon.com/KosherQueers which will give you bonus content like this one. This one is free for everybody, but in general our bonus episodes have to go up behind a paywall so we can keep making it. And your support really does help us keep making this podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @KosherQueers or like us on FaceBook at Kosher Queers. And email us your questions, comments, or concerns at KosherQueers@gmail.com. And please spread the word about our podcast. Our artwork is by the talented Lior Gross. Our music is courtesy of the fabulous band Brivele, whose work you can buy on BandCamp. Go buy their album, they’re great! Our sound production for this episode is done by my lovely cohost Lulav Arnow.

Lulav: No less lovely than meatloaf. (Jaz laughs) Our full transcripts as with every episode are done by Dico and Jaz and are definitely accessible on Buzzsprout.

Jaz: I’m Jaz Twersky and you can find me on Twitter @WordNerdKnitter and I recorded this audio on the traditional lands of the Lenape people.

Lulav: I’m Lulav Arnow and you can find me @SpaceTruckSix on Twitter or yell at me on @PalmLiker. I recorded this audio on the traditional lands of the Wahpékute and Anishinaabeg. Have a lovely queer Jewish day!

[Brivele outro music]

Jaz: This week’s gender is senary. This week’s pronouns are le/lim/lis