Mar 23, 2023Liked by Noah Millman

I (both historian and ordained if non-professional rabbi, for whatever that's worth, which isn't much) think you read these text correctly. The rabbis have a fundamental need to understand the diversity of biological sex, given how central gender dimorphism is to rabbinic law and culture. That said, I think there's another dynamic you might be missing.

These texts have, over the past 50 years or so, been deeply important to queer and trans Jews in helping them build a usable Jewish framework that includes them. They've been a powerful tool to help queer and trans Jews find themselves in Jewish texts, Jewish law and Jewish history. I think that's real, and good and valuable.

BUT there's another dynamic at play here, which is the awkward way academic Jewish studies and liberal Jewish rabbinic education have become intertwined. This has been especially true at The Jewish Theological Seminary, in the Conservative movement, but it is also the case in Reform and Reconstructionist movements to a greater or less extent. It privileges academic, historical critical ways of reading Jewish texts, and then finding meaning in those readings. This has made it difficult for rabbis trained in those movements to engage with other ways of reading texts in order to create meaning.

Which brings us to Rabbi Kulka's article, which takes what is essentially a queer midrashic (homiletical) reading of these texts, and presents them as a critical academic reading, a historical truth. He needs to do this for a few reasons. FIrst, because it's how he's trained. Second, because a queer midrash isn't going to have any power in a NYT article, it simply has no claim on anybody else. Framing it as a historical critical reading is a more powerful rhetorical posture.

The bottom line is that these are important readings of core texts that have been deeply empowering to historically marginalized folks, and that's real and valuable. But they need to be deployed in the appropriate settings to the appropriate audience, or they lose their power, and I think that's the failure here.

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Exactly — that’s precisely what I was getting at. I don’t begrudge anyone using these texts for homiletical purposes that are divergent from what originally motivated the writers. That’s not only standard in the liberal movements, but also in harmony with my understanding of the midrashic process, albeit applying that process to rabbinic writing rather than biblical text. I may agree or disagree with the reading on the merits, but I’ll recognize it as a homiletical reading and not judge it for being a historical reading.

But R. Kulka was explicitly positioning his reading as historical, and I don’t think it’s good history. And while I agree that it was both kind of ingrained in his likely training and a good strategy for getting attention, I don’t think either of those are good things.

We can read the same text lots of different ways, and legitimately so, but we should know what we’re doing and be honest about it.

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