Last Sunday I could not get a quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel out of my mind “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” Sunday I was not praying but making Midrash in an experience I never thought I’d actually have. After some problems in college with a particular woman who happened to be lesbian, I’ll admit I was not very fond of gay rights issues. So it amazed me how a straight guy like me was there on a back of a flatbed truck for a GLBT Synagogue waving at the crowds as we drove the Chicago Pride parade route. Yet I realized along the way, what I was doing was not much different than the Daughters of Zelophehad. In this week’s portion God promises the the priesthood to Pinchas and his descendants, then there is a genealogy, to divide up the land. But there is an objection:
1. Then came the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these are the names of his daughters; Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah. 2. And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, by the door of the Tent of Meeting, saying, 3. Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not in the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah; but died in his own sin, and had no sons. 4. Why should the name of our father be taken away from among his family, because he had no sons? Give to us therefore a possession among the brothers of our father.[Numbers 27 ]
It’s such a good question Moses has no answer and has to ask God for advice, who replies:
6. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 7. The daughters of Zelophehad speak right; you shall surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brothers; and you shall cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them.[Numbers 27]
The daughters of Zelophehad did something no one actually pulled off to this time: they questioned authority. Up to this point, as the daughters point out, there are many rebellions against Moses. They are mere complaints which take the form of rebellion. The daughters are different. They ask a question which every rule dictated by God up to this point does not answer. Doing so, they create new law and new possibilities, unheard of before: women, under certain circumstances, inherit the possessions of their fathers. They challenged a faulty assumption by their example. It is true not true that all families have sons, they assert. They asked the question: what should be done in this case? Then they give an answer.
Last Sunday, Here we were, gay, lesbian and straight, sitting on a float, and I was thinking of the daughters. They in a way started what was happening here on Halsted and Broadway streets in Chicago. The marchers behind us had handed out signs which had “____________ is a human right”. In a one-word midrash for the week, I wrote “Thinking” in that blank. The Daughters of Zelophehad reminded us the precious gift granted by God of thinking for ourselves. In doing so, we expand our world. Indeed to do Tikkun Olam, repair of the world, may very well require such expansion. It could have been easy to restrict to the written word of Torah. Anything outside the written word could be said not to exist. Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, was too smart for that, and left such large gaps in Torah it was impossible to not ask questions, to make midrash. The word midrash itself come from the Hebrew root דרש for seeking, for asking a question. While we often believe midrash to mean the interpretation of story, it can be said to be a more encompassing idea of asking questions of Torah, and then finding the answers. Modern evidence to the contrary, this is not just for an elite, but something we all do. The Daughters give us the example of everyday people involved in midrash. Here are five women in a man’s world challenging the status quo with a simpler and logical question. They thought out a question and they got an answer.
I have on many occasions championed the case that while tradition puts Leviticus 18:22 as talking about homosexuality, given linguistic ques the verse was talking about pedophilia instead. It was about rape, not love. While there may have been people of the same gender who did love each other as far back as biblical times, many changing roles in both men and women in our modern era have opened new questions, like marriage between people of the same gender, and it is important to think about those questions, as they define not only the questioner, but everyone. Will gay marriage destroy an already beleaguered institution of marriage, or will it set precedents to strengthen a commitment to one’s partner for life?
As we pass down the streets, I notice how many different ways people are dressed, and in some cases, not dressed. From the fully decked out cross dressers, the bikini wearing guys dancing on the roofs of a restaurant, gals with electrical tape barely hiding their chests, to many creative t-shirts, there is no one way of dressing here. There is a lot of creativity, and a lot of different experiences, in so many ways so very different than many of the bland by comparison fourth of July parades that will follow Pride in a week.
We are free to think — it is a right of being human. Yet, while watching the news helicopters and news crews filming and photographing the parade, I wondered about that. How much are we controlled? The photographs that ended up in the paper was not of groups like us, a religious community, nor of the churches along the parade route which were clearly showing their support. The photos that usually get published are those which are the most sensational, leading readers, including me, to some very false conclusions about the people at the parade. What is published tells a story, one that is described as “truth”. I don’t care if there is liberal or conservative media: what is seen or not seen changes our opinion of the world, and in a sense mind controls us to think in a certain way. No one is fair and balanced. The stories that sell and get people to listen are by nature primarily bad, and tell us this is a bad world so we think it a bad world. I never listen to the morning news for this reason: I will start my day depressed if I hear the bad news. I will not be the creative person I am in the morning. I’d rather listen to a novel of imagination, and believe in the impossible. In such a mind I think anything is possible.
To make everyone think one way is sad. Almost all the signs and banners were individual statements I saw around the parade route. No one, in any of their colorful, cheerful and very creative statements there on the miles of parade route told me what to do or think. There were a few signs at the very end where some Christian Fundamentalists told me what to think in black, drab and very oppressive signs. It was a darkness in a sea of light, the brown-black posters they sported was like an oil slick on a colorful Caribbean reef. But it was contained. In the creative mode of the day, a guy next to these protesters, dressed as Jesus, held up a big white sign; “I’m not with them” So what did we do when we passed? We blessed all of them.
In an interesting play of words those fundamentalists were protesting homosexuality by promoting homothinking. While this parade is about the choices people make who to love, ultimately this parade was about hetero or even better polythinking. It is about the infinite possibilities and infinite ways of thinking out there in front of us. There were 450,000 ways in front and back of me Sunday. Free will and free thinking is necessary to come up with many ways of living and loving. Rabbi Akiba in the Perkei avot stated:
MISHNAH 15 EVERYTHING IS FORESEEN BUT FREE-WILL IS GRANTED, AND THE WORLD IS JUDGED WITH GOODNESS, AND EVERYTHING IS IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE PREPONDERANCE OF [MAN’S] DEED[S].[Avot 3]
Akiba would probably have thought that such a display as the Gay Pride parade, would have led to lewdness [Avot 3:12]. I think that since free will was given it is not for a man or even God to decide our choices or thoughts. That is up to us individually. Do we love a man a woman or both? Some are personal choices, some made by the way our body is constructed. Some are more than that, they are personal choices and questions that affect the world as a whole. There is a group of men and women forty-one years ago, who in the bungled closing of a bar, asked those questions that had never been asked publicly. Twenty years ago, they were the ones asking the questions we still do not have all the answers for, about a blood-borne virus that can kill anyone slowly and horribly. The questions the parade ask is “Will everyone else accept who I choose to love?, will they accept me for that choice and who I am because of that?” The answers are many, but here mostly positive. Asking those questions started a long time ago. When Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah challenge Moses about property rights of women, they did something that directly affected their own destiny, and everyone’s at the same time.
When we ask questions, and find answers, we cannot know what will happen, as little as the agnostic homophobe I was leaving college can believe I was there waving at the crowd from a gay synagogue float a few floats behind the Stanley cup. I did this because my first thought was to support my friends, but even in supporting them was a huge statement, one I didn’t realize before then. What those actions did to the world as a whole, I cannot know either. I can only pray all of mine are for the betterment of the world. I’ll be back next year at Pride to keep that going.