D’var Torah for GJC Pride Shabbat – Parashat Korach

כל מחלוקת לשם שמים סופה להתקים ושאינה לשם שמים אין סופה להתקים…

“Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, its fate is to endure, and any that is not for the sake of Heaven, its fate is note to endure.” (Mishnah Avot 5:21)

For our rabbis, the dispute recorded in parashat Korach is the very archetype of the dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven. But while the end of the dispute may be quite clear, its origins and significance are more difficult to understand. Who are the disputants, and what is the nature of their complaint?

The Torah identifies four principle members of the group – Korach, of the tribe of Levi, is the apparent leader, the one to whom most of Moses’ responses are directed and the one whose name is attached to the group as a whole – they are referred to in Num. 17:5 as Korach and “his band” (עדתו). Along with Korach appear Datan, Aviram and On, all of whom are Reubenites. The question which remains is how to identify the two hundred and fifty others who appear alongside them, and who are identified only as “Men of Israel” (אנשים מבני ישראל) without any tribal designation.

This question is more important than it may at first seem when it comes to unraveling the nature of the dispute, since the tribal makeup of the disputants will have a significant impact on how we understand their social standing within the community and the nature of their demands. The criticism they level against Moses and Aaron – “All the community are holy, all of them, and HaShem is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above HaShem’s congregation?” – seems to be that of a group made up of Reubenites, or perhaps a mixture of tribes, who are arguing against the attempt to endow a particular group of Israelites with a heightened level of sanctity. However, there are a number of points that make this egalitarian reading of the dispute somewhat doubtful. First, the unnamed “Israelites” are not from the ordinary rank and file – rather, they are identified in the text as “chieftains of the community” (נשיאי עדה). Second, their leader, Korach, is himself a Levite and therefore part of the system of social distinction the group is supposedly trying to protest. Finally, when Moses refers to them as a group, he addresses them not as “sons of Israel” but “sons of Levi,” suggesting that Korach’s band is comprised primarily of Levites like himself.

So what is it that has motivated this group comprised mostly, but not entirely, of Levites to rise up and oppose Moses and Aaron’s leadership? As we have said, their ostensible argument – that “all the community are holy, all of them, and HaShem is in their midst” – seems to be surprisingly reasonable, couched as it is in language evocative of the same values Moses himself has been trying to teach, that Israel’s role is to be “a nation of priests” and that at all times Israel should strive to be holy as God is holy. But appearances can be deceiving, and just because an argument seems to evoke values that are near and dear to our hearts, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the argument is being used in a way that ultimately supports those values. On the contrary, just as the language of religious freedom can be twisted and misused in support of bigotry and discrimination, so too can language of holiness be employed in support of a cause which in reality is anything but holy.

We should take a moment to consider how Korach’s followers are described – as “chieftains of the community” who are “called to the assembly (קראי מועד). The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra understands this last phrase to be related to the tent of assembly (אהל מועד), a central feature in the sanctuary precincts – a reference to the service the Levites were required to provide in attending to the sanctuary and supporting its regular functioning. “Men of repute” (אנשי שם) Ibn Ezra understands to be a reference to the period before the exodus from Egypt, indicating that they enjoyed a great deal of prestige within the community of Israelite slaves. What emerges then is a picture of a group of men who before Moses came along were reckoned as important people and leaders of the community, now relegated to the apparently unglamorous role of shleppers, responsible for setting up, taking down and transporting the portable sanctuary – work which, from their perspective, is considerably beneath their dignity.

Never mind that to be a shlepper among free people must be considered to be far superior to being a prince among slaves. Never mind that the labor they have been given involves transporting the literal dwelling place of God from place to place, enabling the very indwelling of the divine presence that they so cavalierly use to justify their complaints. These Levite followers of Korach are deeply resentful of the lose of privilege and prestige they used to enjoy, and they are determined to reclaim their former place of glory by usurping the priesthood from Aaron and his offspring.

Concerning this attitude, the Zohar has this to say:

בל דרדף בתר דלאו דיליה, איהו עריק מקמיה. ולא עוד אלא מה דאית ביה אתאביד מניה. קרח רדיף בתר דלאו דיליה, דיליה אביד, ואחרא לא רווח.

“Anyone who chases after what is not his, it flees from him. And not only that – what he does have is lost. Korach chased after what wasn’t his, what he had was lost, and nothing else could give him comfort.”

But what is it, precisely, that Korach has lost? What precisely has he failed to understand? To explain this, the Zohar takes us back to the creation of the world, to the very moment when Creation first looked upon the beautiful, terrifying face of the first human being and saw in hir splendor the sign of its own completion. At that moment, when the human was complete and, by extension, so too was the world, the day itself desired to be sanctified, and so it was – Shabbat was born, and with it peace and rest came into the world.

But – and here is where the authors of the Zohar are so insightful – there cannot be rest if no work remains to rest from. In that moment when the world was declared complete and Shabbat rose to sanctity, there were as yet spirits waiting to be given physical form. Owing to the sanctification of the day, this never happens, and these spirits – the Zohar calls them demons – remain as they are, merely potential rather than actual, trapped in between being and nothingness by the imposition of a definition of completeness which does not include them. And because of this, the newly completed and perfected world… remains both incomplete and imperfect.

This incompleteness can only be repaired through the holy labor of the Levites, who have the capacity to fix the gap in the world left by these uncreated spirits by transporting the holy sanctuary from place to place. But this repair can only happen if the Levites themselves are willing to give up some of the power and prestige of their old lives as chieftains among the people and accept upon themselves the new role which God has ordained for them – outwardly humble, but so deeply important for the completion of the work of creation.

Preparing these words for Germantown Jewish Centre’s first Pride Shabbat, I couldn’t help but see parallels between the metaphysical struggle depicted in the Zohar and the social and political struggles that have been going on within our own communities in the present day. In our time, too, we hear the voices of the “uncreated” calling out – those whose essential selves have gone for so long without recognition in a world whose understanding of completeness and perfection simply does not include them.For some, particularly those who have been placed in a position of privilege within the prevailing order, there may indeed seem to be something demonic about these voices. But just as in Korach’s time, it is necessary to recognize the truth that honor and privilege are worthless so long as they are granted within the context of a system which ultimately enslaves us all. It is a far greater honor to accept upon oneself the labor which has been ordained for us – the labor of repairing and remaking our communities, our nation, our world, in the name of a broader and more complete definition of perfection.

Last chance for the Magical Princess Harriet Kickstarter!

Harriet

The Kickstarter for Magical Princess Harriet is on its last day. One month ago I launched this campaign hoping that others would be as excited as I was about the idea of a Jewish fantasy novel with a transgender protagonist, and the response has been truly phenomenal. In only 29 days ninety people have contributed a total of $3,180, enough to ensure that Magical Princess Harriet will in fact see the light of day. I am so deeply honored that so many people believed in this enough to help make my vision a reality.

If you are still interested in pre-ordering the book and having your name appear on the thank-you page, you can donate to the campaign here. Thanks again!

Why Fantasy?

As a rabbi, one might argue that my proper purview in life is things like God, Torah, Israel, Justice and other matters commonly held to be Serious Business. Why then, you might ask, am I devoting my time to something so frivolous as writing a fantasy novel for teens?

Inkedstraw-man_LII’m glad you asked, Mr. Rhetorical Straw Man! Here’s the deal: Throughout its illustrious history, the Fantasy genre has often been maligned as a form of escapism. Those who read fantasy, the argument goes, are unable to deal with reality and so escape into an imaginary world where they don’t have to deal with their problems. This argument is problematic for several reasons – first, and rather ironically, it paints reality itself in a really negative light. If reality were genuinely so bad that people had to resort to fantasy novels to escape from it, then it seems as if that would be a serious indictment of reality, not fantasy. Second, because fantasy fiction doesn’t really hold up as an effective means of escape – no matter how much I enjoy re-reading The Lord of the Rings for the 100th time, my problems are still going to be there when I put down the book. Third, and most importantly, the “fantasy as escape” argument tends to ignore the many ways in which fiction and reality interact with each other.

No work of fantasy, however creative, can ever separate itself completely from all connection with the lived reality of the author or the reader. While J. R. R. Tolkien may have celebrated fantasy as a form of “sub-creation,” a way in which human beings can emulate their Creator by giving birth to worlds of their own, he did not mean by this that the new worlds we create can ever be completely devoid of reference to our own world. Part of what makes fantasy fiction so enjoyable for the reader is the way it often has of taking some idea or issue from the world we live in and re-examining it through a different lens. The Lord of the Rings evokes the despair and heroism Tolkien witnessed serving in the trenches during World War I. Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time deals with issues of authoritarianism and the hazards of conformity that were supremely relevant when the book was published in 1962. Ursula K. Le Guinn deconstructs the patriarchal assumptions of most medieval fantasy in the later Wizard of Earthsea books, and thereby holds a mirror up to patriarchy in our own time. None of these classics of fantasy fiction make much sense when viewed in terms of “escapism” because each of them wrestles with the very real issues important to their authors in ways comparable to more “realistic” fiction.”

But the real importance of fantasy fiction comes into light not when we examine the impact reality has on fantasy, but that which fantasy has on reality. The notion of “reality” is a tricky one – it seems to presume something fixed and unchanging, an underlying substrate we can point to as the “real” as distinguished from the merely “imaginary.” But the nature of humanity is such that we tend to reshape our reality in accordance with the values and concepts that inform our lives. Technology, systems of government, economic relations, politics, art – all of these are means that humans employ to change the “given” reality around them into a form in keeping with their desires and preconceptions. In other words, the nature of the human imagination is such that the imaginary is constantly spilling over into the real and remaking it in its image.

Given this fundamental fact of human life, what we spend our time imagining may be just about the most important thing for us to consider. The realm of the imagination prefigures and ultimately determines the forms which can be assumed by the world around us, and so if we are to have any hope of changing this world for the better, it becomes vitally necessary to do the work of imagining what that world would be like and how it could be brought about. This is precisely the work that fantasy fiction is ideally suited for. Fantasy (along with its twin sibling, science fiction), is the conceptual test ground for the world we are in the process of constructing, and what that world is like will be ultimately determined by what we find it possible to imagine and what will remain literally “unimaginable.”

Furthermore, imagination is one of the ways in which we can reach out and grasp the ineffable, whether that is understood in terms of the theological/metaphysical underpinnings of reality or the barely-understood mysteries of our own identities. Growing up as a closeted transgender girl, for a great deal of my life my own truest self was something that existed solely in the realm of my own imagination. This wasn’t about escapism – on the contrary, my imagination was for me a place where I could hold those truths which were for me so true that at least for the time being there was no way they could find themselves into the unimaginable world in which I found myself. Fantasy can be an incredibly powerful way for queer and otherwise marginalized youth to connect to and explore their identity when the world around them gives no other space in which to do so. It can also be a tremendous way of forming contacts and relationships with other “dreamers,” thereby creating the social networks that will become the basis for bringing their dreams to life later on.

Another Excerpt

Another excerpt from my upcoming book, Magical Princess Harriet:

As the door swung shut behind her Harriet stood there for a moment, leaning against the doorpost, her heart beating a mile a minute. The bathroom was a long, narrow, poorly-lit room, its walls tiled in a particularly unpleasant shade of muted yellow-green that put one in mind of things rotting in a swamp – or perhaps that was just the smell. Along the wall facing the door were a row of stalls, with a row of urinals opposite them. Next to these were a number of shabby-looking sinks that looked as if they’d been installed around the time Eisenhower was president. The rusty faucets were dripping incessantly and the sound of the drops falling into the cracked porcelain basins echoed weirdly off of the room’s abnormally high ceiling.

She had been so upset when she came in that it took a minute before she realized she wasn’t alone. The room’s other occupant wasn’t immediately visible, but Harriet could hear them breathing in weak, shuddering gasps. The sound was amplified strangely by the room’s odd acoustics, so that at first she wasn’t certain where the sound was coming from. Bending down to examine the empty space along the bottom of the bathroom stalls she spotted a pair of black-on-black canvas sneakers that clearly belonged to someone standing on the other side of the last stall, in the space between it and the green-tiled wall.

“Hello?” she called out softly. “Are you okay?”

The echoes of her voice sounded metallic and distorted. When there was no response she crept tentatively forward and leaned around to see what was going on. Harriet gasped, eyes widening in alarm at what she saw. The boy – he must be in her grade, but he was so small and slim that he looked much younger – stood, or rather slumped, against the side of the bathroom stall, his eyes open but unseeing. The lower part of his face was obscured by the shadowy, amorphous form of a creature much like the one that Azrael had loosed on her the previous day in the upstairs hallway. It was clinging to the boy’s body with its long, wispy tentacles, its body slowly expanding and contracting, while beneath its translucent gray skin what looked like little clusters of glowing bubbles were gently pulsating with a ghastly violet light vaguely resembling the chemical phosphorescence of a glow stick.

A shudder ran through Harriet’s whole body. Her mind went back to those horrible moments, to the dreadful chill that had invaded her body when the creature had latched on to her and begun to feed. Gritting her teeth, she reached out to grab hold of the thing, meaning to pull it off the boy. When she did however she found that her hands passed right through its body, clutching nothing but empty air. She grunted, half in exasperation and half in pain as the cold, tingling sensation she remembered from before began to creep up her arms.

Taking a step back, Harriet’s hand went automatically to the pocket of her jeans where the little paper rose lay but it paused there, not quite touching it, her eyes darting nervously to the door through which she’d come. What was she supposed to do in a situation like this? Clearly the boy needed help – his breath was coming out in shallow wheezes that made her wince in sympathy just to hear them. But was she seriously considering bringing on the transformation right here in the middle of the boy’s bathroom? What if someone were to come in to use the toilet? What was she supposed to do then — shrug and say, “Sorry guys, guess I must have taken the wrong turn?”

As she stood there, paralyzed with indecision, Harriet’s eyes went back to those of the boy. They were wide and staring and utterly blank – the eyes of a human being on the verge of being totally lost. Shivering, she found herself recalling the words that Nuriel had spoken to her just before it disappeared:

You are a caring soul and your eyes have been opened to a danger which threatens people you care about, the angel had said. You have been given a gift which you are only beginning to understand, something which might otherwise have remained hidden from you for years to come. No one can hope to win in a fight against their own true nature. When the time comes and you are faced with the choice whether to live by that truth or betray it utterly, you will act.

Heaving a sigh of resignation, Harriet closed her fingers around the rose.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this, why not consider donating to my Kickstarter and help Magical Princess Harriet come into the world?

Announcing the Magical Princess Harriet Kickstarter!

Kickstarter Banner

I am proud to announce that the Kickstarter campaign for Magical Princess Harriet is finally underway!

If you haven’t been following this saga as it has developed, MPH is a Young Adult Fantasy novel about a Jewish middle school student named Harriet (neé Harris) Baumgartner who is charged with dealing with a family of Nephilim who are trying to take over her town, all while having to deal with her growing awareness that she was never meant to be a boy. Yes, that’s right – I wrote a novel that is basically a queer, Jewish version of a magical girl anime. So there.

You can find out more by visiting the Kickstarter page here. Watch the video, check out the characters, and please consider donating if you can!