How Goodly Are Your (Rainbow) Tents
This week, we read Balak in the Book of Numbers. The portion begins as the Israelites, wandering through the desert, approach the nation of Moab. Balak, king of Moab, asks Balaam, a non-Israelite diviner, to curse the Israelites out of fear of what the Israelites might do to his people. After much back and forth, Balaam agrees to go, but to speak only what God speaks. To Balak’s disappointment, Balaam follow’s God and blesses the Israelites in the end: Ma tovu ohalecha, How goodly are your tents, O, Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5).
We see Balaam’s words, originally a curse, turn into a blessing. It was with that same sense of openness to different positions and perspectives that we, the co-authors of this piece, came to sit together. We met for the first time at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. Like Balaam and the Israelites, we, too, are an unlikely pair to find a blessing. We are a rabbi with three ultra-Orthodox ordinations – whose transgender relative’s coming out set his life on a path of trans activism – and a young professional working for the Reform Jewish Movement who discovered her passion for trans issues through anger at the rescinding of Title IX protections for students in public schools.
As we spoke, we asked questions, not with accusation but with curiosity. We listened to each other, not with skepticism but with openness. An uncomfortable and hesitant meeting turned into a cacophonous brainstorm of ideas for partnership, driven by a simple shared goal: justice and rights for all LGBTQ people inside and outside the Jewish community, especially transgender and gender non-conforming folks.
In the phrase “Ma tovu ohalecha,” transition from solo spiritual practice to communal responsibility is reflected as the verse shifts from the temporary holiness in the tents of Jacob as an individual to the permanent dwellings of the collective Israel. Jewish tradition teaches that Jacob earned this blessing by fighting for the most vulnerable and marginalized of our people. Today, we follow in that tradition by fighting for transgender equality.
To act on this communal responsibility and bring our Jewish values into the public square, to see as blessings those who have been falsely cast as curses, the Reform Movement is embarking on a new, nonpartisan campaign, Civic Engagement: Every Congregation Counts, Every Vote Counts. This campaign aims to empower Reform Jews to act collectively to exercise their right to vote and ensure that Jewish voices and values are present this election season.
It is fitting that the campaign begins during Pride Month. We must be visible in our support of the LGBTQ community, and one way to do that is to make our values visible by voicing them publicly and staying active in our communities.
This November, transgender rights are on the ballot in Massachusetts. In 2016, a bipartisan majority of the Massachusetts General Court (state legislature) passed SB 2407, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity in public accommodations. Opponents of this legislation have gathered enough signatures to put a veto referendum on the ballot. A “yes” vote will uphold SB 2407 and protections for transgender people in Massachusetts. We must organize to ensure the rights of transgender and gender diverse people in Massachusetts – turning curses into blessings and bringing our values to the forefront from now until November.
The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple, described as God’s dwelling place on earth, was destroyed because of unnecessary hatred. By showing love instead of hatred to all God’s children, especially those who have been denied access and equality in our tents, we are worthy of Divine blessings for peace and goodness. We, as the Jewish people, must work harder to be more visibly united with each other so our tents, too, may be good.
Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is the scholar-in-residence for trans and queer Jewish studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, NY. He was ordained in the ultra-Orthodox tradition and is a deeply traditional, radically progressive advocate for trans rights and a vocal ally for LGBT inclusivity. His work on behalf of trans rights began while he served as the rabbi of the Old Broadway Synagogue in Harlem and of Aish NY at Columbia University. Learn more about Rabbi Moskowitz and read his writings on his website. Lizzie Stein is a leadership development associate at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where she previously served as an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant. In her current role, she leads fellowships for alumni of RAC programs and brings leadership skills training to the RAC’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminars and other programs. Lizzie also staffs the Urgency of Now: Transgender Rights Campaign. A graduate of Occidential College, she is a member of Temple Kol Ami in Phoenix, AZ, her hometown.