In this fourth week of the Omer, we learn in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot, "Rabbi Nehorai says, 'Exile yourself to a place of Torah. Don't assume that Torah will follow you or that your friends will hand it to you. Don't just rely on your own perception of things.'"
In a tradition where exile is often positioned as the lesser paradigm, I am struck by the image of this teaching, which imagines exile as a place of learning and possibility. A place we might (and perhaps should) voluntarily choose. And while at first it feels like a distant image, when I stop to think about it, in fact, it is utterly resonant. Throughout my life I have had to consciously choose to make space in my life for Torah. To leave places that I loved living in order to find teachers and study companions. And while on some literal level this is the loss and isolation that Rabbi Nehorai might be referring, on a deeper level, I think he knows that in truth, we must exile ourselves, not for for the sake of learning Torah, but for the sake of becoming ourselves.
There is no greater teacher of the Torah of exile than Dr. Joy Ladin. In her most recent book, The Soul of the Stranger, she writes in excruciating detail about the exile of her own transition, as she lost the right to live with her own children, to set foot on the campus of her own university, to attend her own father's funeral. And from that place of exile, she shares the deep Torah of her life.
"The Torah speaks to transgender lives because so much of it speaks to how hard it is for humanity to recognize and embrace someone - God - who cannot fit human terms. Transgender perspectives illuminate the Torah because we, like God, know what it means to love those who cannot understand us, to dwell in the midst of communities that have no place for us, to present ourselves in human terms that cannot help but misrepresent us. Religious communities that welcome transgender people hear in our voices an echo of the loneliness that haunts the living word of God. Religious communities that treat openly transgender people, even those of us who have lived in those communities all our lives, as strangers, should recall that God repeatedly commands the Israelites to remember their own experiences of being treated as strangers in the land of Egypt: to remember that they know--because God wants communities devoted to God to know--the soul of the stranger" (122).
I am grateful for all the ways that each of us at Kol Tzedek continues to stretch to create a spiritual home for trans and non-binary folks. It, too, is water in the desert.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.