Eden Speaks

Guest post: Allyship As Spiritual Practice

This guest post is from Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, my fellow co-founder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home, and his CBST colleague Rabbi Yael Rapport. It features some of the amazing Torah of allyship that R' Mike was teaching when he visited North Adams and Williamstown last month. I'm delighted to be able to share it here, especially on Transgender Day of Remembrance as I recommit myself to being a good ally to my trans friends, loved ones, and congregants. - Rachel


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Recently, nearly 70% of Massachusetts voted YES on ballot initiative 3, protecting the rights of transfolks against discrimination. This tremendous display of support was brought about by the tireless efforts of transfolks, activists, advocates, and allies. Now that this clear action item has been achieved, we must again ask ourselves: now what? How can we continue to strengthen our sense of communal responsibility, advanced through our quest for inclusivity and human dignity? We witnessed what a powerful result was achieved through the spiritual exercise of networking our resources or "allying up." This is a responsibility that Judaism demands as continual practice, independent of the stakes, high or low.

Our Jewish tradition has embedded within it a deep notion of what it means to be an ally, although the language is not commonly known. Judaism’s perspective provides a new framework for this ancient concept. The word "ally" comes from the Latin alligare, bind together. In rabbinic Hebrew, the best term is chaver / חבר, a word whose most common translation is “friend”. How might our understanding of what it means to be an ally evolve if seen through this interpretive lens?

We find in the Talmud that the word “chaver” has additionally expanded meanings: things connected to the earth are called “mechuver l’karka” and an author is a “m’chaver.” What is the linguistic connection between these three forms of the same word? Our rabbis teach that the word “chaver,” at its core, means to attach, whether it is to share the burden with another person, to connect two physical objects, or to manifest thoughts to words and paper.

The mishnah teaches us “k’neh l’cha chaver/acquire for yourself a friend”. Perhaps we should understand this directive as a charge to attach ourselves to those who could use support from isolation and marginalization. This is for our benefit; we shouldn’t live uninvested in the struggle of another.

It’s often hard to stand up for what we believe in, especially when the dominant culture acts in opposition. The Hebrew letter “ו”, grammatically known as the vav hachebor, the vav that attaches, literally models standing up, as the most vertical letter in the Hebrew alphabet. It’s shape also embodies a hook and is found in the construction of the Tabernacle - the “vavei hamishkan”, the hooks that would connect the curtains to the pillars. In Hebrew grammar it serves the same connective purpose, as the conjunction “and.”

In the mystical tradition, the Genesis narrative speaks to the creative power of Hebrew letters. The Hebrew alphabet itself is said to be the building material for creation. Exploring applications of the letter vav provides enduring modalities for connectivity and allyship illustrated by the function of the vav in scriptural sources. By examining the ways in which the vav is used to connect, in Hebrew grammar, the insights of the Torah can provide new outlooks on how best to parallel our own actions in allyship.

The vav is an exceeding versatile letter with over 15 grammatical functions. The applications of allyship also vary in ways which are person and situation specific. For example, Leviticus 19:2 “Be holy for I am holy/ קדשים תהיו כי קדוש אני” It’s noteworthy that the “vav” is missing in the first spelling of קדשים, which refers to our human holiness. The most important prerequisite of allyship is to listen first, and recognize that the voice of the ally is distinctly different. We see God modeling this in God’s desire and expectation for us to be fundamentally holy because God, in whose image we are made, is holy. However, we cannot possibly be expected to be the infinite source of the universe. God’s request of us is that we should be holy like God, but not wholly like God.

The role of an ally is also different in that it is predicated on the needs of another. We see this beautifully expressed in Esther 4:16, “I with my handmaids.” The letter vav as a preposition “with” highlights the need to check in with those we are trying to support, instead of independent of them, whenever possible.

Additionally, we find an empowering call to universal allyship in Ezra 10:14 “Elders of each and every city.” The letter vav here means “every” because each and every one of us has the capacity and obligation to be an ally.

However, none of us are meant to be allies all of the time. We can look to Leviticus 21:14 (widow or orphan) where the vav means “or.” Each of us must be intentional about when, where, and how to step up or away. It is not our obligation to personally fill the void every time and we must be conscious of not taking up too much space.

The vav is the sixth letter in the hebrew alphabet, which alludes to a physical expression of completion: the six days of creation in six directions. It speaks to a world of action being manifested in an embodied way; whether a field being worked, or those doing the work for a six year cycle. There is a unique balance that comes when we invest in toiling for complete equality and liberation; and there is much work still to be done. In Hebrew the vav is facing forward, to form a new connection, asking for us “What is the next opportunity to act as an ally, G-d’s ally, in partnering to support all of G-d’s children?”

MM-new Yael

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is the Scholar-in-Residence for trans and queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.  Rabbi Yael Rapport is the Assistant Rabbi at CBST.

Illustration by John Hersey.