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Parashat chukat - June 26 2020 , ד׳ תמוז תש - Ronny Almog

06/26/2020 11:42:41 AM


Parashat chukat opens with the famous red cow ritual (Bamidbar 19). Rabbi Mike recently described it as one of the strangest mitzvot. It explains how to purify a person who had come into contact with a corpse, and involves slaughtering a red cow, burning it, throwing cedar and other things into the fire, and a few other complexities. After all of this process, the resulting ashes are mixed with water and used to purify the person.

I could talk about what all this means, and many people probably have. Is it weird? Does it have
contradictions? And so on.

But let’s not get into all of that today.

Instead, let’s talk about the people who do not comply with this ritual.

Bamidbar 19 verse 13 is interesting because it takes a detour away from the details of the ritual
itself and instead talks about the people who don’t follow the law, and what happens to them.

It reads like this:
“Whoever touches a corpse, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the LORD’s Tabernacle; that person shall be cut off from Israel. Since the water of lustration was not thrown on him, he remains unclean.”

The water of lustration is a weird phrase, but it basically means the mixed ashes and water from the ritual. So a person who touched a corpse and then doesn’t have the ritual done is then still unclean.

But let’s take a closer look, because this translation misses something important and interesting in the original Hebrew.

The Hebrew says
ונכרתה הנפש ההי/וא מישראל

Which more accurately means
That soul shall be cut off from Israel

The hebrew word for `Soul` - Nefesh - stands out here for a couple of reasons.

First, it is a feminine noun, and it contrasts against all the masculine pronouns that are used so far in the Parasha: He who performed the burning, He who gathers up the ashes, He who touches the corpse.

Second, the choice of this word - soul - also contrasts against the rest of the very physical and material descriptions that preceded it. We were just reading in depth about how to slaughter the cow, how to burn it, the types of wood to throw in, and so on. Then suddenly we have this word nefesh, that gives a feeling of purity and softness.

Reading the verse makes me forget for a second about death, burning, and blood (which were so present and dominant), it makes me forget where I am for a moment. Maybe it even takes me to a different sphere, the sphere of feelings, this thing that we often do with the soul.

In the Hebrew source, the word soul is joined with the word ‘Hahi’. Hanefesh hahi, `That soul היא in hebrew means `that` or more literally `she’ (she the soul) since hebrew nouns have gender, and soul is feminine. But the way the word היא is spelled in this line is somewhat ambiguous. Usually, היא is spelled with a Yod (hey, yod, alef). But here, it is spelled with a Vav (hey, vav, alef), which is normally the spelling for hu, the masculine form. So, the way it is written here, if we ignore the Hirik, the dot underneath the letter that represents the vowel i , the word can be read as- הוא , which means h e in hebrew, the male pronoun.

It’s confusing, right? Basically the way the word sounds is female. The way it looks is male.

Even though this is strange, it is easy to ignore or miss this ambiguity. I ignored it myself the first time I read it, although I am typically looking for these types of places in the text.

We typically just read it as היא in hebrew (the female pronoun), because we see the ‘i’ vowel, and know the gender of the word Nefesh - it is a feminine noun. That means that it would sound extremely weird to say `hanefesh hahu`, `he, the soul` and treat it in the masculine.

This is an example of the inherent queerness in the Torah text, which so many translations and readers miss, maybe because we’re habituated to ignore or gloss over it. This queerness is hiding there, waiting for us to find it. Once you start looking, you see it more often than you expect.

I love ambiguity, especially gender ambiguity. But since the verse talks about breaking the law, the first thought coming to mind is negative. It says: “She or He the soul will be cut off from Israel”. Is this a negative saying about gender fluid people? Are they the first to be associated with breaking the law, being unclean and being cut-off from society?

As you may know, It’s definitely an experience that many of us, queer people, went through.
We’re sometimes only made visible in order to be cast out.

But if we keep reading, the rest of verse 13 neglects the non-gendered soul and switches back to use masculine pronouns to complete the description of a non clean person. Where the male pronoun, of course, is assumed to represent everybody, or at least men and women (though I think we can have questions about whether it really does). So if everybody (or men) can be unclean or impure, what is this gender ambiguity all about?

Does this queer hebrew grammar that is hidden in this verse tell us something about the
connection between the soul and being queer?

For me being a queer, or a transgender person is about the soul, about being close to my soul.  It’s less about what I wear or what I do, And more about how I feel.

Many times people have learned about my transgender experience and said “ you’re so brave”
but for me its not about being brave, it just about being who I am.

ונכרתה הנפש ההי/וא מישראל

That soul shall be cut off from Israel

The text uses a very strong word - נכרתה הנפש - to describe the soul’s alienation from Israel and from the community.

נכרתה means to be cut off, like cutting off a tree or cutting off an arm.

But the root of this word כ.ר.ת contains within itself the opportunity for repair and connection.

In another form, this is the word we use to say “creating a covenant”. לכרות ברית

The act of forming the covenant, which is one of the most central parts of the relationship
between God and the Jewish people.

In the sentence we started with, Likhrot means to be cut off from society or your community.

But if you form a covenant with your soul, then it can also lead to forming a covenant with society in your own way and from your perspective. One that is based on you being true to your soul and who you are. It is your own unique covenant or unique way of belonging.

As queer people and all kinds of other people who have challenges fitting in with the dominant
culture, it is important for us to look for the opening in our text and tradition and discover how
they make space for us. That space is already there, just waiting...

Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784