Six Things to Do With Noam Sienna’s New Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts
It is hard to imagine the reader competent to review Noam Sienna’s new book, A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts From The First Century to 1969, so I will not try. As the title suggests, the sources included span two millennia. They have been translated from sixteen languages and sample diversely from different streams of Judaism— Rabbinic and Hellenistic, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, Orthodox and liberal; they range generically from legal responsa to poetry, memoir to sermons, sociology to travel novel; and they include both proud affirmations and harsh condemnations of it. Each is framed by a brief, historical preface and suggestions for further reading.
Rather than trying to review such a massive collection, I will first just say that it is a remarkable book. In browsing its pages, you encounter, in short succession: the rabbinic delineation of a system of sexes that challenges American culture’s strong binary; a midrash imagining Mordekhai breast-feeding Esther; an early-modern doctor pronouncing on the physiological origins of lesbianism; Emma Lazarus’s homoerotic love poetry; and more. Second, I thought I would offer a few potential uses for this anthology, some obvious and some less so:
- It could be learned in a regularized, ritualized fashion that parallels projects of learning classical rabbinic texts. A synagogue could do worse than having a weekly study group focused on these extracts, or an individual could go through the whole by reading one passage a day for about four months.
- It ought to inform future halakhic writing about gender and sexuality. In tackling questions around homosexuality, for instance, Halakhists of all sorts often speculate without much data on what sexual practices were like in the past. (This cuts lots of different ways, from liberal relativizing of biblical law to conservative claims that homosexuality is a modern “problem.”) Everyone is now in a position to do better, enriching rabbinic, normative texts with a rich quarry of information about how Jews experienced their genders and sexualities over time.
- Courses could be built around it; in fact, the book emerged out of a course Sienna taught at the National Havurah Institute. Less obviously, instructors who teach Jewish studies can more easily incorporate queer materials. An “Introduction to Judaism” college class can now easily include queer Judaism(s), and it can do so while meeting other diversity-related goals, because this collection is so internally diverse.
- Adult Jewish educators (like me) who teach rabbinic Jewish texts now have access to many sources that can supplement, balance, and challenge the materials in which they specialize. New shiurim (classes) can be built by placing sources in this book in the context of canons which educators know better. Imagine the class about nurturing and norms of masculinity that could be built around the image of the breastfeeding Mordekhai, or the one about martyrdom and memory that includes the story of two male lovers killed during the Crusades.
- Academics who study and teach about sexuality and gender and who do not know much about Jewish texts or history will have a new resource. A book like this will (I hope) complicate the way those interested primarily in queer history and culture think about Jewishness (and perhaps more broadly, religion).
- Finally, some creative writers will encounter in this book fresh forms to imitate in creative new queer Jewish texts. The example of feminist and queer midrash is pretty well-known, but there are other, less familiar possibilities: queer love poetry that incorporates allegorical traditions about the Song of Songs? Queer responsa that repurpose traditional legal forms? Queer love amulets, like one Sienna includes from medieval Egypt?