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Questioning All Norms

The biblical verse inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is found in a section of the Book of Leviticus that directs the Israelites to declare a Jubilee every 50th year. In the Jubilee Year, the land is not to be cultivated or harvested, all debts are canceled, and all land that has been sold in the prior half century reverts to its original owners or their heirs. The Hebrew word dror, translated as “liberty” on the Bell, is more accurately translated as “release.” Everyone is to be released from prior fortune and misfortune. Everyone begins again, with nobody holding an economic or territorial advantage.

The vision embodied in the Jubilee is extraordinary. Scholars disagree about whether it was ever implemented. There is no direct evidence either way. It is difficult to imagine how an economic system that includes the Jubilee might have functioned. By the first century, rabbinic leaders nullified it because in anticipation of the coming Jubilee, nobody was lending money that would never be repaid or buying land that would revert to the original owner.

Nevertheless, the biblical vision is breathtaking. It is an attempt to undercut the validity of the socio-economic order. We are all created in the divine image, it assumes. We all received from God our clan’s portion of the Land in the time of Joshua. It is God’s, and it is ours as a gift from God. The inequities of the social and economic orders are temporary. They are not written in stone. The distinctions of rich and poor, landed and landless, are conventional dichotomies to be questioned.

This is a text that I rely on as sacred precedent for the enterprise of queering sacred texts and all social conventions. Queer theory is not only about sexual orientations and gender expressions. Yes, when we question the validity of the dichotomy between heterosexual and homosexual (before the mid-nineteenth century, there were no homosexual people, only homosexual behavior) or the gender binary (gender is assigned at birth, not recognizing a rich diversity of gender expressions), we are involved in the enterprise of queering. But queer theory questions all dichotomies, indeed all norms.

All of us tend to rely on dichotomies to negotiate the plethora of data that we confront at every turn. Smart or not smart, friend or foe, good or evil, honest or deceitful, interesting or boring, easy or difficult. In every such case, when we look at any one thing closely, we find that our binary categories aren’t exactly accurate. Not everyone, for example, has identical kinds of intelligence; you may score poorly on the SATs but be a brilliant problem-solver or craftsperson. We may have no choice but to use these binaries to get through our day, but we would do a whole lot less harm if we remained aware that the truth is more complicated and various than binaries can express.

Even if we eschew stereotypes, however, we may find ourselves clinging to alleged binary truths. Either you are a woman or a man. To be spiritual, you must not yield to the temptations of the flesh. Queer theory suggests that binaries are never true. Nothing is uncomplicated. Creating binaries inevitably oppresses people who do not fit the norms created—and also oppresses people who do manage to fit themselves into constricting categories.

Often enough, people look for certainty in their religious beliefs. For some of us, however, faith is reliance on that which is beyond our ability to conceive or understand, on the sacred mystery that we glimpse or discern through practice. We do the best we can as we negotiate social convention, but we understand that the underlying ultimate reality is never as clear as our conceptions and convictions. We try to remain open and steady as the stability of our bedrock beliefs is shaken.

That, I believe, is the message of the Jubilee: No matter how stable our social constructions seem, they are not reliable. At some point we lose what we have gained, what we thought was ours. At some point, the ever changing nature of society moves us to embrace what we have rejected. At some point, our changing bodies and minds reach different perspectives. Nothing in this world is forever—except the imperative to question all norms.

Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.

This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at

Type: Essay

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