One of the people up for an Emmy for lead actor this year is Billy Porter for his role in the television show pose. Who here has seen this television show? I hadn’t heard of it before my housemates started watching it when quarantine started.
Pose is about New York City's undergroun LGBTQ ballroom culture in the late 1980s and early 1990 during the HIV epidemic. Many of the characters in the show face rejection from their families and then on top of that are living with HIV. Many of them are also African American and Latino so they are also dealing with racism. It is a very dark period, but the dance culture provides some comfort, some community, and some hope amidst despair.
As you might imagine, this show is very popular right now. The themes of dealing with the realities of widespread illness, the need to address a society taht still marginalizes LGBTQ people and people of color ring very close to home. But so does the need for hope, community, and comfort that the characters on the show find through their community.
This morning, I was listening to a podcast featuring one of the lead actors, Billy Porter, who has been nominated for an Emmy for his performance in Pose. At this point in his career, he is very successful, but in the interview, he described how it took a long time for him to get there. From a young age, he was told over and over again that he was not “masculine” enough.
“When I started coming to New York in the late '80s and trying to be in the business, you know, there was no context for someone who looked like me, you know?” he said.
It felt like he had nowhere to go.
In this parasha, Ki Teitze, we also encounter a character who is deemed to have no future: the afamed ben sorer u moreh, the wayward and rebellious son.
Reading this section of the Torah on its face value is incredibly painful. We read about how this child is deemed a glutton and a drunk. He is brought before the elders of the city and is stoned to death.
The Talmud says that the reason for this unimaginably harsh punishment for a child is because he is being judged
עַל שֵׁם סוֹפוֹ
On what his future will be
“in the end he will squander his fathers property and seeking in vain for the pleasures to which he has been accustomed, he will take his stand on the crossroads and rob people, and in some way or other make, himself liable to the death penalty. Says the Torah, “Let him die innocent of such crimes, and let him not die guilty of them” ‘
Reading this text, we see are given a portrait of an individual with no hope of a positive future.
It was reading this section of the Torah that made me glad that I am a rabbinic Jew, that I believe in interpretation of the Torah over time, that I don’t follow Judaism that says that we follow what the Torah says on face value.
Eventually, the Talmud will basically legislate this category of individual out of existence.
בן סורר ומורה לא היה ולא עתיד להיות
The Ben sorer u’moreh never was and never will be.
Now you have to remember how drastic of a move this is. The rabbis are literally legislating away a law from the Torah.
For us, this might seem obvious. We are much more comfortable saying that the Torah is ancient and that we do not follow the laws exactly the way they are portrayed but this is foundational to what the rabbinic Judaism has become.
And here’s what I think it means:
It means that the rabbis decided that there should never be a person whose future is prejudged for them as irreparable. That we must always find a way through to hope.
We must always find a way forward, we must not make assumptions about the way that a person’s life will go, and if a future doesn’t seem possible, we must make it possible.
For Billy Porter, this was coming up against a culture where he was not allowed to not appear masculine and struggled and struggled to find roles where he could be himself.
In the podcast Billy Porter says, “What this experience with "Pose" has done for me is taught me to dream the impossible, to take my own glass ceiling off of my dreams and dream the stuff that I can't even see yet.”
Some of us may be facing personal senses of futurelessness right now, maybe some feel like they have to do with identity, some are just with the immense amounts of obstacles put in our way by the pandemic. We as a community need these things too.
But the story of the Rabbis and the Wayward Son tells us that we too need creative audacity and moral willpower
Billy Porter in the interview says, “The practice I believe is to learn to take off our own “glass ceilings”, to allow ourselves to dream big dreams, to feel hopeful about a future that is not yet entirely visible.”
Now, as a black effeminite gay man, when he says this, i know he does not mean that “you can do anything you want”
But in his TV show, Pose, he creates a community for people who were judged to not fit into society, a place for them to express themselves, a place to connect, a place to find solace from the stress of plagued communities and social isolation.
We, like the Israelites, are in a time of wilderness and obstacles abound.
In the time of Elul, as the high holidays draw near, the sense of an unknown future looms larger.
But we are not helpless and we are not dream-less. Let us not judge the future based on our perceptions of its ending. Let us come together and continue to imagine what might be possible and let us build it together.
In the book of Isaiah, God says,
הִנְנִ֨י עֹשֶׂ֤ה חֲדָשָׁה֙ עַתָּ֣ה תִצְמָ֔ח הֲל֖וֹא תֵֽדָע֑וּהָ אַ֣ף אָשִׂ֤ים בַּמִּדְבָּר֙ דֶּ֔רֶךְ בִּֽישִׁמ֖וֹן נְהָרֽוֹת׃
I am about to do something new; Even now it shall come to pass, Suddenly you shall perceive it: I will make a road through the wilderness And rivers in the desert.
As we struggle through this wilderness together, I pray that we are blessed with God’s readiness to try new things and with the Rabbi’s audacity and moral leadership.
Rory Katz is the rabbi of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore. She was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in May 2019.