From Har Ke-gigit to Kiyemu Ve-kibelu: a Journey of Homo Religiosus

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Joshua Z. Stadlan


“Will you accept my Torah?”

—God asked the children of Esav in my first grade adaptation of Sifrei Devarim 343, before we received our first Humashim. No longer limited to plush Sifrei Torah and illustrated Parashah books, we were now entitled to a black-on-white text softcover of Bereishit, with a blue felt book jacket that we personalized and bedazzled. We received the Torah against the backdrop of the Miami Boys Choir’s Adon Olam.

The children of Esav ask God, “What’s in it?”

They turn down the offer when they learn it prohibits murder. They justify the rejection: “Murder is the essence of our father.” God moves on to the children of Ammon and Moav. Similar prudent content checks ensue. The children of Ammon and Moav decline the offer out of consideration of their people’s essences.

Only the children of Israel accept God’s offer without hesitation, without any consideration of its conflict with the essences of the stiff-necked nation Israel. “Na’aseh ve-nishma,” “We will do and we will listen!” exclaim the children of Israel and the first graders in the auditorium. A wholehearted, joyful, songful, singular moment of accepting God’s Torah. A precocious boy, I beamed while performing the speaking role of Moshe, the center of attention as I read a short autobiography that included the above-grade level word “alas” to segue to Moshe’s death outside the Promised Land.

Around my bar mitzvah and puberty, that changed. I began to dread any performance that was remotely public, that would draw eyes and ears to my body and voice and self-presentation. I would gag and vomit in anticipation of any attention; I nursed a bottle of water every few words while delivering my bar mitzvah and middle school graduation speeches. In ninth grade, I would hide in the bathroom as the gabbai circulated around the boys’ side of the mehitzah during davening, assigning kibuddim. This performance anxiety extended to recess and sometimes even just to interactions with testy cool kids in the hallway. I retreated to the hole-in-the-wall media room, the “cave” as we called it, where I could interact with the school community via moviemaking and graphic design while remaining behind the curtain.

The narrative we were taught of Matan Torah changed in yeshiva high school, too: I learned that the children of Israel were trapped in a cavernous enclosure; one could say, staring down a barrel. On color war morning—just before the glorious opportunities to bring one’s whole self to school, with audience-ready stages for athletic, artistic, and social expression and competition; a day I dreaded like no other—we had a brief shiur about Matan Torah in honor of color war Team Torah. We learned for the first time the version of revelation that Masekhet Shabbat 88a reveals.

The passage opens with Shemot 19:17, “….and they [the nation] encamped at the bottom of the mountain [Sinai].” This verse can be read literally as “underneath the mountain.” Based on the literal reading, R. Avdimi b. Hama b. Hasa teaches that God lifted Mount Sinai as a barrel over the heads of bnei Yisrael—“she-kafa HaKadosh Barukh Hu aleihem et ha-har ke-gigit”—threatening them with immediate death if they would not accept the obligations of the Torah. Clearly, such coercion undermines the Covenant, worries R. Aha b. Yaakov. How could the people truly accept the Torah contract if they were forced to sign?

Rava solves the concern: the people went back and freely accepted the Torah in the days of Ahashverosh. As proof, he cites the Megillah: “kiyemu ve-kibelu ha-yehudim,” “the Jews established and received.” In the Megillah’s context, they received and established the holiday of Purim; yet Rava reads this to mean that they established what they had already received—the Torah.

I was disappointed to learn Bnei Yisrael had no choice in the matter. But I was even more confused about Rava’s solution:

  • Could the Jews really have any volition in accepting the Torah in the times of Ahashverosh, if they had already been forced to receive the Torah?
  • And if they did have any liberty in the matter, why did it take so many hundreds of years? Multiple kingdoms and an exile later?
  • Of all the moments of reconnection with the Torah—covenants reaffirmed under Yehoshua’s leadership (Joshua 8 and 24), Kohen Gadol Hilkiya finding a Torah scroll in the beit ha-mikdash and rededicating it with King Yoshiyahu (II Kings 22), to name a couple—why situate this moment of re-acceptance in Megillat Esther, which has nary a mention of God or Torah?

I didn’t understand this sugya until I came out as a gay Torah Jew—a man longing for God and man.[1]

I was never asked if I wanted to be attracted to people of my own gender, to have a homosexual orientation. That revelation was an external, forced one—from the underwear aisle at K-Mart; from the friend on a summer program with piercing eyes, a delightful smile, and a contagious laugh; from the older boys at school whipping each other’s biceps with tefillin straps. It was my har ke-gigit. A mountain was held over my head, with information I had no choice but to receive, but no freedom to truly accept.

Barukh she-kivanti: much greater minds than mine already have made the connection between the national har ke-gigit journey and personal, even romantic ones. In his majestic And From There You Shall Seek, Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) describes the evolution of homo religiosus’s relationship with God in the romantic, aesthetic terms of the lover in Shir Ha-Shirim,[2]  referencing the har ke-gigit episode in the process. Over the backdrop of the dance—the seeking and retreating—of the lover and beloved in Shir Ha-Shirim, the Rav charts a relationship’s path from a stage of fear and trust, to a stage of awe and love, and finally to total love.

The fear and trust are instilled by an external revelation that is terrifying and confining, writes the Rav, using har ke-gigit as his prooftext (p. 35). After unsuccessful attempts to flee the external revelation, the God-conscious voyager channels his[3] awe into approaching God as an object of emulation. But imitating God from afar—imitatio Dei—is insufficient for a lovestruck man. He ultimately yearns to cleave to God—but first, the external revelation must meet an internal one, such that revelation is no longer constraining but affirming. Only then can he achieve deveikut, cleaving with God in ultimate love.

The external revelation the Rav describes is secretive, irrational, suffocating, and yet paradoxically met by homo religiosus with both fear and trust.

I told no one of my longing for men—not my closest friends, not my parents—until the JLIC rabbi at the end of my first year in college. Until then, I had looked for indications in rabbis’ responses to theoretical questions about homosexuality and gay marriage for any sign from God to share about my orientation. Instead, I had heard a “What’s next, the right to marry horses?” here, a “Like X-men, a power that could be good in theory but must be locked up” there. I avoided building male friendships that discussed emotions lest I accidentally get too comfortable sharing vulnerabilities that might derail the friendship and my Orthodox Jewish future. I avoided alcohol for the same reason: the first time I ever went to a bar while studying in a gap-year Yeshiva in Israel, I made sure my phone was recording me the whole time so I would know afterward if, has ve-shalom, I had shared anything about my boy crushes while intoxicated, and whom I’d need to bribe to contain that information. (Thankfully, and to the disappointment of the friends who took me out to the bar, I had just tipsily blabbed about the Rambam.)

Revelation—an infinite God squeezing a message into human history and limited human consciousness—defies time. Time also works in weird ways when on a Young Israel’s Achva West summer trip, a peer in the bus aisle seat says he thinks you’re gay and won’t back down or explain why he thinks that or give you anything to reassure you that this guess of his won’t be used to torture you and change your life forever and take away the one thing you have some limited control over when you so so so wish you had that over your sexual attraction instead but at least let me figure out when I share it or don’t why are you still looking at me that way I am stuck on this bus next to you for the next few hours please I beg you I feel so alone already I don’t need your friendship but I do need your humanity please. don’t. tell.

Like the Rav’s religious sojourner when confronted with the revelation, I tried to run away from it. I chalked up my attraction to just socially-motivated bodily jealousy of the more athletic boys in a sports-dominated Modern Orthodox culture. I would summon all my energy to foment feelings of sexual attraction to images of women, but visions of men would come roaring back more powerfully than before.

“When man wants to avoid God’s revelation, God seizes him; God closes in on him and there is no escape.” (p. 34)

I tried rationalizing the irrational. While I knew gay people existed, I reasoned God would never do that to me, a faithful Jew, and my devout family. Having “real” same-sex attraction would be irrational. Despite the sleepless nights, the choking on anxiety in the bathroom, I paradoxically doubled down on my trust—I trusted that this was a temporary test of my yetzer tov; that Hashem will make this pass by my late teens. And so, learning from Yaakov Avinu’s preparations prior to confronting his greatest fear (Rashi on Bereishit 32:9), I took a three-pronged approach to this temporary test: tefillah, gifts to God, and the only practical weapon I had, age. With intense kavanah I would recite the passage in the puberty booklet my Catholic pediatrician gave me that said that some pubescent teens experience same-sex curiosity as a “phase” as if it were liturgy canonized by Anshei K’nesset Ha-gedolah. Fear and trust.

“The awareness of revelation… is manifested mainly in a fearful experience, a sense that the order of reality has been conquered by an awesome transcendent power that cannot be grasped by the mind. This awareness is filled with a strange secrecy and an amazing supra-rationality… the sense of the silence of a night of horror and torment…” (p. 36)

At first I maintained my distance from men, scared of this external revelation, of what I was drawn to, because of the masculinity I was missing, like homo religiosus scared of a God with omnipotence beyond his reach. Eventually, the intimidation gives way to imitation: homo religiosus tries to satisfy his thirst for God by walking in His footsteps, moving from a relationship of fear to one of awe. In high school and gap year yeshiva, I tried for a time speaking in a deeper register, adopting bro-talk and other masculine-perceived mannerisms, hoping this would set me straight. More recently, when I more honestly questioned my level of physical and romantic attraction to my girlfriend while we were taking a relationship break, I started running with traditionally masculine friends and training at a gym, hoping it would boost my straightness and fulfill my thirst for masculinity. It was only an approximation of what I was learning my soul really yearned for, and any relief that emerged was not from the imitation but from the closeness with objects of my desire. Imitation is not enough for the Rav’s homo religiosus. It was not enough for me.

“The act of imitation contains a confession of failure…if he were able to do so, there would be no need to imitate…” (p. 76)

The transition from intimidation to imitation was just one step in my long journey from har ke-gigit to kiyemu ve-kibelu, the moment of self-revelation.

Like the children of Israel, it took me a while. Bnei Yisrael and I tried to ignore the implications of the revelation and just blend in. “We’re not different—let’s have a king like all the other nations,” Bnei Yisrael protest to the prophet Shmuel, before trying it out with unsavory results.

Bnei Yisrael and I spent a while trying to replace the challenging revelation and deny our natures—I dated two remarkable, supportive women in my twenties, telling them and myself I was bisexual; the children of Israel, in denial of their relationship with God, tested out worshiping Baal, Ashera, and Dagon.

Bnei Yisrael and I coasted on long distance. I spent five years commuting back and forth between Cambridge and NY/NJ, telling our couple’s therapist that any mismatch in desire was due to the structural stressors of GoBus, Greyhound, MegaBus, and Amtrak; much of Bnei Yisrael’s encounters with God were limited to the three yearly pilgrimages to a beit ha-mikdash in Jerusalem that could contain and constrain engagement with God’s Revelation.

I too built a beautiful beit ha-mikdash. Mine didn’t last four hundred years, but it did for six. My former girlfriend and I created a relationship of shared values, intellectual vigor, community integration, open communication, laughter, compromise, friendship, mutual support, occasional romance, and a caring love. I told myself that this is the easier path—for my family and my halakhic observance. I assured myself that if it worked for my girlfriend, then it was right for me. I didn’t realize the extent to which my self-denial was hurting us both.

Only in exile did Bnei Yisrael and I have the freedom to confront our revelation: Bnei Yisrael in exile from the land they inherited since the moment of God’s revelation to them and from the beit ha-mikdash that cordoned off God’s overwhelming presence; I from my relationship, when my girlfriend and I tearfully agreed that a break would be our best shot, if we were to have one, of saving our union. In Persia, where the Jews stood up for themselves and asserted their own dignity; in my own community, away from the Amtrak commute, in the reemergence from COVID-19 lockdowns, a chance to reintroduce myself not just to my neighbors but to myself.

Like the Rav’s paradigmatic God-seeker, I met my external revelation with an internal one. To be modeh al ha-emet ve-dover emet bi-l’vavo, to concede the truth and speak the truth in my heart, as I say in my favorite tefillah every day. To end the self-deception, to align my inside with my outside—to be tokho ke-varo—as Rabban Gamliel demanded of his students (Berakhot 28a). To perform teshuvah, to return to myself; to anticipate God’s question at the end of my days when, according to Reb Zusha of Hanipol, God will ask not why I wasn’t like Moshe or Avraham, but why I wasn’t more like myself.[4] There is no life I can live other than my own.

Finally, I could be my full self in front of God, gay and all. Learning from Moshe, I could remove the mask when talking to God.[5] In my new commitment to honesty, when I developed an intoxicating infatuation with a new male friend—when I lay on the couch all day staring at my phone in hopes for a simple reply I could read and re-read for hours—my excuse for every other previous male crush—it’s just jealousy—no longer held any water. My soul yearned for romantic intimacy, not mere imitation. I wanted to cleave to God and to this man.

I was always homosexual, ever since God raised it over my head like an overturned barrel at my bar mitzvah, and I trembled for years in response to that revelation. I had no choice about that matter, nor was I asked whether I wanted to be born into a state of hiyyuv, as a Jew by birth. Only when my internal revelation met the external one did I assent to being a gay Torah Jew: kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim and kabbalat atzmi.

In accepting the implications of being gay, of seeking a gay relationship, and of adopting the history, legacy, and future of queerness, within Am Yisrael,[6] I finally established what I had previously received. In adjusting some gendered details of my vision of my future bayit—although I may not yet know what that ultimately looks like—I experienced freedom in the lot God gave me, an answer to my tefillah of “Ve-tein helkeinu be-Toratekha” (Shabbat Amida). A fact of life that I had misunderstood as a chain constraining me, I now know is actually my link in the mesorah; a rock that I tried to cast away, will become a cornerstone in my life (Tehillim 118:22).

“The heavy weight of laws and regulations is transformed into an intensely attractive force that raises the individual from the mire of impenetrable realty to an existence full of purpose and yearning” (p. 128).

Even though it could be no other way—the alternative was self-cruelty—this was a willful, free, and wholehearted assent, with the security of my relationship with Hashem, a merging of external and internal revelation: “God’s revelation to man and man’s revelation to himself as a human entity are simultaneous” (p. 136). And as in our ancestors’ kiyemu ve-kibelu moment, this too is one of joy.

That joyous kiyemu ve-kibelu moment: so why is the Purim story the great reckoning, where Rava situates the Jews’ delayed-but-free acceptance of the Torah?

My personal kiyemu ve-kibelu journey has led me to three answers:

Purim imbues human emotion with kedushah. The Jews under Ahashverosh’s rule could have celebrated their victory over Haman in a spontaneous, secular way—dousing one other in champagne, climbing up street poles like fans of the Super Bowl victors. Instead, they channeled and elevated their celebratory spirit, the natural euphoria of survival and triumph, into the holiday of Purim. Purim is a religious mandate that, instead of quashing natural jubilation, has perpetuated it for millennia, and expanded it with community-building mitzvot. What is a greater example of free agent-sourced establishment of God’s Torah than the constitution of a new holiday that entwines the people-emanating spirit with religious imperative?

I encountered this answer in coming out as a gay Torah Jew: in beginning my search to bring kedushah to my sexual attraction by building a Torah home with a Torah life partner; in marrying the very human spirit of same-gender desire with a Torah structure that will create family and community. After all, “What is the elevation of the body? It is [the basic teaching of] the entire Torah—everything else is interpretation,” writes the Rav (p. 110):

Halakhah aims to sanctify man’s body, refine the bestial aspects of human life with all their lusts and drives, and raise them to the level of divine service. But this refining process does not take place in a crucible of denial and deprivation; [it occurs by] stamping the natural aspects of human existence with direction and purposefulness. Combining the beast in man with his divine image purifies and sanctifies the body. This union is accomplished by imposing the yoke of the halakhic commandments on the body. The purpose of the halakhic imperative is not to label man’s sensual body as impure and thus reject it, but to purify it and draw it closer to God. The halakhic factor, when applied to pleasure-filled, self-satisfied fleshly existence, an existence driven by untamed instincts and made insensitive by savage lusts, bestows the glory of the Shekhinah on the human body. (p. 111)

“Man worships his Creator with his body, his eating, and his sexual activity, and this worship is preferable to worship through prayer.” (p. 115)

Understandably, the Rav didn’t include gay marriage in this imperative to sanctify the body; he commented on homosexuality as a moral threat. Yet gay observant Jews still yearn to fulfill the spirit of the Rav’s body-sanctification vision in their own lives when they turn to rabbinic guidance.[7] Regardless of the halakhic outcomes, what an honor it is for me to live in this decade, when I can join holy frum queer Jews in openly asking shailas about the possibilities of gay parents raising children, about ways to honor gay partnership, about taharat ha-mishpahah in a queer context! To join, by the act of seeking rabbinic guidance and engaging in halakhic discourse, the tradition of benot tzelofhad seeking inclusion, of the petitioners of pesah sheini who desperately sought to fulfill the commandments. The search for halakhic inclusion is challenging, and may even be painful. But to engage with the halakhic process is to dream that perhaps our heartfelt Torah-committed lives might one day merit incorporation into the mesorah, reminding us of the way righteous Channah’s strange, unfamiliar worship taught us all how to talk to the Almighty—her silent lips and trembling shoulders exhaling the cries of the heart and lungs—a method ultimately endorsed and codified by the Oral Law. What can be more God-intoxicating?

“The Holy One, Blessed Be He, gave the Torah to Israel and commanded us to innovate and create” (p. 110).

Purim is the holiday of the Oral Torah. Strengthening the reach of halakhah—discovering the Shekhinah through new situations and refractions: this power, our sages tell us, is what we established at the kiyemu ve-kibelu moment of Purim. Chizkuni explains that the kiyemu ve-kibelu moment was the moment of the dedication of the Oral Torah (Hizkuni on Exodus 19:17). Mordechai was the last bearer of nevuah, passing the torch of the mesorah on to the people.

According to Maharal, the har ke-gigit threat was not literally coercion but simply a fact of life—as a nation the Jewish people had to be obligated in Torah; the world order depended on it; there could be no other way (Gur Aryeh on Exodus 19:17). But the Jewish people rejoiced in it anew when Torah became an organic and active part of their individual lives, responding to the invitation for partnership in the brit—the living, generative process of the Oral Torah, of the shining rays of the Divine outlining the contours of our unique lives. “Oral Torah means a Torah that blends with the individual’s personal uniqueness and becomes an inseparable part of man,” writes the Rav (p. 142). By positioning the re-acceptance of the Written Torah at the moment of the birth of the Oral Torah, the rabbis unite external and internal revelation: Torah becomes one.

Purim is the holiday of self-identity. Through the dedication of the Oral Torah, the rabbinic tradition, we took on a new identity: Yehudim. Megillat Esther is the first instance in Tanakh of Yehudi referring to Bnei Yisrael who aren’t from the tribe of Judah. Further, Megillat Esther even writes of becoming Yehudi: non-Jews were mityahadim, became Jews. And of course, Yehudim is the subject of the predicate “kiyemu ve-kibelu.” In other words, the people of different tribal origins united under a common name; they stood for something new, which others could get behind. According to the Talmud, those who reject idol worship are called “Yehudi” regardless of their tribe (Megillah 13a). The people’s name was no longer simply an ethnic description, but an affirmation. Outsiders could intertwine their fates with that of the Jewish people. That new name was from Yehudah, from le-hodot, to praise and to admit. The image of exiled Bnei Yisrael becoming Yehudim as they accept and establish the Oral Torah—this is the image I celebrate in taking on the identity as a gay Torah Jew after a drawn-out self-admission. And in intertwining my destiny with the Jewish queer community, I have never felt so welcomed and loved by people I am meeting for the first time, connected by the shared experience of standing at Sinai together, with the mountain over our heads.

But that mountain is no longer held over my head.

Ever since my first dance with a man, I have been non-stop dancing with the Divine. My kiyemu ve-kibelu moment girded me with a zest for Torah, energy for hesed, an earnest kavanah, and a love for klal Yisrael and all of God’s creatures to degrees I never anticipated. And this moment has blessed me with unparalleled feelings of shleimut—like Yaakov, after his three-pronged defenses proved unnecessary in his reconciliation with Esav, arriving whole in body and spirit (Rashi on Bereishit 33:18).

Of course, I still have many questions for God: why He wrote those pesukim in Vayikra and Devarim; why He hasn’t provided clearer Torah paths to sanctify gay partnership; why He has allowed so many queer Jews to suffer in their mental health and be pushed away from their communities; why He made the coming out process so painful for many straight parents.

But as for my relationship with man: I am no longer intimidated or fooling myself with imitation; now I am looking for deveikut with a husband and with God. And I am searching for a man who will help me accomplish both. Recognizing the difficulty of directly clinging with the Divine, Who is described as “a consuming fire,” the rabbis offer cleaving to “the scholars and the sages” as a stand-in (Rashi on Devarim 11:22). I am looking for that partner: a man steeped in Torah and hesed, to build a bayit together, a home for our family and open on all sides to klal Yisrael.

It’ll be a mountain to climb, with challenging terrain—halakhic, social, institutional, and familial. But I am grateful God escorted me to the foot of the mountain, tahteet ha-har. As we recite in Dayenu at the Passover Seder, had God only brought us to the mountain, that would have been enough.

Thank you, God, for bringing me to this place, and this time, to connect with You and myself.
She-heheyanu ve-kiyyemanu ve-higianu la-zeman ha-zeh.
Ve-higiynu: As God brings me here,
Ve-kiyyemanu: I am mekayyem mah she-kibalti, as God is “mekayyem” us.
She-heheyanu: I feel more alive than ever, like God re-endowed me with life—a life I’d trade for no other, a life I will live in service of Hashem and Hashem’s creations, be-simhah. With gaiety and pride.

Na’aseh ve-nishma.

*          *          *

Thank you to Rabbi Akiva Weisinger, Elliot Salinger, Tadhg Cleary, Ayelet Wenger, Bob Goldfarb, Aron Wander, Rabbi Shua Brick, Jonathan Bressler, Maya Rosen, Avigayil Halpern, Ricki Heicklen, Eliav Grossman, Jason Greenspan, Tehila Wenger, Wade Miller, Daphne Schlesinger, Noah Lewis, Josh Fried, Shalhevet Schwartz, Meir Hirsch, Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, and Rabbanit Sara Wolkenfeld for their feedback and encouragement in writing this piece. Thank you to HaKadosh Barukh Hu and my parents for their unconditional love.

[1] Barukh she-kivanti: after a draft of this essay was already submitted, Orthodox Israeli journalist Yair Cherki described himself in similar terms in his coming out Facebook post, “I love guys and God.” See Jacob Magid, “Prominent Orthodox Israeli Journalist Yair Cherki Comes Out as Gay,” The Times of Israel, February 14, 2023.

[2] Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba also reads har ke-gigit into the text of Shir Ha-Shirim—see for example, Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 8:5:1.

[3] I mirror the gendered pronouns from And From There You Shall Seek, which is about a he who seeks Him.

[4]  Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Book I, p. 251

[5] Ha’amek Davar Shemot 34:34 as interpreted by R. Avital Hochstein, “Moshe’s MaskAnd Our Own.

[6] For a textual history of Jewish queerness, see Noam Sienna, A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969, Print-O-Craft Press, 2019.

[7] An overview of halakhic discussions, current rabbinic guidance, and communal policy around same-gender relationships is outside the scope of this personal reflection. For an example of observant queer women asking guidance of a Modern Orthodox Rabbi, see Rabbi Jeff Fox’s post, “Halakhic Questions from the LGBTQ+ Community.”  For an example of Modern Orthodox shul policies around same-gender married couples and their children, see the recording of PORAT: People for Orthodox Renaissance and Torah’s recent event, “Welcoming Everyone to Shul: Why We Should Ensure Our Shuls Embrace LGBTQ+ Jews.” For guidance from an Orthodox Rabbi that envisions same-gender relationship, see Rav Benny Lau’s Facebook post (Hebrew).

Joshua Stadlan is a Postmodern Orthodox Jew captivated by the relationship between Torah and ethics. He works as lead computational social scientist at MITRE and is pursuing a PhD at Tufts University focusing on social simulation. He lives in Cambridge, MA, serving as Chair of the Cambridge Human Rights Commission and as a shift leader at the Haley House Soup Kitchen in Boston. Stadlan grew up in the Boca Raton Synagogue community in Florida, and studied at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi before earning a B.S.E. in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University. His Shabbat meal menus consist of puns on pesukim from the parashah. He writes about the intersection of Judaism, ethics, and probability modeling in an email newsletter, Justice for Hedgers: