Last night while I was trying to sleep (unsuccessfully), the words Acharei Mot-Kedoshim kept popping into my head. This is quite rare for me, since usually my mind is focused on more important issues like “when does Orange Is the New Black come back to Netflix again?” (June 12). So for some reason this week’s Torah Portion or parsha was front and center in my nighttime thoughts. In case you’re not familiar with the specifics of the Old Testament, this week’s parsha includes that famous passage in Leviticus: Chapter 18, verse 22:
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination.
וְאֶת-זָכָר–לֹא תִשְׁכַּב, מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה: תּוֹעֵבָה, הִוא.
Last year, when this Torah Portion was read, I went to shul late so I would’t have to hear it. I was planning on doing that this year as well. Why? Is this the equivalent of my friend who puts her fingers in her ears and says “fishkifee fishkifoo” when she doesn’t want to hear what her friends are talking about (usually this happens when spoilers are being revealed)? I honestly don’t know. I have to be honest, I don’t normally listen to the Torah reading in shul with rapt attention. Additionally, this isn’t the only part of the Torah that I have issues with. I am definitely not pro-killing a ben sorer or moreh or pro-eshet yefat toar not to mention other seemingly outdated laws. So why do I go out of my way to avoid this one?
Some might think I try not to hear this passage read out loud so that I can maintain some semblance of “plausible deniability”. That if I don’t physically hear what the Torah says, I can keep supporting my son and I won’t have to “reconcile” anything. That’s not my reasoning though. As I mentioned before, I don’t plan on investigating the specifics of any of my children’s levels of intimacy in their private lives so I don’t plan on knowing if or how they are “doing” anything (trying to be sensitive in my wording here since I’m talking about my kids) so I don’t know if there is anything I actually NEED to reconcile, if that makes any sense.
I think my aversion to hearing this part of the Torah reading has more to do with the fact that so many people take this verse and use it to justify their homophobic attitudes. It’s one thing for the many people who say, “The Torah/Bible says this is a sin, but we have to support LGBT people.” Then there are people who close off any conversation that includes any understanding of what an LGBT person might be going through or need simply because of this verse. I know I’m not saying anything different than I did in one of my first posts on this blog, but I guess this is on my mind today again.
I know that my method of dealing with this passage is a bit of a cowardly one. It’s something I’d rather avoid than deal with. And maybe in the future, I’ll change my mind about how I do deal with it. In the meantime, I am heartened that others are able to deal with it more proactively. Rabbi Steve Greenberg, one of the Executive Directors of Eshel (and someone I consider a friend) wrote an amazing article in the Times of Israel this week. In the article, titled, “Silence Is Not OK When The Torah Is Painful”, Rabbi Greenberg explains the damage that this passage can do on a young gay individual and his loved ones. He offers a solution to curb the damage this verse can cause. Speech. Discussion. And not discussion talking about the evils of homosexuality, honest discussion about what Jewish LGBT individuals are entitled to with regards to love.
The only remedy is speech. Whether in the form of an introduction to the parasha or a sermon, we must begin to hear these verses as if standing in the shoes of a15 year old who knows exactly what his crush on the cute boy in his class means. He is abominable. We can say publicly that the verse only speaks of actions and not feelings, but even a teenager knows that such dodging will not save him from disgrace if he ever shares his feelings.
While it is not OK to be silent, it must be admitted that different communities will be able and ready to say different things. It may not matter exactly what is said, as long as compassion for the child in the pews trying to make sense of her feelings is the purpose. It must justify hope, and not the vain hope of therapeutic or spiritual transformation, but the hope that somehow, just as she is, her life will work out.
Rabbis can make a huge difference. They can stand in the way of a downward spiral by fully identifying with the subjective reality of a teenager listening well to these two verses in their shul. Orthodox Rabbis may not now or ever have a fully embracing stance, but they can adopt the existential crisis of the teens struggling to square their religious world with their emerging self awareness. It is a process of empathy that has already begun.
The rest of the article is a must read. Rabbi Greenberg ends with a suggestion for a tefillah that could possibly be recited prior to the Torah reading that prays for G-d to remember that this is a real struggle for people and to look out for those people. He acknowledges that the prayer will not work in many synagogues, but silence shouldn’t be the answer either.
The cynical and pessimistic person in me (sorry) knows that there will be sermons across the country discussing this passage and talking about the Supreme Court Arguments about marriage equality that took place this past week and about the dangers of the “gay agenda”. Let’s hope that anyone who is actually affected by these words will be able to find a way to find positivity amongst the rhetoric. At least maybe they will find Rabbi Greenberg’s article and know that they are not alone and that there is hope.