At its best, the Torah can lift up humanity, reminding us of our place in the continually unfolding story of God’s Creation of the world and our role in the hopeful journey toward freedom. At its worst, it can serve as a tool for domination, oppression, hatred, and all that is base and vile within the human soul. Both potentials are always there. As it turns out, what we believe to be true about the Torah — about the guiding values that drive us in our lives — has as much to do with who we are as human beings as it does with the sacred words of the Torah itself.
As a gay man, I approached this week’s Torah portion with a fair amount of trepidation. Within this double parashah of Acharei Mot-K’doshim are verses that have been used to harm people like me, and to be honest, as ammunition to attack me personally. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 seem at first and, truthfully, even at a second glance, to be straightforward prohibitions on sex between men, and are deployed every day by all manner of people as justification for discrimination. There are, of course, contemporary explanations that recontextualize these verses and redefine what it is that the Torah means to prohibit here, but for those people looking to base their homophobia in the Bible, those contemporary interpretations are easily dismissed. I gave up long ago trying to convince people of what the Torah “really” means here. I have not given up on the Torah of love that demands sacred witness to — and healing for — the pain LGBTQIA+ people experience navigating a world of all too human hatred and bigotry.
The history of religious homophobia is long and terrible, and worst of all, it isn’t just history — it is the present. As I sit at my desk writing today, there are literally dozens of anti-LGBTQIA+ laws advancing through legislatures around the United States and around the world. Less publicly, there are daily hate crimes and acts of violence perpetrated on people just like me. It is overwhelming. Most days I am lucky enough to be able to push out all of that hatred and focus on being a good husband, father, and cantor, but there are also times when it is just too much. Why, I wonder, among all the problems of our world that are so difficult, and need so much attention and care, would people choose reducing my civil rights as worthy of their time? Is there nothing else more important they can think of to do?
In 2006, I had the incredible honor of joining together with activists and religious leaders at World Pride Jerusalem. More than any of the large scale and impressive events with thousands of people that filled the public schedule, I remember a smallish circle of queer ordained Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy, and (like me at the time) students preparing for lives in the clergy. We sat in a garden on the beautiful campus of HUC-JIR overlooking the walls of the Old City and shared stories of the past and hopes for the future. We talked about the “bad old days” and how much better things were. We strategized about the new challenges we saw coming towards us. We celebrated the expanding vision of God’s image we saw developing within our own communities and dreamed together about a world where that vision could be fully embraced. Sitting in a circle of giants — of leaders who had fought so hard for so long — I was overwhelmed at the spiritual power, faithful devotion, and pure audacious grit of this sacred assembly. The Torah I learned that day — that hopeful faith in God and humanity can flourish even after decades of bitter struggle enduring the absolute worst of hatred and violence — has been a continual source of strength for me when facing the ugliness of the world.
So, what to do with these Torah verses that have been used to cause such pain? In a Reform context, where we choose a particular piece of the Torah portion to study and publicly chant, the easiest solution may be to simply avoid them and to read something else. But easy solutions are often not the best solutions. The harder work many of us need to do in confronting these verses centers on the people impacted most by them. It is not enough to put up a safe-space sticker on the wall or to declare your synagogue an inclusive congregation, though that is a good start. Consider this Shabbat, this place in our Torah reading cycle, as an opportunity to feature queer people’s stories. Confront the ways in which you, and your own communities still need to grow in embracing the diversity of God’s image we see in human sexual orientations and gender identities. This is hard and can be uncomfortable. We love to focus on the joy and beauty of pride and inclusion, but if there is no space for the pain, anxiety, and fear LGBTQIA+ people experience then that “inclusion” just isn’t real. When I’m not sure how to best accomplish this work, I depend on the tremendous body of resources and assistance available through Keshet, an organization working for LGBTQ equality in Jewish life.
I believe that the same Torah that has facilitated harm can also be the Torah that inspires us to find healing. As we pray each morning in the Ahavah Rabbah prayer: “God, enlighten our eyes with Your Torah” — that we may see, both within ourselves and our communities, in pain and in joy, the full spectrum of humanity with love; “focus our minds on Your mitzvot” – that we may recommit ourselves to the action required for full inclusion; “unite our hearts in love and reverence for Your Name.” Then we will never feel shame, never deserve rebuke, and never stumble. May this be Your will.
Acharei Mot/K’doshim and I go way back. This was my bar mitzvah portion. Little did I know at the time the role this double portion of Torah would play in my life. I do not remember what I spoke about, but I can assure you it was not the prohibition on sex between two men. At 13, I had no idea that the Torah contained such a prohibition or that it was in my bar mitzvah portion. But I did know that I had to keep my attraction to other boys a secret and that people who either were — or even suspected of — being gay and lesbian were derided by society.
In high school and college, when I worked at Eisner Camp during the summers, I knew to keep my sexuality to myself. Each summer, rabbis would come to camp to serve on faculty. Often, they were accompanied by their spouses and children. Though I wanted to be a rabbi, I did not see how that would ever be possible. But that did not stop me from dreaming. I dreamed that one day I would work at camp as a rabbi and that I would bring my husband and children with me. Back in the early 1980s, that was more a fantasy than a dream. It seemed as likely as my winning the lottery.
Fast forward to the summer of 2001. In what I can only describe as an amazing turn of events, my dreams did become a reality. I was a recently ordained rabbi serving Temple Jeremiah in Northfield, IL. My husband and our one-year old son joined me at OSRUI, the URJ camp in Wisconsin, where I would serve as faculty for two weeks. It was there that I met Cantor David Berger, who had just graduated from college. Until I read his interview with Aron Hirt-Manheimer, I had no idea of the impact my presence at camp had on Cantor Berger. I am so grateful that I could be a role model for him, one that I did not have when I was young and wondering what my future held for me.
Fast forward again, this time to April of 2014. Our older son, Avi, became bar mitzvah, and you guessed it, his Torah portion was K’doshim. In his d’var Torah, Avi focused on verse 14 of chapter 19,
“You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God; I am the Eternal.” (Lev. 19:14)
In his preparation to become a bar mitzvah, Avi volunteered with a group called Buddy Ball, which offered recreational and sporting activities for children with disabilities. As a result, this was the verse that resonated for Avi. To my son, this was simple common sense. He explained that K’doshim (the plural of kadosh) means “holy.” K’doshim is a guide to holiness. According to Avi, if we want to achieve some measure of holiness in our lives, we must treat others as if they were created in the image of God. To Avi, this was so simple. Holiness is less about telling people what they cannot do, but about how each of us treats others.
While I am quite sure that Avi would have been too mortified to talk about sex between two men when he became a bar mitzvah in front of a packed sanctuary, including all of his friends, I think there is another reason why he did not speak about those verses.
To him, they made no sense. While, as Cantor Berger points out, many state legislatures are attempting to roll back civil rights won by LGBTQ people, my sons see LGBTQ history through a different lens. To them, this history is one of expanding rights. They know that only a few years ago, their fathers could not be legally married, and that not too long ago, we would not have been able to adopt them. My sons are baffled when I explain to them that there are people who do not support marriage equality, or the rights of people to choose which restroom they use.
Unlike me when I was their age, my sons do know what is in Acharei Mot/K’doshim. They know that in order to live a life of holiness, we must see each other as created in the image of God. I want them to understand, as Cantor Berger teaches, that Torah can be a source of healing, not a source of hurt.
Acharei Mot/K’doshim, Leviticus 16:1−20:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 858−907; Revised Edition, pp. 769–813
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 679–722
Haftarah, Amos 9:7−15
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 999−1,000; Revised Edition, pp. 814−815