Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Rabbi Joshua Lesser tackles Parashat Vayikra and asks the gay men in his Jewish community to stand up.
I remember my first pair of rollerblades. More specifically, I remember the bloody mess I was the first time I gave them a try. I couldn’t figure out the brakes and there was a hill and a busy street—you can figure out where this is going. Never was I so grateful to hit a telephone pole. The second time I bladed I fared better, that is until a piece of rusty wire got caught in the wheels bringing them to a sharp halt. The rules of physics being what they are, I fell on my face. Slapstick being as reliable as physics, my fall brought me injury in the form of much laughter. The next time I was invited to go rollerblading, I stopped and stared at the skates. Were these skates nothing more than simple instruments of cruel pain? Could I give it another go? Or should I simply be done with them all together?
This week we begin the book of Leviticus with Parashat Vayikra, and although Leviticus begins innocently enough, with a listing of the various sacrifices performed in the Mishkan, as LGBT people, we all know where this book is heading. Much like my rollerblades just the title Leviticus inspires dread and fear in gay men that has caused us to disengage with the entire book, and for some, Judaism altogether. And so it is ironic that Leviticus begins with the word vayikra—”And God called.” Ramban cites a midrash that connects Leviticus with the end of the book of Exodus where we find a complete description of the Mishkan’s construction and that it was worthy of the Shechinah (God’s Presence). So magnificent and awesome was God’s glory within the Mishkan that Moses was terrified to enter. Thus, the call from God in this portion was an invitation to Moses and the Israelites to come inside—signaling to them that the Mishkan was built for their mutual relationship.
Similarly, Ramban also notes that the word for sacrifice is connected to the Hebrew word that means, “to draw close.” In this light the sacrificial system is one of the primary ways that the Mishkan was to be used to enhance the biblical human-Divine relationship, Ramban sees this sacrificial system as a ritualistic way to build a meaningful relationship with the Divine. In other words, when we discard Leviticus wholesale because of its foreign rituals or its later prohibitions, we risk missing the emphasis of how ritual can bring us closer to Judaism, community and God (or godliness).
For gay men in particular, this is a real danger in today’s Jewish world. In the rabbinic commentaries, much to do is made about the way the first word of this portion is written—the last letter of “vayikra” is an aleph, which in the Torah is written smaller than the other letters. While the rabbis speculate how this is connected to Moses’ humility, I wonder if the aleph might stand for the first call that God speaks to humanity, which begins with the aleph in question. In Genesis, God calls to his first human creations, “Ayeca?”/”Where are you?”
Indeed, I often find that I have the same question for gay Jewish men in Jewish communal life: Where are you? Having served in different LGBT communities, I have found that, while gay Jewish men aren’t exactly nonexistent, they participate in smaller numbers than lesbians, and additionally, it seems gay Jewish men wait until they are older to make affiliations within Jewish communal life. In one rabbinical school class, we were taught that, as rabbis, we could expect to attract members of our demographic most significantly. In other words, a married woman rabbi could expect to have substantial participation from other married women. However, at my particular synagogue, this has not occurred—instead, we have attracted large numbers of people from all demographics but my own (gay Jewish men in their 30s). While this may be too anecdotal to draw strong conclusions, I couple this particular piece of anecdotal evidence with the fact that I consistently meet gay Jewish men in social settings who seek me out to share their experiences of having been made to feel unwelcome in their synagogues, their families. Many express disdain for Judaism and God altogether mentioning the prohibitions in Leviticus. Intertwined in these discussions is often a sense of lingering shame.
Upon reading the list of sacrifices in Vayikra while considering Ramban’s theory that they served to draw people, within the context of their community, closer to a sense of the Divine, I conclude that somehow these sacrifices served to remove the barriers that kept people distant from a sense of the Divine. As a result of this reading, I have wrestled with the question of determining how the self-imposed barriers could be removed that prevents gay men from feeling more connected with their Jewish community and to God. In what ways could we engage ritually to enhance our Jewish spiritual lives? While I think this question is relevant for all people, I think for gay men the answers are different.
While it is critical that the larger Jewish community work to remake itself so that it is more accessible to gay Jewish men, it is our responsibility as gay Jews to undertake our own self examination. We have the ability to identify those things that have blocked our connection to God and to ritual. Unless the answer is utter rejection, we must do our inner work. Leviticus and its sacrificial systems are buttressed by a calling to take personal responsibility and cultivate vulnerability. Giving an offering, in particular the act of sacrificing the life of a sentient being, brings us face to face with the fragility of life moment to moment. Rabbi Kerry Olitsky points out that the sacrificial system demanded an entirely embodied process. One had to engage all of one’s senses to participate. Taken together this is incredibly vulnerable.
Moreover, even more intensely vulnerable is that the heart of the issue demands gay Jewish men to embrace their sexuality and acknowledge that not only are we holy as human beings, but our bodies are holy and our sexual connections can be holy. To wrestle with this is to also acknowledge when our sexual acts are not holy. As gay men can we make ourselves vulnerable enough to invite a sense God’s presence in our sexuality? To do so, is a sacrifice not in the sense of giving something up, but rather creating room for godliness to dwell.
Asking gay Jewish men to be vulnerable in order to read and engage with Leviticus, which is arguably the core of ritual Judaism and holiness, when it is the source of direct pain and alienation may be unreasonable. Certainly, there is some danger in this, and the possibility of re-wounding may even be likely. However, there is also much to be gained by making peace with this book that contains the infamous 18:22 and 20:13 verses because it also contains much more—Leviticus also includes some of Judaism’s most compassionate and beautiful teachings that can serve to awaken the desire to infuse our life with the awareness of the glory of God’s presence. As this portion reminds us, God’s perpetually call to us, despite fear and harm. The question that remains is, can we, as gay men make ourselves vulnerable enough to hear it? And if we do that, can we sacrifice the baggage that keeps us distant so that we may answer from the authentic place within us that longs for God in our lives.
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Rabbi Steve Greenberg deciphers deeper meaning in what appear to be the Levitical prohibitions of homosexuality.
The paired Torah portions of Aharei Mot and Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27) are, in gay Jewish terms, the “scene of the crime.” In these two portions are the two verses that are traditionally understood to excoriate gay male sex. In 1969 they were, as well, my bar mitzvah portion. At the age of 13 I had no idea that this double parasha would come to mean so much to me. By the time Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 came to have their full caustic power on my life, I was a closeted Orthodox rabbi living in Riverdale, New York, and involved in my first gay relationship. The high wire anxiety of this time led me to a showdown of sorts. I needed to make some sense of my life in light of these verses in order to continue in good faith, not only as an Orthodox rabbi, but as a committed Jew. Continue reading
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Jay Michaelson looks at the Levitical prohibitions around purity – including the ones related to homosexuality – and finds that ethics and morality have nothing to do with them.
For gay and lesbian Jews, parshat Acharei Mot contains some of the most infamous passages of the Torah, but the preceding two, Tazria and Metzora (usually read together as a “double portion”) contain some of the most obscure. In these portions, we learn about the laws of leprosy (actually tzaraat, a skin disease similar to it but different in various ways), seminal emissions, and menstruation; here we are told the detailed method of sin-offerings and wave-offerings, and the methods of purity and contamination. Few people spend much time poring over the vivid anatomical and biological details of Tazria-Metzora. And yet, how can we understand the meaning of the Levitical sexual prohibitions without a sense of their immediate context?
The High Holidays are nearly upon us, and while it’s wonderful to carve out time for reflection, contemplation and community, the holiday season can also be stressful (dealing with family, long days in synagogue, confronting a challenging year). For LGBTQ Jews and our families, there is the added element of stress: during the Torah service on the afternoon of Yom Kippur we read from Leviticus. This reading includes the verses from the Torah frequently used as a religious prohibition of homosexuality.
So this year, Keshet’s providing you with a little extra High Holiday reading. Whether you make good use of these resources at home or slide them into your machzor (High Holiday prayer book) — we promise we won’t tell — we hope they enhance your understanding of the holidays, and add layers of meaning to your experience of them. You can find many more resources for the holidays in our Resource Library.
Days of Awe: Turning to Do Good
Dr. Joel Kushner, the Director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, examines the Al Cheyt prayer, used in the High Holiday liturgy, to look at how we deal with LGBTQ inclusion. The prayer lists all of our sins and Dr. Kushner uses them as a focus for how we are culpable for — and how we can fight against — transphobia and violence against transgender people.
Plus…You’ll never look at Leviticus the same way again:
Interpreting Leviticus: Contemporary Voices
One of the most challenging aspects of Yom Kippur for LGBTQ Jews is the portion of Leviticus read for this holiday which includes the injunction against men “lying with other men as with women,” and which is cited in several faiths as the textual basis for prohibitions against homosexuality. In this excerpt from the Hineini Curriculum Resource Guide, six scholars – Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rabbi Bradley Artson, Dr. Rachel Adler, Thomas Herz, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, and Rabbi David Greenstein – provide close readings and interpretations of Leviticus. Through historical context and interpretive translations, these scholars reveal a number of fascinating Jewish values and ancient prohibitions, none of which would condemn LGBTQ people in our time.
Homosexuality: An Insider’s Look at the Conservative Movement’s Halakhic Process
Another way to look at Leviticus: Yom Kippur is an excellent occasion to examine how one major Jewish movement has dealt with the Levitical injunction from a Jewish legal standpoint, and Rabbi Michael Beals’ sermon from 2006 — just before a major change in the Conservative Movement’s treatment of gay and lesbian Jews — shows how that thinking has evolved.
A Kavanah — Directing our Hearts and Minds: A Declaration of Intention that we bring to the reading of Leviticus 18 on the Afternoon of Yom Kippur
In a different examination of these same troubling verses, Rabbi Victor Reinstein of Congregation Nehar Shalom (a long timefriend of Keshet and host to many Keshet events) redirects our kavanah, or intention, in reading them, transforming them from a condemnation of homosexuality to one examining unequal power dynamics within a relationship. (You might remember Rabbi Reinstein from an earlier post featuring rabbis who spoke out for the Transgender Equal Rights bill in Massachusetts. You can read his beautiful testimony here. It’s the second one from the top.)
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Joshua Lesser looks to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah to find a more expansive vision of Judaism.
“Folks, in a moment we are going to hit the birth canal,” the leader of our spelunking trip chuckled. I felt the air thin as the 20 of us, mostly strangers, gasped at his description. Up ahead in the cave was a narrow tunnel that would require us to get on our bellies and contort and wriggle our bodies to make it through to the other side. Already muddy, I did not relish this part of the trek. I imagined spiders lurking in the dark. Taking deep breaths, I proceeded in line on hands and knees. Our headlamps provided little help as we moved forward, feeling the sides narrow. I imagined being trapped and buried under the earth. I heard the grunts and whimpers of those around me, straining to make it through, as we all lost any remaining sense of grace or composure.
My brief time in that cave is exactly how I feel about Leviticus, particularly when the texts of Leviticus are used to constrict Judaism and to squeeze people out of faith communities. I am frequently asked to speak about Judaism and homosexuality and how to reconcile Leviticus, its prohibitions, and its declarations of abominations. Recently I came to an important realization: using Leviticus as the starting point or the end game to talk about Judaism and homosexuality is a trap. By doing so, we buy in to a fundamentalist view that there is a narrow path to God and only a limited few can get there. Using Leviticus this way is to agree that Judaism is a religion of narrow laws that do not always have meaning, and that we have to contort and squeeze ourselves to make it through, often leaving our sense of dignity behind. I reject this Judaism because it is faith described as a weapon. I reject this kind of Judaism because it says blind allegiance to law is more important than people, and thus, misses the entire point of being Jewish.
Those who see Jewish law as an end in and of itself, and not as a means to a wider purpose, would subject us to a labyrinth of narrow places, with only the tool of a dimly lit headlight to look for cracks and fissures in order to breathe. Searching for breathing room in the legal loopholes is a stimulating intellectual exercise, but too often it can remove meaning and even God’s presence from the text. But the greater trap for us is to get completely caught up in railing against and rebelliously rejecting this Jewish way of living. Doing this we allow our “religion” to be reduced to what we don’t believe in, what angers us and what seems unfair. This may keep us out of the labyrinth, but it is not nurturing and does not support spiritual growth. It is a negation of faith, not an affirmation of God’s presence in our lives.
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Igael Gurin Malous examines the verses of Leviticus, read during Yom Kippur, most troubling to LGBT people.
Growing up I used to go to shul (synagogue) religiously, every Shabbat, every chag (festival), and every holiday. I prayed three times a day at yeshiva, got to services right when they started, and left only after they ended. I didn’t know a different way to behave.
It was around the age of 18 that I started realizing I was different from the other people around me, small things at first, the usual, really: how I interacted with other men, what I dreamt about, the kind of partner I wanted, etc. What it meant was that during Mincha (the afternoon service) of Yom Kippur I was confronted with the pasuk (Biblical verse) in Torah that hurt me the most. Leviticus 18:22:
ואת זכר לא תשכב משכבי אישה תועבה היא
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination.
I feared it like nothing else. Unable then to articulate the complex relationship I had with God and Judaism, my reaction to it every year was visceral: nausea, anger and pain. I tried reading other passages. I tried services that skipped the offending verse. I tried reading a book during the service. I tried stepping out of shul in protest right before the service. Eventually, I stopped going to shul altogether.
And then, a few years back while reading the brilliant work of Saussure, I realized that there is another way, a different way of reading things. Ferdinand De Saussure distinguished between two elements of language. He called them synchronic and diachronic. The diachronic element is chronological by its nature. A diachronic investigation of the word ‘man’ in the sentence ‘all men are equal’ will reveal the historical meanings of the word separately from the sentence and the other words around it. That way we can discuss how the word evolved, where it came from, its meaning and its relevance. A synchronic investigation of the word examines the word in relation to the sentence and the other words around it. The content and message of the sentence comes from that word in relation to the other words.
So I would like to offer a diachronic reading of this infamous verse rather than a synchronic one. I’m not rejecting it, I’m infusing it with another layer of meaning. I’m reclaiming it, making it my own. I am fully aware that Saussure deconstructed sentences in order to reconstruct them at the end and I understand that I should consider the syntactic life of the pasuk, but I am leaving the reconstruction of the pasuk to you, the reader, as I would like to offer each word its own life. This is a way for me to be a member of the larger Jewish community that still reads this pasuk on mincha of Yom Kippur and yet allows me to feel that it has something to teach me, too.
ואת – ve’et – and: – is a word of inclusiveness, of joining together ideas, people and values. Giving them the same value of importance. Like me AND my partner, like my love for him AND his love for me.
זכר – zachar – male/ man/ men – is an aspect of God, it’s my sex and my gender, it’s who I am and also who I love. It’s a powerful word that reminds me to always be who I am. To be strong and yet not hard, to be giving but not a martyr, to feel I can do anything but know my limits.
לא – lo – no – is the word that I use to reject the ideas I cannot live with, it’s a mantra reminding me that I can change the world!
תשכב – tishkav – lay / sleep with – from the Hebrew root ב. כ. ש (shin, kaf, bet) reminds me of the pasuk in Kings 1, 2:10-11 “Then David rested with his fathers and was buried in the City of David, He had reigned forty years over Israel—seven years in Hebron and thirty-three in Jerusalem,” reminding me that life is short and that Yom Kippur is an awesome day, one filled with God’s presence. It’s a chance to reflect on my year and my actions, to make new resolutions and to challenge myself to be a better person.
משכבי – mishkavei – sex – again from the Hebrew root ב. כ. ש (shin, kaf, bet) But this time I interpret and use the root and the word differently. This time it does not just evoke laying down. I’m reading this word as I would in modern Hebrew, pointing me to sex. I’m reminded of the midrash in Bereshit Rabba (9:9) that says that without yetzer hara (in this case meaning sex drive) a person would not find a partner and build a home and family. This amazing midrash allows us a glimpse into the ancient rabbis world and how they viewed things that frightened them and were challenging to them. Those rabbis, even with that fear, knew that they must embrace the yetzer hara, that it’s a life force, a necessary “evil.”
אישה – isha – woman / female – is an aspect of God, a sex and a gender. It’s a powerful word that reminds me to always be who I am. To be strong and yet not hard, to be giving but not a martyr, to feel I can do anything but know my limits.
תועבה – toeva – abomination – Latin, From ab (“of, by, from”) + ōminor (“forebode, predict, presage”), from ōmen (“sign, token, omen”), teaching us that what is described in this chapter is a sign from God. All actions have God in them! These are omens, tokens that remind us of God in this world.
היא – he – it is so – I read it as a command to define each of those words, to deconstruct them and find new meaning to verses and sentences, to challenge myself always with the words of Torah. Even if these words make me feel uncomfortable. To wrestle with it, to truly be Israel, wrestling with the angel in the night.
In January 2012, Keshet’s Director of Special Projects, Gregg Drinkwater, addressed audiences at Limmud Colorado, a conference dedicated to advancing new and innovative ideas in the context of Jewish learning. Below is an excerpt of a story Gregg shared about an Orthodox rabbi who recently came out as an ally of LGBT Jews. Gregg reminds us that while loving our neighbors is more important than judging them for whom they love, it’s still a big deal to hear that articulated in the Orthodox world.
Shmuly Yanklowitz, a liberal Orthodox rabbi in Los Angeles, recently wrote a blog post in which he recounted “coming out” during an interfaith panel discussion on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. During the panel, he “[came] out of the closet … as an Orthodox rabbi who is a proud ally with those of LGBT orientation,” as he put it.
Friends of mine shared and debated Rabbi Yanklowitz’s essay in emails and on Facebook. In one such Facebook discussion, friends commented how glad they were to see an Orthodox rabbi speaking publicly as an ally of the LGBT community. One friend wrote: “davening in a shul with an Orthodox rabbi like [Rabbi Shmuly] has made Orthodox Judaism possible for me.”
Others, though, asked why this was so important. A Modern Orthodox rabbi saying he’s an ally of LGBT people? No big deal. It’s 2012 and this rabbi is only one among many Modern Orthodox colleagues (and entire armies of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis) known as supporters of inclusion of LGBT Jews. Some critics noted that his panel discussion and subsequent blog post took place in Los Angeles – not a place known as a hotbed of anti-gay sentiment. Where were the rabbis speaking out as LGBT allies in Monsey, one friend asked? Other critics noted that Rabbi Yanklowitz’s short essay didn’t tackle the halakha of homosexuality, or offer specifics about what being an ally meant to him.
The most striking comment came from a friend-of-a-friend who dismissed Rabbi Yanklowitz’s statement because, he argued, it’s already the case that anti-LGBT behavior is no longer tolerated in Modern Orthodox communities. And, he continued, most Modern Orthodox Jews today believe that Leviticus 19:18 trumps Leviticus 18:22.
Leviticus 18:22 famously forbids a man from “lying with a man as with a woman,” while 19:18 instructs each one of us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” In his comments on Rabbi Yanklowitz’s blog post, this friend-of-a-friend seemed to be suggesting not only that “love your neighbor as yourself” is, as Rashi has noted, citing Rabbi Akiva, the “great principle of the Torah.” But he was also arguing that in today’s Modern Orthodox communities, it is understood that it is not our place to judge our LGBT brothers and sisters, and that we ought to show LGBT Jews the empathy and support we ourselves would expect in the face of our own struggles and challenges with Torah and halakha, whatever they may be.
As an advocate for inclusive communities, I have personally engaged with Jewish communities around LGBT issues all over the world. I’m not sure that I can agree with this well-meaning friend-of-a-friend’s expansive suggestion that we’ve moved beyond Leviticus 18:22. I hear regularly from Jews worldwide who are eagerly seeking the support of people like Rabbi Yanklowitz. LGBT Jews regularly share stories with Keshet of demeaning, hurtful, homophobic and transphobic comments from their rabbinic and communal leaders. Too many Orthodox rabbis still do give voice to anti-gay rhetoric, sometimes actively maligning LGBT people – more often passively refusing to speak out when hateful sentiments are shared in Jewish communities or the wider world. Too few members of Orthodox communities see or hear from community leaders like Rabbi Yanklowitz.
It is still noteworthy for an Orthodox rabbi to publicly and in print “come out” as an ally. Very few Orthodox rabbis have done so. Many Orthodox rabbis (and many more non-rabbinic Orthodox leaders) speak privately to LGBT folks as allies, or make statements in workshops or conference sessions, or are known in LGBT circles to be allies. But public statements that are “on the record” are indeed rare.
This published statement from Rabbi Yanklowitz might be seen by a struggling gay or transgender Orthodox teen, or a closeted Jewish adult, or the fearful parent of a lesbian daughter, and it might give them hope or comfort. Private conversations and “in-crowd” knowledge about who is and who isn’t an ally are great but they aren’t visible to the vast majority of LGBT Jews, their families and their friends – people who need the guidance, support and affirmation.
As much as we aspire to live in a world in which Leviticus 19:18 guides our every thought and every action, we aren’t there yet. Until then, yasher koach to Rabbi Yanklowitz!