Many LGBT Jews and allies find Leviticus to be challenging. Here is one rabbi’s reading of the passage. More can be found here.
Among LGBT Jews and their allies, Leviticus is a dirty word. And not just because of its two famous homophobic verses. There are many challenging issues with Leviticus. For instance, while we support gender equality, Leviticus establishes an all-male system of ritual leadership. While we affirm the equal worth of people with physical disabilities, Leviticus excludes them from the priesthood. And of course, while we celebrate the blessing and beauty in loving same-sex relationships, Leviticus prescribes the death penalty for gay men who have intercourse.
So how do we work with a sacred text that is at odds with some of our deepest values–values that other parts of Torah affirm (like every person being created in God’s image)? For me, it starts with an approach to sacred texts that views them as human-created documents. Consistent with my Reconstructionist philosophy, I view the Torah as a record of our Israelite ancestors’ best efforts to describe their experiences of God and Truth.
The Torah contains tremendous spiritual wisdom as well as the spiritual errors of the people who created it. Seen this way, the Torah takes its place in Jewish religious life as the beginning of an ongoing process of spiritual discussion and discernment–but it does not have the final word on the subjects it addresses. When credible reinterpretations of harmful biblical laws are not possible, we dissent from those verses without abandoning our faith or our intimate relationship to Torah.
This is how I approach the anti-gay verses in Leviticus. I’m not persuaded by the attempts some have made to reinterpret Lev 18:22 and 20:13 to mean something other than what they appear to mean. Rather, I acknowledge my disappointment and anger at the suffering these texts have wrought, and I believe that our ancestors were mistaken on this issue. Similarly, I respond to other passages in the Torah that advocate things that modern liberal Jews openly condemn (such as the passages in Numbers 31 in which God and Moses commanded the genocide of all Midianite men, women, and children).
Yes, this makes me a religious Jew who “picks and chooses.” I believe that we have a moral responsibility to thoughtfully pick and choose, because as human beings we are all morally responsible for any harms we commit in the name of our religions. To quote a teacher of mine, “There is no ‘I was just following orders’ defense that excuses harms people inflict in the name of their religious beliefs.” Part of a thoughtful, liberal religious approach to Judaism is the process of studying our sacred texts, discussing them, and very thoughtfully picking and choosing our present day beliefs and practices in community with each other.
So, why am I writing about Leviticus for Keshet? Well, because, alongside the passages in the book that we are right to reject, Leviticus also contains spiritual riches that can help us in these times. For starters, Leviticus is the source of “love your neighbor (19:12).” Futhermore, Leviticus offers a model of economies and ecosystems operating in a way that ensures health for the land and fairness and compassion for the weakest members of society–quite a contrast to our self-inflicted plagues of greed and ecological degradation. Leviticus also understands that animals and human beings share a common life force, and that the act of taking an animal’s life for meat deserves awe and ritual–compare that with our inhumane and unhealthy factory farm system. And perhaps most remarkably of all: Leviticus calls on each of us to be holy because God is holy. How the ancient Israelite priesthood understood what creates holiness is different than how we understand it. But Leviticus reminds us of the importance of embracing the charge to try to figure out what it means to be holy in the here and now.
Studying Leviticus from a progressive religious Jewish perspective is frustrating and rewarding, alienating and inspiring. But it’s quite worth the workout!
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.
I love the Torah. I love it’s weird, dreamtime way of teaching. I love that one verse reveals something ugly and painful and the next verse is sweetness and light. I love this because it’s a true reflection of life as I know it – there are parts of life that are just plain horrible and others that are pure, stunning beauty, and sometimes they go hand in hand. The Torah gives this over without flinching, with no sense of contradiction, and with no apologies. The sweet and the bitter are marbled in the Torah, just as they are in real life. This week’s portion offers three such marbled verses: VaYikra 10:1-3. Here is the scene: After months of preparation, the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary the Israelites used after the Exodus from Egypt, has been built and we are about to conduct our first rite. Moses’ brother, Aaron, performs a couple of sacrifices, blesses the congregation, the sacrifices are consumed and then:
Aarons’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before HaShem an alien fire that had not been commanded of them. A fire came forth from before HaShem and consumed them, and they died before HaShem. Moses said to Aaron: Of this did HaShem speak, saying: “I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people;” and Aaron was silent.
Typically there are two reactions to this piece of text: 1) “They got what they deserved and so will you if you defy God,” or 2) “If this is the God you want me to worship, I’m outta here.”
Both of these positions seem dull and simplistic to me. The Torah is neither dull nor simplistic. Torah is complicated and challenging and invites us to think and feel deeply. It is trying to prod us into being partners with God, to bring about a time of repair and wholeness in our fractured world, by any means necessary. With that in mind I’ve tried to tease out some wisdom and guidance from this harsh and cryptic scene.
Reading this piece I think of the murders of Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena and Gwen Araujo. Year after year we have witnessed our queer children being consumed by fire. As a Jew, I’m familiar with this horror. And I’m also familiar with all the wrestling and grappling we have had to do to move past our tragedies. When we find ourselves witnessing incomprehensible destruction we have to ask, “What must we do to transform this banal act of violence into an affirmation of life?” Answering that question is the key to transcending human judgment so that we can enter into a full and deep relationship with God through each other.
As the text teaches us: “I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people.”
My friends, getting near God is rarely easy, safe or painless. When moments of random violence strike, some of us seek reasons to lay blame and some of us, like Aaron, are stunned and silent. It is in that silence that deep strength, wisdom and courage are born; courage to look at death head on and still stay on the path; wisdom to know that God works through both blessing and curse; and strength to choose blessing.
Death is inevitable, and sometimes it comes unexpectedly and roughly. In our grief we stand at a silent juncture. We can blame, we can run, or we can sort out the opportunities for more violence from the opportunities for more closeness. In that sorting we choose to frame our loss as a sacrifice which cuts through bigotry, oppression and ignorance. Both the Jewish and queer communities have performed social alchemy by transforming unspeakable acts of hatred and violence into art, legislation, ritual, education and beauty. We have squeezed wisdom out of ignorance, and sanctity out of depravity. We have written plays, and created foundations; we have sewn and sung and studied. We have not been diminished through death. Rather, we have blossomed. We have grieved and suffered to be sure, but as it is written, we have “turned our mourning into dancing” (Psalm 30).
Jews and queers have always been accused of being different, alien and inferior. Thankfully, we have generally resisted those judgments. Instead we have persevered in our unique way of being. We have mirrored exactly what this week’s raw piece of text teaches. We have offered strange fire. We have suffered death. We have witnessed these traumas as a community and we have found sanctity, closeness and honor. We are blessed to have a Torah that teaches us to not shy away from life’s bitter moments, but to take them with both hands and offer them up as sacrifices. May our capacity to learn, heal and grow always outweigh our tendency towards judgment and blame. And may the memory of our loved ones be for a blessing for us, and for all the world.
This past Saturday, Keshet Staff Member Joanna Ware joined Temple Hillel B’nai Torah to deliver a d’var Torah on gender justice and gender variance in Jewish text, as well as the effects of transphobia today. We have shared the text of Joanna’s d’var Torah here.
Shabbat Shalom! Thank you to Rabbi Penzner for the invitation to bring some Torah to all of you today. Rabbi Penzner asked me to speak in honor of the other holiday we’re marking today, International Women’s Day, and how it reminds us to work toward gender equality and justice. First though, I want to start with the text we just read.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, is the first in the book of Leviticus, and it lays out for us a set of laws of ritual, sacrificial preparation. Sacrifices were the ancient Israelite’s way of honoring and nurturing their sacred relationship with the divine. We nurture relationships every day, with our loved ones and with what we understand to be holy and sacred, and while we no longer do so with ritual sacrifices, today prayer, study, mitzvot, acts of loving kindness, and tikkun olam serve as our stand-in for temple sacrifice; our means of nurturing our relationship with God, with Sacredness. What Vayikra reminds us, however, is that this relationship isn’t accidental or happenstance, and that God models for us an expectation of intentionally stepping in to relationship. The opening text of this Parsha, the opening text of the entire book of Leviticus, reads:
וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד
Vayikra al-Moshe, v’yedaber Adonai elav, meyohal mo’ed
And God called out to Moses, and Adonai spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting
We have a curious repetition here in the narrative, first God calls out to Moses, and then God speaks to him. Why both? Rashi teaches that God’s initial calling out to Moses is indicative of a loving relationship, of an invitation into an intentional, purposeful relationship; this text is read in juxtaposition to how God speaks to the prophet Balaam, where we are told that God “happens upon” Balaam; it is accidental rather than intentional. And then? We are taught that God’s relationship with Moses is loving, whereas God’s relationship with Balaam is “impure.” So we have one piece of a model for building loving relationships: act with intention, thoughtfulness, and care. 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 Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, J Simone Posner examines Parashat Ki Tissa, and wonders if G-d cares about equality.
This week’s parsha covers a wide range of juicy topics (too many for one drash). There are the continued themes of items needed for the Ohel or “tent of meeting” that would eventually become our “temple”. There is a point of discussion about who shall do the work to construct the items. There are reminders about keeping Shabbat. There is the story of Hashem‘s first version of the law whose tablets were smashed by Moses because the Israelites erected a golden calf. There is the story of the second set of tablets; and finally the story of Moses’ personal relationship with Hashem. All very interesting stuff but I’d like to write about something else.
“Ki Tissa et-rosh B’nai Yisrael…” (Exodus 30:12) ‘When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel…’
Ki Tissa begins with Hashem’s command for Moses to take a census of the people…all of them, without reference to gender. Each man over the age of 20 is then required to pay a “ransom” for themselves. Each man, both rich and poor alike, had to pay no more and no less than a half-shekel as “atonement money” for their sins. The money went to the service of the Ohel.
For those of LGBTQI history and background, this might seem the least likely of things to talk about, since, while all may be counted, only able-bodied men are required to pay the ransom. Let me submit to you that the Torah is the law and particularly this parsha speaks in detail about the law. Finding that spiritual message and path all while trying to bring the Judaic life into harmony with the LGBTQI background had me considering the question of equity under Hashem’s law. Does G-d care about equality?
Ki Tissa speaks about the elevation of Levites and separation of Kohenim (priests) through the line of Aaron. I submit that in appropriating power in this way made this hierarchy a false higher-power and took the attention off of Hashem. Thus, a golden calf was built.
So, back to the census and the small collection. Israel’s numbers in those days were just over 600,000 gevarim or “able bodied”. What constituted a gevarim for this census? Who was counted? Who was NOT counted? Were there people who expressed gender differently back then? Were these persons counted? Were trans-women considered able-bodied men? Were trans-men counted among the women? Torah doesn’t speak with their voices, so I have to look at the collection G-d required to find traces of equity.
Previously in “Terumah” (Exodus 25) the Israelites were asked to make a contribution suggested by their hearts. It could be red yarn or lapis lazuli or precious metal or goats hair and not in any specified amounts or requirements by caste. This donation was used to build the Ohel and its contents.
In verse 15, the commandment specifies that the half shekel should be paid by rich and poor alike. This “half-shekel” offering for atonement is more on a spiritual plane and not determined by one’s wealth. It is mentioned in this parsha that a shekel is 20 gerahs and the half would be 10 gerahs. According to ancient weights and measures 1 gerah = .41667 grams and therefore 10 gerahs (or a half-shekel).
If we use silver as a measure of monetary equivalence, (a whopping $14 USD for an ounce- or 28.35 grams) that would mean the price of salvation (even with the outrageous price of precious metals during our present economic crisis) is about $2.00 USD. This is a price that even the most financially strapped LGBTQI person could afford even if they couldn’t afford their rent, clothes, medicines, food or other basic necessities.
Many point to this book to proclaim the greatness of Moses, of the Levites (who by the way go on a killing spree in Exodus 32:26-29 if you are into blood and gore) the Kohenim who in spite of their wisdom and ceremonies and vestments still somehow preside over the forging of a golden calf and then fudge it when retelling the tale to Moses.
This parasha tells me in the most unequivocal way, that it is not Hashem that is ever in error, but humankind. Hashem asks for things from all people and usually the same things in the same way. This is true equity under the law. It is humankind who seeks to separate and make distinctions perhaps because of a most un-divine way of judging people, places, things and scenarios that most require Hashem‘s implanted “divine spark”.
For many years the Trans community had a terrible problem with such a caste system where Drag Queens would fight MTF Transsexuals and everyone fought against Transvestites and there was no unanimity among even the Transsexuals who had no common-ground between the MTF and FTM factions. And lets not forget MTF’s who would argue ceaselessly among themselves about which surgical intervention/method/practitioner was the best. This all happened before the word “Transgender” was in common use. That was yet another story.
Still not sure about equity under Hashem’s law or how unity under Hashem’s law will deliver us? Lets take a look at Exodus 31. Verse 12. It begins with reminding the Israelites about their covenant and how it is important to keep Shabbat because Hashem rested on day seven. How can I work on Shabbat if Hashem didn’t? Do I think I’m better than Hashem? Humility before Hashem is the manifestation of equity under the law. For those who go to synagogue regularly verses 16 and 17 form the familiar V’shamru heard in many Shabbat services everywhere:
The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed. (Exodus 31:16-17)
About 20 years ago, there was a story I heard about a transwoman who tried to get religious permission from a rabbi to change gender, and live and function and a woman within the community. This rabbi told her that she was an abomination. She said it was a matter of pikuah nefesh (the rule that says a law can be broken to save a life) and the rabbi (A Cohen by the way) told her that even under the Noahide laws, it wouldn’t pass and that she would be better off killing herself. As she walked out of his office, she asked one final question: since this religion had now utterly rejected her, could she now disown and disavow herself of its barbarism? The Rabbi told her she was not excused; not excused from keeping kosher and not excused from keeping Shabbat. This seeming slap in the face put the focus back on Hashem and gave that woman just enough space to live and function as a Jew today.
If you feel someone out there is struggling with spirituality and religion tell them to try to keep Shabbat and point them to the text of the V’Shamru.
One final thing about the census. This is just another way of saying “stand up and be counted.” There is a spiritual message, too, I think. Earlier in the week we hear the reading of the Megillah. In Esther 4:12 Mordechai tells Esther that she must risk death and come out about her Jewishness to save the lives of many others. I think this resonates exactly with the census and “counting heads.” The LGBTQI community will grow and aspire closer to Hashem as we all stand up and be counted and put our ten cents USD towards a cause that will bring about our atonement and redemption.
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, Noach Dzmura examines Parshat Tetzaveh, providing a portrait of the priestly class, and asks “Why is the making of egalitarianism a queer task?”
Summary of the Parasha: The unique verb that identifies this parasha is tetzaveh, “and you shall command.” The verb reinforces the nature of this Biblical hierarchy: God commands, Moses relays the command, and the people perform the commandment. In this parasha, Moses commands us to kindle an eternal flame (ner tamid, continuously burning light) in front of the Mishkan. In the main body of the parasha Moses commands us to fabricate some costly and complicated ritual garb for Aaron. Finally, God commands Moses to elevate the status of Aaron and his sons (and their sons, forever) over the rest of the people. This puts a little balloon in the arrow of Divine hierarchy, and, ostensibly, lightens Moshe’s load: God commands, then Moses (or the Priests) relay the command, and the people perform the commandment.
What’s Bothering Noach: The priests stick in my craw. God requires sacrifice? This is abhorrent. There is a priestly class of people whose relationship to God is closer or more intimate than the rank-and-file person? This is insupportable. Priests get – for free and without laboring to produce them—the best part of the produce and the meat? Who says they qualify for a free lunch! The sons of Aaron and their sons—forever—get this gig too? This is permanent inequality. How can we stand for this?
Reading the text from the perspective of an outsider to power, as I did in the above paragraph, results in a recipe for rebellion. Reading from the perspective of a fully enfranchised member of the community, who is yoked to God’s will by choice, because it is directly tied to the will of the people by the Covenant, yields a more peaceful outcome. I want to read in this more productive, less rebellious manner in the rest of the essay.
Economic Advisers to Moses: When I read about a class of priests and their troublesome (to me) sacrifices, it helps me to think of “sacrifices” as part of a tribal economy with the Covenant as its ethical center. It also helps me to think of Moses’ role as the leader of a people, and the practical duties of governing such a large number of people. Not an easy job to accomplish alone. So why might the formation of a class of people to manage the sacrifices have seemed like a good, practical idea? Lightens the load. Continue reading
Rabbi Jane Litman first presented these words of Torah for Simchat Torah in 2006, as part of the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. Her message is just as profound and relevant today.
Wow! Here we are – we have accomplished so much. We were oppressed, then came together and confronted the oppression. We built a movement, resolved internal disputes, struggled with leadership, created a new set of social norms, overcame setbacks, and moved forward. It’s taken a long time – many years – but now, finally, we’re poised to reap the rewards of all our efforts…. Only to find that we’re back at the beginning! Sound familiar? No, it’s not the story of gay rights during the Bush years; it’s actually the underlying revelation of Judaism’s ritual Torah cycle. Continue reading
The Torah is strewn with transgendered hearts.
How can that be true? The Torah, as we know, is not written for or about transgender people, and in any case, “transgender” is supposed to be a noun or adjective, not a verb, an umbrella term for the millions of people whose gender identity or expression is more complicated than “male” or “female.” “Transgender” gathers gender-complicated people into a broad, simple category – the equivalent of “African American” or “Latino” – and implies that our identities, like those of other minorities, are a matter of fact that is not up for discussion. But though “transgender” has real advantages for describing ourselves to others, for many of us who identify as transgender, identity is an often-messy, ongoing process, not a simple, settled fact. For me, “transgender” isn’t just something I am – it is an active, terrifying, exalting process of unmaking and remaking a self that will never quite fit established categories of gender or identity. 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, Rabbi Jane Litman sees in the blessing before studying Torah echoes of the portion itself: we have the human need, and the human means, to connect with God.
The blessing that one recites before studying Torah is:
Baruch ata adonai, elohaynu melech ha-olam, asher kiddishanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu la-asok b’divray torah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who makes us holy with mitzvot and gives us the mitzvah of engaging in the words of Torah.
We don’t ask the Divine blessing for obeying Torah, or hearing Torah, or even reading Torah, but rather for engaging with Torah. It is the process of engagement – the passionate give and take – that is sacred, not the specific content. In a world in which biblical fundamentalism is on the rise, it’s important to note that the Jewish relationship with our sacred text is interpretive. Our task is to take Torah seriously, not necessarily to agree with its literal content. Sometimes when we study Torah, we are struck by the eternal quality of its message; at other times its words seem tightly bound to a particular cultural moment and place. Torah is both ancient and contemporary – that is its gift. 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, Maggid Jhos Singer looks at Joseph’s reunification with his brothers as an example of the profound messiness of the Jewish concept of holiness.
While waiting on the schoolyard the other day for my kids to get out of their classrooms, I was chatting with a little clutch of fellow parents, none of them Jewish, when the issue of my working as a Jewish Spiritualist entered the conversation. One of the parents said something like, “It must be nice being so, well, you know, holy, you know, so spiritual and everything, you must feel really, uh, so peaceful.”
I could feel my face take on a look of confusion and was aware that my head had slowly tilted, dog-like, to one side. I wanted to say, “Are you on crack?!” But, being so spiritually evolved, I managed to just grunt a little and then, mercifully, the bell rang and all chaos erupted in the form of children streaming away from their day of state-imposed confinement, effectively ending the conversation. 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 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, Karen Erlichman connects Joseph’s prophetic dreams with his inner moral compass, and urges queer Jews to remain similarly true to their inner selves.
They saw him from afar, and before he came close to them they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes that dreamer [ba’al ha’chalomot]! Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘a savage beast [chaya ra’ah] devoured him.’ We shall see what comes of his dreams!” —Genesis 37:18-20
This week’s parasha, Vayeshev, focuses on the story of Joseph, a dreamer and a visionary who was reviled and exiled by his own siblings. He shared his spiritual gifts with those around him, risking his own life to speak Divine Truth. Guided by an inner spiritual compass, Joseph’s clarity of vision and purpose guided him in every moment, even when faced with an unrequited offer of seduction from a woman, or a near-death experience at the hands of his own brothers. Continue reading