I am very active personally and professionally in the New Orleans Jewish community. Recently, I began teaching a beginner adult education class entitled “The Stories of Genesis and Exodus.” This eight week series is free and open to the public with no prior knowledge required.
On our first day of class, I had everyone introduce themselves and say a sentence or two about what they hoped to learn. The make-up of this class is very interesting. The students include three individuals who are in the process of converting to Judaism; one Catholic who has been married to a Jew and participating in Jewish life for over 20 years; and one woman who identifies as Christian but recently learned of her Jewish heritage and wants a full understanding of what Jews believe and what our holidays are all about.
“I am here to learn THE truth,” this last student said.
And suddenly I realized the serious responsibility of teaching Torah to beginners.
Many years ago, I taught another group of adult beginners—those brave enough to attempt an adult beginner ballet class. Back then, I recall how surprised I was by how much more difficult it was to slow myself down. To go back to the basics, and teach new learners the concepts behind the techniques, even before breaking down the physical basics, bit by bit. I was usually extremely exhausted and sore after those classes, unlike going through my regular motions teaching intermediate and advanced classes. You would think a beginner class, with no advanced moves and only basic skill-building, would be easy! But making sure we have the core concepts and basic moves down, going from nothing to step one, is sometimes the hardest step of all.
Teaching Torah is no different.
While I thought it would be simpler, in actuality, teaching “new Jewish learners” is much more complicated than teaching intermediate Jewish learners, because with the intermediate there is already an understanding. We have shared terminology, make more assumptions, and assume a certain level of “same page knowledge” with those who sit at the intermediate tables. With these beginners, before I could even get to the basics, we needed to talk technique—just as with my dance students.
I realized the first order of business was NOT starting with “In the beginning….” It was to explain that Jewish thought does not consider any one thing as “The” Truth; that is a far more Christian concept. We Jews are filled with questions, interpretations and thousands of years of written thoughts to ponder and learn, which are amazing.
Of course, we do thank God in our blessing after the reading of Torah reading for giving us a “Torah of Truth.” But as we learn to study Jewishly, we realize that this can mean a Torah full of truths, not one single Truth. We can also have a rich discussion of the beauty of the truths in the Torah, with an understanding of the difference between truth and fact, between Truth and truths, and so on.
I had imagined this adult beginner class would be “easy.” Instead, it is a daunting task—and also an awesome responsibility. I look forward to next week when I walk in much more prepared to listen first, and teach second instead of the other way around. We will focus on the technique as much as the steps, learning like dancers.
See there, I am already learning again… and that is the truth!
You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself any graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus, Chapter 20, Verses 3-4)
I’m wondering about “graven images.” Specifically, I’m wondering if Steven Spielberg and Cecil B. DeMille have helped or hindered us with their images.
When I taught 5th grade religious school, at the end of every class I took about 15 minutes to tell the story of the Torah portion of the week. And when Exodus came around, I used one entire class time to tell the story of Moses from his birth through the giving of the 10 Commandments. Though I am not a master storyteller, I did get quite good at this story, and each year took great pride in the wide eyes looking back at me.
Then one year, as I explained my vision of the golden calf (“imagine all the women in your family and your classmates’ families taking off their rings and bracelets and necklaces and melting them down to make this idol, it must have been about this big…”), and held my hands about two feet apart to demonstrate the size of the idol, a child interrupted me to tell me that I was “wrong” about the size. It was large enough to ride on, he said, and he knew this because he had seen it in the movie The Prince of Egypt!
Needless to say, we spent a long time that day discussing the difference between faith, and film, a religious vision, or someone else’s artistic vision, and that any one person’s vision is not necessarily “the truth.” I realized it’s not just that student’s generation that sees something onscreen, and then associates the film image with the Biblical story represented. I thought about my parents’ generation, and their ingrained vision of Moses parting the Sea of Reeds, courtesy of Cecil B. DeMille.
The images of God as an old man in the sky, or Charlton Heston as Moses, or a golden calf of a certain size in a movie, are all very Hollywood, and also childlike. The problem comes when we outgrow those images and do not grow into our own adult visions of faith. I think the baby sometimes gets thrown out with the bath water. If you can’t believe anymore like you did as a kid, then for some it is hard to have faith in anything as Jewish adults.
So I ask you: are the images from Mr. Spielberg and Mr. DeMille “graven images”? And even if they are not technically “graven images,” are they helpful or hurtful?
Share your thoughts in the comments below!
[Editor's Note: This post is not our typical "Southern & Jewish" fare; one of our contributors, Rabbi Marshal Klaven, wanted to share a sermon he wrote about homosexuality in the Torah, in light of the ongoing equality debate and the prominence of arguments around this topic "based on biblical texts".]
To Plant or Not to Plant Seed: The Truth of Homosexuality in the Bible
Ladies and gentleman of the jury, Your Honor – the Holy One, Blessed be God, I stand before you today to protest a great injustice and to defend the unalienable rights of fellow members in our human family. Every day, our brothers and sisters – people created in Your Divine image – are having their basic human liberties restricted or altogether stripped away. They are often harassed and tormented; they are often barred from supporting loved ones in times of great need; they are often prohibited from marriage; and, in some places, they are legally thrown out of public places like restaurants and theaters.
Why? What supposed crime have they committed? Simply: falling in love with another human being of the same gender.
And, frankly, it deeply upsets me that this injustice is perpetrated and perpetuated by people of faith, who claim that such blatant discrimination and unabashed bigotry are justified by Your Holy Word. Specifically, contained within the Holiness Code, part of a special section in the book of Leviticus, they point to a group of laws dealing with inappropriate sexual relations. According to just two lines in the entire Hebrew Bible, both of which are found within the double Torah portion of Acharei Mot/K’doshim, we are warned that “if a man lies with a man, as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done a to-eivah, an ‘abhorrent thing;’ they shall be put to death – their blood guilt is upon them.” (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13)
So, no, I will not argue today whether or not homosexual sex is prohibited in the Bible. Clearly, it is. However, I will attempt to answer the question that so often goes unasked in this debate, which is “why was it prohibited?” What about homosexual sex was abhorrent to our ancestors? To answer this pivotal question, which will dramatically change the course of the conservation, I call forward the expert testimony of Robert Alter, Professor of Hebrew Language, renown Biblical commentator. “The evident rationale for such a prohibition,” explains Alter, “seems to be the wasting of seed in what the law envisages as a grotesque parody of heterosexual intercourse.”
Why? What’s the problem with this parody? Well, the problem, according to the Bible, is that heterosexual intercourse, wherein the seed of human life (i.e. sperm) is implanted in the fertile ground of the woman’s womb, is meant for one purpose and one purpose only: to create life, to procreate, “to be fruitful and multiply.” First issued as a blessing in Genesis 1:28, these words only became a Divine command to man upon the depopulation of the world after the flood in Genesis 9:6. There, these words are found among others which deal with a case of homicide. This is intentional, writes the master commentator RaSHI, “for anyone who does not engage in reproduction should be compared to one who sheds blood,” as both require a death penalty.
Anyone, hmmmm? Well then, based upon this rationale a lot of people would be slated for death. Because, in addition to those who engage in homosexual sex, anyone – homosexual or heterosexual – who engages in sex using contraceptives (e.g. condoms), or anyone – homosexual or heterosexual – who masturbates, is likewise guilty of the same crime: wasting seed. What?! Don’t believe me? Then please allow me to introduce into evidence the case of Onan, Judah’s second eldest son. According to the Biblical testimony, “Whenever Onan went to join with Tamar, he let his seed go to waste. What he did,” states the Bible, “was displeasing to the Lord, so God took his life.”
Given this precedent, some may wish to continue their prosecution and persecution of homosexuals. After all, they claim, “God instructed us, in this Holiness Code, ‘to reprove our kinsman.’” True, God did say we should “reprove our kinsman;” however that line ends with “but, we may not incur any guilt because of him.” That is to say, when we see someone doing something we believe to be harmful, we are obligated to say something. However, as the second part of the verse implies, it has to be done in such a way as to not be disrespectful. For, we cannot resolve one sin by creating another. Besides, in God’s law of nature, death eventually comes. Not in body, but in name, as one who does not procreate, has no one to carry it on.
With that, Your Honor, ladies and gentleman of the jury, I rest my case. Clearly, without any true Biblical basis, upon which to ground such injustices, I ask that you dismiss all grievances against these fellow human beings, our kinsmen in the family of God. For, as social psychologist Erich Fromm deduced, “In essence, all human beings are identical. We are all part of One; we are One. This being so, it should not make any difference whom we love,” as long as we love with all of our hearts, all of our minds, all of our souls. With this greater truth, may we go on to honor both God’s Holy Words better, as well as all those who hold these Words near and dear: heterosexual and homosexual alike. Kein y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will as well as our own.
 For example, while living in Cincinnati, OH for seminary training at HUC-JIR, I learned of a law there, which allowed a proprietor of a public place to throw someone out of their establishment if he/she suspected the individual of being gay, leaving this individual without any legal recourse. While this law was thankfully repealed in 2004 by 67% of the voters, many cities still have such discriminatory allowances.
 It is important to note that the Hebrew word to-eivah (“abhorrent,” or sometimes translated as “abomination”) occurs numerous times in the Bible. Taking stock of these, Rabbi Richard Friedman commented, “to-eivah is a relative term in the Bible, which varied according to human perceptions. For example, in Genesis, Joseph tells his brothers that ‘any shepherd is a to-eivah/an abhorrent thing to Egypt’ (46:34); but obviously shepherding is not a to-eivah/an abhorrent thing to the Israelites, as they proudly perform this role.”
 Some would like to add Sodom and Gomorrah to this list. However, nowhere in that story does the Bible say anything about homosexual sex. It is merely inferred from the line: “Bring them (i.e. the men) out to us, that we may get to know them.” (Gen. 19:5) It is true. Occasionally, “to know” is the Bible’s way of saying “sex;” but not always. Case in point: the beginning of the book of Exodus. There we are told “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Ex. 1:8). If everywhere the word “to know/yada’at” means “sex,” then we must conclude that the previous king of Egypt and Joseph were engaged in a homosexual relationship. And, because it did not continue with the new king, the Pharaoh became upset and enslaved our people.
 I explicitly state “homosexual sex” rather than “homosexuals,” because the Bible is clearly not prohibiting a person nor is it calling them abhorrent. The Biblical text is specifically referring to an act as abhorrent.
 Robert Alter. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. W.W. Norton & Co.: New York, 2004. p. 623
 The prohibition was addressed only to man, because of our ancestors’ limited knowledge about procreation. According to their understanding, all the material needed to reproduce life was contained with the zerah/the seed (i.e. the sperm), as a woman’s egg is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Hence, that is the reason why sex between two women was never prohibited in the Bible, though included later by the rabbinic sages.
 RaSHI commentary to Genesis 9:6
 Kinsey, Alfred C. et al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Indiana University Press: Philadelphia. 1948 and 1998, p. 499. According to this study, Kinsey reported that 92% of men engage in masturbation. In Kinsey, Alfred C. et al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Indiana University Press: Philadelphia. 1953 and 1998, p. 142. According to this study, Kinsey reported that 62% of women engage in masturbation. A similar study was done in 2006 by Gerressu M., Mercer C., Graham C., Wellings K., Johnson A., called “Prevalence of masturbation and associated factors in a British national probability survey.” Arch Sex Behav 37 (2): 266–78. According to their results, 95% of men and 71% of women masturbate.
 See Genesis 38:6-10. The Mishnah, written in the first century of the Common Era, makes reference to this act. As it is written: “The hand that oftentimes makes ‘examinations’ is – among woman – praiseworthy, but among men, let it (i.e. the hand) be cut off!” Just in case we were fooled by the euphemism “examination,” tractate Niddah in the Babylonian Talmud makes it clear that “examination refers only to the emission of semen.” (BT Niddah 13a).
 Leviticus 19:17
 Erich Fromm. The Art of Loving. Harper and Row: 1956.