When I was a teenager, I went to a non-denominational Hebrew school for teenagers that met once a week. I came out of the closet when I was 15 years old and thankfully felt no religious antagonism from my community or family. I even thought that Judaism as a religion had no issues with being gay – I assumed that only Christianity cared about the verses in the Torah that spoke of sex between men as an “abomination” (a not-quite-accurate way to translate the original Hebrew, to’evah).
However, I did get the distinct feeling that being Jewish and gay simply did not go together. When had I ever seen another Jewish queer person? When had we ever talked about it in the Jewish community? I assumed that the Jewish community simply didn’t know we existed, or at least didn’t know what to do with us. This was made most apparent when the Conservative Movement would advertise its youth group USY as a way for “nice Jewish boys to meet nice Jewish girls.” I wasn’t harassed; I was invisible, erased.
This week, we read the parashat Kedoshim, which includes the Holiness Code. How should we be holy? Why should we be holy? Part of these directions include a list of sexual prohibitions and their associated punishments. One of these includes the dreadful verse:
If a man lies with a male the lyings of a woman, the two of them have done a to’evah; they shall be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them. (Leviticus 20:13)
Part of my orientation towards Torah is that it was written by humans in a particular time period and a particular culture. It is a code compiled by humans about how we may serve and forge a relationship to a sense of holiness and Divinity in the world, a Divinity that both loves us and challenges us. By this orientation, I can understand these words and rules as reflecting not the will of the Divine per se, but the will of the Divine as understood by humanity in the time and culture.
But that doesn’t solve the problem completely. Not for me. Not for many.
Despite this, I do feel an inner, essential holiness about the Torah and its words. I feel something strange, something beautiful and ancient when we bring out this worn, torn, holy scroll. And I feel as though the words of Leviticus 20:13 stick out from the page in bright red, marring the holiness and the beauty. I know this is far from the only terrible thing in our holy texts. Commandments for the Israelites to genocide the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, for instance. Various rituals of shame for an adulterous woman. So why doesn’t this simply go into the category of the other moral problems in the Torah?
I’ve known an Israeli man, born ultra-Orthodox, who dreaded Yom Kippur, when they read the sexual prohibitions in the afternoon service. Because he spoke fluent Hebrew, the words hit him in a way they don’t hit non-Hebrew speakers. He believed God considered him a to’evah, an abomination. He carried that with him. He is far from the only one. Many in our community have experienced erasure, shame, guilt, rejection, humiliation simply for being who they are.
Even in the liberal Jewish community, the commandment of p’ru ur’vu, “be fruitful and multiply,” has been held up like the 11th commandment. That is, the commandment to have children. This is especially true since the Holocaust, when many in the Jewish community have a fear of an existential crisis for the Jewish people. Not only USY, but also programs such as Birthright and Jewish summer camp have been advertised as a way for “nice Jewish boys to meet nice Jewish girls” (at least when I was growing up), and it’s only recently that people are stepping up to dismantle the unhealthy culture of sexual and romantic pressure at the expense of other Jewish and human values.
What does that look like, when our innate holiness is ripped from us? When we are told that Jews are not and should not be queer? When we are told that the way we experience our deep love for another human is not in line with what God desires? Many of us believe it. We believe that there is something bad inside us, that we are not holy, that we are not worthwhile. We make ourselves small in the world. We crave intimacy but flee from it. We turn to distractions so we don’t have to face these feelings.
So why do we keep reciting this verse?
I hate it. If I could cut out those words from the Torah, I would. If I could cut out the genocide, the rape, the trauma, I would. But if I cut them out, there would be a hole in the Torah. The Torah scroll would not be a kosher scroll. The Torah is not only light and blessing and truth. It’s dark, too. There are terrible things in the Torah. To erase is to forget. We must remember our past in order to improve on it.
Not only this, but I know God loves us.
There are very few things I’m sure of. Even fewer things I’m sure about relating to God. But one thing I am sure of is that God loves me; God loves us; God loves queer people. Not only that, but I don’t believe in a God who polices consensual sexual activity. I believe in a God who wants us to be the best us we can be, which includes a healthy sexual ethic.
At the root of it, we are all holy, beloved and loved, and deserving of love. We are Kedoshim.