I was 17 when my best friend told me he was gay. At the time it was a shock - I’d never (at least as far as I knew at the time) known a gay person before. I was full of questions and confusion. I think most teenagers today would have a much healthier and more prosaic reaction. As the years have passed I’ve come on a huge learning journey. It began with reading a deeply moving piece by Rabbi Steve Greenberg, under the pseudonym Yaakov Levado (literally Jacob alone, a phrase from the Torah at the time that Jacob wrestles the angel). Not long after writing this he came out as the first openly gay orthodox rabbi. It is a beautiful and quite devastating essay which begins with the words “I am an Orthodox rabbi and I am gay. For a long while I denied, rejected, railed against this truth. The life story that I had wanted — wife, kids, and a family that modelled Torah and hesed– turned out to be an impossible fantasy. I have begun to shape a new life story.”
Rabbi Greenberg considers the lines from Achari Mot (last week’s parasha) and today’s parasha Kedoshim :וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁכַּב אֶת־זָכָר מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה תּוֹעֵבָה עָשׂוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם מוֹת יוּמָתוּ .R. Greenberg explores whether there could be space for an orthodox man to live a gay life either with or without breaking the pretty explicit prohibition. Later in his scholarship, having come out, he begins the midrashic work of reinterpreting these lines in some pretty clever ways.
Now, the Torah contains incredible mitzvot, values and ethics, but also contains some really troubling parts. the Sotah ritual, the obligation for a rapist to marry his victim, the acceptance of slavery as a reality, in next week’s parasha, the disqualification of disabled priests from serving in the Temple… I could go on. Many of these episodes can be contextualised or re-interpreted, but this one gets to the heart of who a gay person is, and appears to tell them that their attraction, which God gave them, is wrong, a toevah. To read these verses without any acknowledgement, address or redress, is as if to condone them.
Steve Greenberg later, out the closet, wrote the following: “What is it like for a 14 year old to hear these two verses baldly read? Does he interpret the silence to mean that no one imagines it remotely possible that there is a gay person in the congregation? Would they really read this portion so blythly if they knew that sitting next to them in the shul is a gay person whom they know? Or worse, perhaps they know well that we are here and are intending our humilation.The ordinariness of the reading about a sexual perversity worthy of death, for a young person going through puberty is nothing short of suffocating.” He goes on to conclude that “the only remedy is speech”. So we in Kehillat Nashira have taken up his call.
Kehillat Nashira has met several times on Acharei Mot or Kedoshim and we’ve always taken the approach of addressing, rather than ignoring these verses. We want anyone sitting here who is gay, or who is an ally, to know that we won’t let these verses be read without acknowlegement of the pain they have caused historically and continue to cause today. It is not within our right to cut parts out of the Torah, but it is our right and indeed our obligation to stay in conversation with them as each generation evolves and develops.
This indeed is how I have come to see any problematic part of Torah - the Torah is the first word, not the last word. And it’s not just me saying this as a liberal modern orthdox person. This is our rabbinic tradition. The Talmud picks up where the Torah leaves off, and goodness our rabbinic laws look different from how they look in the Torah. Take as one example, the law of the ben tzorer u’moreh - the stubborn and rebellious child who curses his parents. Anyone here have teenagers? Or even toddlers? In the Torah, he is taken out to the gate by his parents and stoned to death. The rabbis of the Talmud were as shocked by this law as we are today. Their response was to creatively legalise it out of existence. To qualify as a ben tzoreh u’morer the child must be between 13 and 13 and ¼, he must steal specific quantities of meat offered to a certain idolatrous god and a certain Italian wine from his father, he must consume them away from home, and the parents must be similar in height, voice, and appearance. In the rabbis' own words “it never was and never will be”.
I’d like to recall today the ways that Kehillat Nashira has marked these verses over the years, and then offer you my own take for this year.
In 2016, Harris, whose BM parasha is Acharei Mot - Kedoshim gave a really beautiful dvar Torah which is on our website, noting his trepidation when leining these verses. His proposed three values that we should take on board:
Response 1: acknowledging the pain
Response 2: redoubling our efforts to be inclusive In this section he said he was proud that Kehillat Nashira has a rainbow flag on our website. But he suggested that our inclusive aspirations need to go beyond this and involve really challenging ourselves on how far we are prepared to go and how far we want to go.
Would our community offer an aliya to a man or woman in public recognition of their getting married to another man or woman the following week? Would our community proudly announce that kiddush was presented by a same-sex couple to celebrate a relationship anniversary? Would we allow a transgender person to choose which side of the mechitza they sat on, even if it appeared to be the non-obvious choice to us? As our rabbi in training, I’m proud to answer “yes” to all of these questions.
Response 3: grappling intellectually with troubling Torah passages - in this section Harris looks to Rabbi David Hartman for some way to do this - I highly recommend reading his approach.
Several years after that, Joe Hyman, a religious LGBT activist and friend of Kehillat Nashira, spoke here. Joe told us his story of growing up in a Bnei Akiva, United Synagogue community, realising he is gay and coming out. He too has Acharei Mot - Kedoshim as his BM sedra, and described what it was like to read these verses as a 13 year old. I consulted with Joe a few weeks ago about today’s drasha and Joe suggested I learn some Torah written by a Queer Jew. He recommended the book Torah Queeries, a book of drashot on the parasha by LGBTQ+ Jews and I commend this book onwards to you. The interpretations are playful and compelling, and it is once again proof of R. Ben Bag Bag’s words that if you turn the Torah and turn it again, you will find everything in it. The book’s forward by Judith Plascow made an impression with her words that “just as feminist perspectives on Jewish texts opened to the whole Jewish community a whole new world of questions and categories for understanding Torah, so Queer perspectives do the same”. If we fight for women to be seen and given a place in the Jewish world, but we are not allies fighting for the same things for gay Jews, we have gone wrong somewhere.
Then three years ago, Benedict Roth joined our community as the scholar in residence and gave a talk called “Forgetting the Halacha”. He talked about different ways that troubling halachot have been re-read, reinterpreted, or even “forgotten” over the years. And that there’s almost a conscious tradition of forgetting. I’m not quite sure we’re there with Acharei Mot and Kedoshim - in R.Greenberg’s words “silence is not OK” - but maybe that’s a point to work towards in the future - where our Queer community feels so assured of their acceptance and place that the verses do not need annual comment.
So what do I want my take to be this year? I’m going to use the rabbinic phrase “smichut parshiot” - the closeness of sections in the Torah to connect the first half of our sedra with the second. Rashi in fact does the same thing on the words kedoshim tihyu - “you shall be holy” which appears at the start of our sedra, but which, according to Rashi, refers to the end. The beautiful and powerful ethics that we read earlier have something to say about how we treat LGBTQ people, so I’m going to read a selection, with my own drash on what we might take from each principle.
You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
Deafness and blindness here are analogies to our vulnerabilities. We commit to not putting queer people in a position of stumbling across clumsy or ignorant words or attitudes. We will create policies which anticipate feelings and needs before damage is done,however accidentally.
You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favour the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.
We commit to not judging before we have walked a mile in the shoes of someone else. Some of us are rich in receiving societal acceptance, others impoverished. One person is as entitled to love and partnership as another. Society’s recognition of who can love has not been fair and we will be part of rectifying that.
Love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.
Love your fellow as yourself - this stands alone as a commitment and as R.Hillel said, the rest is commentary.
Do not degrade your daughter and make her a harlot, lest the land fall into harlotry and the land be filled with depravity.
The Torah tells us not to use our children’s sexuality for our own gains. We commit to not pushing our children in the direction society, their friends, school or grandparents expect for them. We will support whatever their choices are. Sexual identity is one of the biggest concerns of young people today. They deserve to have parents and communities who support them.
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God.
We remember all the times we felt excluded, demonised or just different. We commit to work for others to not feel that pain.
You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin.I the LORD am your God who freed you from the land of Egypt.
Our God who had the power to free slaves from opression expects that we play our own part in creating a just society, not cheating others of acceptance, welcome, an aliyah or a Shabbat invitation because they fit a different mold.
In conclusion, in the small number of years that Kehillat Nashira has addressed this issue, I feel a development. I feel a shift from the tentative to the confident. From the anguished words of R.Greenberg in 1993 and then 2015 to the knowledge that he now has his own flourishing shul and organisation, Eshel. From talking about LGBTQ people in the third person, to counting out and proud people among our congregation and reading queer Torah commentaries. I think we are moving in the right direction.