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Queer Midrash is a compilation of prose and poetry, commentary and reflection, prayer and narrative retelling inspired from and based on texts sacred to the Jewish community written through a Queer lens.
Five years ago I received a call. The Torah reader who was scheduled to chant the week's portion at the shul that I attended wanted to know what he should do when he arrives at Leviticus 18:22 in the reading. He felt uncomfortable simply reading the verse this year since I, my partner and child are full members of his community. “It's just not OK for me to read these words….without saying something.” No one had ever asked me before what I needed to hear from the bimah before that verse is read.
Indeed, what does ordinary silence convey? To hear these verses without some acknowledgement of their difficulty conveys to everyone that either the words do not matter or the people do not matter. And when this happens on Yom Kippur, it can be especially devastating.
“And with a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman, it is an abomination.” While this verse focuses specifically on male sexual relations it has been experienced as a site of accusation and threat for LGBTQ people broadly, and this is especially so when read on Yom Kippur afternoon as is the tradition. The day of prayer and fasting dedicated to facing one's failures and shortcomings is a particularly charged context during which to hear about the abominable nature of queer love making.
While there are surely other difficult verses in scripture, this verse in Leviticus poses a unique sort of challenge. If taken on face value, this verse can do real damage...to a 14 year old who is just vaguely becoming aware of his feelings...to parents struggling with the recent disclosure of their lesbian daughter….to a thirty year old gay man seeking refuge in religious community.
Liberal congregations have largely solved the problem simply by not reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur. On the holiday when a majority of Jews find themselves in synagogue, the traditional reading is an invitation to more irritation than inspiration. Instead liberal rabbis have chosen to read the more upbeat chapter that follows, Leviticus 19, as a replacement.
While avoidance may work for some communities, traditional congregations will continue to do what has been custom for nearly two thousand years. What might be the reason for reading about sexual sin on Yom Kippur?
The custom is recorded in the Talmud (BT Megilah 31a) but no rationale is provided. A few rather weak reasons are offered by medieval commentaries. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac) suggests that sexual transgressions need to be mentioned because they are ubiquitous. Tosafot suggests that the danger of erotic incitement applies particularly on the day of Atonement, because everyone in shul is so well nicely coiffed and well dressed. A more symbolic rationale is offered too. We are to be reminded not to uncover nakedness - “gilui arayot” - so that God will do us the return favor by keeping our sins under wraps.
Perhaps the most straightforward rationale is best. We read a list consisting primarily of incest rules and adultery laws, because uncontrolled sexual expression is destructive to familial, marital and communal structures. Victims of sexual abuse in families typically suffer silently, so perhaps, the public reading during mincha of Yom Kippur is a ritual of defense for the vulnerable, a testimony that God knows and cares. Sexuality has the power to sustain and deepen love but it can also be the site of great suffering and violence.
So while there may be good reason to read the chapter, we are still left with the glaring problem of what to do with 18:22.
If spoken words are the wound, perhaps the spoken word can be the salve. Whether in the form of an introduction to the parasha or a sermon that follows, we must begin to hear these verses as if standing in the shoes of a15 year old who wonders what his crush on the cute boy in his class means. Does it mean that he is abominable? We can say publicly that the verse only speaks of actions and not feelings, but even a teenager knows that such dodging does not offer him the human intimacy and companionship that he needs.
While it is not OK to be silent, it must be admitted that different communities will be able and ready to say different things. It may not matter exactly what is said, as long as compassion for the child in the pews trying to make sense of her feelings is the purpose. It must justify hope, and not the vain hope of therapeutic or spiritual transformation, but the hope that somehow, just as she is, her life will work out.
Rabbis can make a huge difference. They can stand in the way of a downward spiral by fully identifying with the subjective reality of a teenager listening well to these two verses in their shul. Orthodox Rabbis may not now or ever have a fully embracing stance, but they can adopt the existential crisis of the teens struggling to square their religious world with their emerging self awareness. It is a process of empathy that has already begun.
At Eshel we've been interviewing Orthodox congregational rabbis for quite some time. Among these many conversations, one stands out. I reached out to a colleague I knew from rabbinical school. He agreed to meet and spoke about the few families in his shul who had gay children. He shared with me that his heart goes out to the young people, but what can he do? Celibacy was required by the tradition. I said that I understood his position theoretically, but I thought that the circumstance required a deeper engagement. I asked him if we could do a role play together. He smiled and said, “Sure, why not?'
I told him that I was a confused and frightened teenager named Gabe. “Rabbi, I’m in trouble. I know that I’m gay. I’ve known it for years. Can you tell me what you believe God wants of me?”
He was silent so I slipped out of character and pushed him. “Shmuel, here's how the demand for celibacy might land for Gabe."
Do you say to him: “What God wants is that you should never touch or be touched, never embrace or kiss. When you are sick no partner will care for your body and when you are joyous no one will dance with you. You will never share love making with anyone for your entire lifetime — all because something is terribly wrong with you.” He paused.
“Steve, I wouldn't put it that way.”
“Well, then how would you put it?” Again, he was not ready to venture a response.
“I really don’t know what I would say, Steve,” he said. “What would you say?”
I offered him the following response: “To be honest Gabe, I share your question. I too don’t know why a good and loving God would make people gay and then deprive them of a decent life. I honestly don’t know what I would do were I in your shoes and your struggle humbles me. However, as a rabbi I am stuck. I can’t permit what is prohibited but I also can’t condemn you for wanting a full human life. God knows you and loves you just as you are and can only ask you to do the doable. If you cannot be celibate without doing yourself great harm, then it will be best for you to find a partner, join a shul and seek a way to make a family. Living a full and religiously alive life as a self-accepting gay person is better than your walking away from the community forever. Someday you will go to heaven and have to account for your choices. I humbly feel that you have a very good argument for this choice of self-acceptance. So, you do the best you can and trust in God's love. It will be alright….and….when you're ready...join my shul.”
Could you say that Shmuel? He nodded, “Yes, I could.”
I then asked him if I could push him just a bit more? He laughed. “Sure.”
Could you say to this young, Gabe, I'm thirty years your senior. So if I am hanging around up there in heaven when you are called to judgment, I promise you now that when you make that argument before the Holy Throne, that I’ll be there right behind, you cheering you on.”
Reb Shmuel eyes welled up with tears.
Perhaps it is enough to voice a simple question before the reading. To adopt the existential crisis of the teen struggling with his love of God and his hope for life with love, intimacy and companionship like everyone else….not a rejection of the Torah but an honest and heartfelt identification with the thousands of people who hear the verses and despair.
Over the past five years much has transpired to open up this conversation. At Eshel we have established relationships with over 200 Orthodox rabbis and among some, bolder responses have been offered. One suggestion goes something like this:
“Before we read the next aliyah it feels right for us to note that we will be reading a text that is particularly difficult for some if not many of us in this congregation. Since we now understand that there are natural variations of human sexuality in the world, our congregation does its best to read our holy Torah in the light of such discoveries and with open hearted compassion.”
A few years ago I wrote a short prayer. It will not be right for every shul, but perhaps for some congregations, either handed out in written form or publicly spoken, it could be a way to comfort the kid in the back row, who, for the first time feels, in the simple recognition, a glimmer of hope. If the statement above or this prayer is too explicit or not in line with the vibe of the shul, then don’t read it. Do what is appropriate…but do something. Because, as that baal koreh said to me five years ago, once you know that there are real people sitting in the shul, listening what's read, it’s just not OK to be silent.
תפילה קודם קריאת פרשת אחרי מות
ריבונו של עולם, חכם הרזים
לפניך עומדים נבוכים, אך נועזים
כי בפרשת אחרי מות על תועבות קוראים
ואחד מכל מניין, נשים וגברים,
שומעים את הפסוק “וְאֶת זָכָר” ובוכים
בפאתי בתי כנסת
זכור נא ה’ בקריאתנו עתה
הנפשות הרבות עוד מימים ימימה
שגילו בליבם זיקה עזה
לבני מינם, אהבה איתנה.
זכור נא ה’ את פחדם המשתק
את חרפת החיבוק וחרדת המשתוקק.
שפטו את עצמם בכל תוקף הדין
כמחויבי מיתה על עיוות המין.
זכור רבבות בבושה התאכלו
הוקעו כתועבות או בסתר סבלו.
לא העלו בדעתם במקום הקללות
לברך ‘ברוך … משנה הבריות’.
מאריה דעלמא, האם ואיך
“דִּמְעַת הָעֲשֻׁקִים” עלתה על לבך?
הייתכן שתורה בקשה להחרים
בנות אהובות, בנים אהובים?
אם אין להם כח ובלא מנחם
היה אתה נחמה עבורם ותפלטם
שים שלום בינינו ובלב חכמינו נדבה
ומשמים תעזרנו לתמכם באהבה
אנא הענק לכולנו תקווה
לחיים שלמים ולישועה קרובה
Master of the Universe, to Whom all secrets are known,
Before You we stand both confused and undaunted,
In parashat Aharei Mot, Abomination! Is spoken
and one out of ten, women and men,
Hear the words “V’et Zachar” and weep
In the farthermost pews,
Outcast and broken.
As we read these words now, God remember in truth
The myriad souls, who from their youth,
Found in their hearts a fierce connection,
A mighty love, toward members of their own sex
Remember O Lord their paralyzing fear,
The terrifying longing, the shaming embrace.
Accusing themselves with the full force of Law
Of perversions that could only be remedied by death.
Remember the thousands consumed by shame,
Cast out in outrage, or suffering unseen.
Not one dared imagine that rather than cursed
They were blessed by the One, Who varies His creatures.
Master of the universe, Why? And have
the tears of the oppressed made it through to Your heart?
Can it be that the Torah demands we cast out
Beloved daughters, beloved sons?
If they have no power and no redress,
Then be Thou their comfort, their strength and fortress.
Bless us with peace, and our sages with tenderness.
Grant us strength from on high to uphold them in love,
Be generous with the gift of hope from above,
For life and wholeness your salvation is at hand.
And you shall not lie with a male in the manner of lying with a women, it is an abomination. ((Leviticus 18:22)
Jonah was a charismatic and handsome gay man. He was popular in high school and had that X factor that attracted everyone to him. When he spoke with you he made you feel like the center of the universe and his smile infused the atmosphere with joy.
That is why G-d chose Jonah to save the city of Nineveh, which at that time was akin to our least welcoming of cities. “Go to Nineveh, and teach them to change their ways. Nineveh is wrought with homophobia, transphobia and queerphobia of every sort. In Nineveh they hate love and love hate. Indeed, they despise not only queer people but every kind of person that isn’t part of their majority is targeted. They hate and threaten Black and Brown folks, Jews and Muslims, immigrants and anyone with an accent. Go, Jonah, you smashingly fabulous gay man. Go and teach them, go and change them. Otherwise I will destroy them.”
But no one knew that Jonah was gay. And who cares about the people of Nineveh if they are so mean anyway. So Jonah said, “I’m outta here” and he bolted. “I prefer San Francisco to Nineveh any day.”
He hopped on a whale watching boat near Oxnard, California, because why run if you can sail. Jonah sported some very cool reflective sunglasses and drank a Piña Colada, until he got sleepy and went down below to take a nap.
Suddenly a tempest hit and the boat was thrust to and fro. The theme song of Gilligan’s Island began to play as the sailors panicked. Certain that one of their gods was upset, they checked in with each other to ascertain who had done wrong. But it wasn’t any one of them. They went down below to wake the sleepy Jonah and asked, “Could this be because of you?”
Jonah confessed that he was running away from his shlichut, his mission, and said, “You all might as well just toss me overboard.” He didn’t actually think they would do it, but they did.
Luckily, a giant fish, some say whale, swallowed Jonah whole. There Jonah found himself in the belly of the fish. He ordered Sushi, sipped sake, relaxed against a giant tonsil and said, “I could get used to this.”
Disgusted with Jonah’s self-centered, aloof apathy, the big fish felt nauseous and spit Jonah out onto dry land. Jonah finally realized what he had to do -- stop running. He came out to his parents, his siblings, his girlfriend, his football coach and finally to all of his friends. Most of them were cool about it and regarding the ones who weren’t, well, a hater is going to hate.
Jonah, newly confident and thus less cocky, took on his mission as an out, gay, charismatic charmer and hurried to Nineveh before it was too late for G-d to forgive them. G-d was right, the people of Nineveh were cruel and filled with hate. Jonah modeled love and kindness and spoke to the people in a way that they could understand. They realized they had been following an evil leader, who had manipulated them into following their darkest inclinations. Jonah reminded them that they could do better.
Each and every resident of Nineveh apologized to every other resident. And more significantly, each and every Ninevite forgave each and every other Ninevite. They embraced strangers and those who looked different from them. They vowed that every language and accent was welcome. They held a huge parade, with rainbow flags and queer people celebrated and honored.
G-d forgave Jonah and the people of Nineveh and everyone lived happily ever after.
Granted, there was a moment when Jonah’s self-centeredness crept back and he questioned whether his schlep to Nineveh was worth it and why G-d didn’t just fix the situation without Jonah. G-d tried to teach Jonah a lesson with a weird story involving a gourd plant, a worm and the hot sun. But why not just stick with the positive: nobody’s perfect, a gay man came into his truth, and survived, a city of people who followed an evil charismatic person were inspired to instead to follow the path of goodness, justice, inclusion and authenticity.