Angela W. Buchdahl | May 1, 2015
Rabbi Lorge just chanted, Leviticus 18:22 – “Do not lie with a man as with a woman. It is a toevah, an abomination,” I can’t remember the last time that verse was chanted in this sanctuary. In a traditional synagogue, Leviticus 18 would be read every year on Yom Kippur afternoon. But the Reform movement made a decision long ago not to read the “sexual offenses” section on Yom Kippur, but the next Chapter, Leviticus 19, the Holiness code, the part that Rabbi Rubinstein referred to earlier, with ethical proscriptions for how to treat others. The Reform Movement did this not only because the Holiness Code is so elevating, but also because we took exception to the message of this verse under sexual offenses.
So what do you do when you have trouble with what the Torah says? One option is to avoid reading it, as we’ve done. But we all know it’s there. We know that this verse is cited by some Orthodox Jews as well as some Christians as the proof-text that God is against homosexuality. And the text is both explicit and straightforward. But the fundamental difference between Orthodoxy and Reform Judaism is that Reform Judaism is premised on the understanding that while the text doesn’t change – the context does. Rabbi Elyse Frishman posits that “the language of the Torah is not necessarily God’s; it’s a record of how we heard God.” And in every generation, our context affects the way we hear God’s word.
And just as this verse comes up in our torah reading cycle, this very same week the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding whether there is a Constitutional right for same sex couples to marry. Coincidence? I don’t think so. In fact, this verse was invoked as the justices heard arguments, when a protestor interrupted the proceedings. “You can burn in hell,” he yelled from the rear of the courtroom. “It’s an abomination of God.”
Now I never went to law school, but I’m surrounded by people who did. In fact, some of my best friends are lawyers! And they tell me that there are two major ways of approaching the Constitution which mirror the 2 major ways Jews can read a Torah text. One school of Constitutional thought, called “Originalism,” closely resembles Orthodoxy’s strict adherence to the original text. Originalists aim to determine the framers’ original intent when they drafted the words of the constitution in the 1780’s. Justice Antonin Scalia, the Justice most strongly associated with Originalism, has famously said, “The Constitution is dead, dead, dead,” meaning that the text itself never changes.
Originalism stands in opposition to what is known as a “Living Tradition” or “Living Constitutionalism.” Here I turned to my friend and Constitutional law scholar, Trevor Morrison, Dean of the NYU law school, for some guidance. He explained that the Living Tradition understands that it is the job of the Court to interpret the text not just on the basis of original understanding or intent, but on the basis of our evolving constitutional traditions and understandings. Justice Stephen Breyer may be most closely associated with this school of thinking and I don’t think it a coincidence that he grew up attending Reform Jewish summer camps.
As Reform Jews, we do not think our Torah is “Dead Dead Dead.” We see it is a Living Torah - a Tree of Life. We recognize that in Biblical times our ancestors owned slaves, and had multiple wives, and thought it appropriate to stone children who were disobedient to their parents! I hope we all can agree that we live in a vastly different context. In order for the Torah to be a Living Tradition, we must interpret our text not just on the literal word and original intent, but on the basis of our own evolving understanding of human nature and sacred relationships.
So back to Leviticus 18:22: In ancient times, many of the rules regarding sexual relations were intended to protect and promote procreation, a vital purpose for a tiny nation that shunned intermarriage, living in an age where children often died at birth. Spilling seed in vain was a sin. And in those days, the concept of a loving, long term, same-sex union was completely foreign. Today, we recognize that the sole purpose of marriage is not just to have children. And we no longer see homosexuality as merely a lifestyle choice, but a natural part of someone’s identity. This evolving understanding of sexual identity forces us to hear this text differently. And if, as I believe, an important part of the original INTENT of the Torah text was to promote love that is sacred and elevating, there is no reason to deny that sacred and elevating love to people in same-sex relationships.
Perhaps you find it hubris to apply our modern day values to Torah. Who are we to try to alter the word of God? But we must understand this text in light of fundamental principles which are ALSO found in the Torah. Principles that insist that every person in made in the image of God and that the purest expression of the entirety of the Torah is that we should not do to another what is hateful to ourselves. Torah’s purpose is to bring more love and compassion into the world.
And when a verse of Torah comes in conflict with these life-affirming principles, we might recognize that perhaps we didn’t hear God’s word correctly the first time around. Our Torah is not Dead Dead Dead; It is Life itself.
I end by sharing part of a moving prayer, written by Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the only openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the country. He wrote this prayer to recite before reading this verse Leviticus 18:22 in synagogue:
Prayer to be Recited Before the Reading of Acharei Mot
Rabbi Steve Greenberg
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 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. Amen.
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