Am I an abomination? An Orthodox publisher speaks to gay teens
What if you were gay? What would it be like for you to read in this week’s Torah portion that you and your budding romantic feelings are abominable?
For the first time, Koren, an Orthodox publishing house, has decided to tackle the challenge of gay subjectivity, asking in a fairly straightforward way, “What are my gay readers (and their families and friends) thinking and feeling when they read this text?”
I was invited to join this conversation in the summer of 2020, after being approached by a family who is engaged with both Koren and Eshel, which works to create a future for Orthodox lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, and their families.
This year, Koren Publishers released Leviticus, the third of five planned volumes of their new Lev Ladaat Humash, created specifically for teens and young adults in congregational minyanim. The project is sponsored by the Nagel family of Los Angeles, and based upon the translation of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. What is most compelling about the humash (volume of the Five Books of Moses) is the brilliant educational vision of its editors, Rabbi Dr. Zvi Grumet and Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn.
The Lev Ladaat Humash offers thought-provoking questions, careful readings, and engaging selections from traditional commentators. Most importantly, the commentary challenges contemporary young adult readers to respond to various sorts of problems in the text. The reader is asked to consider what emotion or thought is evoked by a biblical narrative or law. Since the framework is Orthodox, the Torah is treated as Divine revelation and foundational to halakhah (Jewish law). However, we are also offered a literary analysis of the material, alongside an honest grappling with the moral challenges that in-depth Torah study will naturally evoke.
In line with their mission, Koren and the editors of this humash project considered for the first time the subjective experience of a gay teen reading Leviticus 18:22.
Here is the commentary offered by the editors of Lev Ladaat:
Lev Ladaat Humash:
Do not lie with a male as with a woman; this is an abhorrent act. (Lev. 18:22)
WISDOM OF THE HEART:
For many, verse 22 is among the most challenging verses in the Torah, on both an emotional and intellectual level, as well as touching deeply on their faith and how they relate to God. Like other laws in the Torah, God gives a command that is difficult for us to comprehend, even at odds with accepted values and life experiences of family members, friends, neighbors, perhaps even ourselves. Our challenge, as Jews engaged with the modern world, is to remain faithful and respectful to the integrity of the word of God, while considering how we reconcile these values in our daily lives. This specific verse discusses a prohibited act. Our Jewish responsibility is to ensure that this verse, which has often been the source of much pain and confusion, should never prevent us from ensuring that every member of our community feels loved and respected.
The improvement of this rendition begins with the translation of the Hebrew text by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He parses the verse in a way that highlights a single act and resists the visceral associations with the noun, “abomination.” Instead, a strong, but less iconic adjective, “abhorrent,” is used. Rabbi Sacks’ translation subtly directs the reader away from questions of identity and more clearly toward those of behavior.
Still, the text is undoubtedly harsh, and so commentary is offered under one of the work’s five categories of analysis and response: Wisdom of the Heart. This is where the framers of this humash urge the reader to think critically about the stories and laws, exploring how they relate to a reader’s life.
The authors begin their commentary by admitting immediately that this law has generated both emotional turmoil and intellectual dissonance. The emotional turmoil is most acute for gay teens, just as their sexual feelings are awakening. The intellectual challenge is wider. It is posed to every person who has come to understand that sexualities are not willfully chosen, but are fundamentally innate. How does the Creator make some people gay and then deny them a reasonable adult life, a life that includes love and companionship?
This bold beginning serves to convey to the students that the teacher is an ally of sorts who is troubled by the text and concerned for the spiritual life of the gay reader. While there is no biblical rereading or halakhic solution offered, the comment ends with our shared duty to “consider” some sort of “reconciliation” and in the meanwhile to love and respect the gay people who are in our lives.
According to a number of Orthodox educators, Koren’s willingness to openly address the conflict comes none too soon, and not only for the gay students. It turns out that the verse is religiously troublesome for many straight teens as well. A principal of a yeshiva high school wrote a few years ago that this challenge is among the most theologically destabilizing for all his students. In his view, “the reconciliation of the Torah’s discussion of homosexuality represents the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today.” With the growing social acceptance of homosexuality among younger Americans, the verse is increasingly disturbing for many straight students and especially for those who have family or friends who are gay.
Admittedly, for many people in the LGBTQ community, Koren’s statement is far too limited and weak to provide the sort of support that gay young adults would need to make religious sense of their lives. They would claim that despite the good faith effort, it does not give much hope for an integrated adult life as a committed Jew.
While that may be true, as in many similar circumstances, it is unwise to make the perfect the enemy of the good. In the living context of Orthodox communities, the Koren effort is an enormous upgrade that should not be minimized.
One only needs to compare the Koren comments to those found in the two most common humashim used in Orthodox synagogues to see how dramatic the shift is.
In 1936, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs of Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz provided British and American Jewish congregations with a readable “modern” English translation and commentary of the humash. In 1993, Artscroll published the “Stone Chumash.” Edited by Rabbi Nosson Scherman, it took the Orthodox community by storm and eventually replaced most of the well worn Hertz humashim.
Rabbi Dr. Joseph H. Hertz humash
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is an abomination. (Lev. 18:22)
22. With mankind. Discloses the abyss of depravity from which the Torah saved the Israelite. This unnatural vice was also prevalent in Greece and Rome.
Rabbi Hertz was a secularly trained scholar and in the first class of JTS rabbinic graduates. Later in his career, he served as the chief rabbi of England for more than 30 years. Many gay and lesbian Jews in their 50s and 60s grew up in shuls where this harsh reading of the verse was the baseline of their Jewish self-understanding.
Artscroll Stone Chumash
You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman, it is an abomination. Do not lie with any animal to be contaminated with it. (Lev. 18:22)
22-23. Sodomy and bestiality
The chapter of immorality ends with two forms of sexual perversion: homosexuality and bestiality. The harshness with which the Torah describes them testifies to the repugnance in which God holds those who engage in these unnatural practices.
Rabbi Nosson Scherman was the principal of Yeshiva Karlin Stolin in Boro Park when Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz urged him to join the Artscroll project. While the Artscroll team mastered modern graphic design and English language skills, these ultra-Orthodox rabbis ignored and often fought the intellectual and social currents of the age. The normalizing shifts in attitude toward gay people during the ’80s and ’90s were to be held at bay with moral outrage and condemnation.
I remember sitting in shul, year after year, listening to the verse and reading the Artscroll commentary, and feeling such profound confusion, self-loathing, and guilt, not only when Parshat Acharei Mot was read, but, all the more sharply, on Yom Kippur when this verse is read during the afternoon service. For many, if not most, young gay people, that experience begins in self-hatred and ends in anger, fracturing a sense of communal belonging, trust in the Torah, and, often, faith in God.
In light of these painfully demeaning “common places,” where young gay and lesbian Jews continue to learn to be disgusted with themselves, to imagine that an ordinary teenage crush is wholly “unnatural,” and akin to “bestiality,” the clear empathy and responsibility of the Koren comment shines brightly.
Let us hope, this year, as homophobic violence and anti-gay legislation have dramatically increased in the US and around the world, that rabbis take the time to read this moving comment aloud in shul before or after the Torah reading of Acharei Mot to ensure that — in the words of Rabbis Grumet and Einhorn — “every member of our community feels loved and respected.“