Emily Volz
Rabbinical student and disability + LGBT activist

When Torah hurts: Parashat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim

It is a unique pain when your beloved multi-millennial tradition states that who you are is an abomination, a specific sorrow when something you love cannot fully love you back
People take part in the annual Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem on June 6, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People take part in the annual Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem on June 6, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I frequently find myself getting into Twitter arguments about a verse that appears in this week’s parsha. 

וְאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשְׁכַּ֤ב אֶת־זָכָר֙ מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֔ה תּוֹעֵבָ֥ה עָשׂ֖וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֑ם מ֥וֹת יוּמָ֖תוּ דְּמֵיהֶ֥ם בָּֽם׃

If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them. (Leviticus 20:13, JPS Translation)

This verse has gained notoriety in both Jewish and Christian circles, and is often used to justify a multitude of political and ethical ends. There are two popular arguments that I encounter, both based on incorrect translations or interpretations. 

The first, seen more often amongst conservative Christians, posits that all same-sex relations, and even all LGBT identities, are sinful. The language of the verse is clearly only discussing sexual relations between two men, but that hasn’t stopped bigoted individuals from angrily hurling this verse at anything and anyone remotely LGBT-related, from a teen coming out as trans, to a same-sex wedding, to, in my case, existing on the internet as a lesbian. 

The second, which I find myself more actively arguing against based on the company I keep, is made by well-meaning people who want to be queer-affirming by arguing that this verse is a mistranslation and should actually read “man shall not lie with child.” This argument relies on a lot of falsehoods, many of which are actively anti-Jewish. I’ve seen this argument made by claiming that no one actually knows what the original text says, or even that this verse was originally written in Greek. These are both patently false, of course, and have the effect of severing all Jewish scholarship and authority over our own texts.

It is broadly understood by Jewish texts and commentators that this verse (and also Leviticus 18:22, which appears earlier in the parsha) is speaking about anal sex between two men. This is explained in more texts than is necessary to list here, but most notably: Rashi and Chizkuni on Lev. 20:13, Mishneh Torah Issurei Bi’ah 1:14 (which also explicitly states that this verse is not talking about pedophilia), Ibn Ezra on Lev. 18:22, and MT Lo Ta’aseh 350. There are other, later sources that prohibit additional gay and lesbian relations, but none of these carry the status of issurei d’oraita

Because I don’t often see the first of the false interpretations in my own circles (and because I think the dangers of it are too obvious to warrant my counterargument), I am going to pick more at the second. 

I firmly believe that sugar coating something painful helps no one. It’s akin to swapping out your child’s dead hamster with a new one and hoping they won’t notice, rather than helping them work through this early experience with death and grief. Just like the furtive hamster swap robs the child of the opportunity to begin to grapple with what it means to experience loss, and only makes it harder when they eventually experience a more serious loss that cannot be smoothed over, pretending that this verse says something it does not say erases any room for queer people to meaningfully grapple with how to be part of a tradition that is bound by a text that speaks disparagingly to us. Not only does it not allow for queer people who have been hurt by this verse to be supported, but it also does a disservice to everyone in our community, regardless of sexuality. With this dismissive interpretation, we forsake our ability to participate in a uniquely Jewish schema for navigating discomfort and dissonance. 

Embed from Getty Images

This apologism allows us to pretend that our texts are not harmful, and gets us off the hook of answering for the hurt we may have been complicit in. Plainly, it is a way of avoiding having to say “this text is homophobic, and we need to deal with that.” Avoidance never solves problems, but merely transfers them to a later date or delivers them into the hands of another person. In this case, avoiding dealing with the fact that our holy texts say really awful things about people we love leaves queer people with no support system for dealing with the anguish of encountering these texts. Sometimes this pain occurs when we first read for ourselves the texts in question, but more often, it occurs when someone intentionally uses them to hurt us. 

I want you to picture yourself as me, a queer person who loves Torah, and picture how any hurt this verse is capable of inflicting is grossly multiplied when I look into the eyes of my community, yearning to have my pain acknowledged, but instead, the response is first to deny that my hurt is real, and then, to deny the wonder that is our role in our ancestral history of textual transmission.

In these moments, it feels like my community, the people I love, are telling me that they prefer holding onto an argument that allows them to continue painting themselves in a good light, that they prefer this to returning my gaze and acknowledging the most painful truth as an observant Jew:

Torah can hurt.

Torah can hurt, it can fracture, it can wound like a knife. Torah is a living text, and living beings hurt other living beings. There is a unique type of pain that is caused by your own beloved multi-millennial tradition stating that who you are is toevah — an abomination. I want you all to really sit with this hurt, to understand the sorrow that happens when something you love so much is incapable of loving you back in full.

Here’s the thing: ein kol hadash tachat hashemesh. Nothing I’m saying here is really new: our sages recognized that Torah can cause hurt, and they developed a framework for dealing with this. We even see this in the Tanakh, with Ezekiel (20:25) saying “I gave them laws that were not good and rules by which they could not live.”

So what did the rabbis do when they were faced with the fact that their Torah could cause hurt? I call on a lecture given by an undergrad professor of mine, Dr. Rebecca Epstein-Levi. In a d’var Torah on this same parsha, she brings up the lengthy discussion found in Sanhedrin 68b-72a. In this sugya, the rabbis are addressing the question of the stubborn and rebellious son, about whom Deuteronomy 21 says his parents are obligated to bring him into the town center, where the town elders will stone him to death.

Understandably, the rabbis were horrified about the prospect of obligating parents to murder their own child. I would imagine that, as fathers themselves, the rabbis felt personally bound up in this quandary, because what child has never been stubborn or rebellious? The rabbis make no attempt to pretend that this verse says something more palatable. Instead, they engage in an exhaustive debate with these verses, exactly in the style our tradition had trained them.

This is a very long sugya for a reason; they spend four whole dappim picking apart each small detail of the Torah’s instruction, establishing a litany of qualifications that must be met in order for this punishment to actually happen: establishing in which stage of puberty the child had to be, that the parents must be exactly the same height and have identical voices, that the son can’t have children of his own, on which day of the month the punishment must occur, and so on. Essentially, they put so many stipulations on this verse that it would be impossible for them to all be met, and therefore impossible for someone to actually be obligated to stone his son to death.

What is so special about this method? Most notably, they do not shy away from the fact this text exists in our Torah. Quite the opposite, given that they spend four pages on it! They do not try to put a creative spin on the pshat or insist that it should be read in away contrary to how it is written. Instead, they spend real intellectual labor on making sure that two things happen: this verse is given its proper place in our tradition and remains in that place, and no one will actually be obligated to partake in the horror outlined by the original text.

It is beautiful to think about what the atmosphere of the beit midrash would have been like during this discussion. One can imagine the frantic energy buzzing in the room as the rabbis were motivated by a combination of love for Torah and fear for this particular verse.

It is precisely this energy that I think is vital to the discussion of what to do with Leviticus 20:13. We have the power to discuss this text in a vivid and honest manner, one that is steeped in the same tradition that birthed the very text with which we so struggle. Our cannon of texts give us the tools we need to be Yisrael — those who struggle with God. 

It would be nice if I had a neat answer about exactly what to with this text from Sanhedrin. Unfortunately, I don’t have one to supply. I subscribe to the idea of yeridat ha-dorot (literally “the decline of the generations”), the idea that each subsequent generation of scholars is further away from the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai, and therefore intellectually and spiritually inferior to the previous generation. This concept has the effect of significantly limiting the ability to challenge halakhic decisions from previous generations of rabbis. I don’t think we have the same ability to effectively make impossible an issur d’oraita in the way demonstrated by the rabbis of the Gemara. 

However, I think we can use the example of these sages to teach that there are ways to live with painful texts that are both intellectually honest and practically humane. Rather than use our verse as a battering ram or taking a bottle of correction fluid to it, we have the tools to live with integrity and humility in the face of difficult texts.

The truth of this parsha is that we are left with a binding text that has caused great pain for many of us. There is no way around this for people like me, who are equally devoted to living according to Torah and according to the truth of our LGBT identities. I am not going to closet my sexuality in order to be a religious Jew, and I’m not going to put the Torah into the closet to be openly gay. 

As stated, I don’t have a perfect answer for how to dance with this verse. It’s a challenge that I imagine will live in me for the rest of my life. I want to encourage us to be like the rabbis that came before us: in awe of our tradition, using the original definition of that word — a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder. I hope we can commit to walking in their footsteps, to approach Torah with an understanding that something we love can also deeply wound us.

Perhaps, in the end, the Torah itself is like a stubborn and rebellious child: equal parts beloved and in need of discipline.

About the Author
Emily Volz is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She has a BA in Jewish studies from Oberlin College, where she wrote a thesis called "Fruitful Tensions: Innovative Intersections of Queerness and Halakhah". She is proud to be both Autistic and gay, and plans to devote her rabbinate to the inclusion of marginalized voices in Halakhah and traditional Jewish communities.
Related Topics
Related Posts