I am currently writing a drasha (an oral interpretation of the week’s Torah portion) for my upcoming Bat Mitzvah. My parsha includes what are perhaps two of the most controversial passages in the Hebrew Bible: Leviticus 18:22—”you will not lie with a male as the lyings of a woman, it is an abomination”—and Leviticus 20:13—”If a man lies with a male as the lyings of a woman, the two have done an abominable thing; they will surely be put to death, their blood is upon them.” Clearly, as a queer Jew, these texts rankle me.
I have encountered many mitigating interpretations of these texts, some more rigorous and thoughtful than others. However, academically and religiously, I ultimately find all of these somewhat unsatisfying. And personally, despite all these interpretations, the verses still hurt.
These feelings are compounded by the fact that, as a lived, practiced Scripture with social and spiritual impact, a text’s lived history is part of its being. A new interpretation cannot remove that baggage. To say, for example, “these verses can be interpreted in terms of sexual violence” or “these verses came into being in a context which could not conceive of a loving same-sex relationship”—these are good readings, some of the best, accurate and useful as such—but they, by themselves, do nothing to address the history of the verses, and their consequences, historical and current, for almost any queer inhabitant of the West. Nor can they erase the fact that when I stand before the Torah in April, I will be chanting words—understood, if only in that ritual space, as God’s words—that at once condemn me (as a queer person) and make me invisible (as a queer woman).
As I read them, all these interpretations ask me in some way to make peace with these texts. This is not something I am willing to do, for two reasons.
First, I don’t believe in making peace with Scripture on a practical level, because it leads to a dangerous complacency. If we’ve made peace with a troubling Scripture, we’re a great deal less likely to deal with its consequences—and a great deal more likely to pat ourselves on the back amid self-congratulatory, patronizing intonations: “Isn’t it so wonderful we’re past that? Now let’s forget it ever happened.” Such soothing allows us to feel good about ourselves without taking much concrete action.
Second, I think that concilliation is not a way Scripture wishes us to interact with it. Passive acceptance is not a fitting way to receive the foundational texts of our tradition, and parts of the Hebrew Bible reflect this. Abraham negotiated with God for the lives of the Sodomites (Gen. 18:22-32). Jacob wrestled with the messenger of God (Gen. 32:24). Sarah laughed at God (Gen. 18:12), and Miriam questioned Moses’s arbitrary privilege (Num.12:2).
This list of narratives isn’t an attempt to promote a single interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, nor is it meant to give a simplistic reading of those stories, all of which have a dark side. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah anyway (Gen. 19:24), and when Abraham himself was asked to kill his son, he went right along (Gen. 22:10). Sarah and Jacob, for their moments of bravery and integrity, often acted like jerks as well (Gen. 21:10, Gen. 25:29-34) . Miriam’s speech was racially motivated (Num. 12:1), and her reward for her forthrightness was leprosy and shunning (Num. 12:10-15).
Yet these dark sides, I think, prove my point: Scripture is complex and troubling. It provides no unblemished role models, no uncomplicated morals, and plenty of “What The Hell, Hero?” moments—many of these, by the way, in which the hero in question is God. To make peace with it is to do a grave disservice to a wickedly complicated, history-soaked, deeply divine, and profoundly human text.
It’s a lot easier to give an interpretation of a text that makes it palatable, than it is to grapple with the implications of belonging to a tradition whose Scripture is so vexing, whose history is so morally ambiguous. But in my opinion, anyone who tells you that religion is supposed to be easy, or even comforting, is quite frankly full of it.
If you are a theist, then theism—understood as a faith that the universe cares about you in some way, or that something about you is eternal— is comforting, because it’s fundamentally divine. But religion—the social, textual, cultural, historical, and moral context into which you place that belief—religion is a human thing, and it’s hard.
Religion should force you to take a hard look at the interaction between the better angels of whatever divinity you believe in, and the reality of your existence—and if you’re looking at that honestly, you will realize that you will always come up short. You will also realize that as long as you keep working, that that fact is OK. Honest engagement with religion requires you to live with ambiguity and paradox. It keeps you slightly off center. It demands that you think critically about yourself and about it, and it requires that when you see something that isn’t right, in it or in yourself, that you speak up and do something.
Throughout history, there are countless examples of religion failing to function in this way, and the consequences are often horrendous. The texts in my parsha are but one body of testimony to that fact. That, too, is part of our shared Scripture as practitioners of religion. That, too, we must grapple with. And that is why, as a practitioner who loves my tradition and my Scripture, I will not make peace with my parsha. I will chant it with respect and awe, with frustration and profound anger and hurt. And I will deliver a drasha in which I tell those assembled that in no way should they forget, excise, or avoid this text. Instead, they should wrestle it, as Jacob wrestled God’s messenger.
And then they should try not to be as much of a jerk as he was.
A version of this post appeared on my personal blog in July of this year.
This image is an original work by the author of the post, and is used under copyright release.