The Value of Discomfort: Why I won’t make peace with my Parsha

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.

Share this!
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Reddit
  • RSS
  • Twitter

18 thoughts on “The Value of Discomfort: Why I won’t make peace with my Parsha

  1. DUDE! Amazing! LOVE IT!
    Thanks for giving us a glimpse of the complex nature of how people living religious traditions can struggle with their scriptures, as they are, so to speak.
    Proud to be your friend.
    Peace,
    Kelly

    1. Yaira,
      Glad you liked it! And especially that you got a kick out of the last line. I was hoping someone would. 😉
      Shabbat Shalom,
      Rebecca

  2. Beautiful and challenging words for those who wish their lives, spiritually and materially, were simple and graspable. Thank you for sharing this story and your art with us!

    1. Casey,
      My pleasure. And I think it’s the case for most (all) of us, that we wish our lives were simple and graspable. I may believe that religion is, and should be, hard; but goodness knows there’s always a part of me (of varying size) that wishes it, and everything else about my life, were easy.
      -Rebecca

  3. Beautifully written, honest, and thought-provoking. I too found it to be intensely human and relatable, even as a non-religious person. Your sense of humor and your artwork are becoming trademarks, m’dear. I look forward to your Bat Mitzvah.

    Jaime

    1. Thank you, Jaime! I’m particularly pleased to hear that you as a non-religious person found it relatable. My hope is that I can speak to people across religions AND of no religion without hiding my own religion or the particular traditions and beliefs associated with it.
      And I am greatly looking forward to seeing you (& family) at my Bat Mitzvah.

  4. What a neat article! I’m going to have to re-examine my own approach to ‘troubling texts’ as a result.

    All the best,
    Josh

    1. Josh,

      So glad you liked it! I hope we all constantly re-examine our approaches to texts, troubling and otherwise. The more I study, the more I become convinced that the human tendency toward complacency is one of the most dangerous ways to approach Scripture.

  5. Wonderful! Thank you so much for this.

    Scripture is always troubling and challenging when it is read critically, but it seems to me that it would be a huge mistake to disregard troubling sections without considering why exactly you find it troubling. I, too, find the Levitical Code’s condemnation of homosexuality to be intensely troubling, but it would’ve been a mistake to write it off as irrelevant simply because it rubbed me the wrong way. As a Protestant, certainly I can’t disregard Jesus’ instructions to love my neighbor simply because it strikes me as distasteful or unpleasant.

    In the first case, I can come to the conclusion that the Levitical Code’s condemnation of homosexual activity is rooted in a social setting that is both flawed and foreign to our own, and that to condemn someone for their sexual orientation would go against everything I believe about God. As it pertains to my example about love of neighbor, when I really wrestle with my distaste I have to conclude that I simply don’t want to do it because I harbor a lot of feelings of judgment and self-righteousness.

    If I were to simply discard uncomfortable passages of scripture without wrestling with them, I’d never be pressed to reconsider anything or grow in my understanding of faith and life.

    1. Jared,

      Thank you for your challenge to clarify. I certainly agree that it is important to think critically about WHY you find a passage troubling, and that one shouldn’t throw it out– in fact, I was trying to argue pretty strongly that one SHOULD keep the passage present and wrestle with it.

      My ethical orientation is primarily consequentialist, so when I look critically at a text, I start by asking: How does the practice of this text, this commandment, this belief, affect other people? Can the thing it (in this case forbids) IN ITSELF regularly cause enough harm to other people that a community is justified in saying that there is no place for it? To add a personal layer of questioning: Is this commandment telling me something that is inconsistent with my life experience and sense of self? A political layer: does it give voice and strength to oppressed groups, or does it put them down further? A scientific layer: In my understanding, is this commandment based on a claim I know empirically to be untrue? And finally, a scriptural and theological one: Is this commandment consistent with my understanding of a just and loving God? Does it fit within the same Scriptural ethic that tells me, as you say, to love my neighbor (in my tradition, I pull this one from Lev. 19:18; and its affirmation, refinement, and elaboration from generations of Rabbinic commentary), to pursue justice (Deut. 16:20), and to love the sojourner in my community as myself, for I was once a slave in Egypt (Lev. 19:34)?

      (Incidentally, in this comment to Adina Allen’s excellent piece “Assert Your Authority”, I also try to examine how I derive my moral sense in relation to a text.)

      I think your question (and specifically your counterexample of “love your neighbor…”) also implies a critical corollary to my essay: sometimes, our discomfort with a Scripture reveals a flaw not in the Scripture but in us. When I read the commandment to “love the sojourner,” I am deeply frustrated and uncomfortable—not because the commandment is wrong, but because it reminds me of how deeply I fail to live up to it. If I read “sojourner” as “someone who looks DIFFERENT”—how many times have I started walking faster because the guy who’s walking behind me has skin that’s darker than mine? If I see someone on a street corner asking for money, how many times have I pushed them out of my mind and kept walking, or justified myself with the hackneyed (and untrue!) assertion that “they’ll just spend it on drugs”, or simply tried to find the smallest possible change to give and then scuttle away? (As Mary Chapin Carpenter puts it, “We give a dollar when we pass/ and hope our eyes don’t meet.”) How many times have I disguised my relative political inaction with cynicism?

      The common thread between both types of discomfort is that in each case, I (and my community) have a choice: I can soothe the discomfort and put away the text that’s causing it. Or I can think critically and decide that that discomfort means that something is wrong, and wrestle with the source of the brokenness I see—whether that brokenness is in the text, in the world, or in myself.

      1. Woops, I mostly meant to elaborate more so than challenge or critique. Sometimes I’m unaware of my tone or how my comments are read.

        I appreciate your elaboration on your ethical/scriptural methods very much, though. The difference between good and bad interpretations usually starts with methodology, and I find your methodology to be thorough, compassionate, and honest. So, I’ll definitely take something positive from that as I’m considering scriptures in the future.

        All Best,
        Jared

        1. Jared,

          No worries whatsoever! As it was, the fact that I read your comment as partially critique was helpful to me, so consider it a net positive. And I thoroughly agree that “the difference between good and bad interpretations usually starts with methodology.”

          Best,
          -RL

  6. Levi. You always take the words out of mouth and then they appear in beautiful articulation.

    In solidarity!

  7. Thanks, Rebecca! I like your distinction between ‘theism’ and ‘religion.’ Scripture forces us right into the center of the latter . . .

    Mark

Comments are closed.