“Rules By Which They Could Not Live:” My Bat Mitzvah Drash

For the past few weeks, I’ve found myself neck-deep in finals and in preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, which took place on April 28th, at Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, VA. As such, in lieu of content specifically written for State of Formation, I offer the d’var torah I delivered that day (on parshat K’doshim-Acharei Mot). Some of the content may sound familiar, since I dealt with a very similar topic in my first post here at State of Formation, “The Value of Discomfort: Why I won’t make peace with my Parsha”.

The parshah I’ve worked on for my Bat Mitzvah is, given my graduate research, apt—and not entirely accidental. My research deals with sexual ethics—and queer sexuality in particular— in Judaism. And as you follow along in your Chumashim, you will notice that parshat K’doshimAcharei Mot contains perhaps two of the most controversial verses in the Hebrew Bible: Leviticus 18:22—“you will not lie with a man as with the lyings of a woman”—and Leviticus 20:13—“If one lies with mankind as one lies with womankind, they have both committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death.”

In my research, naturally, I have had to deal with these verses, and with possible mitigating interpretations of them. I can tell you the following—first, many such interpretations exist. Second, all of them, to my mind, are some degree of unsatisfying.  There is always the feeling that these interpretations are trying to turn the text into something that it is not. They always, to my mind, fail to erase the stark punch to the gut these verses in their plain sense are to a reader.

At this point, I’d like you to imagine me, at twelve, just starting to realize that I like girls, reading Leviticus for the first time.  And then I would like you to imagine, after that experience, how you, as a twelve-year-old, would respond to the suggestion that you commit to a faith that holds this text as sacred. These verses are alienating. No matter how we try to turn them, they are disturbing. And if you are queer, like me—no matter the interpretation, no matter the academic distance you may try to put between yourself and your subject—ultimately, they still hurt. Any effective and honest response to them, therefore, must begin by acknowledging that.

Futhermore, such a response should, in my opinion, not attempt to retroactively paint the past meanings of the text as something it is not. We have, as a species, a strong tendency to confuse is and ought. That is, we assume that because a thing is the status quo—because it’s “natural,” or “traditional,” or so on—that it is therefore ethically valid. Or, conversely, we might assume that, because we find a thing ethically valid, that it therefore must reflect the natural or original state of affairs.

But these assumptions are erroneous. Just because a thing is “natural” or “traditional” doesn’t make it right—after all, murder, sexual violence, tribalism, and racism are all natural states of affairs. And just because a thing is right doesn’t mean it reflects some primordial state of perfection—racial and sexual equality, for instance (despite assertions to the contrary), appear to be fairly recent concepts.

Effective advocacy for equality or justice, then, needs to start from the understanding that there is a problem to be fixed—that there is something in the world that is wrong and broken. I would suggest that in some cases, the same is true for effective engagement with religious text. David Weiss Halivni posits that Rabbinic interpretation is generated in response to what he describes as the “maculateness” of the Biblical text—that is, the text, as a result of existing within human history, has problems or inconsistencies within it whose function is to generate interpretive responses. He writes, “When the people of Israel congregated once more—at long last and of their own accord—they found not Moses and the pure and perfect Torah of the wilderness, but Ezra and his composite Torah, mad maculate by centuries of human history.” (Peshat and Derash, vi.)

I’d like to go one step further—the text has actively unethical commands in it, whose purpose is to teach us to recognize them. These texts are meant to reflect and demonstrate the brokenness of the world, and goad us into doing something about it.

I would add at this point that we do not have a very good track record when it comes to responding to such texts. Indeed, a look into the prophetic literature reveals that God anticipates this. In Ezekiel 20:25-26 we find the chilling admission: “I gave them laws that were not good and rules by which they could not live: When they set aside every first issue of the womb, I defiled them by their very gifts”—that is, instead of consecrating the firstborn to the temple they sacrificed them—“that I might render them desolate, that they might know I am Adonai.”

God, in other words, knew that the Israelites would get the commandment tragically, horrifically wrong—and handed it down anyway. Suffice it to note, by the way, that while theodicy (that is, the justification of God in the face of suffering or evil) is not the main focus of this drash, the fact that God would take such action, at such terrible consequence, anticipating our brokenness and fallibility, raises deeply troubling questions about the very nature of God.

Despite our poor record thus far, there nevertheless are Rabbinic precedents for this sort of interpretation. Perhaps the best-known example is found in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 68b-72a. This sugya engages the Biblical edict (Deut. 21:18-21) that “if a man has a [stubborn and rebellious] son…they shall bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community…[and] the men of his town shall stone him to death.”

Clearly, the Rabbinic interpreters are deeply troubled by this text. First the mishnah (Sanh. 8:1-5) and then the Gemara restrict the definition of the stubborn and rebellious son to the point of absurdity, until the Gemara finally says, “There never has been a stubborn and rebellious son, and never will be. Why, then, was the law written? That you may study it and receive reward.” (71a)

Notice what this interpretation doesn’t do. It doesn’t say that the law used to apply but no longer does. It doesn’t try to excuse it, or to erase it. It brings it forward in all its bald horror, allows it to punch us in the gut, and then goes about making sure that it will never be carried out. Yet in doing so, it preserves a purpose for the law—it is there to learn from. It is there as a witness, as a thing to study—and we should bear in mind that in Talmudic parlance, there is a very real sense of fighting and struggle implicit in study and learning. (For more on this, see Jeffrey Rubenstein’s excellent book, The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud.)

There are clearly some differences between the Exodus and Sanhedrin texts, and the ones we have in front of us. Against the assertion that “there never was such a son,” there have been, and continue to be, many, many LGBTQ people who have been hurt, directly or indirectly, as a result of the texts we’ll be chanting shortly. And I’d argue vociferously against the notion that there is personal reward to be gained from learning these texts—we should instead be hanging our heads in shame. But as for why the law was written? “That you may study it” may be the only interpretation I can accept.

In studying this text, I am confronted with a world that is so broken that even the Scriptures given to it, even the laws contained within those Scriptures, contain ethical abominations, contain violent and dehumanizing prescriptions. I am also powerfully confronted with an obligation to help fix it. I am reminded that this law was written, not so that I may “study and receive reward,” but to force me to think critically about it, to stir me and make me uncomfortable, to punch me in the gut so that I may “study and DO SOMETHING.” Shabbat Shalom.

This image is used under a Creative Commons 3.0 license and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Cross-posted to my personal blog.

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5 thoughts on ““Rules By Which They Could Not Live:” My Bat Mitzvah Drash

  1. Yashar Kochech. I find it really inspiring that you can struggle with this issue so actively and are willing to remain part of the (or ‘a’) Jewish community. As this verse was the one that led me to stop believing that any Diety could have written the Torah, I was especially interested to see that you (correctly, in my opinion) saw the Rabbinic answer as preserved in the Talmud as the most satisfying (though by no means truly satisfying) way to struggle with this text.

  2. In the TV show Joan of Arcadia, Joan’s Jewish high school friend decides to go through Bat Mitzveh when she realized that it was not about learning all the answers, but about learning to ask better questions.

    Related to that, a Jewish speaker commented that as a child when he got home from school, his father wouldn’t ask, “What did you learn today?” but “Did you ask a good question?”

    You raise good and better questions.

  3. In the TV show Joan of Arcadia, Joan’s Jewish high school friend decides to go through Bat Mitzveh when she realized that it was not about learning all the answers, but about learning to ask better questions.

    Related to that, a Jewish speaker commented that as a child when he got home from school, his father wouldn’t ask, “What did you learn today?” but “Did you ask a good question?”

    You raise good and better questions.

  4. Well said. I’m glad that there are people willing to seek the difficult answer to the questions no o e dare to ask.

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