Parashat Kedoshim: Leviticus 19 & 20
This Parasha is a guide to being holy. It is the ancient scripture trying to clearly specify what is good and what is evil.
A lot of it deals with interpersonal relationships, and business practices. The earlier part of Chapter 19 lays out commandments for honesty in weights and measures, dealing fairly with employees, and supporting the poor of the community by leaving part of your harvest for them to glean.
Here we also see some of the commandments against mixing: no mixing of fabrics in a garment, no cross-breeding of animals, limiting your field to one kind of crop.
It gets more personal… don’t cut your skin in mourning, don’t cut the hair from the side of your head, don’t abuse the stranger or the disabled. Don’t judge unfairly, or favor the wealthy over the poor.
It gets more serious… don’t sacrifice your children to Moloch, as the pagans around you do. Don’t you DARE deal with ghosts and spirits. Don’t insult your parents. Don’t commit adultery, or have sex with your father’s wife, your daughter-in-law, your mother-in-law, or a beast. These things are punishable by death.
Don’t have sex when a woman is menstruating, don’t have sex with your aunt or sister-in-law. These are offenses that will cut you off from our people, and leave you childless.
And there’s one more. ‘A man shall not lie down with a man like one lies with a woman. It’s abhorrent, and they shall be put to death.’ For gay people and their families, this portion is sometimes known as “the scene of the crime.” It is so difficult for them to wrestle with this verse. Many American Jews feel this matter has been dealt with, and everything is fine now. Reform and Conservative Judaism have weighed in, and presented their Responsas, stressing that our compassion for the individual must supercede our dedication to the details of the Commandments.
But it is not quite that simple. In my research, I read a lot of heart-wrenching commentaries from people who believe in traditional Judaism, people who can’t easily discard any written word of the Torah. They speak of the humiliation and fear of a young adolescent, wondering if any of your fellow worshippers suspect what’s happening inside you, fearing that maybe you really are an abomination. They speak of the frustration of loving parents trying to build self-esteem in their gay son without stepping away from their Orthodox beliefs. One mother said she somehow always arrived at synagogue very late when Kedoshim was the Parasha. Then she laughed sadly at what a cowardly and ineffective strategy that was.
Some people search for a clever way around the words… to lie with a man is NOT the same as lying with a woman. Maybe the commandment really only refers to non-consensual sex. Some have suggested that the command to raise a family is more important, and if a person can’t do that with a member of the opposite sex, then we must allow them to fulfill it in a way that works for them. A prominent Orthodox gay Rabbi points out that there is no easy answer to this dilemma, but insists that it is most important to keep talking. Keep letting gay kids know that they are NOT abominations, that we take issue with this scripture, that we are seeking a way to embrace each person as they are.
The question is a little easier for me, because I have never been a fundamentalist. I have never believed that the Torah is “Al pi Adonai b’yad Moshe" (from the mouth of God by the hand of Moses). It seems to me a set of well-intentioned writings, by ancient people trying to figure out how we came to be, how to live, and how to be the best we can be. If our view of those questions evolves, I am not worried that it goes against the very Word Of God. But I don’t belittle the more traditional beliefs of others.
Today we also have the advantage of hindsight. We can see the history of our people, as they found a way to move past the biblical command to kill a child who disobeys, and later moved past the commands to sacrifice animals, and moved past the idea of owning other humans as slaves. We will still argue for many years to come about which commands are “out-dated,” and yes this can be a slippery slope, but such changes are inevitable. It is actually the same process that began thousands of years ago, just bringing more modern information to the continuing process of figuring out how to be our best.
As the evolution of our faith continues (for some people far too slowly), this verse, Leviticus 20:13, is clearly the next frontier, and that frontier is being faced NOW. Our history is evolving in our lifetime. It is my fervent prayer that not another child will be ashamed of what God made him, and not another mother will have to choose between her love of God and love for her child. It’s not an easy challenge, but we must muster our strength, our compassion, and our wisdom, and move forward as our ancestors did. Keyn y’hee ratzon… may this be God's will.