This Shabbat, when we read from the Torah, we will be reading the combined parasha (weekly Torah portion) of Achrei Mot and Kedoshim.* I have thoughts about both of these Torah portions, but it’s Kedoshim that really stands out in my mind. This is because Kedoshim is simultaneously one of my favorite parshiyot**, and also one of my least favorites. Please allow me to tell you why.
I hate this parasha because of a single verse in Chapter 20, a verse that so many of us have heard quoted so many times, a verse explicitly addresses same-sex relationships – or, at least, same-sex sexual relations. (The only other place in the Torah that addresses this, by the way, is Achrei Mot, so this week is a double-whammy.) In Chapter 20, Verse 13, we read: 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.”
As I am a Queer Jew, you can imagine how this sentence does not exactly sit well with me. My reaction is even more intense when I’m the one reading it from the Torah, as I did for the first time in college. I wasn’t out as Queer yet the first time I read it, not even to myself. But I read it again from the Torah the following year, my junior year of college. That night, I wrote in my journal:
“[I] discovered I was reading all the forbidden relationship stuff. Which includes the line about the man sleeping with the man, which meant I got to know that line intimately as I learned it. This disturbed me far more than it did when I read it last year… and having to read it over and over***, sitting by myself on the couch in the living room, made me feel physically ill.”
Yes, that’s right. I was so disturbed by that line that it made me feel physically ill.
Fortunately, I found a supportive friend to listen to me vent about it, a friend to whom I’d come out earlier that year. I’ll call her A. Later on in that same entry, I wrote, “I think A is more comfortable with who I am than I am. Because I’m not.”
In the intervening 15 years, I’ve grown and changed a lot. I’m a lot more comfortable with who I am, for one thing. Now, I only feel a brief, mild discomfort when I read that line.
But still, the line is there. Right in the Torah.
I have now read that verse directly from the Torah at least three times. And while I have learned to ignore it, to pretend it isn’t there, to explain it away as a product of its time, or as a far narrower prohibition than people make it out to be, I know that there are so many other Queer Jews out in the world who aren’t able to do that just yet, who might not be able to do that ever. Youths who read that line and think that they are “abhorrent.” Adults who agonize over the fact that they live a life of “sin”, or who are filled with resentment over the fact that they can’t be intimate with the person they love.
So many Jews who leave Judaism entirely because of this one verse, and because of its parallel in Achrei Mot.
But it’s not just because of that verse. It’s because of how Jewish communities treat that verse, how they give it so much more import, so much more power than so many other verses in the Torah. So many Queer Jews live in communities where these are the messages they absorb:
You are an abomination.
Your sexual desires are deviant.
You can’t be who you are and still be a full part of this community.
You disgust me.
I just wish that these communities, that all of the people who react this way, would take a closer look at the other part of Kedoshim, the part of the parasha that makes me love it so much, that makes this one of my favorite parshiyot in the Torah: Chapter 19.
Chapter 19 is beautiful both in form and in content. Though there are still a few isolated lines that rub me the wrong way, the overall message of this chapter has really stuck with me ever since I learned it for the first time. There’s a poetry to this chapter. In Hebrew, the words flow in a way that I’m not sure I can explain. But, more importantly, there’s the content:
In Verse 2, God says to Moshe (Moses):
דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
“Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.”
We are told to be holy – all of us, the whole Israelite community. The verses that follow tell us how to do that.
Here are some of my favorite verses from that chapter:
Verse 10: וְכַרְמְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תְעוֹלֵ֔ל וּפֶ֥רֶט כַּרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֣א תְלַקֵּ֑ט לֶֽעָנִ֤י וְלַגֵּר֙ תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֔ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
“You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God.”
Verse 13: לֹֽא־תַעֲשֹׁ֥ק אֶת־רֵֽעֲךָ֖ וְלֹ֣א תִגְזֹ֑ל לֹֽא־תָלִ֞ין פְּעֻלַּ֥ת שָׂכִ֛יר אִתְּךָ֖ עַד־בֹּֽקֶר׃
“You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.”
Verse 14: לֹא־תְקַלֵּ֣ל חֵרֵ֔שׁ וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל וְיָרֵ֥אתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
“You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the LORD.”
And these verses are just a sampling of the many ways in which this chapter entreats us to deal with others kindly and fairly. In particular, we are told to deal kindly and fairly to those who have less power and privilege than us: people who lack money, people with disabilities, people who ares subservient to us, etc.
And then, we reach two of the most famous, most important lines in this entire chapter:
Verse 17: לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃
“You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.”
And Verse 18: לֹֽא־תִקֹּ֤ם וְלֹֽא־תִטֹּר֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.”
These last two verses, especially, carry such a powerful and important message: Don’t hate your kinfolk. Love your fellow as yourself. You can offer rebuke, but don’t bear a grudge.
These lines are the ones that feel as though they are in polar opposition to the line that comes later, the one that literally made me feel ill back when I was in college.
These are the lines I want to point to every time someone uses Chapter 20, Verse 13 as an excuse to exclude, to shame and to hate. These are the lines that are juxtaposed, I think, not by accident.
These are the lines that I wish each and every Jew would remember when they get up to that verse in the following chapter. Sure, there’s a forbidden sexual relationship listed. And sure, if you want to follow every word of the Torah, you’re going to have to face that. But that doesn’t mean you hate. That doesn’t mean you ostracize. Quite the contrary. That Queer Jew in your community is your fellow. That Queer Jew is your kin. And that means treating them with love and respect. That means you welcome them in with open arms as a full member of the community. That means you support them when they feel like they are less than you. Less powerful, less privileged, less accepted.
We can’t fix that line in the Torah. It will always be there. But we can fix how we relate to it, and that means looking back one chapter and taking those lessons to heart.
I’m here, I’m Queer, and I no longer feel sick to my stomach every time I read that verse. I’m a full member of my community. If I meet another woman and marry her, she will be too. I don’t think I will ever be able to look at that verse without being a little bothered by the fact that Judaism has its faults, and this is one of them, but if that verse makes me sick to my stomach, it is not because of the words on the page. Instead, it’s because there are still too many Jews in the world who focus on Chapter 20 and forget Chapter 19.
Consider this your reminder: Queer Jews are part of your community too, and we deserve as much love and as much respect as anyone else. We deserve to be accepted and welcomed as who we are, because we are your kin, and we are your fellow Jews.
We’re here. We belong here. Don’t ever forget that.
Notes and explanation of Hebrew terms:
All Biblical quotes and translations are copied from Sefaria.
*The Torah is divided up into weekly portions, with the idea that if one is read each week, the entire Torah will be read over the course of a year. Each Torah portion is given a name, based on the first few words of the portion. Because the Jewish calendar is lunar-solar, we add a leap month every few years to keep things aligned properly. This means that some years have more Saturdays than others. In order to ensure that we still finish the entire Torah each year, in years with fewer Saturdays, we double up some of the portions, as is the case this week.
**plural of parasha (Torah portion)
***Reading from the Torah involves memorizing vowels (which are written beneath the letters in Hebrew and often omitted from printed texts), punctuation and cantillation – the proper tune for each word/verse/etc. Because of this, learning a Torah part requires a lot of practice and repetition of each line.