On Friday, just before Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) began, I posted about the Torah portion we would be reading in shul (synagogue) on Saturday morning. (If you haven’t read the post and want to, you can find it here. There are also words I use in this post that are translated there should you require translation.)
In that entry, I talked about how reading (or hearing) the verses that condemn gay sex hurts a lot less than it used to.
Well, turns out those words may hurt less, but they do still hurt, and that caught me by surprise.
Yesterday, unlike most weeks lately, I made sure to get to services before Torah reading. This was because I was reading from the Torah. Unlike in years past, I didn’t end up reading one of the aliyot that contain the lines prohibiting gay sex. Instead, I ended up reading a different section, the 5th aliyah, which includes some of the lines from Chapter 19 that I quoted in my previous entry, some of the lines I really like.
But after I arrived at services, I was approached by the gabbai**, who asked whether I’d like to be called to the Torah for an aliyah.
The gabbai knew I was reading the 5th aliyah, so she asked if I’d like to be called up for the 4th. That way, I’d already be up there when it was my turn to read.***
It was only after I accepted the aliyah that I thought to check its contents. I knew where the problematic line was in Kedoshim, but not the one in Achrei Mot. Turns out it’s in the 4th aliyah. In fact, it’s the very first line.
As soon as I realized this, I felt a nervous twinge in my stomach. Turns out that, while I’ve read the line in Kedoshim from the Torah more than once, I don’t think I’ve ever been called to the Torah for an aliyah containing either of those two lines. And I still can’t explain why, but the thought of being up there for that aliyah made me feel anxious.
Maybe it was because I felt like I had something to prove. Maybe I felt that I would be up there representing all Queer Jews in the community. Maybe I was worried that it would seem like I just accepted that line and wasn’t bothered by it. There are many possibilities, but honestly, all I know is that I felt a little shaky.
As is customary, I used the Torah belt to kiss the Torah****, right at the spot where the aliyah began. Right at the beginning of that offensive line. Then, I recited the blessing, loud and proud. “I’m here,” I was trying to say. “I know what we are about to read, and I want you to know I’m a part of this community too, and don’t you ever forget that.”
The person who was reading Torah responded to my blessing with an unusually loud “amen,” then began reading.
She read the entire first verse in a whisper.
Her whisper seemed to say, “I am ashamed of this line,” or, “I wish this line wasn’t even here.” Or, “I will read this, because we read every line, but you need to know, I don’t accept it.”
I spent the rest of the aliyah with a goofy grin plastered across my face. I felt so loved, so validated in that moment. The Torah reader understood. She was bothered by that line too. She saw me, and every other Queer Jew in our community, and she respected us as equal members of the community.
And yet, the nerves did not go away. I recited the closing blessing for my aliyah, then remained where I was to read my Torah part for the next person who was called to the Torah. When I accepted the yad***** from the previous Torah reader, I had trouble holding it steady.
The person who read the seventh aliyah didn’t whisper. I don’t know whether he made an intentional decision not to. I don’t know whether the idea had even occurred to him. I don’t even know if he understood what he was reading. (After all, one doesn’t have to be fluent in Biblical Hebrew in order to read from the Torah.) But I do know that I cringed when I heard that line. I do know that I was bothered more than I thought I would be.
I don’t have any profound thoughts or revelations to offer here. I don’t have any message to send you away with except for this: Yesterday, we read from the Torah that gay sex is prohibited. In fact, we read it twice. Yesterday, I felt hurt because those words, on some level, are directed at me. And yesterday, I felt validated because someone saw me for who I am and chose to respect my presence, along with the presence of every other Queer Jew in that room, and every other Queer Jew in our broader community.
It’s possible to feel pain, even as you feel validation. It’s possible to love and hate a parasha. It’s possible to feel grateful to your community for how far they’ve come in accepting while still feeling frustrated that they have so much further to go.
It’s possible to exist in a space that is filled with contradiction, and I guess yesterday reminded me that I still exist in that space. Kedoshim is still the parasha I love and hate. I can’t say whether that’s good or bad, or how I’d like to feel about it in a year, or ten or fifty. All I can say is, this is the space I was in yesterday. This is how things stand right now. And I think it’s important to acknowledge that contradiction.
Notes and explanations:
*aliyot: plural of aliyah: Literally “going up.” In this case, referring to someone who is called “up” to the Torah to recite two blessings, one before a section (also called an aliyah) is read from the Torah, and one after that section has been read. That person is technically responsible for reading the section of Torah in between the blessings, but nowadays, the job of reading is given over to people who volunteer to read on their behalf. Sometimes, one person reads all of the sections; other times, the sections are divided up among a group of people, as was the case where I went for services yesterday.
**gabbai: in this case, person responsible for handing out honors/responsibilities during services, such as opening the ark where the Torah is stored or getting called to the Torah for an aliyah. (In other cases, also the person who makes sure in advance of services that each part of the Torah reading has someone prepared to read it, and that there are people to lead various parts of the services, etc.)
***After a person has recited the second blessing, it is customary for them to stay standing near the Torah for the subsequent aliyah.
****The person called to the Torah for an aliyah generally kisses the Torah at the beginning and end of the aliyah. Since it would be pretty bad for the Torah for a person to touch their lips to the parchment, the kiss is transferred via an intermediate holy object. If someone who is wearing a tallit (prayer shawl), they use the tzitzit (knotted fringes) that hang off the corners of the garment to touch the text, then touch the tzitzit to their lips. As I was not wearing a tallit, I used the Torah belt, which holds the Torah closed when it is not being read, to do the same.
*****yad: Literally “hand.” In this case, it refers to the pointer that the Torah reader uses to follow along in the text without touching the parchment with fingertips (because grease from fingers does not belong on Torah scrolls). The end of the yad is often shaped like a hand, its index finger pointing outward.