One of the highlights of my week was meeting with a Kol Tzedek B'nei Mitzvah student. I asked them what I always ask in our initial meeting. "What is Torah?" Their eyes lit up as we discovered the difference between the Five Books of Moses and the entire Tanakh. It was magic to show them how to find Psalms and Esther tucked away in the chapters of Ketuvim. They got so excited when they realized that the Talmud was not in the Torah, but was also Torah!
I take very seriously the responsibility to cultivate a love of Torah in our B'nei Mitzvah students. To teach them to love the words and even more to love studying Torah. I want each of them, and by extension all of us, to understand that our relationship to Torah matters. That our study of Torah has an effect on us and therefore an effect on the world around us. And perhaps even more importantly, that our study of Torah changes Torah itself.
I remember the first time I understood what it meant that Torah is alive. That a single word can mean many things and a sentence can be read many ways. Torah is indefinite and it is infinite. Without vowels and punctuation, it is on its own indecipherable. For Torah to be meaningful, it requires that we pronounce it. And we have agency in how we do that. I always tell our B'nei Mitzvah students, Torah is a tree of life. And your Dvar Torah will be its newest leaf. Every time you teach Torah you are directly contributing to the wisdom of our tradition.
As you can see, I have a very romantic relationship with Torah. I love transmitting this sense of wonder to my students. But as I approached this week's parsha, I was reminded that Torah is also vulnerable. The fact that it is forever open to human interpretation means that it is also available for misinterpretation, exploitation, and manipulation.
This week, in parashat Acharei Mot, we read the words of Leviticus 18:22. Often translated as "Man shall not lay with man. It is an abomination." These words, as they appear in Hebrew, are obscure in both meaning and context. It is ambiguous what this verse means. And yet it has resoundingly been used as the biblical justification for homophobia across religious traditions and cultural contexts. There is no question this verse has harmed many of us personally and Judaism at large.
It should be some comfort to consider that the very fact that Leviticus 18:22 has caused so much pain and harm is also proof that our relationship to Torah and our study of it matters. And yet, I rarely study the painful verses of Torah with my B'nei Mitzvah students. I neglect to tell them that it is not all magic and mystery. That Torah is infinite which means it is also hard and harmful.
There have been times in my life when I have wanted to cross out every problematic verse in Torah. I even have a copy of the Tanakh where I started this project with scissors and a sharpie. Trying to redact this sacred text to make it less harmful. To remove the promise of colonial conquest and the rape of Dinah and even the opening verses of Genesis where it appears human beings might have been made male and female, exclusively.
But then I discovered the world of Midrash. Stories about the Torah, which are also Torah! Stories that retell, reclaim, and often redeem our stories. Take as an example the midrash of the first human being, describing Adam HaRishon as neither male nor female, but rather androginos, which we can imagine as a Hellenistic non-binary identity. Had I torn the pages from my Tanakh, I might have missed the chance to study these words and all of the stories they have generated.
So the question arises existentially and usually very practically in my inbox: What do we do with these verses? Do we read them out loud on Shabbat? Do we bless them with an aliyah?
There was a time when I would have said no, let's skip them. Let's bury them. But these days I am using these hard moments in Torah to embrace a larger spiritual practice of being present with hard things. This includes working with pain in the body and not wishing it away; noting anger and judgment and not reacting to it immediately. I am actively trying to get better at being physically and emotionally uncomfortable. Not because I prefer it. But because it allows me to be present for more of life. And in this case, to be in relationship with more of Torah. Our power as human beings is our vulnerability; our ability to feel the full range of human experience. So too with Torah.
May our presence and patience with these ancient words lead to healing, insight, and transformation for all of us.
Shabbat Shalom and (almost!) Hodesh Tov,
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.