Many communities around the United States celebrate June as Gay Pride Month. And this year, we kicked off June with the celebration of Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of our Torah. Our Torah. Because Torah was given to us, not just to our ancestors at Sinai.
On Shavuot morning, we read: "And all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the shofar and the mountain smoking." (Exodus 20:15)
The midrash (Exodus Rabbah 28:4) on this text reads: "This is what Moshe said to Israel: ‘Those who are standing before the Holy One our God with us today and those who are not with us today’ (Deuteronomy 29) – It does not say, ‘that are not here standing with us today,’ but rather ‘with us today.’ Those future souls who weren’t yet created weren’t actually standing. Although they did not yet exist, still each one received their share of the Torah... and not only all the prophets received their prophecy from Mount Sinai but even the scholars who arise in every generation, each one of them received theirs from Sinai."
All the people -- all Jews, past and future. You and me.
We act as though the word went out once and froze, that revelation was a one-time event many thousands of years ago, but it wasn’t : The Mishnah in Pirke Avot (6:2) tells us: "Every day a voice goes out from Mt. Horeb and announces…." "Every day" -- in the present tense.
You heard the voice of God at Sinai and that voice continues to speak.
Another midrash adds that everyone heard the voice according to their own capacity and that clearly everyone’s capacity is different. Even Moshe. The midrash offers categories of people - pregnant women, old men, etc. Each group has a shared experience that enables them to hear different aspects of revelation. Their response to shared experience may not be the same, but the wisdom that comes from that experience may teach all of us.
"So this is all very nice," you may be saying, "but what do we do with the explicit texts in the Torah that we find problematic?"
For example, the rabbis took issue with the Torah’s mandate that a "rebellious and disobedient son" (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) is to be put to death by stoning. The rabbis were not anxious to see any teenagers stoned. In fact, in the Talmud (Bavli Sanhedrin 71a), Rabbi Shimon says: "there never was one [a child who met all the criteria] and there never will be in the future." The rabbis defined the rebellious and disobedient son out of existence.
But they didn’t eliminate the text. And we do not eliminate texts that make us uncomfortable, even if they are, as Phyllis Trible, the preeminent feminist bible scholar, termed them, "texts of terror." Perhaps because they have been texts of terror, and still play this role, we should not forget them. I would argue that it’s our responsibility to interpret the text, to read it and discover new meanings, to seek its relevance for ourselves, our community, our children, our world.
Let’s look at the text that is relevant to Gay Pride Month:
"And a man shall not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination…. And a man who lies with a man as with a woman, they have done an abominable thing, they will both surely die and their blood is upon them." (Lev. 18:20, 20:13) These texts have been used, and are being used, to exclude oppress, and even kill gay men – and lesbians as well.
What might this mean - to lie with a man as one lies with a woman? Perhaps we read that when one is lying with a man, one must not pretend that one is not doing so. One must face facts, despite fear and communal disapproval.
Maybe you’ve seen the t-shirt that reads: I’m not gay but my boyfriend is. It’s meant tongue in cheek, but it has a grain of truth. There are many, many people who, for fear of repercussion, from internalizing what we hear on the news every day, are unable to be honest with themselves or others about the truth of their lives and loves.
So this is the meaning of the text to me: "Be honest with yourself in all that you do." Lying with a man as with a woman is a metaphor for lying to yourself, for not facing the truth of your life and sharing it with others. If we are not honest with ourselves, we cannot be present to ourselves, to each other, to revelation.
Many gay people have successfully integrated, or at least have had a fruitful struggle with this teaching. It’s no coincidence that there are a disproportionate number of gay clergy. The process of coming out of the closet, the work we’ve done to become whole and unashamedly ourselves is deeply spiritual. Perhaps this is the Torah that gay men and lesbians have heard and give the world – the lesson that we all, gay or not, must be honest about our lives. And it’s a lesson that is useful for everyone.
The rebbe of my favorite Chassidic story taught this lesson on his deathbed, surrounded by students. He suddenly became fearful and began to cry out. His students said to him: "Reb Zushya, what are you afraid of? You were like Moshe!" He responded, "The Holy One, blessed be God, will not ask me, ‘was I like Moshe.’ He will ask me, ‘was I Zushya.’"
If we are not ourselves, we deprive the world of that bit of Torah that was revealed to us, to our own souls – that others didn’t hear. Torah, the Divine sharing of God’s self, has been placed into our hands. Into our very selves – in the language of Deuteronomy, "The thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it" (30:14). So I ask of you, of us all, that we seek our truths, open to the Torah in our hearts, and share it with each other.
Shabbat shalom and Happy Pride.
With thanks to Rabbi Dana Z. Bogatz and Dr. David Sakheim for their insights and support.
Prepared by Rabbi Lina Grazier-Zerbarini, associate rabbi, Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale