Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Value of Discomfort: Why I won't make peace with my Torah portion

I have begun to compose my d'var Torah, or drasha (an interpretation, often delivered orally, of the weekly Torah portion) for my Bat Mitzvah. My portion, not coincidentally, includes what are perhaps two of the most controversial passages in the Hebrew Bible: Leviticus 18:22--"you will not lie with a male as the lyings of a woman, it is an abomination"-- and Leviticus 20:13--"If a man lies with a male as the lyings of a woman, the two have done an abominable thing; they will surely be put to death, their blood is upon them." (translations mine)

I note in my drasha that in my research, I have encountered many mitigating interpretations of these texts, some more rigorous and thoughtful than others. However, on an academic and a religious level, at the end of the day I find all of them some kind of unsatisfying. And despite all these interpretations, on a personal level, the verses still hurt.

Both the personal hurt and the intellectual dissatisfaction are compounded by the fact that, as a lived, practiced Scripture with social and spiritual impact, their lived history is part of their being. A new interpretation, whether religiously or historically grounded, cannot remove that baggage. To say, for example, "these verses can be interpreted in terms of sexual violence" (c.f, for instance, Rabbi Steven Greenberg) or "these verses came into being in a context which could not conceive of a loving same-sex relationship" (c.f. Rabbi Bradley Artson)*-- these are good readings, some of the best, and accurate and useful as they go-- but they do nothing to address the history of the verses, and their consequences, historical and current, for pretty much any queer inhabitant of the West (and recently, the 2/3 world-- witness, for example, Uganda.) Nor can they erase the fact that when I stand before the Torah in April, I will be chanting words-- understood, if only then, in that ritual space, as God's words--that at once condemn me (as a queer person) and make me invisible (as a queer woman).

As I read them, all these interpretations ask me in some way to make peace with these texts. This is not something I am willing to do, for two reasons.

First, and more specifically, to make peace with this particular text requires me to forgive the history it carries with it. Not only am I not willing to forgive this, but I lack the authority to do so-- that belongs to those who have been hurt by it more gravely than I.

Second, and more broadly, I don't believe in making peace with Scripture in general. I think that on a practical level, this leads to a dangerous complacency. If we've made peace with a troubling Scripture, we're a great deal less likely to deal with its consequences-- and a great deal more likely to pat ourselves on the back amid self-congratulatory, patronizing intonations: "It's so wonderful we're past that, isn't it? Now let's forget it's a part of our history." Such inaction allows us to feel good about ourselves without taking much concrete action.**

On a spiritual level, I think that making peace with Scripture is perhaps not the way Scripture wishes us to interact with it. Passive acceptance is not a fitting way to receive the foundational texts of our tradition, and parts of the Hebrew Bible reflect this. Abraham negotiated with God for the lives of the Sodomites. Jacob wrestled with the messenger of God. Sarah laughed in God's face, and Miriam spoke out against Moses's arbitrary privilege.

This minor list of narratives isn't an attempt to promote a single interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, and it isn't meant to give a simplistic reading of those stories-- all of which have a dark side. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah anyway, and when Abraham himself was asked to do something abhorrent, he went right along. Sarah and Jacob, for their moments of bravery and integrity, had more than enough douchbaggery on their tallies to balance it out, and Miriam's reward for her integrity was leprosy and shunning. Yet these dark sides, I think, prove my point: Scripture is complex and troubling. It provides no unblemished (human) role models, no uncomplicated morals, and plenty of "What The Hell, Hero?" moments--many in which the hero in question is God. To make peace with it is to do a grave disservice to a wickedly complicated, history-soaked, deeply divine, and profoundly human text.

It's a lot easier to give an interpretation of a text that makes it palatable, than it is to grapple with the implications of belonging to a tradition whose Scripture is so vexing and whose history is so morally ambiguous. But in my opinion, anyone who tells you that religion is supposed to be easy, or even comforting, is full of shit.

If you are a theist, then theism-- inasmuch as it functions in a faith that the universe cares about you in some way, or that something about you is eternal-- yes, that's comforting, because that's fundamentally divine. But religion-- the social, textual, cultural, historical, and moral context into which you place that belief-- religion is a human thing. Religion is HARD. It should force you to take a hard look at the interaction between the better angels of whatever divinity you believe in and the reality of your existence-- and if you're looking at that honestly, you will realize that you will always come up short. You will also realize that as long as you keep working, that that fact is OK. Honest engagement with religion requires you to live with ambiguity and paradox. It should always keep you just a bit off center. It should demand that you think critically about yourself and about it, and it should require that when you see something that isn't right, in it or in yourself, that you speak up and DO something.

Obviously, throughout history, there are countless examples of religion failing to function in that way, and the consequences have often been horrendous. The consequences of the texts in my parsha are but one body of testimony to that fact. That, too, is part of our shared Scripture as practitioners of religion. That, too, we must grapple with. And that is why, as a practitioner who loves my tradition and my Scripture(in the same challenging, frustrating, adversarial way that I love my species, despite semi-regular exclamations to the effect of "I HATE people!")-- I will not make peace with my parsha. I will chant it with respect and awe, with frustration and profound anger and hurt. And I will stand at the bimah and deliver a d'var torah in which I tell those assembled that in no way should they forget, excise, or avoid this text. Instead, they should wrestle it, as Jacob wrestled God's messenger.

And then they should try not to be as much of a douchebag as he was afterwards.

*In no way do I wish to imply that either Greenberg or Artson fail to do the hard work of engaging the texts and their vexation. Both do a masterful job of it. I am simply using interpretations that they use as part of this process as stand-alone examples here.

**I also do not wish to imply that providing a welcoming and inclusive worship space does not count as valuable action, but I would suggest that avoiding these texts without then making concrete changes-- for example, actually making queer worshipers visible and performing queer life-cycle events-- does not actually count as providing such a space.

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