Oft Quoted, Oft Misunderstood

Image: Ruth and Naomi, painting, Walker Art Gallery. Artist: Philip Hermogenes Calderon, 1833-1898.

Oft quoted, oft misunderstood: I’m talking about Leviticus 18:22. It’s one of the passages recited so often that just about anyone will recognize it, even if the Bible isn’t a book they read:

וְאֶ֨ת־זָכָ֔ר לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֑ה תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה הִֽוא׃

Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is a to’evah.

Leviticus 18:22

This line is often translated into English in ways that make it “obvious” that this is about male homosexuality. The Hebrew, however, isn’t nearly so clear. If you are curious about that, see Leviticus 18:22 in Queer Bible Hermeneutics, from the Perkins School of Theology of Southern Methodist University.

Language that suggests love relationships between same-sex individuals appears in the Tanakh. The best example is David and Jonathan, who were passionate about each other. (1 Samuel 18) The passionate vow that Ruth makes to Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17) sounds like a modern marriage vow. Granted, both David and Ruth went on to marry people of the opposite sex, but they did not express love for them.

So if this passage isn’t about homosexuality in the modern sense, what am I to learn from it, since it must mean something?

V’et zakhar lo tishkav – And (to) a male (you) do not lie-down

mish’k’vei isha – from/like the lyings-down of the wife

to’evah hu. – It is a bad-thing.

Zakhar designates something as male, whether it is a human, an animal, or a bit of grammar. Its opposite is nikevah (“female” or “feminine.”) It’s a binary: everything is one or the other. Zakhar overrides nikevah in grammar when both are present. If I put one male horse (sus) in a paddock with 15 mares (susot) the plural changes to male (susim.)

Ishah designates a woman, or more often, a wife. This, too, has power implications, but in this case it is the absence of power. This is a person who is acquired by others who have more power. The first verse of Kiddushin, the tractate of the Talmud devoted to marriage, states:

האשה נקנית בשלוש דרכים

A wife is acquired in three ways…

BT Kiddushin 2a

I’m willing to read tishkav and mis’k’vei as having a sexual meaning, given the context of the surrounding verses. The first is a negative command: don’t be sexual this way. The second is a description of the forbidden sort of sex: having sex as one would with a lower-powered individual.

I think this is a verse about power, and especially about power differentials. I read it as saying that it is forbidden to have an intimate relationship in which one person holds the power, and the other is subordinate. To put it more positively, sexual intimacy is permitted only between equals. Coming as it does on the heels of a set of verses about incest, it makes sense that this is a passage about relationship and power.

One could make the argument that in the ancient world, and in much of the present-day world, most sex takes place between partners of unequal standing. However, that isn’t how it’s supposed to be: here in Parashat Acharei Mot, Leviticus holds up many ideals for us to pursue, whether or not we manage to reach them.

We strive for a world in which strangers are welcomed, and the vulnerable are protected. We strive for a world in which there is no incest and no abuse of animals. In the following chapter, we will be commanded to pursue justice, respect elders, share with the poor, deal kindly with the disabled, and to eschew revenge. We strive for those ideals, too, even though after millennia we still fall short.

We’re still working to live up to those. I read verse 22 to say that we are supposed to be trying to live up to the ideal of consensual sexual intimacy, whoever we’re having it with.

What do you think? How do you deal with Leviticus 18:22?

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Ask the Rabbi: “I’m studying for conversion, and the rise in anti-Semitism scares me.”

Image: My Jewish congregational family, gathered in the shelter of a chuppah for a blessing. (Photo: Temple Sinai website.)

“Dear Rabbi Adar, I’ve been studying for conversion for the past several months, and the rise in anti-Semitism really scares me.”

The questions usually arrive without question marks. It’s not hard to see the question in there: “What am I getting myself into?” or even “Why would any sane person sign up to be part of a people who are so hated?”

When I get these notes, I try to answer honestly: Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s getting worse. No, I don’t know what will happen in the future.

The other thing I emphasize is that this is not a test. It is OK to be scared. It is OK to say, this is too scary and it’s not for me. It is also OK to say, yes, it’s scary but I choose to continue on the path to Judaism.

One of the things my rabbi said to me when I was a candidate back in the 1990’s has stuck with me ever since: “You don’t have to become a Jew for us to think you are a good person. You are already a good person, without conversion.” What pushed me forward was my own desire, my own need to become part of the Jewish family.

I have never regretted becoming a Jew. I give thanks every morning that God has made me a Jew, and the Jewish people were willing to have me. At the same time, I won’t lie: we are living through a frightening time in history. Anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence are a part of American life at the moment.

The last thing I say to people who send me these notes is: Go talk to your rabbi. Tell them about your feelings and confusion. You will not flunk Judaism for saying that you are uncertain. It is in confronting those fears that we sort out who we want to be, what we want for our children, what we want for our descendants. There is no single right answer, only the answer deep in your own heart.

Go sit with the Jews, when you feel shaky. It may seem counterintuitive, but as a people, we draw strength from one another. When bad things happen, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than with my mishpakhah, with my Jewish family. Whether that’s in my synagogue, or someone else’s synagogue, or at teh Jewish Film Festival, I feel better when I am surrounded by my people – and that’s how I know for sure that they are, indeed, my people.

After Poway: Feelings and Coping

Image: A single candle flame. (Image by Pezibear from Pixabay)

Here we are again, dealing with feelings from an attack on a synagogue. This time the synagogue was in Poway, a sunny place outside of San Diego, CA.

  • Some of us may be thinking, “I have always known about anti-Semitism. But this is hitting me very hard.”
  • Some of us may feel afraid to go in a synagogue.
  • Some of us have Gentile relatives who mean well but who do not understand why this shooting is so personal for each of us.
  1. This shooting came exactly six months after the shooting in Pittsburgh, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American Jewish history. We were still digesting that event; now it has happened again. Stress accumulates.
  2. This attack was not an isolated incident. Not only does it bring back the memories of the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Anti-Defamation League reports that there were 3023 separate anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017-2018. The ADL reports that online anti-Semitic threats and hate speech have increased dramatically since 2016.
  3. Some born-Jews may be experiencing anxiety from intergenerational trauma. A number of studies suggest that some extreme trauma actually affects the DNA, passing effects to future generations.
  4. Education about anti-Semitism often centers on the Holocaust. It is not surprising that an attack on a synagogue sets off fears of a new Holocaust. The idolization of Nazis and Hitler by many of the alt-right adds to that fear, and some anti-Semites deliberately push those buttons with symbols like swastikas.
  5. The fact that some of our non-Jewish neighbors do not understand our feeling of personal connection to these events may heighten the feelings of fear and perhaps even abandonment.

What can we Jews do about our anxiety levels? And how can our non-Jewish friends and neighbors help us?

Here are the things that help me cope:

The ADL studies reveal some very good news: the vast majority of our neighbors do not hate us. A 2017 poll revealed that the majority of Americans are concerned about violence against Jews and Muslims:

The surveys reveal that while anti-Semitic attitudes in the United States have increased slightly to 14 percent, the vast majority of Americans hold respectful opinions of their Jewish neighbors. However, for the first time ADL found a majority of Americans (52 percent) saying that they are concerned about violence in the U.S. directed at Jews, and an even a higher percentage (76 percent) concerned about violence directed at Muslims. More than eight in 10 Americans (84 percent) believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014. –ADL report, 4/6/17

This is very good news. Yes, there are slightly more people reporting anti-Semitic opinions (16%.) In contrast to that, 84% of those surveyed believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014.

While there have been in the past periods of anti-Semitic incidents and feelings in United States history, all of those times were followed by an improvement in relations. The General Order #11 incident in 1862 was followed by an increased understanding between General Ulysses Grant and the American Jewish community, who ultimately backed him for the presidency. The lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 led to the founding of the ADL, which from the beginning had as its mission “to put an end to the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.” Jewish participation in fighting WWII, and especially the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains gradually changed attitudes, leading to many years of cordiality between the Jewish and Christian communities in the U.S.

Every congregational rabbi and every synagogue board in the United States is concentrating hard on security at Jewish institutions. We already had a level of security that would surprise our Christian neighbors, but every synagogue and Jewish institution is now reviewing their security and looking for the best way to make their people safe. It is not possible to make any place in a free society perfectly safe, but I can assure you that this is a top concern for our leadership today. If you want to help with this, it’s a good time for a donation to your local synagogue – cameras and personnel do not come cheap.

Intergenerational trauma is real. PTSD from other traumas in our lives is real. If you are suffering from anxiety or other symptoms, I encourage you to seek a sympathetic therapist. There are new treatments for these sorts of anxieties all the time and not all of them are drug therapies. However, as the saying goes, “Doesn’t ask, doesn’t get.” or as Hillel put it, “A person prone to being ashamed cannot learn.” (Avot 2:5) To get help with anxiety, you have to seek it out.

One of the most effective ways to deal with the feelings after an anti-Semitic attack is to come together with other Jews. Many Jewish institutions will be offering opportunities to come together – take advantage of those. Your presence at those events helps comfort others, too! You do not have to believe in God. You don’t have to belong to the synagogue. You can just show up for services, although as a colleague of mine pointed out, these days it might be good to call ahead and get instructions. Many synagogues will have extra security procedures in place.

Look for ways to increase your Jewish engagement. This may seem counterintuitive, but most of us find that doing things that affirm our Judaism gives us more solace than hiding could ever give. Join that synagogue, or join a Jewish book club. Find a Torah study group, or begin having Shabbat dinners with friends. Take a class and learn more about the Jewish people. These are classic Jewish approaches to healing and strengthening ourselves. Especially if your Jewish education focussed on the Holocaust and not much else, this is the time to learn more about Judaism – to learn about our rich civilization and our strengths.

If Gentile relatives or friends do not understand your upset, you can offer them resources to educate themselves. They do not have a frame of reference for this, other than perhaps Holocaust movies. Send them a link to my article, A Message to My Non-Jewish Readers after Pittsburgh. Also, a more general article like Where Did Anti-Semitism Come From? may give them a better context than pop culture offers.

Fight anti-Semitism and other hatreds. Join ADL, or the Southern Poverty Law Center. For more ideas, read 9 Ways to Fight Anti-SemitismTen Things We Can Do to Fight Hate and Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Resource Guide by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Fighting back in constructive ways will make the world safer for all minorities. We are not alone in this fight, but we need to build our alliances by supporting the struggles of other minority groups in respectful ways.

Our tradition is strong and it has survived troubled times before. Judaism is thousands of years old: we have outlived the Babylonians, the Romans, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Third Reich. We will survive this, too.

Today All Jews are Chabad

Image: Police tape at a crime scene. (geralt/pixabay)

Today a man walked into Chabad of Poway, CA and started shooting. At this writing, the alleged shooter is in custody, one woman is reported dead and three others are physically injured. The emotional injuries, of course, expand in waves from the event: everyone in the building was certainly traumatized, all the Jews of San Diego have been threatened, and all the Jews who belong to synagogues everywhere have felt it like a wound.

My son sent me a text message from Santa Barbara: “Mom, do we know anyone at that synagogue?” I messaged him back, “It was at Chabad. As far as I know, I don’t know anyone personally, but today all Jews are Chabad.”

Today all Jews are Chabad. Six months ago we were all members of Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Last night I was at my synagogue home, at a very similar celebration: Shabbat and the end of Passover. We were haimish and happy, innocently enjoying the end of one holiday and the count to another. Now I think with a shudder: what if?

And you see, that is what the shooter wanted. He wanted me (and you, and you, and you) to think “what if?” – that is the goal of the terrorist. He wants me afraid to go to synagogue. Other terrorists want Muslims to be afraid to go to the mosque, and want African Americans afraid to go to church. The bombers of Sri Lanka wanted Christians and tourists to be afraid to be in Sri Lanka. Those who shoot or bomb in public places want to flaunt their power: “I can kill you. I can make you afraid.”

I can offer only one solution to this poisoning of the world. We must identify with the victims, and be very specific about the perpetrators. We must be one with Muslims of Christchurch, NZ. We must be one with the Christians of Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. We must be one with the black church members of the American South. We must be one with the children who huddle in corners while the guns go on and on and on. We must be one with all in the world who dive for bomb shelters, all who cringe at every explosion, all the hurt, all the damaged, all who carry injuries.

We must have no tolerance for hate speech, and make no excuses for anyone who speaks hatefully. Their words manipulate the people who will act upon those words while the speakers wash their hands. Their words validate the hatred and the violence, be it done with guns or with bombs or with knives. Their words pull the triggers and wire the bombs; it was that way in Mississippi in the 1960’s, and it’s that way with the wave of hate crimes against people now.

When we speak hatefully of any group of people, we are doing the work of the haters. When we listen silently to hate speech, we are validating the speaker and whoever may listen. When we rebuke the speakers of hate, we are speaking up for the injured of every faith and every identification.

.לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה

You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am YHVH.

Leviticus 19:16

I pray for all the mourners and the injured of Chabad of Poway. May they, along with the mourners and the hurt from every act of terror be gathered under Your shelter of peace. May we all be healed from our wounds; may we relearn innocence in speech and deed. Amen.

Postscript: I’ve begun hearing from the Jews I know in Poway, and they’re having a tough time. Please keep them in your thoughts.

Prayer Before a Vaccination

Image: Adhesive bandage applied after a vaccination (ravipat/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Ribbono shel olam, Ruler of all that is, I reach out to You before I take my child* to receive a vaccination. You are the author of all creation, from the largest beast to the tiniest virus. You have invested human beings with the intellect and skill to devise ways to defeat the diseases that plagued us in former days, and to seek out preventions and cures for those diseases that still trouble us. You have commanded us to care for our bodies and those of our children, and so I bring this child for a vaccination.

Protect this little one from fear and pain. Help me to convey confidence and calm to my child. Give skill and kindness to the person administering the medicine, and make it effective for the purpose intended.

Protect us from all harm, dear God! Protect us from viruses and bacteria,
and from the evils of ignorance, fear, and bad counsel. Draw us under the comforting wings of Your Presence, and at the end of this procedure, we will give thanks for all that we have received. Grant us health and peace of mind, not only to us, but to all who worry about health and how to find it.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who created all things great and small, and who has invested human beings with skill and intelligence to preserve health in this world. Amen.

*This prayer can also be said by an adult going for a vaccination. Substitute “myself” for “my child,” etc.

Passover’s End: Rest, Reflection and Prayer

Image: Girl hiding her face behind two pieces of matzah. (Reznik/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

After a few days, the newness wears off. Matzah is pretty boring stuff when it’s the only choice. Sure, we have spent thousands of years figuring ways to make it interesting – but by the end of the week, almost everyone is longing for pasta or pizza or just a nice piece of toast.

Passover runs for a week, and unlike Sukkot, it is a week with limitations. It lasts long enough for us to tap into the feelings of the ancestors new to freedom, for whom freedom was delicious, but matzah got pretty old. (The manna didn’t start coming until they complained.)

Part of the wisdom of our tradition is that Passover doesn’t just fade out in a whisper of matzah crumbs. At the end of the week the Torah prescribes another chag [day of solemn celebration] and then, for those who observe a second day of chag, it repeats. We slow down again, to really feel the holiday. If we are observant, we rest, we reflect, we consider the miracles and the journey ahead.

For a great and readable explanation of why some Jews (Orthodox and Conservative Jews in the diaspora) observe two days of chag, see this article in Judaism 101. Reform Jews in the United States do not observe the second day of chagim. If you are wondering what you should do, check with your local Jewish community, and do whatever will keep you connected with them.

I like the fact that Passover ends with rest, reflection, and prayer. The days leading up to the first night are rushed. There’s a lot to get ready, cooking and guest lists and preparing the house. Just as with the Biblical Passover, there’s no time to think: we have to act. Once launched into the wilderness, there’s very little other than matzah crumbs and time to reflect: that’s good too.

I wish you a holy conclusion to this challenging holiday. May the final days be as meaningful as the first ones.