On occasion, our faith and religion intrudes into our everyday lives, the profane becomes the divine, and we are confronted with the most powerful force in the world – our humanity. At the time of this writing, history and the calendar coincide. The seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot is marked by the counting of the Omer, a grain offering brought to the Temple during this time. There are many traditions associated with counting the Omer. One of the most widely observed is taking on of mourning rituals: for seven weeks we don’t shave or cut our hair, attend weddings, listen to live music, or buy new clothes. The source of this custom has its origins in the first century C.E.
The greatest sage during this time was Rabbi Akiva. During the Omer period, 24,000 of Avika’s disciples died in a plague. When that many people, separated by geography, die, we look for explanations. According to the Talmud, Akiva’s followers were struck down because they were fighting among themselves over who understood Akiva’s teachings the best. The irony is that Akiva’s most fundamental teaching was respect for all. Which brings us to this moment in history.
We are living in a time when citizens of this country are being stripped of their civil rights and are metaphorically branded with a scarlet “L,” “G,” “B,” “T,” “Q,” or “I”. For the last few years, states across the country have been attempting, with varying degrees of success, to codify discrimination against their citizens who are members of the LGBTQI community. The latest of these discriminatory laws is North Carolina’s HB2, also known as “The Bathroom Law.” The only thing more heinous than institutional discrimination and hate is how often religion is invoked by the supporters of these bills to justify their hatred. The verse most often cited to this end is Vayikra 20:13:
And a man who lies with a male as one would with a woman both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon themselves.
However, if we are to not follow the fate of Akiva’s students, we must become students of another great sage, Rabbi Hillel. Hillel, according to the midrash (i.e. a rabbinic story) was challenged to teach the entirety of Torah while standing on one foot. Lifting one foot of the ground, Hillel taught, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary. Go study.” Let us, for the moment, take Hillel at his word and apply his dictate to better understand Vayikra 20:13 and HB2.
What is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary. Go study.
“What is hateful to you, do not do to others.” What, do you think, would be the reaction of all these “well-meaning” lawmakers if they were told they could no longer use the public bathroom which corresponds to their gender identification? And make no mistake: they do identify with a gender even though they have not made that identification consciously. They are also conflating gender with sexuality, but that is another issue for another post.
It is also important to note that Hillel was teaching the entirety of Torah, not just a particular book, parsha, chapter, or verse. This means that no one verse can be understood outside the context of every other verse. What is the context of Vayikra 20:13? This verse comes in section which lists many things the Israelites are not to do or which are “an abomination before the Lord.” The practices listed were associated with worship practices of the Canaanite cultures that lived alongside the Israelites, particular the cults dedicated Baal and to Astarte. To make this clear, at the end of the long list of “sins,” G-d says,
Thou shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am sending away from before you, for they committed all these [sins], and I was disgusted with them (Vayikra 20:23).
What made these acts an abomination was not the act itself but rather context in which the act took place, specifically worshipping a god other than the G-d which brought the Israelites out of Egypt.
The entirety of Torah also means that not all commandments are created equal. There is a hierarchy. In this case of HB2, we must look to a commandment which supersedes Vayikra 20:13:
When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not taunt him.
The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God. (Vayikra 19:33-34).
What gives this commandment precedent over Vayikra 20:13? It is stated twice, once before Vayikra 20:13 and again after:
You shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for the home-born; for I am HaShem your G-d. (Vayikra 24:22)
If we are to walk all civic legislation past the Bible, then HB2 is “unconstitutional” because it violates this commandment.
“The rest is commentary.” Judaism begins but does not end with Torah. Jewish law also includes millennia of rabbinic and legal interpretation. When delivering a legal decision, the rabbis present the majority decision as well as all minority decision. The rationale for this practice is two-fold: (1) to preserve the discussion leading to the majority decision, and (2) the rabbis understood that for a future generation, the “minority” opinion may well become the “majority” opinion. In other words, Torah and Jewish law is not fixed.
“Go Study”. Torah is a living document. It is incumbent upon each generation to interpret Torah for itself and not to simply accept what is passed down from previous generations. We are commanded to count ourselves among the generation leaving Egypt and receive Torah anew (this is the significance of the coming holiday of Shavuot that commemorates the receiving of Torah at Sinai). In addition, we recognize that while Torah contains all, we do not understand all of Torah. Torah must be interpreted by each generation in order to make it relevant to their time. And so, as our understanding of ourselves and of our world changes, our interpretation of Torah changes. The more we learn about gender, sexuality, and sex, the greater the necessity to adjust our view of ourselves and of others. If this view appears to run counter to Torah, we must approach Torah from this new view. To not do this is to tear Torah out of our lives by the roots.
You shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for the home-born
If we are to respect everyone, ourselves as well as the stranger, we need to add one more concept that supersedes all commandments: Kadushat Ha’Chaym, the holiness of all life. The rabbis believed so strongly about this that they said you could violate any commandment in order to save a life or protect the dignity of another person. For example, it is permissible to swim on Shabbat in order to save a drowning person. By the same logic, if you see a person wearing a garment of wool and linen (which is forbidden by Torah) you do not rip the garment from them, leaving them naked in public, saving them from violating a commandment but causing them public shame. In other words, what is hateful to you, do not do to others.
I’ve thought for some time now how Christians distort & misunderstand a Testament that we have not lived with as intensely and as long as Judaism has. Still, I know some who would argue until they were blue in the face with little to no serious study of text, context & the history of interpretation. Well said, and well written. Timely. Crucial.
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