D’var Torah - Acharei Mot

Do not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is an abomination.

The chumash I recited from on Saturday, a 1936 edition by the late Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire Dr. J. H. Hertz, in the commentary below verse 22, describes homosexuality as:

the abyss of depravity from which the Torah saved the Israelite, [an] unnatural vice [which was] prevalent in Greece and Rome.

You can say a lot of things about that statement, but you can’t deny that it’s impeccably faithful to the text. Abysmal, depraved, dangerous, unnatural, vicious, and foreign is exactly how it’s described in Judaism’s fundamental law. Incidentally, even today, Israeli law states that same-sex marriage contracts can be enacted only under jurisdictions foreign to the Jewish state. Now compare that with this house’s fundamental law:

Purdue Hillel is a place to explore Judaism and Jewishness and is a safe space where we welcome and affirm every person for their whole self.

There is no place here for discrimination against any person based on their… religious practice… sexual orientation, gender identity or expression… or any other aspect of what makes them the unique and irreplaceable human being they are.

So this is one of those times of the year when we can’t just let the Torah speak for herself. To do so would be to menace our congregation with the threat of exile and punishment that many of us come here to escape in miniature, violating the principle of acceptance that this congregation depends on for its very existence. Not as a student organization; plenty of student organizations hate on gay people and scream Leviticus 18:22. Instead I mean that our congregation is identical to its commitment to acceptance; excise the sexually divergent as the Torah commands us to, and we lose not only the bulk of our minyan, including yours truly, but also the constitutional identity of this congregation in the abstract.

But that brings us into a dilemma, the flip-side of which is this: Who are we to amend the Law of Moses, and who am I to contradict the Torah in her exalted presence? How can I, a layman, possibly thread this divide between Hillel and Torah? I spoke about this yesterday with Rabbi Foster, our Rabbinic advisor, and I came away with this thought: Purdue Hillel is an independent non-denominational chavurah. We’re not bound to any single rabbinic movement, nor do we have in-house clergy to interpret things for us. We’re each responsible for our own personal interpretations, and we have to live with those interpretations, so who can possibly tell us that we’re doing it wrong? So I’ll just share my own personal conviction. Here goes:

Why do we orally re-promulgate, year after year, a statute which we are not prepared to uphold as law, and why did I just now chant a verse declaring my own sexuality abhorrent? It all comes down to the difference between reverence and obedience. I believe that I can revere the Torah as a foundational document of my culture without always obeying her, just as we sometimes have to honor our parents without always obeying them. It’s something you have to do sometimes when you grow up and become your own guardian, and it’s something we had to do when the Temple fell and we had to stop legislating by prophecy and start legislating by consensus just as we do here as a lay synagogue.

Now I could cite any number of Torah verses commanding us to honor the Torah and our parents, but of course that line of thinking is what I’m trying to argue against. Enactment in the Torah is neither necessary nor sufficient for the validity of a moral rule. We all know how to honor our parents for creating and forming us, and we all know how to honor the Torah as the heritage of each successive generation; that’s why we’re here after all. I believe the Torah is our best record of the collective consciousness and experience of our civilization from its formative years, and her authenticity as such depends on her being passed on unamended, warts and all, just as the original text of federal Constitution of 1787 retains its canonical status even as some of its provisions are invalidated by new constitutional enactments.

So what does it mean to honor the Torah? Well, one way we honor the Torah, besides facing her, bowing to her, kissing her, blessing her, and singing anthems to her, is by sitting her on her magisterial throne, the bimah, and allowing her to symbolically preside over the delivery of a D’var Torah. We respect her by hearing her out even when we would be tempted to ask her to skip to her next monologue, by letting her hear our responses directly rather than saying one thing during a Torah service and another thing behind her back, and by agreeing to disagree while renewing our promise to defend her with our lives, for she is our tree of life — Eitz Chayim Hi.

Left to Right: myself, Jonah Ross, Bailey Czerkiewicz & Hannah Levy reading our Torah portions