The Verse and the Pink Triangle

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Especially in a week when we have observed Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) - when the hugs and the warmth and the welcome and the tranquility and the togetherness of Shabbat are that much more sweet - it can be difficult to acknowledge that there is any aspect of our own tradition that has ever persecuted, stereotyped, ostracized, demonized, bullied, branded, and even in some ways erased within our own family, among our own number.

Seeing a pink triangle next to a yellow star marked Jude, we comfortably include prejudice against the gay and lesbian in the rubric of our enemies' evil, as part of a set of attitudes that we rightly deem mind-boggling, incomprehensible, and foreign to what is good in ourselves, in our heritage.

It is all too easy to occlude the ways and the situations in which those who are out as LGBTQ in our own community - not to mention those who fear they cannot be - still in some ways go about marked and talked about, pointed at, and pinned to a particular aspect of identity as a constant tag, or even a caveat with regard to being fully and comfortably and without reservation and in all contexts considered legitimate and in good standing, rightful inheritors of every blessing of love and family we hold up as essential. And let's go ahead and mention the fear of being relegated to a suspect sub-category.

In a brilliant short story titled "The Verse," Jay Michaelson vividly and with hilarious and heartrending plausibility imagines the reactions of various people in various communities and households on an impossible Sabbath-eve, at exactly this point in our cycle of Torah-readings, when the whole Jewish world wakes up to discover that the passage in Leviticus read for centuries as banning homosexuality has miraculously vanished from every Torah-scroll in every synagogue everywhere. ("The Verse," Jay Michaelson, Blithe House Quarterly) I highly recommend the read.

True, we live in a time when there finally exist emphatic Jewish blessings of LGBTQ pride and matter-of-fact inclusion. Consider, for example, the following liturgy, composed by Rabbi Ayelet Cohen - for over a decade one of the spiritual leaders of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the LGBTQ synagogue in NYC (which holds its enormous High Holiday services in the Javits Convention Center), and now Director of the Center for Jewish Living at the JCC of the Upper West Side - a prayer for Pride composed on the model of the narrative miracle-blessings recited traditionally on Chanukah and Purim:

"We thank You for the miraculous deliverance, for the heroism, and for the triumphs in battle of our ancestors in other days, and in our time. In the wake of the civil rights movement lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people began to organize for the dignity and justice that all of us are due as human beings on this earth. Those who profane your name, claiming that they hate us in the name of God rose up to criminalize us, pathologize us, brutalize us, and erase us. And You in Your great mercy stood with us in the time of our troubles. You fought alongside us, vindicated us, gave us the courage to stand together, to open our eyes and the eyes of the world around us, to see that the freedom and the right to love belongs to all of Your creations. You have given us the strength to witness and create wonders, to be who are and to love whom we love not only in the safety of our homes but outside in the light of the world, to live as Jews in the embrace of community, to sanctify our unions and celebrate ourselves before each other and before You. The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. May we never know shame again."

Consider a blessing composed for Rabbi Cohen's sister's wedding:

"Blessed are You, our God, Source of Life, who frees us from fear and shame and opens us to the holiness of our bodies and their pleasures. You guide us to entwine our hearts in righteousness, justice, lovingkindness and compassion. Blessed are You, who sanctifies Israel through love that is honorable and true."

However, we also live in a time when such blessings, and the people who go with them, are still tagged by some as inauthentic, as erasures rather than expressions of Torah, as destined to echo only as transient artifacts of a confused age. Dennis Praeger, for example, recently ranting against the idea of a transgendered rabbi in his greater Los Angeles Jewish community, writes, "By dropping the Torah and substituting compassion as standards, we are creating a Brave New World in which definitions of male and female no longer have meaning, are regarded as subjective and are completely interchangeable. If you think this a better world, the Torah is indeed essentially useless as a guide to life. If, however, you think we are playing with fire and that future generations will pay a big price for this unprecedented experiment, the Torah will have, once again, proven itself indispensable."

I'd like to pause right there for a moment and remember that the entire rabbinic system of compensatory damages - a whole, huge realm of sacred tort-law - is justified by way of an ancient un-reading of a biblical verse, a Talmudic interpretation of "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" (Exodus 21:24) as meaning "for eye and tooth and foot, that which is given from hand to hand, namely monetary compensation." (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 84a)

Similarly to reverence a problematic verse - I can imagine a much less tortuous and much closer-to-plain-sense reading of our notorious passage in Leviticus 18:22, the words traditionally understood as banning homosexuality, "Ve'et-zachar lo tishkav mishkevei ishah," as practically meaning "And one affined to the male shalt thou not forcibly cause to lie down with women." If you're looking for something to abominate.

Reading like that is pretty much what our ancient rabbis meant by "revealing aspects in the Torah that are contrary to established law," a sin punishable by forfeiture of one's share in the World to Come. But who wants a share in a coming world built on bigotry? Let's dare, by way of Torah, to imagine and bring about a better world built on love.

Responding beautifully to Dennis Praeger, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Dean of Hebrew College's Rabbinical School, and once a rabbi here at Harvard Hillel, writes about transgendered students she (and I) have known, "They have taught me deeply about what it means to be a descendent of Jacob - wrestling through the night with fears from within and without, with the mysterious presence of the divine in our lives, with the legacy of the past and the promise of the future - and emerging from the encounter at dawn, bruised but blessed."

And, finally for now, lest we think such wrestling with sexuality and the sacred is only a phenomenon of our own times, consider Shemuel HaNagid (Samuel ibn Nagrillah), tenth century Spanish Jewish poet in the time of Moorish rule in Iberia, assistant Vizier of State to the Berber king, playing in his poignant poetry on a biblical moment in which Moses looks up from the sacred story and challenges God, if God cannot accept things as they are, to "erase me from this book that you have written." (Exodus 32:32) -

My God, invert the heart of that dear chick
Who stole my rest,
And let him give my eyelids back a little sleep.
A beloved who came in Your name,
And gave me his heart's love,
Without forcing, as a gift -
Betrayed, and so does every fawn betray.
And now, if You will but bear his sin -
Or, if not, erase me.

Rather than erasing anyone, let's continue to work instead - as we can, and do, so beautifully, and with sacred resolve - to be one another's true friends, family, and allies.