Parshat Acharei Mot
By Rabbinic Resident Jacki Honig, April 2022/Nissan 5782
If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, this week’s parsha contains the verse that launched a thousand drashot. We read Leviticus 18:22, a verse that many of us find challenging to our modern sensibilities:
וְאֶ֨ת־זָכָ֔ר לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֑ה תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה הִֽוא׃
As translated by JPS: Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.
I ask myself, as I often do, where do I find myself in this parsha? In this verse? Well, I know Julia is the poet, but I hope you’ll indulge me in sharing a short poem I wrote in October of 2016:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Surprise, I’m queer,
Thought it’s time the world knew.
That’s it – that’s where I find myself in this verse. A human who believes in Torah and halacha and Jewish communal life, and also definitely, unquestionably queer and attracted to people of all genders.
In 2016 when I came out publicly for the first time, I was working at a synagogue (6 synagogues actually) and felt mostly secure in my job and my life. I felt like I had the privilege to come out and be a model of observant queer life for many of the teens (queer and otherwise) that I worked with. I didn’t really ask anyone before I did it, partially because I was afraid they’d say no, tell me to stay in the closet. I was definitely worried about the backlash though – would I be fired? Would parents say that I wasn’t qualified to work with their teens? Would I be accused of grooming or turning the kids queer? Not like they weren’t already, but that’s neither here nor there……Turns out I didn’t get fired, and in the end only one parent called the synagogue to complain about it, as far as I know, so my story has a mostly happy ending at least.
Interestingly enough, while I had made a particular choice to not ask my boss or anyone else at the synagogue, I hadn’t even thought to check what our movement had to say about same-sex relationships, and in particular bisexuality. I’ll be honest, in retrospect I’m glad that I didn’t, because I’m fairly confident I wouldn’t have come out if I had read our movement’s positions on same-sex partnership.
In 1992-1993 and again in 2005-2006 our movement took up the issues of same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian rabbis. It began, in 1992, with a conesnsus statement from the law committee stating that Conservative Rabbis would not perform same-sex commitment ceremonies, would not admit gay or lesbian students to seminaries, and would leave the decision of other lay leadership up to each individual synagogue. At the end, though, it said that we “affirm gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregations, youth groups, camps, and schools.” A total of 12 papers, including the consensus statement, were passed that year, with Rabbi Joel Roth’s paper, titled “Homosexuality” being the most in-depth look at the topic. He took an incredible deep dive, attempting to seek out what this word “toeva” means, what the implications of that are, and what is the actual thing that the Torah is attempting to ban. He came to a conclusion that all forms of homosexuality are forbidden, not just lustful relations, but also long-term stable partnerships. I do appreciate , though, his insistence that there is “no defensible grounds for asserting that toeva refers to inherent abhorrence rather than to attributed abhorrence.” I am also so impressed by Rabbi Roth’s insistence that this is a rule for us, the Jews, and that marriage equality should be the law of the land. This teshuva is challenging, and thankfully the issue was revisited, even if it was more than a decade later.
In 2005, during this revisitation, Rabbi Roth stood by his position again. This teshuva passed and remains a valid stance for rabbis in our movement to take: no gay or lesbian rabbis or cantors, no same-sex commitment ceremonies, and it is up to individual rabbis to decide about gays and lesbians in other leadership roles, just for a quick summary.
And we also got another teshuva, written by Rabbis Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner This teshuva, while challenging, is incredibly important: it allowed me to be here today.
They tackled 3 questions: what guidance does halacha offer to Jews attracted to people of the same gender? What intimate activities are permitted or prohibited? And how shall Conservative Judaism relate to gay and lesbian couples?
Their conclusions were progressive for the time and opened doors to many people previously excluded from communities, particularly seminaries. They opened the door to professional schools and institutions, like Ziegler, to gay and lesbian students, and took a “not quite now, but soon” stance on same-sex marraige, and encouraged committed relationships.
It’s not all joy and triumph, though, there are two challenging pieces. First, there are rules particularly about what sort of intimate acts gay men in particular may not engage in. Second, particularly troubling for me and other queer folks who do not identify as gay or lesbian, is their conclusion specifically for people who are bisexual: heterosexual marragine between two Jews remains the halachic ideal.
For people who could only find happiness and fulfillment within a same-sex partnership, the rabbinic prohibitions are suspended for kavod habriut, for their dignity. But for me, and others like me, our dignity cannot come first and we must follow the rabbinic prohibition and limit our choices to people of the opposite gender.
This teshuva, which allows me to be here today, was progress in 2005. If it had not been for that I would not be here as the out queer, rabbinical student that I am.
And it’s not enough. We can do better. We must do better. It can be a matter of life and death.
The 2021 Trevor Project Survey of Youth Mental Health found that 42% of of queer youth seriously considered suicide in the past year, that number was even higher for bisexual youth. Queer youth are FOUR times more likely to -attempt- suicide than their peers. A 2016 review of research by UCLA School of Law found 17% of lesbian, gay, or bisexual adults had attempted suicide during their lifetime, compared with 2.4% of the general U.S. population. And in 2021 they also found that bisexual respondents were about 1.5 times more likely to report suicidal thoughts and attempts, compared to gay and lesbian respondents.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Adult respondents to the UCLA School of Law survey who had not experienced discrimination were half as likely to have attempted suicide in the past year. And, according to the same Trevor Project survey, having at least one accepting adult can reduce the risk of a suicide attempt among queer young people by 40 percent.
We know that accepting adults change lives for queer youth. And I can say with confidence that accepting community and peers have changed my life, too.
1992 was a generation ago. 2005 was half my lifetime ago. The world is changing, the world has changed, and our movement must, too. AND we sit in a place of tension as Conservative Jews. We walk in this world and see what goes on around us, and we are also firmly committed to the ideal of halacha and Jewish living. There aren’t easy answers to these questions, it is not easy to strike the ideal balance between tradition and modernity.
But it doesn’t mean that we don’t ask the questions. These rulings have real implications on real lives, mine included. It’s up to everyone to figure out how to ask hard questions, dig deeply, and build an inclusive, welcoming movement and community. We’re here, we’re queer, and our lives depend on it. Shabbat shalom.