27 March 2013

'Interpret Me!'

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Joshua and from Joshua it went to the Elders and from the Elders to the Prophets and the Prophets passed it on to the Men of the Great Assembly.  They said three things:  Be deliberate in judgement; raise many disciples; and build a fence around the Torah. (Pirke Avot 1:1)

Who has never held the Torah close and heard the voice of past generations?  Felt the worn parchment beneath ones hands of those long gone who embraced its words?   Sensed the pulse of times other than one's own?

The Torah does none other than call out and say, 'Interpret me!' said the Sages.  While protecting me with the fence of embracing arms, practiced customs and rituals, family stories of challenge and triumph and love.

More than a thousand years ago the rabbinical tradition knew that the world was not created in seven days.  While protecting the story in Genesis, Rabbi Isaac--as recounted by the medieval interpreter Rashi--famously said, "The Torah doesn't really begin at Genesis but rather at the first instance of God commanding the Jewish people to observe the first Passover.  The science is faulty here in Genesis, Rabbi Isaac was saying, but the intent of the Creation is there, in Exodus:  as a nation we are obligated to serve.

Later in the Torah, handed down to us by the generations recounted above, we read that it's forbidden for a man to lie with another man as one lies with a woman.  We are told that to do so is an abomination.

While this text is seemingly unambiguous, one has three choices here.

1.  A man can lie with another man as a man.  Just not as a woman.  So, you know, be gay.  Embrace who you are.

2.  Being homosexual is a sin.  Don't do it.

3.  Ignore it altogether because the Bible is a bunch of superstitious nonsense and there is no such God anyway so what's the point.

The first allows for interpretation.  The second leaves no room for debate.  And the third simply breaks the chain.

For as long as I've read Torah, I've been in the first category.  Mostly driven by my generational bias and the contours of my own life, I refuse to break the chain of history and identity by throwing away the text merely because I vehemently disagree and even viscerally reject some of it.  Like a long-gone relative whose ideas around a Seder table I may have found ridiculous and wrong, he was a part of my family whose voice, thank God, no longer dominates the conversation.  But he's not written out of history.  Just contextualized.  In other words, with regards to Torah, I'd rather keep it and re-interpret it.  Observing much of it, setting aside what I don't regard as true, and relishing texture of this reality.

Of course, even my embrace of principle one--"embrace who you are"--extends to guys who feel like dressing up as women or women who feel like dressing up as men.  What do I care?  Wherein the what-do-I-care-ness derives from three places:  One, a general openness to life that I received from the Torah of my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, a characterological trait that I have passed down to my children:  Don't be judgmental.  Two, an imperfect but nevertheless generally well intended American Constitutional tradition that steadily keeps religion and state separate.  And three, a Torah tradition that calls out, 'Interpret me.'

And so it goes.

On any given Saturday in my synagogue, I look out at gay and lesbian parents raising their children to read prayers said by generations of their ancestors, observe Jewish practices, feed the hungry, house the homeless, support Israel, and learn, step-by-step, to grab hold of the Torah in their own way--while taking with them the words inherited from those who came before.

Their arms, like a fence around the Torah.

Today I am heading to Washington with my oldest child.  We'll take a train from Baltimore to DC, walk over to the Supreme Court steps, and watch the democratic drama surrounding the gay marriage debate.

We'll go as a Jewish family which both loves Torah and the progression of history--where our most Sacred Book teaches that we are all made in the Divine image and where our Constitution guarantees equal rights for all citizens of this great nation.

Hopefully a majority of the Supreme Court will decide in favor of gay marriage.  All it needs is a 5-4 vote, you know.  A rule that originates in Exodus 23:2--"after the majority one must incline."

The messy imperfections of God's word in man's hands.

Amen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Rabbi,

Thanks for the blog. Very good to read this about potential interpretations. I’ve been in a few Torah studies where this comes up and it’s not dealt with but just deflected (ie lets not get into it, we are inclusive, etc). Or even worse: “Oh, it doesn’t really mean that, it means something else. Blah, blah, blah...” That is really annoying when you’re reading it and it’s painfully obvious what it means.

Another interpretation: It is an abomination, but what are you gonna do? Probably the mitigating circumstances (personal human nature) are high enough and the impact on the community low enough to avert the penalty, socially at least, in my opinion. If every Jew was excluded for breaking a negative commandment, there wouldn’t be many of us left to do the good work that needs to be done. We don’t really want to cut off our kin or kill them for gathering wood on the Sabbath, etc. The community needs the gay and lesbian parents at you mention.

Is there anything wrong with thinking “You know, the Torah says AND MEANS you’re really not supposed to do that...But we understand. Let’s not make an issue out of it. Let’s go go to the next verse and study more”?

Thanks,
EK