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Kedoshim and LGBTQ Relationships

Kedoshim and LGBTQ Relationships

Our parashah this morning, Parashat Kedoshim, contains many different ways to become holy.  The word Kedoshim means holy, and the Torah portion opens with God speaking to Moses saying, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them:  You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.”  That’s a powerful message – we should be holy because God is holy.  It’s powerful to think that because we are created in God’s image, because we can choose to walk in God’s ways, we can attain holiness.

There is a note in our chumash that asks, “What is holiness?  The term can be applied to God, to good people, to a book, to a period of time, or to an animal offered as a sacrifice.  To be holy is to be different, to be set apart from the ordinary.  “Ordinary” is often used as the opposite of “holy” in rabbinic discourse.  To be holy is to rise to partake in some measure of the special qualities of God, the source of holiness.”

Parashat Kedoshim gives us a laundry list of sorts, for how to be holy:  honor your parents, keep Shabbat, don’t worship idols, leave the fallen produce and the produce at the edges of your field for the poor and the stranger, don’t steal, pay laborers on time, show deference to people who are older – these laws make sense – even today, all these thousands of years after they were given.

There are other laws in Kedoshim that don’t make as much sense – sha’atnez, for instance.  Why are we prohibited from wearing clothing that is made from both linen and wool? I mean, other than one is summer and one is winter, but somehow I don’t think that’s what the Torah has in mind.

And there are other laws that are downright troubling.  In our Torah reading earlier, we read Leviticus 20:13, “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death – their bloodguilt is upon them.”

This verse, along with Leviticus 18:22, has been the source of so much pain and exclusion for thousands of years.  In this day and age, it would be easier to gloss over or ignore it, but then we come across this verse in our Torah reading, and we must confront it. 

We have to ask:  what does the Torah come to teach us today?  How do we understand the role of Torah in our lives?  How can we disagree when something feels wrong without diluting tradition?  What do we do when we come across rules in our sacred text that are not only out-of-date, but hurtful?  

For a long time, for far too long, Jewish practice did not sanctify gay relationships, based on these two verses from Leviticus.  And while there are plenty of stories in the Talmud of two men hugging and kissing, and even sharing a blanket at night, the rabbis would have us believe that all of these anecdotes are about platonic friends.  Of course, they would also have us believe that there was nothing going on between Jonathan and David.

What we need to remember is that the Torah and Talmud do not deal with LGBTQ relationships, only with sexual intercourse.  Nevertheless, we have an entire parashah about what it means to be holy, but until recently, there was no way to make relationships between men and men and women and women holy within a Jewish framework.

So again, the question is: what do we do with these two painful verses from Leviticus? 

Some people who are quite traditional in their approach to Judaism still abide by them, saying that the Torah doesn’t prohibit emotions just actions.  In other words, there is nothing wrong with being gay, as long as you don’t act on it…For many of us, that is neither satisfying nor acceptable.  After all, in a religion that sanctifies that connection when it comes within the context of a relationship, shouldn’t we allow for the possibility for all people?

This conversation has come up periodically in each of the modern Jewish movements, because people continue to wrestle between what the Torah says and what we know to be true.  While I personally believe that it took too long to get to where we are, in 2006, Rabbi Gordon Tucker submitted a paper to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards – the Jewish-law making body of the Conservative Movement, entitled: Halakhic and Metahalakhic Arguments Concerning Judaism and Homosexuality.

Rabbi Tucker begins his paper with the following question:

“Can homosexuality, both male and female, be reconciled with Judaism, conceived through a halakhic lens?”

After an in-depth exploration of the issue, citing many sources throughout the centuries, including rabbinic, psychological, and sociological, Tucker concludes with the following rendering of halakhah:  the short answer is yes, the longer is answer is:

“Male and female homosexuality can be reconciled with Judaism, conceived through a Halakhic lens. Specifically, Jews who are living sexual lives with partners of the same sex should be considered to be subject to the same obligations and entitled to the same rights as those whose sexual lives are with members of the opposite sex. Congregations are encouraged to grant family memberships to households created by same-sex couples, and to provide equal support to the celebration of life cycle events in those families, including the joining of partners of the same sex into exclusive spousal relationships.”

The Jewish Theological Seminary began admitting openly gay students to the rabbinical and cantorial schools in 2007, and in 2012 began affirming that same-sex marriages have “the same sense of holiness and joy as that expressed in heterosexual marriages” by establishing rituals for same-sex wedding ceremonies.

This might feel like old news to many of you, and I admit that I thought for a long time about whether or not to speak about LGBTQ relationships this morning.  I thought, we’re a pretty open and accepting community, do I really need to take time from the bimah to talk about what so many people already know? 

And then I found Leviticus 20:13 staring back at me, and I remembered that – if we don’t take time to study our tradition, even the parts we find painful, how will we be able to help our tradition evolve?  This verse, then, is a reminder of where we were and where we have come.

Congregation Beth David has been welcoming of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities for a relatively long time now, but there is still more for us to do, and if you have suggestions, I invite you to share them with me.  

I will share two recent changes that we have made, that I hope will help more people feel at home, including people who identify as nonbinary. 

In addition to calling someone to the Torah by their name ben or bat – son or daughter of, their parents’ names, as another option, we will call someone by their name mibeit – from the house of, their parents’ names.  In this way, we hope to make people who identify as nonbinary feel more comfortable being called to the Torah for an aliyah.

Skip ahead a few months on the calendar – on Yom Kippur afternoon, the traditional Torah reading includes Leviticus 18:22, which says:  “do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman…” Beginning this Yom Kippur, we will read the alternate Torah reading, which is also found in our mahzor.  It is the holiness code, taken from the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim

It is positive and inclusive, and I hope it will be a reminder that each one of us has the potential to be holy, to be part of holy relationships, and to do holy work in the world.