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Torah Stands on Love

During my teenage years, I began to grasp the truth about my identity as a gay man. I wish I could say this period of self-discovery was filled with joy and excitement about my queerness, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. This period of self-discovery was filled with shame, heartbreak, doubt, and self-loathing. In a world where this identity was seen by many as wrong and shameful, I could not envisage a reality where out LGBTQ+ individuals were praised and beloved.

Thankfully, I grew up with a Judaism that was about seeing every human as b’tzelem elokhim, made in the image of God. However, during my teen years in the early 2000s, I did not realize that a verse from the Torah (Leviticus 18:22—found in this week’s parashah, Aharei Mot), was the root of a perspective on homosexuality that transcended cultures, religions, and ethnicities. This verse laid the foundation of a hatred of queer folks throughout time and around the world. This verse stripped the dignity of many in the LGBTQ+ community who came before me, and it continues to do so today—causing tremendous pain, excommunication from loved ones and communities, and even death.

Each year as we read this verse, the question of what to do with its harshness is still very much alive, particularly in liberal Jewish circles. Many rabbis and scholars will use anthropoligical or linguistic studies to prove that it does not mean what those who use it to justify hate think it means. Many will argue that Leviticus is not a binding law code, and the rabbis of the Talmud changed rulings on Biblical laws or occurrences. So too, as interpreters of tradition, we can amend this verse and how we understand it within the context of what we know about queerness today. And yet, while I participate in these exercises, I often find it is not enough.

My teacher, and great biblical scholar of our time, Rabbi Dr. Tamara Eskenazi, points out that the entirety of chapter 18 of Leviticus on sexual boundaries has nothing to do with love—in fact, love is never mentioned. The sexual boundaries listed are about holding power over another. The concept of love only appears in the next chapter, 19:18: וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ—you shall love your fellow as yourself. This verse is straightforward, and there is not much room for interpretation. We are commanded clearly to love one another. In the Talmud, Hillel goes even further, saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, that is the entire Torah, the rest is just commentary, now go and study” (Shabbat 31a6). For me—and so many of us in the BJ community—this is the essence of what Torah is teaching us. This is the essence of what it means to be a Jew.

The biblical world did not seemingly know of loving, consensual, queer love and relationships (Jonathan and David have questionably a queer relationship, but that’s for another essay). Today, we are blessed to live in a city and country where (in most places) queer love is upheld as beautiful and holy. Whereas Leviticus is concerned with power dynamics, queer relationships today that are grounded in equality and love are, as I see it, living up to the true meaning of what it means to be pure and holy.

One often-overlooked element of Leviticus 19:18 is the implication that loving your neighbor as yourself requires one to love oneself. We are commanded to love ourselves just as God made us in God’s image. For me, God made me as a gay man, worthy of loving and being loved, worthy of being seen as a Jew (and even a rabbi!), and worthy of a life of dignity and holiness. It was only when I was able to accept and love myself as a gay man, living my authentic truth, that I began to feel God’s love. We have come so far as a society to welcome, love, and uplift queer individuals, and yet, we have so much work to do. On this Shabbat Aharei Mot, may we realize that the true meaning of Torah is love, and that includes the ability of every queer person to love themselves and be loved exactly as they are made in the image of the Holy One. And with that self-love, may our world become a place where each one of us can love our neighbors for their beautiful, authentic, and holy selves. Let’s all create this world we can only dream of.

Shabbat Shalom,