Seeing Ourselves in Torah | Resources for Parshat Acharei Mot

This Shabbat will be Parshat Acharei Mot, which we know can be a painful moment for many in our community because of the prohibitions against same sex relations. I remember as a high school student sitting in shul as the parsha was read and wondering what it meant for me – what did God think of me?

One of the biggest challenges for those of us in the LGBTQ+ community is our isolation, especially when we are young or yet to come out. Unlike many other minority groups, we are not necessarily born into a family who share our experience. We likely didn’t grow up surrounded by people affirming us. We may have never seen a role model who showed us what our life could look like after coming out. And so, despite the many Jewish LGBTQ+ leaders who have spoken publicly about their experience, who have written books, and who are living frum and open lives, I know every year that there will be someone hearing this week’s parsha – or staying home – and feeling utterly alone.

Below are some of the many resources we have created and collected over the years that speak to how we, as queer people, can relate to the psukim found in this week’s parsha. From year to year, what we need to hear this week will be different. I invite you to peruse some of the content below, and take what speaks to you.

Most importantly this week, remember: Hashem loves you and cares for you. Hashem created you exactly as They wish you to be.

For Community Leaders: 

Rabbi Greenberg wrote nearly 10 years ago about being asked by his shul’s gabbai what to do when reading this parsha. Rabbi Greenberg shares one possibility, a kavanah. But the most important thing is that we are not silent. When we know that the Torah is causing pain to members of our community, it is critical that we share that we see them and we share their pain.

“The only remedy is speech. Whether in the form of an introduction to the parasha or a sermon, we must begin to hear these verses as if standing in the shoes of a 15 year old who knows exactly what his crush on the cute boy in his class means. He is abominable. We can say publicly that the verse only speaks of actions and not feelings, but even a teenager knows that such dodging will not save him from disgrace if he ever shares his feelings.

While it is not OK to be silent, it must be admitted that different communities will be able and ready to say different things. It may not matter exactly what is said, as long as compassion for the child in the pews trying to make sense of her feelings is the purpose.”

For the Scholar:

Excerpted from the anthology “Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires,” edited by Miryam Kabakov, Elaine Chapnik provides an insightful analysis of the Rabbinic interpretations of “ma’aseh eretz mitrayim” (Leviticus 18:3) and her experiences learning and teaching these texts as a lesbian. 

On this episode of Between the Lines, Rabbi Steve Greenberg does a deep dive on the prohibition of sexual relations between men found in Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. He discusses some of the reasons provided in Rabbinic sources for the prohibition, as well as the treatment of sexual relation between men in biblical narrative, and challenges whether the prohibitions rooted in preventing violence and idolatry are applicable to loving committed relationships.

For teens, and those who care about them:

“The Lev Ladaat Humash offers thought-provoking questions, careful readings, and engaging selections from traditional commentators. Most importantly, the commentary challenges contemporary young adult readers to respond to various sorts of problems in the text.

For many, verse 22 is among the most challenging verses in the Torah, on both an emotional and intellectual level, as well as touching deeply on their faith and how they relate to God. Like other laws in the Torah, God gives a command that is difficult for us to comprehend, even at odds with accepted values and life experiences of family members, friends, neighbors, perhaps even ourselves. Our challenge, as Jews engaged with the modern world, is to remain faithful and respectful to the integrity of the word of God, while considering how we reconcile these values in our daily lives. This specific verse discusses a prohibited act. Our Jewish responsibility is to ensure that this verse, which has often been the source of much pain and confusion, should never prevent us from ensuring that every member of our community feels loved and respected.

For the Change Maker:

Listen to Miryam Kabakov share about her personal experience coming out, and how she created queer communities and inspired others to create change. She also shares the story of collecting the anthology “Keep Your Wives Away From Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires” as a way of sharing LGBTQ+ experiences with the world, and preserving the traditions of our queer community.

As I wrote about this past Yom Kippur, there is incredible power in giving a face to difficult texts such as these. At Eshel, when we speak to Rabbis, principals, allies, educators, and community leaders, that is often our first goal. Instead of thinking first about “the gay issue” or specific verses or halacha, how can we make sure that people in our community are imagining the LGBTQ+ people who are impacted by the way that those around them speak and act. As Rabbi Greenberg says, “The people who decide what this verse means have never heard my story, they haven’t heard our stories. And if they did, they wouldn’t be so certain about what that verse means. I realized that what our first task is, is to take texts and give them faces – our faces.” If you are looking to make change in your community, start by helping those around you to see (or imagine) the faces of those who are impacted.