The Sefer HaChinuch writes that Jews are רחמנים בני רחמנים, compassionate people who are children of compassionate people. Indeed, the Gemara in Beitza says that anyone who displays compassion is known to be of the seed of Abraham, and conversely, one who shows no compassion, it is obvious they are not of the seed of Abraham. While compassion does not give us license to violate any halacha, it must always guide our actions and words.
Orienting ourselves from a place of compassion will force us to think about what it might feel like to walk in the shoes of another. Rachamim relates to the word Rechem—womb. The motherly love that is beyond comprehension, that is visceral, innate and protective. Our compassion guides us to recognize that even if we aren’t impacted in the same way, we care about someone else who is.
There is much to write about how to integrate gay Jews into the Orthodox community and figure out ways, both halachically and hashkafically, to wrap our heads around the conundrum of this prohibition of actions that feel natural and loving to gay people, however foreign they might seem to straight people. This article is to present a modest proposal instead.
The verses in Achrei Mos and Kedoshim prohibit male gay sex is the strongest of terms. The Torah sees this as forbidden and puts it together with prohibitions related to incest and bestiality. Imagine you knew someone who was gay—you probably don’t have to imagine! Now imagine they are sitting in shul, right next to you when that verse is being read. How might they feel? I can try to imagine.
The Torah calls gay sex an abomination. It decrees that anyone who has gay sex must be put to death. But let me not hide behind the words “the Torah says.” Hashem calls a consensual loving act between two men who have no desire for women an abomination and that they should be executed. How might it feel to hear such harsh language directed at what feels to you to be a natural desire, an inborn inclination, an act of love that occurs in private between committed adults?
What I propose is a modest and humble acknowledgement of this reality, no more and no less. The rabbi of the shul would rise before the first verse of the aliyah where this is mentioned (this year it is revi’i) and state, “We are about to read a verse that is so very painful for some to hear. We do not know why Hashem commanded this, nor can we know why it was stated so harshly. We will read it because it is Torah and we also wish to convey to everyone who is here and those who are not, that you are loved and appreciated, and we acknowledge how much this hurts.”
If we know we are about to say something that might hurt someone, generally we have three options. We can say it, not say it or say it with a framing. Not reading the verses is not an option for us. Every word of the Torah is divine and we cannot excise any part of it. Saying it while pretending it doesn’t hurt others is ignorant of their pain and lacks the compassion that defines us as Jews. Instead, I propose that we say it but acknowledge that this might be painful for some.
Some might be uncomfortable with acknowledging this dissonance—it would make the Torah look bad! To this I say, no. The Torah speaks for itself. We aren’t hiding anything by keeping quiet. Instead, let us meet people with compassion and courage, conveying to them that we too struggle sometimes, and that struggling with God is the very definition of the word “Yisrael.”
Some might argue that offering these words pokes a hole in the perfection of the Torah. To this I say that it does not. We are merely offering our own humility and compassion. We are simply acknowledging that the verse we are about to read is painful for some in our community.
Some might argue that if we acknowledge the pain embedded in this verse, will we have to say it for other verses? And we would end up doing this every week? To this I say, show me which other verses speak so directly and so harshly to individuals who are in shul or could be in shul and are being told to live without a loving spouse, without children, without a family, without intimacy, and that wanting these things is wanting an abomination. Do we think our Torah is problematic that it is riddled with so many similar examples that have a direct and painful impact on people’s lives?
Some might argue that this is nothing more than trigger warnings. To this I say, “C’mon!” Please address the content of this proposal rather than resorting to a loaded, politicized term.
Some might argue that they don’t have any LGBTQ people in their shuls so they don’t need to say it. To this I hang my head in sadness. Why is it that we don’t have more gay people in our shuls? Doing this is a small step to make our shuls more comfortable for LGBTQ people. Additionally, it is not just LGBTQ people that are impacted by the pain of this verse. Parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, coworkers—we all have a connection and some of us feel a twinge of pain hearing it read.
I call this proposal modest. It is modest because it is a tiny acknowledgement of a much larger and complicated issue. We have far more work to do. It is modest because with one of the defining issues of our time, all I am offering is three sentences said twice a year. We are compassionate people, children of compassionate people. Let us verbalize our compassion this Shabbat.
Rabbi Maurice Appelbaum lives in Teaneck with his wife and children. He previously served as a rabbi for 10 years, and implemented this modest proposal at his shul. He can be reached for respectful dialogue at [email protected]