Parashat Bechukotai – I will look with favour upon you

Chaverim, friends

It has taken the orthodox community in Johannesburg almost 3 ½ years to realise that Bet David has an openly gay rabbi. To be honest, I am not so sure if this news went around earlier, but to me it looks like that this became a topic in the wider – not progressive community of Johannesburg – only recently.

I am not sharing this observation with you all because I want to discuss my sexual orientation with you, but because of the way this discussion apparently has made waves outside of Bet David. Some of you have shared with me how your friends have expressed their “concerns” in this regard, saying that ‘being gay might be against the bible’.

Of course, this kind of argument is not new, nor is it only common in Judaism. My usual reply would be to counter such an argument with one of the following statements:

OK – so – now we are taking the words of the bible literally? Interpreting it word for word? Yes, let me ask you this:

  • Are you considering stoning your sons to death because they didn’t obey your instructions?
  • Do you intend returning the house you bought to its previous owner 50 years ago – of course, without asking for the any financial compensation to be paid?
  • How can you rightfully go to synagogue when you’ve had contact with a dead body? You know, killing a spider count, too.
  • The same applies to animal sacrifices and much more ….

The simple point I’m making is that one can’t just pick certain laws as absolute and eternal to point fingers at others, while declaring other mitzvot as not relevant or “flexible” when they touch your way of living.

Of course, the discussion often ends here. Not because the other person agrees or is convinced that having a same-gender relationship could be as holy as any other loving relationship, but because the sexual orientation discussion – particularly of a rabbi – might not be worth the full theological dispute.

For today, because of the Torah portion we have before us, allow me to go a bit further. The opening of our parasha says:

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. … I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone … [and] I will look with favour upon you, and make you fertile and multiply you; and I will maintain My covenant with you. [1]

Only some verses later, we read what is supposed to happen if we choose to follow a different path:

But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you … [and] I will set My face against you: …[2]

In beautiful language our Torah portion levels the playing fields, making us all equal while standing in front of the Torah/God. It also points fingers at each one of us, telling us that the Divine has presented us with a colourful set of ideas, concepts, values, rules, and commandments, and that we – every single of us – is expected to make a choice, to decide now, on the path ahead of us.

However, the challenge of this Torah portion is that it appears very limited in its options and it seems that we only got one of two choices:
Option A: to follow, or option B: not to follow. Each has its own set of consequences as stated above. The text doesn’t say, you might follow Options A, B, C, but not D, and perhaps E with some amendments.  We are given an ‘Either – Or’ choice. Take them all, or you are in breach of the contract, says the text.

Here is the real struggle we face when we take the Torah literally. No one, and I mean not one of us is capable of adhering to the biblical text in its literal sense. We know it, and I am sure the Torah itself knows it, too.

Still, it poses a terribly challenging question:

  • How can someone be Jewish in these circumstances?
  • How can someone be part of the Covenant with God, knowing that parts of the Torah come either as a challenge to their existence, or are even in clear contrast to one’s very nature?

Men and women alike, straight, gay, trans, old and young, families and singles, poor and wealthy, white or black, Reform, Orthodox or secular!

Assuming that we all agree upon the common dominator – not to reject the Torah, and that we cannot re-write the Torah

  • how can we follow God’s laws, especially the difficult and challenging ones, and at the same time being faithfully authentic to the way we live our lives?
  • How can we be true to our commitment to our Jewish heritage?
  • How can we end the fear that God might turn God’s favour away from us?

Rabbi Dalia Marx, in her article „Walking and Standing“, gives us a different perspective to understand this very challenging parasha by pointing out a wonderful interpretation of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a well-known Israeli intellectual:[3].

Looking at the third word of our reading – Im Bechukotai telechu, If you walk in My laws – Leibowitz brings our attention to the different character of the word „to walk“ (hei-lamed-chaf) in contrast to the Hebrew words for „to hold,“ (chet-zayin-kuf), or “ to stand,“ (ayin-mem-dalet). Using either ‘to hold’ or ‘to stand’ as the opening word of our sidra instead, would offer us a very different result in guiding us to understand God’s will.

Leibowitz explains that to follow the Torah is neither a static nor a passive endeavour, but rather an on-going process. The word Halacha – Jewish law –  means path, implying, that you have to walk – holech – and not stand still, in order to fulfil the religious obligations. The meaning of a commandment’s fulfilment is to carry it out, and to realise its potential.

Walking is not only a recurrent metaphor in our reading today. Elsewhere in the Torah, we have read that

  • Noah is praised for walking with God (6:9).
  • Abraham is the biggest walker of them all, covering many hundreds of kilometres in his dusty sandals. God commands him to get up, walk around the land (13:17), and walk before God and be blameless (17:1) and later Abraham is using his experiences of his journeys to challenge God in God’s plans
  • In Exodus, God walks before Israel in a pillar of cloud,
  • and in Deuteronomy, Moses promises that God walks before you; God will not release you nor will God abandon you.[4]

Chaverim, Friends, is it any wonder that Judaism came to associate its method of religious practice with walking, and that our movement is defined as a Progressive Movement, a movement that is not standing still in its interpretation of our Jewish heritage? Of course not. The Rabbis created this normative world of halacha to keep the Torah relevant for future generations.

In a wonderful Talmudic midrash, the Sage Ulla claimed that since the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One has no place in the world except for the four cubits of halacha [meaning the Talmud][5]. This may sound claustrophobic, but unlike the Temple, the halacha is not enclosed on four sides. It has boundaries, yes, but its origins stretch way back to the mystical beginning of time, and its destination remains beyond our imagination, open for new interpretations.

I like to think of the four cubits of halacha as the width of a path. A cubit is said to be somewhere between 40 and 60cm long, so a four-cubit path is 1,20 to 1,80m wide. It is broader than a regular path, but narrower than a proper road. It is just right for two people to walk side by side, engaged in an animated conversation.

The metaphor of walking and talking is a beautiful way of thinking of Jewish life. — Our religion has seldomly emphasised a solitary lifestyle or Jewish path. The image of someone going through life’s challenges without the support of a community, or struggling with a text alone, has never been the concept of Jewish learning and being part of the Jewish Covenant.

Walking on a path together with one another is a social, dynamic metaphor. And, never forget: God is available to walk with you — to walk alongside you. Religious life is a journey and not a road we must fear.

Yes, the section of blessings and curses in Parashat B’chukotai may at first seem to alienate us and detach us from God and our heritage. But, if we ‘translate’ it to our world of meaning, and when we read it in context with all the teachings of the Torah, we will understand what it means to walk with God.

The Torah demands that we do not avoid our responsibilities and our duties. We need to choose to do what is right, but also to be ourselves, to be who we are. Never forget that we all are created in the image of God, to be God’s partners.

Friends, following Abraham’s example, we have the right to say no when necessary … even to God. There is no way that we must tolerate injustice vis-à-vis ourselves and/or others. We need to choose life, and to live that life, always.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian M Schell
Shabbat Bechukotai 5778 / 12 May 2018

SAUPJ Biennial Conference – Johannesburg, South Africa

[1] Leviticus 26:3-9

[2] Leviticus 26:14-17

[3] Rabbi Dalia Marx, Walking and Standing, reformjudaism.org

[4] Cited after: DANIEL NEVINS, Walking together with God

[5] bT Berakhot 8a / Cited after: DANIEL NEVINS, Walking together with God