When anyone other than a mathematician uses the word “true” my suspicion is piqued. Only mathematicians, whose claims concern abstract concepts of their own devising based on objects they have defined, can with assurance make a truth claim. Therefore, when I saw the headline in a recent issue of The Forward, I could feel a wave of revulsion washing over me. Here we go again. Someone claiming a lock on the meaning of Torah, with an absolute claim to interpret its import for everyone else. Rabbi Avi Shafran’s article is a pit bull attack on the decision of a prominent Washington, DC area rabbi and his wife (also a rabbi) to divorce after 20 years of marriage and three children because he recognizes and accepts that he is gay.
Rabbi Shafran zeroed in on Rabbi Steinlauf’s words, “I have no choice but to live with the reality, or personal Torah, of my life.” Kol ha-kavod to Rabbi Steinlauf for the courage and integrity to remind us that Torah is ours, a living and animating path to being in relationship with the One Who breathed the universe into being and Who sewed compassion and righteousness into the fabric of our souls—if only we would take them out and exercise them regularly. Rabbi Shafran pays lip service to compassion, with these words: “I hurt for the wife and I hurt for the children.” For me, they ring hollow given that Rabbi Safran fully expects that a gay man should remain for the rest of his life with his heterosexual wife, or endure a celibate existence. For Rabbi Shafran, being a gay man is simply a “challenge” to be met and overcome. “That he seems to be giving up on his challenge at this point is, to me, a tragedy, for his wife, for his family and, ultimately, for himself.” Really? Seriously? And has he taken even a moment to consider the position Rabbi Steinlauf’s wife is in?
For many, Halakhah is a handbook of immutable laws downloaded straight from heaven, requiring no further interpretation than the ancients and medievals provide. I disagree. I believe that Halakhah is not a fixed, rigid set of laws and regulations, but a fluid process of examining life in light of Torah values and modern, changing exigencies to find ways to live a life of Jewish integrity. Halakhah is process and therefore it evolves with time. As science advances, we incorporate its findings into our understanding of the world. As technology and ethics expand, we incorporate the questions they raise into the process. That is why throughout our history, rabbinic authorities have interpreted Torah differently for differently communities and for different individuals’ situations. I have written before about the Torah’s remarkable lack of concern about homosexuality, particularly in light of the obsession evident among later thinkers. In the face of overwhelming scientific and psychological evidence that homosexuality is not a choice any more than heterosexuality is a choice, there are still voices singing the same medieval tune.
Rabbi Steinlauf deftly quotes the Talmud (Yoma 72b) which teaches: “Rabbah said: Any scholar whose inside does not match his outside is no scholar…” to explain why he must live who he truly is, as God created him: a gay man. Rabbi Shafran manages to reverse that teaching for his purposes, attributing the novel inversion to his teacher, to say that the outside form or shell of life is what matters—to live as Rabbi Shafran believes God requires—and one must make one’s inside conform. This, of course, is absurd. A gay person cannot make himself a heterosexual, yet apparently Rabbi Shafran still, in 2014, holds out such a hope. Here’s how he phrased this outrageous assertion: “A Jew…is to create an ‘outside’—a lived life—that is consonant with the Torah’s laws; and then to work, perhaps over an entire lifetime, to bring his “inside” into synchrony with that outward, Torah-centered life.”
The hasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski of Chernoble (1730–1787), commenting on the opening verse of Torah in parshat Bereishit,
בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ
In the beginning, as God created the heavens and the earth, earth was formless and void… (Genesis 1:1-2)
refers to the famous midrash that tells us that reishit means Torah and teaches that God used Torah as the blueprint for Creation. The Chernobler rebbe comments:
It was through Torah, called ראשית דרכו/the beginning of His way (Proverbs 8:22). All things were created by means of Torah, and the power of the Creator remains within the created. Thus Torah’s power is present in each thing, in all the worlds, and within the human being. Of this Scripture says, This is the Torah: a person (Numbers 19:14), as will be explained. Torah and the blessed Holy One are one. Thus the life of God is present in each thing. You give life to them all (Nehemiah 9:6). God reduced Himself to the lowest rung; a portion of divinity above was placed within the darkness of matter. The whole point was that those lowly rungs be uplifted, so that there be a greater light that emerges from darkness (Ecclesiastes 2:13)…
God is both implicitly and explicitly in everything in the world. Put another way: everything is within God.
Since it is the Torah within all things that gives them life, we should pay attention not to their corporeal form but to their inner selves. The wise man has eyes in his head (Ecclesiastes 2:14). The Zohar (3:187a) asks on this verse: “Where then should one’s eyes be?” The verse rather means that the wise person’s eyes are ﬁxed on the head. Look at the “head” of each thing. Where does it come from? Who is its root? This is the meaning of בראשית/with Torah—it was through Torah that heaven and earth came to be, they and all within them. Thus our sages taught that the particle את in this verse is there to include all that was to be born of heaven and earth (Bereishit Rabbah 1:14).
The Chernobler rebbe wisely asks us to look beyond the surface, at the essence of things. We are all manifestations of God—whether male or female, whether heterosexual, homosexual, transgendered, or queer—it is how the Torah (the great Wisdom that brought the world into being and guided evolution) designed us. Behind everything is the One. A narrow and bigoted application of Torah that lacks genuine compassion, and holds on for dear life to an antiquated understanding of the fullness and diversity of humanity is not “True” Torah. Devoid of the Chernobler rebbe’s profound understanding of the deep structure of the universe and our place in the economy of Creation, it hardly stands up as Torah at all, but rather as an attempt to buttress a sadly common prejudice.
As a community, we reach consensus on some things, not on others. As time goes on, consensus, practice, and understanding change. It has always been this way. Our goal should be to live a Jewish life of integrity and compassion, embracing the life-giving values that pervade Torah, and championing the Rabbis’ understanding that Halakhah is a process of study, exploration, and decision-making, not a hard-and-fast rulebook. Each of us is a personal, individual Torah, and the process of learning, assimilating, and explicating Torah cannot be anything but personal.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
R. Menachem and R. Yehoshua b. Levi said in the name of R. Levi: A builder requires six things: water, earth, timber, stones, canes, and iron. And even if yon say, He is wealthy and does not need canes, yet he surely requires a measuring rod, as it is written, And a measuring reed in his hand (Ezekiel 40:3). Thus the Torah preceded [the creation of the world] by these six things, viz., kedem ('the first'), mei-az ('of old'), me-olam ('from everlasting'), mei-rosh ('from the beginning '), and mekadmin (' or ever '), which counts as two. (Bereishit Rabbah 1:8)