Countering the last bastion of hate and building bridges

Leviticus 16:1-18:30

Ezekiel 22:1-19

I recently had a subtle but disturbing encounter with the face of hate.

I had volunteered to facilitate a session of Flash Judgments, a diversity-training program for middle school students sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice. In the aftermath of many horrific attacks around our country in the past year, I had vowed to dedicate a small segment of my time to countering the forces of hate, to building bridges of understanding among people.

This wonderfully engaging program raises middle school kids' awareness of how naturally and continuously we make "flash judgments," superficial and often prejudicial opinions about others. These judgments, in turn, affect our behavior, frequently leading to others being hurt, and to our shutting out people who might otherwise have enriched our lives.

The students at the South Bay school I had been asked to visit appeared to span the full range of racial and ethnic diversity of our community. More importantly, I was impressed that in the entire two-hour session I spent with these very active and verbal sixth-graders, I did not hear a word — even a hint — of ethnic, racial or religious prejudice.

What I did hear was hatred of gays and lesbians. This group of kids, clearly educated to respect those of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds, not only harbored significant prejudice against gays and lesbians, but they felt no compunction about giving voice to this prejudice.

Responding to a piece of videotape we had viewed together, several kids cried out, "I didn't know he was gay!" Or, "I can't believe his mom is a lesbian. I can't imagine living with someone like that," and the like.

Worse still, when I debriefed my perception with the director of the program, she said that her experience confirmed my own. "The gay and lesbian issue," she said darkly, "is the last bastion of hate."

This week's parashah includes one of the places where the Torah forbids acts of male homosexuality. "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence." Leviticus 18:22 is embedded in an entire chapter devoted to enumerating forbidden sexual unions, often called "The Holiness Code."

The biblical context suggests that we are to regard this system of sexual boundaries and restraint as a core component of holy living. In our day, in which the sanctity of family and relationship is endangered as never before, the idea that certain relationships must be protected from sexual encroachment cannot be taught strongly enough.

Yet it seems clear that the Torah did not understand, as we do, that perhaps 10 percent of the population of every culture is homosexual. To name the love, the passion, the inner truth of all of these members of our community as "an abhorrence" is a travesty of everything holy.

I do not believe that the Torah intended for us to hate the gays and lesbians among us. Yet passages like this one inevitably bring prejudice, horror and hatred in their wake. Each time we read this passage in our synagogues yet again, we communicate to the gays and lesbians among us and their loved ones that "they" are abhorrent to "us." Just as importantly, this piece of Torah engenders more hate rather than more chesed, lovingkindness, in our community and in our world.

A number of rabbinic midrashim teach that the Torah is essentially a Torat chesed, a "Torah of lovingkindness."

One such midrash even seeks to demonstrate that the Torah begins with a story of lovingkindness (when God clothes Adam and Eve in the garden), and ends with a story of lovingkindness (when God cares for Moses as he dies). What a beautiful description of Torah. What a great challenge for us, the guardians of Torah in our own day.

What can we do when a teaching of Torah, understood differently in light of contemporary knowledge, contradicts the over-arching truth that Torah is a teaching of lovingkindness? When I am the Torah reader for these terrible verses that condemn the gays and lesbians among my friends and family, I read these verses in a whisper. We cannot change the Torah that was given to us. But we must ensure that Torah continues to be the most powerful eternal voice of lovingkindness, against the bastions of hate.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at