Remarks delivered on Shabbat Naso 5782/Pride Shabbat 2022.
I’ve recently been obsessed with the new Netflix show Heartstopper. It’s an LGBTQ teen romance, featuring two students at an all-boys high school. The show is joyful and moving. It has a racially diverse cast, and it has characters, cast, and crew representing each letter of LGBTQ. I really cannot say enough good things about Heartstopper.
One reason I love the show is that it allows me to vicariously live a teenagehood I never had. I often wonder if I would have come to understand myself sooner in life, if I had access to this many models of queer teenage stories when I was that age. I stand in admiration—and frankly a little jealousy—of today’s children and teens, who in many communities are coming out earlier and earlier. Things have changed a lot, even in the dozen or so years since I started coming out.
I suspect the proliferation of this media is both a cause and effect of the increased visibility of queer youth. According to the Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, “89% of LGBTQ youth reported that seeing [queer] representation in TV/movies made them feel good about [their identities].” In a time when “45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year,” the importance of such representation cannot be understated.
That’s what makes the continued threats to LGBTQ safety and justice all the more concerning. In just the last weeks, we’ve seen numerous political developments that undermine the progress a show like Heartstopper represents.
I’ll highlight just one: the bill in Ohio, my home state, which passed the House of Representatives denying trans youth the ability to play sports in alignment with their gender identities. It has the potential for invasive, humiliating physical exams. It passed the House in the opening days of Pride Month.
In this week’s Torah portion, Naso, there’s a passage that, when viewed through the lens of how it has been interpreted through the centuries, helps us understand our current moment. This is the sotah ritual (Numbers 5:11-31), which is one of the practices in the Torah most abhorrent to our sense of ethics. The word “sotah” is means “a woman suspected of adultery,” and the ritual detailed in the Torah is a means for determining her guilt… or rather, for allaying her husband’s suspicion. Here’s what the ritual entails:
If a husband suspects that his wife has had intercourse with another man, and he becomes jealous of her, she is made to stand trial by ordeal. The man brings the woman before the levitical priest and offers a particular sacrifice, while the priest brings the woman into the Tabernacle. The priest then mixes a potion, called the waters of bitterness, which contains some earth from the floor of the Tabernacle, plus a written-out, cursing spell that includes the powerful Divine Name. The priest recites the curse to the woman, and she is required to consent to her own ordeal with the words “Amen, amen!” (Num. 5:22). The priest then forces the woman to drink the potion. If she is guilty of adultery, Torah says “her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag” (Num. 5:27), which probably means it induces a miscarriage and maybe also sterilization. If she is innocent, she is unharmed and remains fertile.
I’m not here to apologize for it or to claim it is anything other than what it is: an example of our Torah at its worst. Just as the recent political attacks on LGBTQ youth are our society at its worst. Where I find hope is in some of the ways rabbinic interpretation has undermined and overturned the sotah ordeal.
Because Torah is not just the words written in the scrolls contained in the ark; Torah is the ever-unfolding entirety of Jewish teachings we continue to expand even today. It contains pain, and it contains beauty. Just like Pride Month, Torah requires a “both-and” sort of engagement: There really are liberation, joy, and blessing to celebrate, and there really is still work to repair.
At its core, the sotah ritual is about control. It’s about who has control over whose body and what happens to that body. It’s about who gets the benefit of the doubt, and who must submit to another’s suspicion. To drive home the point, the Torah summarizes the description of the ritual by reminding us that a woman can be forced to endure this dangerous trial simply because she’s been accused. It’s enough only that a man is jealous, and of course this is in a context in which women’s sexuality is the property of men to begin with.
It’s precisely the same setup as the anti-trans bill about Ohio high school sports. Let’s say someone wins a race, and someone else—anyone else—jealously suspects that the winner is trans. As the language of the bill says, a “dispute” alone is enough to force the winner—a teenager—to undergo a denigrating exam of their anatomy.
As our neighbor Rabbi Toba Spitzer says in her Torah Queeries commentary, a queer reading of the sotah ritual reveals that its true focus is not the “assumed abnormality or wrongdoing on the part of an LGBT[Q] person[, but] the fears, hidden desires, and shame of those around [them]” (p. 194). And still, it is “the queer person who suffers, who is made to undergo an ordeal inteded to calm the fears and doubts of others” (ibid.).
Just as the sotah trial can have disastrous effects on the health of a woman, so too can such a controlling environment have disastrous effects on the health of LGBTQ teens. As Dr. Jonah DeChants, one of The Trevor Project’s research scientists observed, “Recent political attacks aimed at transgender and nonbinary youth have not only threatened their access to health care, support systems, and affirming spaces at school, they’ve also negatively impacted their mental health.”
In some cases, the early rabbis knew this was no way to build a healthy society. In the opening pages of the tractate of Talmud dealing with this ritual, the sage Reish Lakish warns that a husband relating to his wife with continual jealousy has major repercussions. Such an attitude inevitably causes others, who have nothing to do with the people in question, to treat the woman with suspicion, to come to act in anger toward her (Sotah 2b).
Suspicion begets suspicion, and that is not a culture we want to build.
It’s not clear whether the sotah ritual was ever actually performed. According to the Mishnah (Sotah 9:9), at the very least it was discontinued by the Second Temple Period two millennia ago. But it has stayed alive in theoretical form, which gives us the opportunity to see our current state of affairs through the lens of Jewish tradition.
And it is the same tradition that gives us a model of subversive rebellion, of wrenching justice from an unjust system.
On Rosh HaShanah each year, our Haftarah portion is the story of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel. She famously struggles with infertility, and she prays and prays to God for a child. According to one midrash, the way she achieves her goal is to turn the sotah ordeal on its head.
Remember that the supposed effect on a woman of drinking the bitter waters is either miscarriage or infertility in the case of guilt, or safety and fertility in the case of innocence. One interpretation is that it would actually cause an innocent woman to become pregnant. In the rabbinic imagination, this outcome is what Hannah uses in the midrash (Berachot 31b):
“Master of the Universe!” Hannah calls. “If you will not take note of my suffering and grant me a child, I will go and seclude myself with another man in front of my husband Elkanah.” (The idea is that she will not actually sleep with him, but she will still arouse her husband’s jealousy.) She continues: “Since I secluded myself, they will force me to drink the water of the sotah. I will be found innocent, and thus I will certainly conceive. Or would You, God, falsify your Torah?”
It’s a stunning midrash. Hannah manipulates a procedure in which she is inherently disadvantaged, and she does so to her own benefit. She claims agency in a system designed to control her. She calls God to account for God’s own words. Her model is our inheritance.
LGBTQ Pride Month is a moment to honor the queer activists who have fought, and continue to fight, for liberation and justice in a society that in many ways still seeks to diminish and control us. For some, activism is as simple as existing, openly and proudly. For others, activism is organizing, lobbying, or voting. For yet others, it’s creating a media like Heartstopper, that celebrates queer people and stories.
And for all of us, I pray, it’s the spirit to look an LGBTQ person in the eye and say, “You are enough, and you are loved as you are.”
We have that model too, in our tradition. As a counterpoint to the sotah ritual, our very same Torah portion contains what may be the most famous words of blessing in Judaism: Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Benediction (Numbers 6:24-26). (The blessing that starts, “Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishm’recha…”) Today, we use these words in many contexts: to bless a newborn when they enter the covenant, to bless children on Shabbat evenings, and to bless lifecycle moments such as B’nai Mitzvah and weddings.
For two-and-a-half thousand years, our people have sought protection, joy, and wholeness in these words.
There is power in offering words of blessing to another person—to the whole person. In a world that is far from perfect for so many, including for LGBTQ poeple, such a blessing can be life saving.
Pride Month is complex. It is a time to celebrate our identities with unmitigated joy, and to recognize the progress that’s been made. It’s also a time to recognize our threats and recommit to the pursuit of justice for all. May we draw hope from how Jewish tradition has grappled with and rebelliously subverted dangerous systems of the past, and may we find acceptance and wholeness in the words of blessing we inherit.
For all LGBTQ people everywhere, and for all of us, I humbly offer those ancient words of blessing now:
יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהֹוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishm’recha. May the Holy One bless you and protect you.
יָאֵ֨ר יְהֹוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃ Ya’eir Adonai panav eilecha viy’chuneka. May the Light of the World shine brighter because of you and be gracious to you.
יִשָּׂ֨א יְהֹוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃ Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yaseim l’cha shalom. May the Source of Life show you favor and grant you the gift of wholeness, of peace, of shalom.
כן יהי רצון Ken y’hi ratzon.