Don’t Stop Believing
The good lessons in this week’s Torah portion, and Jack Black’s advice on what to do with the bad lessons.
I have a dirty little secret to confess: I believe in God.
Not in some feeble, inconsequential way, shrugging my shoulders and assigning divine origins to phenomena I’m too dim to understand. No, mine is a sort of faith that would have felt right at home on the hills of biblical Canaan. My God is a wrathful, awesome God, the sort of deeply involved deity that metes out rewards and punishments at will, withholding His grace when his subjects act abominably and bestowing it with abundance when they’ve been good.
As a young child, I toiled feverishly to develop some sort of system, some way to divine what the Divinity wanted. I would try to affix disparate occurrences to each other and create a sort of celestial Connect-the-Dots. That way, I thought, I might be able to trace out the outlines of God’s eternal plan.
As I grew older, of course, I realized such attempts were poppycock. The more I thought about the matter—a lot, I’m happy to report, particularly as I spent three years of my adolescence wearing the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces and having several opportunities to ponder the meaning of life, often while being shot at by gentlemen whose ponderings about the very same subject led them to radically different conclusions – I realized there was only one emotionally and intellectually honest way to commune with God, which is not to do it at all.
God, after all, is entirely unknowable to us. That is the point of His existence. He transcends the narrow realms of reason. We may have been created in His image, but His mind is not our mind, His language not our language, His perception endlessly vaster than ours. All we can do to get closer to Him, I believe, is strive to cultivate this wretched wilderness of a world we were given into a garden in bloom, peaceful and pleasant for all.
Which is where religion comes in. Although I adhere to very few of its strictures, I have often felt that Judaism held at its core a set of radically progressive values, that set it apart not only at the darkened historical time of its birth and ascendance but even today. As we read this week’s parasha, for example, we are commanded not to stand idly by as the blood of the innocent is spilled. We are warned – are you reading this, Mr. Madoff? – that we must approach business transactions with a pure heart and a cautious mind. And we’re given that most golden of all rules: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Amidst this register of righteous deeds, however, there’s this: “You shall not lie down with a male, as with a woman: this is an abomination.” The sin for said abomination? The bible doesn’t mince words: a man “who lies with a male as one would with a woman,” we’re told, “both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon themselves.”
As a proud member of Marriage Equality USA, an organization toiling to make same-sex marriages legal nationwide, and a supporter of numerous other organizations fighting for the rights of gays and lesbians, I read these paragraphs with a bitter sense of dismay, lamenting that amidst all these laws preaching kindness and compassion there was one advocating intolerance and violence. Love your neighbor, this week’s portion seems to be telling us, but if he or she happens to be gay, reach out for the nearest jagged rock and let the stoning begin.
I have no intention of adding to the already richly populated discussion about gay marriages, and possess little knowledge to argue the theological meaning of this particular statute and its implications for contemporary politics. What I would like to do is find a way for myself and others like me – those of us who believe in God and cherish the core values of Judaism but cannot adopt those of its edicts that so fundamentally negate our other set of values, those values which belong to the best traditions of the Western Enlightenment and the American spirit.
And this week, inspiration came from an unexpected source. This week, Jack Black gave me a Talmudic lesson.
Playing an obnoxious Christ in a new web video entitled “Proposition 8—The Musical,” Black reveals himself to a slew of famous comics pretending to be on either side of that notorious Californian legislation. Addressing John C. Reilly and Allison Janney, who play the leaders of the anti-gay Christian contingent, Black delivers a short list of biblical commandments: “you can stone your wife,” he sings, “or sell your daughter into slavery.” When the zealots respond that they’re opposed to such horrific acts and ignore those respective verse, Black retorts, “well, friend, it seems to me you pick and choose, so please choose love instead of hate.”
It’s much funnier when Black belts it out, but it is nonetheless deeply profound. With some exceptions, we all thumb through the bible and try to compile our own codex of personal laws for life. Like Thomas Jefferson – who took a pair of scissors, cut out his favorite bits of the New Testament, and pasted them into a new book he then considered his bible – we chart our own course and hope that one day it will lead us heavenward.
In the meantime, let us listen to the bible and to Jack Black, choose love, and pray God’s paying attention.