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The Verse : Jay Michaelson

"And with a man you shall not lie as with a woman; it is an abomination."

- Leviticus 18:22

On the day the verse was erased, I was asleep, nursing a Friday-morning hangover. It was my sister who told me the news, waking me from my sleep with a telephone call.

"Did you hear what happened?" she asked.


"Turn on the TV. Something strange has happened to the Torah."

I imagined, in my groggy and half-awake mind, a particular Torah: the one in the ark of the synagogue where I was Bar Mitzvahed. That Torah was the Torah, I assumed, sitting under florescent light in a small ark set into a blank, beige-painted wall.

"I don't get it," I said.

"There's -- it's hard to explain. I just wanted to make sure you're okay. You should really turn on the news," she said. I had been caught, I felt, asleep after eleven on a weekday. I felt guilty. What was the news? I made my way over to the television set, still half in a dream.

"Scholars across the globe are dumbfounded at what can only be described as a miraculous event," said the inflected voice of the local anchorwoman.

I changed the channel.

"It occurred shortly before the onset of the Jewish sabbath in Jerusalem -- "

"Impossible to say -- "

"It was, ironically, on this sabbath that the portion containing the verse was to have been -- "

"We turn now to Rabbi Yossi Baruch, author of the book Sacred Lust: Sexuality in the Jewish Tradition. Rabbi Baruch" -- she said Baroosh -- "explain to us what this verse is, and what has happened."

"Well, Sandy, as you know, and, we don't have all the information yet, but Leviticus 18:22 inexplicably -- some would say miraculously -- has disappeared from every extant Torah scroll on the planet. Not every text of the Torah, mind you -- only the scrolls. The verse that has disappeared is -- or perhaps I should say was -- generally understood as the Biblical injunction against homosexuality."

"Now, Rabbi Baroosh, it's been a long time since Sunday School -- can you explain for our viewers what the verse actually says."

"Well, Sandy, the King James version says: Thou shalt not lie with another man as thou liest with a woman; it is an abomination. Now, Sandy, that the verse in Leviticus is rather narrow, prohibiting, on the surface, only one sexual act. But what you must understand is that every letter, every stroke of every letter in the Torah, is extremely important. Every word contains a wealth of hidden meanings, legal implications, even mystical significance. So, this verse was understood to mean much more than simply the, uh, act of intercourse between two men, and was expanded over the centuries to cover the entire range of homosexual activities -- between men or women."

"So what does it mean that, now, somehow, the verse has effectively -- disappeared?"

The rabbi had made a career of explaining Jewish law as it pertained to sexuality. He had grown popular, and not unwealthy. But how to answer this question? The legal issues were simple: the verse was unambiguous, and clear, and no matter how much the activists had excoriated him on the talk shows, no matter their arguments about biology or genetics or morality or so-called human rights, there was no getting around it. He had stood firm. He had remained steadfast despite those gossips who whispered about him when they saw him in shul, tittering like embarrassed schoolchildren in their first sex-ed class. But this was something new. A verse -- removed from the Torah? This was a miracle, not a legal argument. What the verse said is secondary -- couldn't they see that?

I looked away from the television and out my window. A large cloud was passing over. Twenty blocks south of me, Rabbi Berel Weintraub perceived it to be an evil omen.

That cloud, he thought, is too low. It is a sign of judgment. The messianic days. Everything must be interpreted.

Berel stroked his white beard, and allowed himself to fall back into his desk chair, which rolled to the wall. He had been on the phone continuously since 10:15, when the news broke and the phones began to ring. Now it was almost noon, and still the phones rang. Chava was his only source of strength, Chava who now parried on the telephone with rabbis and community leaders from across the country, all demanding an answer from the esteemed posek and scholar -- an answer that Rav Weintraub knew he could not give.

Rav Weintraub's first thought had been: For this? Two thousand years of waiting, and God gives us a sign for them?

Because he knew it was a sign, and that it was from God. The backlash that had already begun to be articulated in some quarters -- allegations of a massive plot by the homosexuals around the world -- was an absurd denial of the obvious. This was an act of the supernatural, just as we had been waiting for, but not in the form we expected. The contortions of the supposed plot were impossible to entertain. How could the homosexuals -- even if there were some secret cabal among them all -- have snuck into the museums, the genizahs, the locked aronei kodesh in a thousand shuls across the world? And even had they gained access to every Torah in the world (an absurdity!) how could they have perfectly erased, without a single trace, and without even a gap, a verse written in permanent ink on parchment? The verse didn't just disappear, leaving a blank space -- it seemed to have never existed at all. Berel had seen it with his own eyes, as soon as the first story broke, now almost two hours ago. Where the words v'et zachar lo tishkav mishkevei isha, toevah hi used to be, now there was nothing. The Torah went straight from ani adonai in verse 21 to uv'chol behema in verse 23. The section break a few lines down was almost imperceptibly larger than it had been, but that was all. No, this was not a conspiracy.

Rav Weintraub thought: when a man of faith is presented with overwhelming evidence that contradicts his faith, he nonetheless chooses belief. This is the meaning of faith; that it is the ground of reality that stays true despite that which shifts. The man of faith may cease to explain, because explanation may fail; even expression may fail. He may even outwardly deny the impossible proposition, that God cares, that God exists, that God acts in history with love. He may even inwardly deny it. But ultimately he knows in his deepest heart that he believes. And there is love there, and peace.

Yet when a man of faith is presented with overwhelming evidence that affirms his faith -- what then? Of what value is a man's faith when it is faith in the obvious?

At least, Rav Weintraub thought, allowing a smile to creep up the corners of his mouth, this showed the feminists.

"What do you mean?" Gloria asked when Naomi made the same remark, twenty miles away, in Queens.

"I mean that for generations we've been fighting this battle, and yet it's them that God chooses to endorse with an inexplicable sign. It's an outrage."

"You're being ridiculous," Gloria said to her lover. "Look what God has given us! And besides, this is our battle too, remember?" she added tenderly.

"I know. I know it is. I know it is, Gloria. But--"

"It's the same battle, it's the same fight, with the same enemies who now have nothing to say to us. God has spoken out against them... God has spoken! And on our side! This has changed our lives!"

Naomi said nothing. Maybe, Gloria thought, Naomi had never wanted God to approve of their living together, because God's approval would mean one less reason to leave.

"God spoke about us," she said. "God spoke about humanity, Naomi, what we've been saying all along, that the Torah must change, has to change. Usually not this way. But this is only the beginning! If God has taken out this verse, then what are we to do with the sexist verses, the ethnocentric verses, the cruel verses about slavery and injustice -- well, obviously, we have to imitate God! It doesn't matter whether it's one group or another, it doesn't even matter -- what matters is God spoke on our side. Somewhere there's a man, right now, someone who used to believe that we were all nuts, that we were just heretics -- and he's in doubt, Naomi! Do you see the irony? He's in doubt because God has spoken. For us the conflict is natural. But what that must feel like to a traditional Jew..."

Shaya Porush was one such Jew. Throughout shabbos services at his shul in Jerusalem, there had been a hush over the kehilla. No one dared venture a theory. The Torah had been unwrapped -- the Rebbe himself had authorized it -- and, sure enough, the verse was gone. Like it never existed! If this was an act of human beings, it was the greatest blasphemy ever to be perpetrated. The death penalty would not be enough. And to make such a disgusting point, such a vile point! The kahal had its suspicions about who in their community might indulge in such... abominations. And if they were responsible...

But, like Berel, Shaya had to admit that this could be no act of mere human beings. For him, it had not been difficult for him to accept the notion of Divine intervention: Shaya believed -- no, he knew, because he had read -- that God intervened in human affairs all the time. He steered the bullets in the Yom Kippur War, guided the SCUDs in the first Gulf War. If Jews suffered, it was because God willed it, and because through their sins the Jews themselves had earned it. And when they were protected, clear and convincing evidence could be marshaled for the direct intervention of God, if only one was patient enough and careful enough to look.

But that God has done such a thing with this verse! The Rambam had taught that in the time of the Messiah, some mitzvos would endure and others would be set aside. But was this really one of the mitzvos that was so important to merit Divine intervention? And what of the hundreds -- no, thousands -- of years of tradition? There is no distinction between the chain of tradition and God. It was God who wrote the Torah, God who taught the interpretations of the Torah. So what now?

Shaya looked around his apartment. The candles had been lit for shabbos, and his wife had prepared the table as she did every week. But the davening at shul had been perfunctory, almost silent, and even now, when the Karliners' kids should be screaming on the other side of the paper-thin wall, everything was quiet. It was as if everyone in Jerusalem had been stunned.

Of course, none of them knew any homosexuals. There were misfits in the community, like Mendel, who never married, and who lived with his parents until they died. People spoke about him. But that was all loshon hara; no one had any proof. And Shaya was the first to reprove the gossips when they spread their filth. But what was next, Shaya wondered as he looked at his oldest boy reading quietly on the couch. He wanted somehow to protect him. Shaya opened the bottle of kiddush wine and called out to his wife and children.

At the same moment, across town, Oren Shalev opened a bottle of champagne and called out to his husband Shamir.

"What are you doing?" Shamir asked in Hebrew, entering the room when he heard the pop of the cork.

"I'm celebrating. Kiss me." And they kissed.

"I'm not so sure it is something to celebrate."

"Shamir, this is what we have wished for all our lives."

"Maybe you wished, with your love of the old superstitions," Shamir said, breaking the embrace. "But I have no use for their Torah, their verse, or their God. And now, uninvited, he has broken into my house and insisted that I recognize him."

"Shamir, it doesn't matter whether we believe or not. What matters is that, for the people that do, what this must mean for them. What they must now recognize, about us, about the times we are living in."

"I don't want it to mean anything for them! I want them to leave me alone! I don't need their god's approval. And now, now we will hear about nothing except the miracle! The miracle this, the miracle that! The messiah is coming! This is a huge step backward, Oren. What now, so every other verse in the Torah is now true because this one was proven false? It has to be! Otherwise God would have deleted them as well! So the world was created in six days? So God slew the first born of Egypt? Chose Israel to be His nation of priests? Now all of that is true? Do you see what a catastrophe this is? Only because we are selfish do we think this is a good development. Oy, baruch hashem," Shamir said in the accent of the religious, "now being a faggot is okay. Baruch hashem, as if I needed their approval. Needed their hechsher to tell me that your dick is kosher, Oren. I didn't need it. I didn't want it. And what about the other three thousand verses of their ridiculous and tribal Torah?"

That was the question Professor Michael Wigand was asking in the beit midrash of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The scrolls were out, and being closely inspected by Professor Wigand's rabbinical students. "Every letter of every verse," he instructed them again. "I want you to check it against the chumashim, against the Septuagint, everything. Don't trust yourself that you know every letter."

How can I be of use? Wigand thought, as his students pored over the scrolls. Leave the speculation to the speculators. Plenty of them. My job, what I can do, is make sure we've got the story right. Those popularizers, rushing on the talk shows. What if there's more missing that we don't know about? It could be more subtle -- a letter here or there, or a word. No one seemed to be checking. My job is to check. Let the others guess as to what it means. I can tell you what it says.

Rachel looked around at the students in the beit midrash, who all seemed to be in shock. And she knew why: they had spent most of their young careers in dialogue with sacred text, and navigating the tension -- a dynamic, vital one, Rachel thought -- between the constant words on the page and our changing conceptions of what it meant to be human. But they were used to having an opponent who played by the rules. And those rules were that while the words are on the page, it's up to us to make the Torah a living document. Lo bashamayim hi, Rachel had been taught -- the Torah isn't in heaven, and we don't listen to voices; we listen to reason and to conscience. Now the rules were suddenly thrown out the window, and the game seemed to be over. She looked around, at these earnest young scholars, cross-checking every line of the Torah, and thought: they can't handle it.

And Rachel knew, despite his certainty, that Wigand couldn't either. He wasn't a spiritual man; he was a scholar, a rationalist. Who knew what he even believed? Textual evidence, linguistic analysis -- the Bible could have been the Code of Hammurabi for all that Professor Wigand talked about God. Privately Rachel suspected he was an atheist. A professor of Bible instead of a rabbi. And yet -- not a professor at a university, but here, at a seminary, so that Wigand could surround himself with believers but never admit to being one himself. Maybe that was it. And now, his feverish accounting allowed him to maintain, in the face of it all, that what was important was not God but exegesis and hermeneutics. Maybe, come to think of it, he was gay too.

Rachel's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of someone shouting. "Is this the God in which we believe?" Rabbi Doctor Millman asked no one in particular as he strode into the beit midrash. "To change our interpretation of this law -- fine! I published an article suggesting just that. But to accept that God has acted -- and that God has chosen to act only in the Scripture of the Jews -- this I cannot accept! That after Auschwitz and Stalin, that after Hiroshima and the Middle Passage, that this is when God has chosen to act! Chosen to speak to us, like we are madmen in the street who hear voices! The God in which I believe resides in the human heart, from whence we hear the voice of conscience. That is the voice which tells me to revise the law with compassion. But this? This lowers us all. It dehumanizes us, reduces us to children who have no choice -- no choice -- but to obey the father's will.

"And why only the Torah? Why not the Koran? Why not the New Testament? Are we to recover our ethnocentric notions of chosenness now, at precisely this moment of revelation? Is this what the Israelites felt when, encamped under Sinai, it seemed that God was speaking directly and only to them? Are we infants now, as then?"

Reverend Patrick Doyle was making the same point, looking out over Boston Harbor, by now exhausted with the debate and regretting that he had missed lunch. "God has always chosen the Jews to be the bearers of his message. What is significant is that the Jews have chosen not to listen."

"Nonetheless, Reverend," said his junior colleague, "is it not odd for God to choose the Jews -- again?"

"Perhaps, but perhaps not. We have always taught that the Jews would have a role to play in the end times," Reverend Doyle replied, looking out at the harbor. "Perhaps they are nearer than we think."

But Reverend Doyle's mind was not on the Jews, or on the apocalypse. Rather, Reverend Doyle, himself a man who had mastered his homosexual inclinations for over forty years, who had only recently dismissed two gay priests in the wake of the sex scandals engulfing America's churches, thought of his deeds. It was true that the sins of the priests were not homosexuality, but abuse and pedophilia. But he had treated them as violations of Leviticus, he realized in his own prayer, because he had thought he understood. These were not small children that the two priests had allegedly molested; they were young adults. Vulnerable teenagers, yes, but not children. Reverend Doyle knew the desire that he punished. And he also knew that if he could master it, which he had, faithfully, without even a single lapse, for decades, he knew, even if he could not say, that the gays and lesbians were wrong. Sexuality may not be a matter of choice, but sexual behavior is. The will is stronger than the body's inclinations.

So Reverend Doyle chose his next words carefully. "What I cannot fathom is why this particular verse was singled out. We will have to reflect on it, over time. It may be, as I suspect, that the teachings of the Church on this subject are built upon sound doctrine, regardless of the verse in Leviticus. Or it may be that their teachings are rooted only in the Scripture that has now, it seems, been deleted, in an act of grace which we cannot understand."

The Reverend thought back to when he was once an altar boy himself, in a time when the sexual behavior of priests (or anyone else, for that matter) was not a matter of open conversation. He had thought that Father Monahan embraced him with more than fatherly affection, noticed how he looked at him at points in the service. But he loved Father Monahan, and would have given his body over to him had he asked. And yet, because Father Monahan didn't ask, his love was all the more holy. To master one's urges, and to yoke them to a holy cause, was the greatest service. To take away this unique mission -- to love only God, because all other love was forbidden -- would be a great loss.

Reverend Doyle looked at his colleague, and out at the harbor again, where Arthur White was working one of the last independent fishing boats in Boston harbor. He'd heard about the news but didn't care. There were no fish, that was a bigger problem. The pollution, that was the shame of it, that was the cause. And now Arthur, Jr., wasn't going into the business, and who could blame him? The boy would have more of a future going to college, learning a profession. The news of the verse didn't affect him in the least, Arthur Sr. was sure. Let God help with what matters.

And there were farmers in rural China, there were guerilla fighters in central Africa, there were entire nations for whom the news meant very little. Some thought it was a fake -- a ploy of the Jews. Some thought it was superstition.

Marshall "Mack" Henry absolutely would not hear of it discussed, no matter if his wife brought it up, or the men on the rig. The thought of two men together absolutely stirred his stomach.

The news shocked twenty-six-year-old Sholom Berger, who had willed it to happen, unknowingly, with a pure love that cut through complications, praying for it at the propitious time, at the dawn hashkama minyan -- silently, so that no one else would hear. "Please, God, make the verse disappear. Just make it gone. I wish it would disappear. I wish it never existed. I wish I could be what you want me to be, but I can't. I wish I could be straight, but you won't let me be. You won't let me. You have created me as you have. So you force me to disobey you. You make me, you push me away. And I don't want to try to change myself anymore, God. You have made me this way, and that was your will, and I don't want to deny who I am and what I am and how you made me. This is your doing, and I won't reject it any more, God. I'll tell my mother, I'll tell everyone. I'll come clean. But I wish I didn't have to hurt you. I don't want to rebel. I want to love you. You give me no choice but to make it impossible to obey you. Why? God, I wish you would just make the verse -- one verse, only one line, eight words, just twenty eight letters, and it would all be okay. Twenty eight letters! Make them disappear, unwrite the verse. Say you didn't mean it. It was an aberration. A misunderstanding. It was nothing, really -- the scribes got it wrong, didn't hear clearly. It happens. God, please make it disappear, allow me to love you as you have commanded me -- with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my might. With all of my self and my strength, all of it, my eyes and ears and cock, my cock, too, God -- let me love you with my body, with all of myself, as I want to do. If you won't change me, change the verse. If it just, if only the verse just... didn't exist!"

Unbenownst to Sholom, David Weiss was praying just as fervently, for the will to somehow find the strength to be able, again, night after night, to face his wife, wanting to confide in her and yet unable to do so. The accomplishment of the physical act was no longer such a challenge; he had mastered the art of fantasy, and with only a few well-worn images or even phrases, could bring himself to completion. But the desire he felt now was not sexual. It was for something everyone should be entitled to, he thought: he wanted to share everything with his wife, in order to love her fully. And that meant expressing that he could not love her fully. But it seemed impossible. Cruel, even -- cruel to the very human being he wanted to love most gently. And so David prayed to be able, somehow, to continue, and maybe someday find an answer.

David's wife knew. Of course she knew. Even David thought she knew, but wouldn't say. They had been married three years. David had tried. He had tried because it was commanded, and tried because he wanted it to be true -- wanted to believe that if he pleased her, if he had sex with her, that it would turn into love, and that the images in his head that he used when he was with his wife would disappear. They would become irrelevant, because he would come to love her. And even if he didn't -- so what if he didn't. So what. The inside matters less than the outside, David believed, and he would be kind, and caring, and compassionate. He loved Aliza. She was beautiful -- but objectively, like a painting or a sunset.

Aliza knew, but had not decided whether to do anything about it. She respected David's decision to marry, to live a halachic life, and could not pretend that she hadn't suspected before they were married. Aliza was older than David -- thirty four now, thirty one when they wed. Old, by Orthodox standards, even in their modern community. She was lucky to be married at all, and to an intelligent, sweet man. Ten years she had waited for a man who would love her completely and whom she could love in return. Ten years, and stupid men, fat men, pushy men, sexist men, men who didn't seem to shower adequately. Was a gay man such a bad deal after all? She had watched her friends marry increasingly defective husbands. This one never looked you in the eye, that one had greasy hair, that one was, well, when someone reaches a certain level of mental inability, it becomes impolite to call them "stupid". You begin to search for euphemisms.

And the weddings of good, smart girls, all with careers, all with stable personalities and decent soul -- not ugly, not crazy religious, and not crazy neurotic -- and yet, it seemed like each wedding she went to, the grooms got lousier and lousier. Misfits. Nebbishes. Clods. At first it was kind of a joke, like a television show, but gradually it became worse than depressing. Why was it that intelligent, decent Orthodox women couldn't find intelligent, decent Orthodox men to marry? Would she have to choose, herself, between settling and living alone?

So when David came along -- she asked him out -- she wondered why someone so eligible was still... eligible. It occurred to her immediately that he might be gay -- again, first as a joke, then less so. They were not shomer negiah; they kissed on the second date, and did more on the third. David was tentative, but passionate nonetheless. Sometimes he seemed to try too hard; Aliza remembered on that third date wondering if he was ?compensating.? But she couldn't be sure, and, frankly, she didn't want to be. Here was a man who could hold an intelligent conversation, who had a great job and a great sense of humor, and who was good looking besides. Everyone has an inner demon they wrestle with; it is what makes religion. So maybe this was David's.

She had only known for sure in the last year. Yocheved had been born a few months already, and yet, David still seemed uninterested in sex. It almost seemed as if he were enjoying a sort of reprieve. This is normal, Aliza had read, for all couples to go through such a period. They certainly weren't sleeping much. But then, one Sunday, David was relaxing and watching a football game on TV. Maybe it was the way he was sitting, with one leg crossed over the other, or the way he was holding his glass of soda -- or maybe it was how he seemed to look at the men on the screen almost with a look of longing. But in that moment, Aliza knew.

And when she heard the news -- her mother had called her in a sort of apocalyptic panic -- she instantly thought of her husband, and cried. Whether the tears were for his liberation, or hers, or for the inevitable dissolution of their jointly-held dreams, Aliza could not be sure.

"Lo bashamayim hi!" roared Eliezer in the rabbis' private beit midrash. "It is not for God to change the halacha!" There were only twelve men there, but he spoke as if to a congregation. "Even when the bat kol from God shouted in agreement with Rabbi Yehuda, nevertheless the Rabbis ruled according to halacha, as they understood it. We do not throw out two thousand years of halacha because God suddenly changed his mind."

"Don't be a fool!" answered Moshe. "You know as well as I that this is precisely what the maskilim use to justify every innovation away from Torah that they desire. Every bone in my body detests the homosexuals and what they do. But I am not so closed a man as not to see! This is more than what Daniel received, more than Yirmiyahu himself merited in the valley of the bones. If you would have told me that there is an argument why a man with a man should not be a toeva, I would have said you are crazy. No, worse than crazy -- rasha. So this is what it takes. This is what it takes."

"First of all -- " Eliezer began.

"First of all, we should do nothing," interrupted Pinchas, who had been listening to both sides. "It's shabbos. Let's have shabbos."

"But it's shabbos Achrei Mos!" Moshe responded. "What should we lain tomorrow? Should the verse be included or not?"

"Since every kosher Torah in the world has the verse missing, the verse is missing," Leib Wolf said. Rabbi Leib Wolf was eighty three years old, a survivor of the camps, and a respected authority throughout the community for over forty years. The room fell silent. "The halucha we can discuss next week. Who knows but that this may be the birthpangs of the Messiah. Maybe a decision will not be necessary."

"Rav Wolf," began Reb Moshe. "Should we say nothing?"

"Saying there is nothing to say is not the same as saying nothing. A wise man keeps his counsel, but a fool -- "

"But, Rav Wolf, the feigelehs?!" Eliezer dared to interrupt. The other rabbis glared at him in shock.

"Reb Eliezer," said Rav Wolf patiently, "we should always remember to hate the sin and not the sinner. If there is no sin, there is nothing to hate. But this is for later. In the meantime, we read the Torah that God has given us, and tell the kahal to wait. As of now, everything that was ussur is still ussur, because no rabbinic authority has said otherwise." Eliezer smiled. "But," Rav Wolf added, "it is only an evil man who denies what is obvious."

"So now it's a double mitzva," Gary said to Jonah, smiling, as the sun set.

"It's shabbat already?" They had been in bed for hours, since all the shops were closed and since they had nowhere else they wanted to be. "Wow."

"I love you."

"I love you," Jonah answered.

God, otherwise, was silent.