Confronting Challenging Torah | Camp Ramah Northern California

Confronting Challenging Torah

by Aaron Leven, Rosh Chinuch

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, has historically offered us some of our most enriching Torah. In the same week that we seemingly revisit the 10 commandments, we also read of what many of us have come to understand as the “golden rule” – וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ – Love your fellow as yourself (Vayikra 19:18). In my many summers as a counselor, I would support my campers in making their own cabin brit or covenant, on our first night together. Without fail, the charge to treat others the way we want to be treated was on the list every single time. 

While this parasha has the capacity to offer us moral guidance, it also includes verses that are more challenging to read in our modern age. The Biblical verse prohibiting homosexuality is antithetical to my personal theology, out of alignment with the G-d in which I believe. Some choose to ignore challenging Torah and dismiss painful passages as irrelevant. But it is precisely by grappling with difficult texts that we help develop within ourselves the sensitivities required to confront injustice and oppression in contemporary society.

As a rabbinic tradition, we know that by definition Judaism has always been characterized by its evolution. Our Rabbis sought to harmonize what they found to be morally reprehensible in the Torah, by expanding our tradition with their own moral intuition. When encountering a painful verse of Torah, I am comforted by Rabbi Benay Lappy who writes, “The expanded Jewish [tradition] would go something like this: God gave Moses three torahs at Mount Sinai—the written torah, the oral torah, and the svara torah—the torah of our own moral intuition, the torah that is in our hearts and minds, the torah that we know to be True in our kishkes, the torah drawn from the insights gained from our lived life experiences.”

As I imagine the expanded Torah that we seek to learn and teach in the world, I am given hope by the promise of how our camp community can and will contribute to bringing this third Torah out into the world. I look forward to the cabin covenants our campers will write, the added layers of parshanut, expansive interpretation, they will bring to our texts, and the way they will add layers of their own personal midrash and narrative to our every growing Jewish story and tradition. In a week of troubling news, I am comforted by the opening words of our parasha: קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃ – “You shall be holy, for I, your G-d, am holy” (Vayikra 19:2). With these words, I have hope for what this summer will begin to foster and create: where the b’tzelem elohim, the image of G-d, will be on full display in each of our campers, where we will treat others the way they wish to be treated, where we will live out the Torah of our moral intuition, and where we will affirm the holiness in one another as we create greater healing in our camp community, and in turn, our world. 

Aaron Leven will be Rosh Chinuch (Education Director) at Ramah Galim this summer. Aaron is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theology Seminar and a lifelong “camp person,” excited to spend his 17th summer at camp with the campers and staff in our camp community.