My toddler knows how to say the word “no” now. To be completely fair, he also knows a lot of other words. Actually, this week he said his first full sentence — when my wife asked what he was doing (building a Lego tower), our little one slowly said “Ani boneh!” (I’m building!), and we immediately showered him in kisses and hugs, of course.
But the word no has featured prominently in our world lately, leading to a great deal of hilarity in our household. “Where do you want to change your diaper?” we may ask. “No,” answers the little voice, despite this not being a yes or no question. “Should we brush our teeth?” I ask, rhetorically. “No, no, no,” says our kiddo. I shouldn’t have asked that one to begin with.
This week’s parsha is also filled with the word no. Actually, Achrei Mot-Kedoshim is a double parsha during which the text lists the various things we should not do in order to be holy. Many, many verses end with this clarification — do (or don’t do) this so that you will be holy, because God has made you His holy people.
In other words, these are the rules of the game, folks. If you don’t do it this specific way you’re not only doing it wrong, you yourself are inherently wrong. And there are a lot of rules.
Some of the rules are great, very straightforward and even kind of progressive, in a way. This is the portion that gives us the commandment to care for the elderly in our midst and to treat immigrants or people of other heritages with respect and equal rights. It’s also the portion that commands us to be aware of disabilities, (“You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” Lev. 19:14) and tells us to leave a portion of the grain and fruit we grow for those less fortunate (“You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” Lev. 19:10).
Some of the rules are less great, though. Specifically, the text goes into a lot of detail about sexual relations between men and women. More specifically, sandwiched in between rules about incest being an abhorrence is the much-quoted verse “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination,” (Lev. 18:22). This verse is well-known as the basis for religion-sanctioned homophobia and the persecution of people just like me for too many years to count.
Is it irony I chanted these verses at my Bat Mitzvah, only to realize that I’m gay a few years later? Maybe not, but it’s definitely weird.
I tried to ignore this verse for this week’s column, to write about the commandment to revere one’s parents or something about showing goodwill to the stranger in one’s midst. As I studied for my Bat Mitzvah my tutor (who was also my mom) guided me away from the list of sexual proclivities and encouraged me to write about being kind to fruit trees. I could have written about that now, especially seeing as this week we celebrate Earth Day.
But I want to write about power, and hatred, and ignoring the loving aspect of intimate relationships.
A lot has been written about this verse. Ramban, the renowned commentator, clarifies that homosexual relations aren’t allowed because they are “not for the preservation of the human species,” and “will not beget offspring.” A few years back, a friend of mine shared that they think it may have to do with the act of overpowering that was, back then, understood to be part and parcel with heterosexual relations. By that logic, the commandment not to lie with a man as one would with a woman is saying not to include coercion in one’s intimate relationships.
This verse pertains to me in a few obvious ways — I’m gay, I’m raising my little one with my wife, and creating space for families that don’t fit within the heteronormative status quo is what allows us to even have a Jewish life. The fact that this verse is largely discounted in the more liberal realms of Judaism is what allows me to be writing this now, at all.
But what if we took that meaning my friend suggested, and applied it to the parent-child relationship? That is to say, what if we took the idea of dominance out of the idea of power and tried to have a relationship with our kids that’s devoid of coercion? What if, when my kid says no, I don’t ever say “you have to because I said so,” instead trying to understand where he’s coming from?
Just a few moments ago, for instance, I was trying to cut my toddler’s toenails. He was not into this and repeatedly said “no” and “די” (“enough”). I kept cutting. In my defense, those toenails were like talons. In his defense, it’s his body, and if cutting those nails was making him so uncomfortable I should have stopped.
I didn’t stop, though, until I suddenly had a vision of myself from the outside and saw the situation. Okay, I wasn’t doing anything so terrible, but by ignoring his requests I was teaching something that was in direct opposition to the values I hold dear. I don’t want him to feel like he has no agency over his body. How can I then, in good faith, ask him to be respectful of other bodies?
In effect, what this means is that we end up having a lot of negotiation in our home. At times, it’s exhausting. There’s a lot of trying to understand when our kiddo is just being contrary and when he actually means it. There are different flavors of “no,” and becoming a connoisseur of those helps us to be respectful while not losing our minds. It also means that, sometimes, I have to apologize for being disrespectful, to be more aware next time.
I have no idea if trying to distance myself from the dominance-based relationships that permeate our society is the right choice. It might just make my kid grow up confused, not sure where the boundaries are. I’m hoping, though, that this effort to parent with respect and transparency will teach our little one to pay that respect forward in his relationship — both with himself and with everyone he meets.