Saving Our Lives: The Rest of the Story

by Benay Lappe, President and Rosh Yeshiva

A black and white photo of a large circle of SVARA-niks, all standing outside, around a campfire that is not burning.

My father loved radio. As a child, we had radios in every room of our house. There was the little black AM-FM transistor radio that sat on a shelf in the bathroom medicine cabinet, the big old-fashioned-looking vintage replica that sat on his dresser, a boom-box-style radio-cassette recorder perched next to his chair in the family room, and the tv-radio that sat on the window sill above the kitchen sink that he’d listen to—the radio, never the tv—as he washed the dinner dishes every night. I grew up listening in as he listened. We all did. You couldn’t help it in our family.

My dad’s favorite radio show was Milt Rosenberg. It must’ve had another name, but he just called it Milt Rosenberg. My favorite was Paul Harvey. Paul Harvey was a wildly popular radio news commentator who also had a short three- or four-minute daily segment called The Rest of the Story. And I loved it. In each episode, he’d tell the story of some unheard-of person or event and, then, at the very end, he’d reveal this seemingly obscure story to be the missing link in some well-known story that you thought you knew but now that you had the missing link that you never knew was missing, you really understood the story you thought you had already understood before, but didn’t really. Whatever the particulars of each day’s story might have been, the meta-message was always the same: There’s inevitably more to a story than what you think you know. So hold your stories lightly. And: That which is apparent or evident is never all that there is. So always keep looking for more pieces of what you thought was an already-completed puzzle. Thinking about it now, it was really very talmudic! 

After Paul Harvey would reveal the connection between that little-known but now enlightening and perspective-shifting backstory to the story you thought you knew before, he’d always end each episode by declaring in his characteristic sing-song voice: “And now you know…the rest of the story!” 

Well, today I’d like to tell you a story, Paul Harvey-style. It’s the story of a Jewish concept called pikuach nefesh. In our Tuesday night Queer Talmud for Beginner’s Mind bet midrash, we’re learning the text which is the locus classicus (OK, I just like saying that) of the concept of pikuach nefesh

The story begins in the mishnah [Yoma 83a]. It’s the story of a person who is suffering from a painful sore throat. Now, I don’t know if it was strep that this person had, but if you’ve ever had strep, you know how painful a sore throat can be. And if you’ve ever had strep, you also know that 24 hours or so after you start the antibiotics, that agonizing pain is virtually gone. Which is pretty amazing. It always makes me feel very grateful to Alexander Fleming, who, I learned as a nerdy child who wanted to be a doctor when she grew up, invented penicillin in 1928. 1928! That was like, five minutes ago! I always think about how awful it must’ve been in the pre-antibiotic days, to suffer through an excruciatingly painful strep throat until it went away on its own, which it usually did eventually, for most children, though for many, it left life-long physical damage, while for others, and not infrequently, it ended in death. 

The mishnah records the opinion of the compassionate and courageous Rabbi Matya ben Cheresh who says that we may administer medicine to this sick person suffering from throat pain, even on shabbat. What’s so radical about that, you ask? Well, medicines back then were mostly made from fresh herbs that had to be picked from the garden (prohibited on shabbat), ground up (also prohibited on shabbat), and boiled (again, prohibited on shabbat) in order to make a medicinal tea or tincture. And let’s remember that the violation of each of these prohibitions is a separate capital offense. Capital. As in—the punishment for committing them is death. 

Rabbi Matya ben Cheresh rules, in our mishnah, that the concern for life is so important that we should allow it to override our obligation to carry out G!d’s commandments—including the commandment to observe shabbat—in order to try to save a life, even if we’re not sure that the person’s life is actually in danger or that doing the forbidden activity will even help. And if Rabbi Matya ben Cheresh’s move may not seem all that radical to you, remember that that’s probably because we live 2,000 years downstream from the reality that predated him: you do what the Torah says, period. No “But, if…”s! And if you die, you die. We are the inheritors of two thousand years of people who know that of course we break the law to save a life. Of course we call the ambulance on shabbat. Of course we eat on Yom Kippur if we’re sick. Of course we lie when the Nazis come knocking at the door. 

But in the second century, to have written into law the idea that it is not only permitted but required to violate the Torah under certain circumstances (that human beings would determine), and that that was now what we should understand G!d and the Torah to have always required of us–was pretty darn radical! Yay, Rabbi Matya ben Cheresh, right? To have kicked off the moral revolution that centered the preservation of life, health, and wellbeing over and above obeying the Torah…that’s pretty big stuff. And for sure Rabbi Matya ben Cheresh will go down in history as having written that svara into law so that, by the time it gets to us, we know, in our kishkes, every one of us, that that’s what you do, that that’s what G!d wants and requires of us. 

This concept is known by its shorthand, pikuah nefesh, the mandate to do whatever it takes—even if it means violating the Torah—with three exceptions: committing murder, idolatory, or certain sexual violations, like adultery and incest—to save a life (those three exceptions being things that you shouldn’t violate, even to save a life). 

And, while we typically translate pikuach nefesh to mean “the saving of a life,” that’s not exactly what it means. While you may know that “nefesh” definitely means life (or, more literally, breath), “pikuach” doesn’t actually mean “saving.” The root peh-kuf-chet means “to open, or to be open”—as in, to be super aware, or attentive. So “pikuach” is something closer to meaning: the mandate to be exceedingly attentive to, tuned into, caring about, and, therefore, protective of, one’s—nefesh—one’s life, health, and well-being. Yours. And everyone else’s.

It’s that same svara that told us–those of us who are Queer or Trans and have survived–that of course we have to listen to our hearts and save our lives, by living them, fully, as Queer and Trans people, rather than obeying what we were told the Torah (or some other tradition or teaching or law) would have us do. Pikuach nefesh. We knew this in our kishkes, even if we didn’t know that it had a Jewish name. 

And Rabbi Matya ben Cheresh’s students then took it a step further and found (wink, wink!) the source for this radical move in the words of the Torah itself: “ve’hai bahem.” In Leviticus 18:5, G!d says: “Hey, here are my laws and rules; live by them.” Ve’hai bahem. Live by them. That’s pretty clear. It’s obvious that “live by them” means “live according to them,” “obey them.” Even in modern English we’d say the same thing the same way: to “live by” something is to comply with it, to accept it and to do it. 

But Rabbi Matya ben Cheresh’s students, two pages later in the Talmud [Yoma 85a], say no, no, what G!d really meant when G!d said “These are my laws and rules; live by them” was “live by doing them…don’t die by doing them”—in other words, only follow these laws and rules if by doing so you continue to live; don’t do them if, by doing them, it would endanger your life, your health, or wellbeing. It’s a fabulous sleight-of-hand midrash which lands, for me, as a Queer person, as the ultimate litmus test: How can I know if G!d actually wants me to do or be this or that? Does doing this or being that give me life, or constrict my life and deaden me? Does it allow me to live my fullest life, or lead me toward a kind of death? It is a litmus test that I think strikes a familiar chord for many of us. Because we know what each of those options feels like. And life feels a lot better. [And gosh, wouldn’t it have been nice if we’d known that piece of Talmud when we were coming out?]

But here’s where Paul Harvey comes in. Well, OK, not Paul Harvey himself. But here’s where we need to uncover the rest of the story. Because, you see, Rabbi Matya ben Cheresh didn’t just come up with the idea of pikuach nefesh all by himself. It wasn’t Rabbi Matya ben Cheresh who kicked off the moral revolution of pikuach nefesh. And sure enough, 250 years before Rabbi Matya ben Cheresh was born, an earlier, smaller, and even raggedier group of queer, fringy, radical, hippie guys did something extraordinary. 

While fighting a war, they noticed that their enemy was taking advantage of the fact that the Torah prohibits fighting on shabbat, and attacked the Jews on shabbat. Honoring their obligation to follow the Torah’s prohibition against fighting on shabbat, most Jews refused to take up arms, and, confident that they were carrying out G!d’s will, were slaughtered. 

Feeling strongly that this could not possibly be G!d’s will, our small group of queer activists—well, you know what I mean—took up arms on the very next shabbat to save their own lives and the lives of their fellow remaining Jews, and defended themselves against attack. This is where the moral revolution of pikuach nefesh actually began. 

The most important part of every story, in fact…is its beginning. We often fail to transmit the beginnings of our stories. They tend to be messy. But we leave them off at our great peril. The beginnings of our stories reveal the people most crucial to them. And when we craft these people out of our stories, to make the stories neater or cleaner, or more strategic, we lose the real story of how revolutions actually happen. When we tell the “gay liberation” story without telling the story of the Trans women of color who led the fight at the Stonewall Bar, we forget how revolutions actually happen. When we tell the Rosa Parks story without telling the story of Bayard Rustin, a gay Black civil rights leader and the other Black civil rights activists who were earlier arrested for not giving up their seats on buses in the very well-organized civil disobedience action of which Rosa Parks was a part, we lose the real story of how revolutions actually happen. 

The way you, my Queer and Trans comrades, live your lives, every day, in civil, halachic, and moral disobedience from laws and norms that our svara tells us are wrong, are the beginnings of the stories that will one day be told of the moral revolutions that began with you. 

Next week is Hanukkah, and when I eat my little foil-covered chocolate Maccabees, I’ll be thinking not so much of the Hanukkah story of the single day’s worth of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days. For me, as a Queer person, the real Hanukkah story is the story of a small group of queer, fringy, radical, hippie guys who lived 250 years before the Rabbis—who, through living out their halachic disobedience, laid the foundation for the moral revolution that would change the world forever. It is the story of a small group of queer folk led by a man named Mattathias and his son Judah, who called themselves and their little band of we’re-gonna-violate-shabbat-to-save-a life and fight-back-on-shabbat revolutionaries…Maccabees. And on whose shoulders Rabbi Matya ben Cheresh would stand ten generations later when he would write their disobedience that would later be called pikuach nefesh, into law.

And now you know…the rest of the story!

Happy Hanukkah! 

Read More