Aharei Mot — Kedoshim – on the ban on homosexuality, on brotherly and sisterly love, and on bridging divides

This double parshah week is particularly interesting because the two seem to be in conflict. Aharei Mot contains some of the most objectionable ideas we find in Torah, particularly a condemnation of homosexuality. In Kedoshim, conversely, the theme is brotherly love. This is the enigma and the beauty of Torah: sometimes beautiful wisdom comes alongside pieces that make us uncomfortable. The tension I love in studying Torah is that between tradition and change. In Leviticus 18.22 we have many prohibitions, including the very controversial ban on homosexual relations. This prohibition is repeated in parshah Kedoshim (20:13). The context for the prohibition suggests that it is less about sexuality and more about cultural identity. God tells the people that they must separate themselves from the practices of the Canaanites. In this context, it makes sense that the culture of the Canaanites be demeaned in the text. If homosexual relations were deemed germane to Canaanite culture, their prohibition may be more to do with establishing power over a united, and distinct, people than condemning the practice for something inherent to it.

Jews are a distinct people, however we are rarely fully united. We see the world so differently from one another. Leviticus 18 has turned a lot of Jews away from Judaism. As have other prohibitions, such as the ban on intermarriage. It is useful to consider that in this same parshah, God considers the “ger” (stranger, someone among the people, later understood by rabbis as convert) to have the same rights and obligations as the Israelites. We are the people who believe, after all, that we must love our neighbour as we love ourselves. We find this wisdom in the parshah too.  

A meaningful Jewish life is to find peace amidst the tensions of tradition and change, and to honour Jews as a distinct people while being good, kind and inclusive to all. This parshah includes a lengthy description about Azazel, the scapegoat. We know many examples of when Jews have been scapegoated by those who viewed us through a xenophobic lens, when we lived largely under the cross or crescent moon. Tragically, Jews sometimes scapegoat one another, blaming the problems of our community and people on those who do not conform or, as a friend of mine says, those who are “Jewing” it wrong. We read parts of Acharei Mot on Yom Kippur, a time when we are hoping to cast off our sins. Like the scapegoat, like the cleansing rituals detailed in the parshah, we are hoping to make ourselves clean of our mistakes. One mistake we continue to make, I believe, is to let our pride in our peoplehood sway us to hurtful tribalism, even xenophobia. Once, perhaps, we needed to distinguish ourselves from the Canaanites. But what allegiance do we owe now to our countries, Canada, America, etc.? Surely we are secure enough in our Jewish identities and cultures that we no longer need laws that are so fiercely and strictly trying to determine who is out and who is in. When we let our pride make us feel superior to others, when we try to rank Jews as “better Jews” or worse, when we tell people that they are not pure enough to be married or Bar Mitzvahed with us, while we despair our congregations are emptier and emptier, when we completely stop evolution and change – even in the face of doing what is right – because of tradition, then we have lost sight of who we are, who the Torah intends us to be. 

This is the wisdom that comes in Kedoshim, the second of the double parshah we read this Shabbat. Kedoshim is about moving from wrong to right – from abomination to holiness and righteousness. We have laws that are meant to enhance moral human behaviour, such as to leave part of what we reap from the field for the poor and the needy, to deal honestly with one another, to care for the weak and disabled, and, again, to love your fellow as yourself which, as Rabbi Akiva said, is a “fundamental principle of the Torah”. Whether we are talking about loving our “kinsfolk” in terms of the Jewish community or our broader communities, when I look around, I think we could be doing a better job. Towards the end of Kedoshim, God says (20.22 – 24):  You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them. You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I the Lord your God has set you apart from other peoples. And therein lies the contradiction: be a people set apart, but a people who love and care for others. The people of Israel (by that I mean both the country and all of us as Jews), are duty-bound to set a high moral standard. We must find the balance between pride and xenophobia, tradition and change. To me, there is no point in studying Torah, except to learn how to be a better Jew and a better human being. There are therefore sections that I find very difficult. But this challenge is part of what makes the study great. 

The Rabbi of the Birmingham Temple (flagship of the Humanistic Jewish movement), Jeff Falick, who identifies as gay, says he loves reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur. It reminds him of how far we have come as Jews – that we have become more open, accepting, and loving of difference among us, even as we continue to struggle with the tradition/change dichotomy. As Humanistic Jews, we care about social justice, some of which springs beautifully from the deep roots of Torah. The main idea in Kedoshim is that we are all holy. If we retain this belief, that all people have value, we do the work of the Torah with the best of intentions for others. 

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