The book of Vayikra, Leviticus, has been called the Priest’s Handbook, because it contains all the detailed procedures related to sacrifice, and more laws than any other book of the Torah. Achare Mot begins after the death of Aaron’s two sons who drew too close to God’s presence. It then outlines the complex and dangerous procedure Aaron is to follow on the Day of Atonement (although it is not called that by name), which involves several sacrifices, purging of the Shrine and alter, multiple baths and wardrobe changes, and finally the dispatching into the wilderness of a goat upon which has been confessed the sins of the people. Apparently the High Priest would host a dinner at the end of the day to celebrate his survival through this ordeal. This section is traditionally read on Yom Kippur morning.
The parsha goes on to dictate that all animals to be slaughtered must be brought to the Tent of Meeting as an offering, so that the people don’t make offerings to the goat-demons. The prohibition against consuming blood is then stated, the punishment for which is being shunned by the community.
We then come to an exhaustive listing of the prohibited sexual relationships. This is the section that is traditionally read on Yom Kippur afternoon, allegedly because in ancient times the young men and women would spend the afternoon looking for spouses. The various relatives whose nakedness is not to be uncovered are enumerated, followed by the first of two prohibitions against male homosexual behaviour, and then against bestiality. We are called on to avoid doing any of these abhorrent things lest we be spewed out from the land just as the Canaanites before us were spewed out for these same behaviours.
So here we find the primary reason most liberal congregations, including ours, have replaced this section on Yom Kippur, namely the hurt it may cause to some members of the congregation. Indeed, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first and only openly gay Orthodox rabbi, writes of how he used to cry in the corner of his shul covered by his talit after hearing this line read on Yom Kippur.
But liberal Judaism's response to this issue is old news, right? As was stated in a Reform responsa on this issue from 2000, “a mitzvah cannot oblige us unless it has a ta`am, a rationale, unless it makes sense to us in some fundamental way”. Thus, Women of Reform Judaism was first out of the block back in 1965 with a resolution calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality, and the URJ and CCAR (the Reform Rabbinate) followed in 1977 with resolutions against discrimination. The Reconstructionist movement began ordaining gay rabbis in 1984 and the Reform movement followed about 5 years later. In 1996 the CCAR passed a resolution supporting same-sex civil marriage, and in 2000 voted to support rabbis who chose to officiate at same sex Jewish wedding ceremonies. It wasn’t actually until last year that the CCAR ruled that a union of 2 Jews of the same sex deserved to be called kiddushin, that is, sanctified marriage. It has been a slow process, and some of the responsas from the 70s and 80s should be read on an empty stomach, but I think that those of us who are LGBT can say that we have found a large and comfortable community in which to express our Jewish identity.
I do, however, worry about the plight of our Orthodox brethren. I don’t know how many of you have seen the 2001 film Trembling Before G-d by Sandi Simcha Dubowski. It is a very powerful and emotional look at the struggles of Orthodox gay Jews to be both. One woman, for example, reasons that if she is a lesbian, she must not be religious, but the very notion of not being religious is almost physically nauseating to her. Thus the traditional options for Orthodox gays have been to “lie, die or leave”.
Perhaps we should just encourage them to leave and join City Shul. But part of me feels we should address the sacred texts we have, not the ones we wish we had. So I’d like to do what Rabbi Greenberg has done and look at the offending line of today’s parsha head-on. Rabbi Greenberg grew up in a secular household but was inspired to live a frum life in his early teens by a rabbi that took him into his community. After years of denial and attempts at dating women, he came out in 1999 and in 2004 wrote a fascinating book called Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition.
In it, he describes his decision in 1996 to ask for the aliyah during the Yom Kippur mincha service that includes Leviticus 18 verse 22. As he read the line from the bima, he felt empowered, and realized that it had never been fully understood. As he writes, “Until those whose bodies and souls have been tormented by it, who have suffered for years under its weight, are among its legitimate interpreters, how could it possibly give over its full meaning?”
Ve’et zakhar lo tishkav mishkevei ishah toevah hi. Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman, it is toevah, which is variously translated as an abhorrence, an abomination, a disgusting perversion. The meaning may be closer to taboo, since it is used elsewhere in Torah in this sense. The Egyptians, for instance, are not allowed to eat with the Hebrews, as it is toevah to them. The term is used 122 times in the Hebrew scriptures. But just to make sure we are under no illusions, in next week's parsha we read in Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done toevah; they shall be put to death.” There is, in fact, no record in Jewish history of the death penalty being used for this sin, but as Rabbi Greenberg points out, these lines are at the heart of not just Jewish, but Western attitudes towards homosexuality.
For Torah literalists, this is a tough circle to square. There would not appear to be much room for interpretation, and so until recently, the Orthodox advice to gay people in their community was either lifelong celibacy or so-called reparative therapy. But Rabbi Greenberg, after an exhaustive study of the text and subsequent commentary, comes to the conclusion that perhaps this injunction was never meant for inherently and exclusively gay men in the context of loving relationships (and he does present evidence that this text was referring only to men). Rather, perhaps it should be understood to apply to heterosexual men who use homosexual intercourse as purely a release or an assault. He finds linguistic support for this interpretation, and suggests that the fact of gay people demonstrating the day to day kadosh of our relationships and families, and the complete absence of anything resembling toevah, may someday lead to its acceptance by the Orthodox community.
And there are some signs of change. A statement of principles published by about 150 Orthodox rabbis and mental health professionals in 2010, while remaining "committed to the halakhic principle of heterosexual marriage as the … sole legitimate outlet for human sexual expression”, essentially rejected reparative therapy, recommended that gay people should be welcomed as full members of the synagogue, and that their children be embraced as well. It recommended that gay people be encouraged to fulfill all the mitzvot to the best of their ability, just as straight people are. The famous Orthodox rabbi Shmuley Boteach, while still understanding homosexual acts as toevah, tells gay couples to keep themselves busy with the other 612 mitzvot, and believes that there is much worse toevah that Orthodoxy ignores.
Developments like these gave Rabbi Greenberg a new sense of hope as he listened to the mincha Torah service this past Yom Kippur. After wrestling with a painful verse of Torah most of his life, he finds the world moving in his direction. So is it now time to restore this section to our Yom Kippur afternoon? It would certainly require a bit of editorial comment at a point in the day where there are a lot of other things to talk about, and the Reform alternative parsha, the Holiness Code, is a much more inspiring chapter overall. Although Leviticus 18:22 may be losing its power to hurt, I’m not sure the positive effort it would take to restore it to Mincha is a worthwhile exercise.
Today is Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath before Pesach when we are urged to start thinking about Pesach and traditionally even read part of the Haggadah in shul. So quoting from the Reform Haggadah, we read, “Our narration begins with degradation and rises to dignity.” These words encapsulate not only the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Mitzrayim to freedom in Eretz Yisrael, but also the trajectory of Jewish LGBT people from the “narrow place” of fear and invisibility to the freedom of full communal life. On Pesach, we are all enjoined to feel as though we ourselves have walked this path. Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach.