I volunteered to do a d’var on May 4 months ago, unaware of what the parsha would be this week. So when I finally looked it up and discovered it was Leviticus 16:1 to 20:27, my first reaction was “oh, no! That’s terrible!” Because I find so much of Leviticus tedious, offensive, or not particularly relevant to my life.
Revisiting these passages raised a lot of questions for me. For one thing , as a Jew by choice, it raises the question: “what have I done?” Why did I sign up to engage with this? What do I do with this?
In her book, engendering Judaism, Rachel Adler suggests that we approach the Torah as Esau approached his father, Isaac, asking “Have you only one blessing father? Bless me too, father. ” — demanding to be blessed. She explains: “it is precisely because I believe that these texts have blessings yet to bestow that… I will not let them go until they bless me. I will not abandon traditional texts and I will not absolve them of moral responsibility.” In that spirit, here’s what I have to say about this parsha.
This week’s reading starts with detailed information about priestly rituals, and who may approach the temple and how individuals and communities may engage in atonement. These instructions follow the recounting earlier in Leviticus of the deaths of two of Aaron’s sons, who were priests. After what sounds like a full day of making sacrifices with Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu made an error in offering “alien fire” and fire came forth from G-d and consumed them both — a horrifying story.
The story of those deaths is followed by rules on kashrut, as well as detailed explanations of who is pure (allowed to approach the temple) and impure — with menstruation essentially being equated to having open sores on one’s body or leprosy in terms of making one impure. To be fair, men have to keep some things under control to maintain purity as well, in including their contact with impure women, but the upshot is that just by having a functioning body, women of childbearing age spend quite a bit of time in a state known as impure, or not eligible for approaching the sacred.
Then we finally get to this parsha, Achrei Mot, which literally means ‘after death.’ Achrei Mot begins with how to safely approach and access the sacred. I find this fascinating, because it raises the consideration that in addition to being necessary and central to our lives, the sacred might be dangerous to us.
And this ties into some of my questions about Leviticus. What does it mean to hold holy and sacred, and to revere, a text that, read literally, treats women as the possessions of men, with no sexual agency? And that forbids a man to lie with another man? And by extension, presumably condemns a woman lying with a woman? In short, what does it mean to embrace as holy a text that, in the areas of gender, sexuality, and experiencing myself as a person in charge of my body, mind, heart and destiny is so at odds with my own life, and the lives of so many of us in this congregation? What’s more, what does it mean to embrace as holy a text used by those who would rob me of my rights as a justification for their oppressive actions?
Is it dangerous for me to approach this sacred text? Does it make sense that sometimes, as I do approach it, I feel that I am either burning, or in danger of annihilation?
What do we/I do with this?
Of course I have seen and participated in the various ways progressive and Reform Jews handle this unpleasantness.
First off, The Reform movement urges each of us to decide which laws in the Torah to follow based on our on careful and conscientious consideration of those laws. So its not okay to ignore Leviticus, but it is okay reject any or all of the instructions in it. We must think it through, but ultimately our own conscience can guide us. As Deuteronomy says, “surely this instruction I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling to you, nor is it beyond reach…No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:14) The Reform tradition places those decisions within our hearts, and respects the diversity of choices people make.
So some of us are kosher in varying degrees, and some are not, we observe Shabbat in different ways, and some of us wish to circumcise our boys and some do not. The permission to reject teachings saves us a lot grief.
Beyond that, we can soften or reinterpret what we find offensive in the Torah. We place it in historical context; so … the wandering Jews needed to stay distinct from other cultures; other cultures did x so Jews were instructed to do y — the Jews were actually countercultural!
Or we contextualize: regarding the question of who may or may not have sexual relations with a female, for example, some scholars remind us that women lived in large extended families and these explicit prohibitions probably brought piece of mind to relatively powerless women and girls who had to live with so many male relatives in the house. Feel better?
Or we just condemn the teachings and parts of the Torah we don’t like. We say: that’s terrible, that has nothing to do with me, and reject it. Rabbi Zari told me about a congregation that simply and literally cut out of their Torah the things they found offensive.
But in truth, I find all of these approaches unsatisfactory; they just seem rather apologist for what our people, and particularly our male leadership, did and said historically, and they don’t require us to come to terms with the legacy that history leaves us with even now.
Definitely just cutting out what we don’t like and ignoring it is profoundly unsatisfactory, in the same way forgetting inconvenient parts of history is untenable. Just as we are tied by our history to the traditions we like, we are also tied to the traditions we do not find admirable.
And what happens if we don’t pay attention to these things, because we’ve explained them away, condemned them, or simply cut them out; what DO we pay attention to? What will show thru those holes in the Torah, and fill our consciousness? Will it be the glow of our ipad? What will inform us instead?
What will we focus on in order to find meaning and live lives which are holy?
In answer to this, theologian Rachel Adler suggests that resolving the issues of gender disparity in the Torah will require a “broader reconstruction of Jewish memory.” In other words, we will need to remember, not dismember, the Torah, and the history of how it has impacted all of us, especially with regard to gender and sexuality.
We need to unpack the implications of these teachings, to fully acknowledge impact of this parsha on all of us: women, our daughters, those of us who are queer … and also men, our sons, and the heterosexual among us. We’ve all been shaped by Leviticus because Leviticus has shaped Judaism and the broader culture we live in. These proscriptions have shaped all our ideas about gender, sexuality and agency. Our sacred text implicated in a culture in which masculinity is so frequently tied up with misogyny and an approach to women sexuality which denies our agency, and pathologizes expressions of sexuality not designed to reinforce male primacy.
All our roles need to be rethought. It’s not adequate to enfranchise women to the agency men have in the Torah, because that agency is dependent on the presence of people without agency. Both men’s entitlement and women’s lack of agency in this parsha must be transformed and reimagined.
Reconstructing Jewish memory may also mean going beyond looking at the impacts, and remembering what is NOT written in the Torah — we need to reimagine what has been lost, uncover what has been buried, and revisit traditions and ways of being holy that are part of Jewish women’s histories.
While their husbands and sons were away debating halachic law, women and their daughters were creating beautiful homes, cooking food infused with metaphorical representations of the Torah, making the connection, relaxation and beauty of Shabbat possible. They were loving children, helping each other, and having their own debates about how to live a holy life.
I wonder if, over time, we can reclaim these memories and their implications as sacred?
Judaism evolves because of our commitment to study and conversation. And sometimes it changes because of external events, like the destruction of the temple, which rendered so much of the instruction in Leviticus irrelevant on a literal level. And, just as critically, Judaism stays true to itself because of our commitment to memory. I am suggesting we commit ourselves to remembering not just what is written in the Torah, but its impact on us for better or worse, and to remembering that much of the Jewish experience and wisdom isn’t contained there, and that we seek that out for study and conversation and recognition as well.
I do not know the exactly what this would look like; but to concretize it, here is some brainstorming: what if we changed the blessing we said over the Torah a bit, to acknowledge more fully that studying is wrestling, and that we know important parts of the story are missing? What if, at some point in the year, we turned out backs on the Torah, and focused our attention on how our tradition has been impoverished by exclusions, untold stories, keeping out the fabulous queer people and denying women’s agency?
In another example of a concrete suggestion for transformation, Adler suggests that we shift the locus of the law informing marriage from property transfer (where it rests now) to partnership, and that katubahs reflect and acknowledge our desire to create mutual consensual partnerships, rather than mirroring the literal lessons of Leviticus.
All that sounds pretty complicated, and maybe like work. And that raises the question why become Jewish or stay Jewish when it means being tied to the parts of our history and Torah we don’t like? and having to grapple with them this way?
I think If there’s historical evidence for anything, it is that human beings are deeply flawed creatures and need a little guidance.
I do not believe that Torah is literally, by itself, the guidance I need. However, I do think that the community that is built around the Torah, and engaged in understanding the Torah together, is the guidance I need.
In the famous midrash of rabbi Hillel summing up the Torah while standing on one leg, he says “do nothing to another which is hateful to you.” — that encapsulates much the last portion of this parsha, related to being holy, which speaks to how we should treat others, and justice towards the poor and laborers, and so on. But that is not enough for the rabbi. The instruction is not: that’s all you need to know” — it is “go study” and study, in Judaism is a collective collaborative process. The rabbi is saying go be a part of a thoughtful community committed to an ethical way of living.
For me it is the context of community that I can not just reject but rethink, rebuild, and reimagine the instructions we’ve received for how to approach the sacred and live a life that is holy, and in doing that, approach the sacred in ways that leave me feeling blessed, whole and alive.