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Challenging Torah Makes for Good Conversation 

04/28/2022 02:54:03 PM


Rabbi Kelly Levy

We’ve reaching the moment in Torah that I personally dread reading, more than any other verse in the entirety of our sacred text. As I explained last week during Friday night services, we are reading the second half of Parashat Acharei Mot in order to align our weekly Torah reading with the rest of the Jewish world.

This half of the portion is filled with laws and commandments regarding sexual behavior, sexual impropriety, and more. While I (obviously) don’t shy away from talking about sex (please view my Shabbat d’var Torah from April 1), there is one verse that has created problems for progressive Jews. I  think most of you know which verse I’m referring to, but in case you don’t, I’m talking about Leviticus 18:22. It reads, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.”

As Reform Jews, we often overlook this passage, or outright ignore it. Sometimes we speak about it in passing, but with an air of apology and desire to talk about anything else. So, this week as we read this troubling and downright incorrect text, I am going to look at it head on.

First, as I have often said, Torah was written thousands of years ago at a very different time in the history of humanity. Torah tells the story of our people. It provides us with a moral and ethical guideline that was intended for people who had very little understanding of the human experience. Ancient Israelites had no understanding of the multitude of genders that exist, or how the body works, or what menstruation was all about, or equity for all people, or that we would evolve to be technology-dependent people.

In addition, many scholars debate the translation of this verse. Some say the Hebrew is unclear, that the intention behind this commandment was not about sexual relations, but rather about how one person treats another [Plaut, page 789]. Still others claim that this verse referred specially to the practice of male rape and domination, not a consensual male to male sexual relationship [Plaut, page 789].

This passage is extremely complicated for those of us who believe that “Love is love,” and that any person should be allowed to be in a consensual relationship with the person or people they want, regardless of gender. It’s painful to read these words from our holiest text, the same text that we look to for guidance on helping the poor, the stranger in our midst, the most vulnerable in our community.

But this is one thing I know about Torah, it’s warts and all: Time and time again, we are meant to extend love and understanding to every person and living creature in this world. As Hillel once famously explained the true meaning of Torah, “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. This is whole of Torah. The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.”

So, as we read from Acharei Mot, I will not turn away from this difficult text, and I will not ignore these painful words. I will study them, I will seek to understand them, and I will know that Torah is about loving and embracing our fellow human being.

To all who identify as members of the LGBTQIA+ community, I love you, I welcome you, I support you, and I will always embrace you with open arms.

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784