Depending on where you attend services the afternoon of Yom Kippur, you will hear either Leviticus chapter 18 or Leviticus chapter 19. The traditional reading, Leviticus 18 – on forbidden sexual liaisons (incest, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, etc)- was replaced in most Conservative and Reform shuls by Leviticus 19: “The Holiness Code.”
Until recently, I never thought much about this change. Leviticus 19 seemingly fits better with the themes of the season: after being purified and sanctified by Yom Kippur, Leviticus 19 reminds us to act in a moral and ethical manner. But Leviticus 18 brings up some really important questions. As we approach Yom Kippur in 2009 (5770), how do we approach homosexuality and sexuality in general? What does the Torah teach on these subjects, and do we listen?
The mitzvot (commandments) of Leviticus 18 are given within an overarching commandment to not engage in the practices of the Egyptians or Canaanites. The Children of Israel (us) are not supposed to follow the laws of our neighbors, but the laws of Ha-Shem (G-d), so that we “may live.” As we approach this passage and life in general, we need to keep in mind that we as Jews are under a set of laws different than the land we dwell. Connecting this passage to the next, Leviticus 19, we are to not “defile” ourselves so that we “shall be holy, for I, Ha-Shem your God, am holy.”
The first set of mitzvot in Leviticus 18 are a list of incestuous relationships. We might think these easy to understand because incestuous relationships are “just gross.” In doing so, we may gloss over the explanation given for several: Do not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is the nakedness of your brother. This explanation, similar to the one above it about your father’s wife, refers to Genesis 2:24: Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.
If we think of a couple as one flesh, a composite being, how does this affect our view of sexual meetings outside of marriage? Do casual and short-term couplings cheapen a long-term relationship?
Bracketing the prohibition of sex during niddah (when a woman is menstruating) are mitzvot forbidding the use sex as a weapon: Do not marry a woman as a rival to her sister, and Do not have carnal relations with your neighbor’s wife. While seemingly commonsense mitzvot, these do force us to question how we may use others to get at someone we dislike.
Leviticus 18:22, the verse prohibiting male gay sex, is bracketed by prohibitions against child sacrifice and bestiality. While homosexuality is no longer considered the moral equal to those practices, it remains a highly-debated issue in the Jewish community.
In the Morethodoxy blog, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky asks the general question: how do we approach Jewish law that conflicts with modern morality?
It is not unprecedented to say that the Torah does not actually mean what it says. Others simply ignore the mitzvot, saying they don’t apply in today’s world. On the issue of homosexuality, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards accepted two teshuvot (legal opinions), one upholding the traditional viewpoint, and a second allowing for same-sex commitment ceremonies while maintaining the ban on male-male anal sex. The ruling was based strongly on the importance of dignity, but is this is a satisfying conclusion?
As we approach Yom Kippur, I challenge you to meditate on these subjects: How do you approach sexual ethics in your life? Were there any missteps in this past year? How can you improve intimacy with your partner? How do we approach the ban on homosexuality and other mitzvot we find uncomfortable?
I invite you to join the Temple of Aaron’s Young Mensch Club on October 14th as Rabbi Barry Cytron leads a discussion on Leviticus 18 and these topics.
(Photo: Tiago Ribiero)